While the Eskimos may have 50 words for snow, someone living in Hokkaido has a thousand feelings. At Mt. Teine since the start of the season 3 weeks ago, I've seen childish grins on hedonistic middle-aged men, screams of fear from first-time visitors from the south, contentment from old-timers who remember when the resort was built, and love between a rider and the elements in a reunion with the timeless snowy mountains.
At times during the warm months there is a voice in us all that questions the joys of powdery winters. After all, we are often cold, homebound and in the dark. And then the first powder day arrives like the messiah on a white horse. The coldness turns to freshness, the darkness a mere break from the light, and the homeboundedness a rest for the weary legs between powder days. For us shredders, no time in the year passes as smoothly as winter!
Sunday morning, up at 6am. The body vibrates with excitement when I put on my snow gear. The hearty breakfast of a sandwich with goat cheese and smoked salmon and a cup of Earl Grey tea fortifies me for the day. We are heading to the mountain at this early hour to steal the first tracks – to be the first ones to cut through virgin heaps of untouched snow after the night’s snowfall. We packed the snowboards, gear and ourselves in our warm car, driving through the sleepy city in the misty and frosty morning with Bob Marley singing about Positive Vibrations. At this point, happy as one can be.
We couldn’t miss Ulli and Mia with their skis sticking out above their heads, waiting for us at one of the exits of Maruyama Station to be picked up. They have just started skiing a couple of seasons ago. Even though we tried to convince them to learn snowboarding, they chose skiing. It’s as bad as it sounds. Like losing someone to idolatry. But we must accept and move on.
When I tried skiing for the first time at 12 years old, nobody ever heard of a snowboard. But the moment I strapped that single board onto my feet, I never dreamed of going back to skiing. Why is that? I guess different styles attract different types of people. Skiing gives you more control and speed, whereas snowboarding is more about flexibility and freedom.
The side road to Teine along residential areas skirting the mountains allows us to avoid the city traffic. Driving on the icy Hokkaido roads is an adventure in itself. For those not used to winter driving, we highly recommend to ride in a car with an experienced driver. The steep and sharp turns on ice-covered roads are not for the inexperienced, and may ruin your day.
Another important topic is winter gear: My fingers tend to get really cold, even in down mittens. After trying different things, I discovered that it doesn't happen if I wear an under layer. Even thin gloves will do. For those with sensitive skin, my piece of advice would be to use a face mask, even if it’s not -15c, you still want to protect your skin from the snow, ice and cold air. If it’s sunny, use sunscreen. Long heat preserving underwear, sport socks, goggles, a helmet, and before you start your morning on the slopes, stretching. OK, all points checked. Let's begin.
Powder is magical substance. It's soft yet firm enough to hold you up. Riding in powder snow is amazing. You can jump, spin, do a back flip, or literally anything, and if you fall it’s fine, because 30 centimeters of powder forgives every mistake. You wouldn’t think a hardened world like ours would offer such forgiving conditions to throw oneself off cliffs, fallen trees and teetering cornices.
How to float above the powder and feel the softness of the paradox that is nothing more than frozen water? Have you ever considered how to get off your first lift on a snowboard and progress to the off-piste powder runs? Everyone starts from the desire to explore and the courage to expose one’s body to danger. Every turn, weather on skis or a snowboard, must be made in balance, in a slow natural rhythm. As if it were yesterday I still remember my first day on the mountain. The snow felt like concrete, the edges of my snowboard like knives, my legs like two foreign appendages. The other people on the mountain were fleshy obstacles on the move, and I couldn't imagine getting to their level of “mastery”. Everyone skid like James Bond while I alone was simply trying to survive. Thanks to my instructor I got better with each and every turn. By lunch, I was already linking my turns. By the afternoon, I could practice on my own with confidence. My instructor knew exactly what I needed to work on at each moment and that made all the difference. He broke it down to a science – a logical sequence of steps. At the end of the day I couldn't wait to try again on the morrow.
Now into my 6th season in Hokkaido, I take others on the best runs of their life. It’s what we have come to expect, yet never take for granted. It’s the JaPOW, and it might just bring you back to Hokkaido winter after winter after winter after winter. We’ll be here, waiting to show you the next step. Until then,
Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!
The HNT Team
Our blog covers any and all topics of travel in Hokkaido - from the best gourmet oysters to off-the-beaten-track adventures - and everything in between.