Saturday, April 21, 2012


One of the great, and I mean, great privileges of teaching internationally is the opportunities for travel that are afforded to this lifestyle.  Erin and I continually pinch ourselves in amazement, as we plan trips to Thailand, Japan, Pakistan, and other far-flung corners of the world.  This "perk" isn't lost on us, and we do our best to maximize every vacation we have.

This Spring, that maximization effort was directed to Japan.  Japan has fascinated me since I was a little boy, listening to stories of my mother growing up there while her Dad served in the Navy.  And more recently, Japan has fascinated me as I listen to rumors of skiers, landing in the remote Northern Islands, hunting for un-tracked deep powder snow.

Those rumors are true, as we proved to ourselves over our spring-break with two friends from the Singapore American School, Brian and Chris.  The four of us rendezvoused in Aomori Prefecture, one of the most rural parts of Japan.  Our destination was Hakkoda-San Ski Resort, but "Resort" is really a misnomer.  In actuality, Hakkoda-San is a cluster of five mountain peaks, with a very small ski resort on the lower flanks of the mountain, and a 100 person tram that takes backcountry skiers to the top of the mountain.  From the top, the mountain range is yours to explore!  You can get an idea of the terrain pretty clearly from this picture.  If you look carefully, you can see the cut in the trees where the tram goes up from the far left ski run, cutting diagonally all the way up to the mountain where a building lies at the summit.

March is a crap-shoot for snow conditions, and we didn't know what we would be getting, but with a 4.5 meter base, at least we knew that there would be snow.  As it turns out, we got dumped on.  And, as it turns out, when it is snowing in Northern Japan, the only thing you can see is snow.  Snow up, snow down, snow all around you.  It is, truly, skiing by Braille.

With huge wind cornices, gaping tree wells, and potential for avalanches, this was a pretty exciting introduction to skiing in Japan.  We felt our way down the mountain, and I think we were grateful (at least the first day) that we had hired a guide.  Skiing at Hakkoda really necessitates a guide, because you can end up at the bottom of the mountain, along a road, with several miles to hike to get back to the tram.  Our guide organized our transportation for us and also helped us find our way in these white-out conditions.

Our first two days of skiing were filled with deep snow, white-out conditions, face plants, wind, and cold temperatures.  We loved it.  Mostly.

In the evenings we would retire to our hotel, positioned at the foot of the tram, and we would enter into a cycle that lasted the whole week.  Ski hard all day, making 2 to 3 full runs down the mountain, soak in the hot springs at the hotel, drink a beer from the vending machine while sitting in the massage chairs, gorge ourselves on a huge sushi-laden Japanese dinner, and then had back to our rooms for some late night whiskey and cards or dice games.  There was absolutely nothing else to do, during the week it seemed we were the only people at the resort.  But, hey, vending machine beers and hot-tubs were good enough for us!

On our third, or was it fourth?, day we awoke to something spectacular.  Sun.  Hakkoda-San sees this bright yellow orb very rarely, and everyone, locals included, were lining up to make runs down parts of the mountain that were previously inaccessible due to the poor visibility.  I lugged up my big camera, figuring that the sun wouldn't last long, and I had better document what I could while it was shining.

We skied three sun-soaked runs, trying to get in as much as we could before the next day, when it was forecast to get windy, and even possibly rain.  And it did, but that was okay because during our week we saw the mountain in all its colors.  We had white-out powder days where we could get lost in the terrain and soft snow, we had gale-force wind days that swept the mountain clean of any snow and shut the tram down, there were sunny days with views all the way to the ocean,  and we even had that rainy day that melted the snow off of the snow-monsters, revealing tiny trees who had broken free from their frozen cells.

We spent six days, living at the hotel, skiing in the backcountry and wondering how we could ever go back and ski a "normal" resort again.  Here there were no lift lines, no loud music blaring at us on the mountain, no people cutting us off, just the four of us, one huge mountain, and miles and miles and miles of untracked snow.

Here is a slideshow of my best photos from the trip.  If you would like more information on skiing at Hakkoda-San, drop me a line!