Journal From A Cold Mountain In The Land of The Rising Sun

By Ian Harford

See photographs from the trip here.

Day 1 - 28/1/08

It's taken me 22 hours to get to Furano in Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, but the deep snow and prospect of seeing our son Barney - who lives in Seattle - makes it worthwhile. The lifts are only 80 metres from the Petit Hotel Suzuran, where we are staying.

The snow is fine here - if you swish your hand through a bank at the side of the road, it's so light it flies up into the air. I venture out at 9.00 pm for a meal, clad in five separate zipped layers on top including a down jacket and am still not warm in what must be -20 ℃ at least.

Day 2 - 29/1/08

There's a faded international charm about the little restaurant I've found this first lunch time after a morning on the slopes. Outside two hand-painted signs swing above the doorway. On one a waitress offers food with the words "croissant, Monsieur?"; and on the other a traveler is met with "ca va bien?"

Inside on the wall a colour poster reduced by age to a monochrome of blue action photos, tells of the " '87 FIS World Cup, Furano". Below the racers, there's an array of pot plants with ivy climbing rampantly up the wall & across the ceiling. No sign of '07 US ski winner, Bode Miller here - or of Frenchmen either!

I've ordered rice and fried pork but they lack the charm of the venue. The plate is 90% covered with a thick brown curried sauce. Only a whisper of rice and a teaspoon full of boiled red pepper 'garnish' indicate that my ordered meal has survived the curry avalanche!

Snow flecks are slowly falling across the window. It's time to make my way back to the hotel for a quick green tea from the flask in our room and a flick through the Shimbun Times-cum-International Herald Tribune. It's a good intro to what is going on in Japan.

I'm just reading about mobiles and the internet being 'must-haves' for the young, when the phone rings from downstairs, "Your son is here, just off the bus - he's coming up". It's a nice surprise as Barney is two hours early and we have a short catch up before I go out to the slopes for some more rides in the late afternoon snow.

My £15 day ticket ends at 4 pm; and after 5pm you need to buy a separate £10 ticket to do night skiing. That it's neither value for money nor a good marketing ploy is confirmed by our observations from the hotel - there are only a handful of skiers out there all evening!

Tomorrow's forecast is for lots of snow. Barney is keen for some back country powder guiding and fixes up a programme to a resort full of powder 90 minutes away. "Why not come too?" he urges me "there's another couple going in the bus with us, doing a separate introductory powder course". The snow is falling heavily and I debate the options as I lie awake on the mattress trying to beat my jetlag and fall asleep.

Day 3 - 30/1/08

An early wake at 5 am persuades me to join Barney for the trip to Kamui Links, a resort with one big lift and plenty of un-pisted areas. "If you are not up to it, you can always duck out" Barney wisely counsels me, thus assuring that I won't chicken out!

Jeff and Kitty are the two others booked in for the clinic - a fun Aussie brother and sister combo whose parents came from Hong Kong 30 years ago. Hungry for the powder, they wisecrack about their respective work-life balances and tell me about life in Australia.

The sun is shining, which always gladdens my heart! Torni our guide and instructor from Hokkaido Powder Guides puts us through exercises all morning with boots not tightened, "so you can feel more with your feet". His five rules for the powder sound easy 'til you are looking down a steep slope with powder up to your knees!

  • Weight balanced evenly on both feet

  • Knees bent and arms stretched forward

  • Stomach muscles always taut to read anything that comes

  • Feel the ankles twisting to the left and right as you turn

  • Hold feet back before initiating turn, then push forward

After a relaxing lunch at the top by the gondola, the practise is over and it's attacking the powder in earnest. "Throw yourself into the turn" says Torni, "it's only snow and it'll hold you up much more than you think". By the end of the 4th run I'm knackered and pleased to call it a day. But some good lessons learnt. I need to practise - if only you could find powder snow like this every day!

Day 5 - 1/2/08

Skiing with Barney all day and we're keen to practise our new skills. This includes moving over to Furano zone - to date I'd only been in Kitamonine. We look for powder and the deeper the better for Barney. Lunch secures us a warm seat after a long speeding descent from the top of the mountain freezes hard the hairs in my nostrils. Despite the sun, the temperature is recorded at -17 ℃.

Back in our hotel room I learn the hard way what I knew already. I hit my head on the doorway coming out of the bathroom. All doors are a standard 5' 10" here, so if you are 6 feet like me, you need to get the 'bob and rise' into the muscle memory pretty quick. On the airport shuttle buses I always see over the heads of any Japanese travelers.

Day 6 - 2/2/08

Some emailing and web work first thing in the morning, sitting on the tatami mats. After a quick bean and tomato soup with homemade bread at the local veggie café, I do some runs on Kitanomine zone. The slopes are full of soldiers and students in long crocodile lines.

We are booked in for the shuttle bus to take us at 4.15pm to the Furano Laterre onsen, a 15 minute ride from the hotel. This very large complex has a set of great steaming pools, with the best outside. After a quick shower to get ourselves clean, we head out through the initially bitter cold to sink naked into the pool.

As the steam rises, the snow flakes fall. After five minutes I feel my hair, now encrusted with ice and snow; it's a great way to relax. We try the inner baths and finish with a quick plunge into the cold pool. Outside in the rest of the complex families eat meals, lick ice creams or stretch out on couches. Ancient Rome could not have been better!

We head back after a couple of hours; and return to one of the local restaurants. The owner runs a slightly chaotic ship with shelves full of dozens of spirit bottles which never seem to be drunk behind a U-shaped counter, at which no one sits!

He has also 13 separate CD recorders and DVD players on the shelves for recording programmes. He must be an insomniac I am thinking and find myself asking how he finds time to watch them all. "Well yes, I do only sleep for about 3 hours a night".

But he and his wife are fine cooks, who make superb sauces. This evening we chose delicious steaks with an interesting bottle of 2004 local Furano red wine. All very relaxing but we can't stop for long. A firework display is scheduled for 9pm and as we walk up the snow covered street towards the slopes the first firework climbs slowly into the cold night air and bursts out - a single perfect circle of cherry red, to be followed by one in gold then one in dazzling white.

This is a controlled display, with the finesse Barney and I saw in Japanese ceramics when we visited Kyoto last year. The build up is slow, with colour and shape variations, bringing gasps from the watching crowds. First a heart, then a butterfly followed by a golden floral cascade, which throw eerie patterns on the piste below.

As the display moves towards a finale, the construction of the rockets becomes more complex, more like components in a third and final movement of a symphony. Several have four successive stages of firing like a family tree - slow to start, then children spreading in a wider arc and with a final burst which sends erratic jerking balls of colour or 'afterthoughts' in unexpected directions.

Day 7 - 3/2/08

Today is the second day of the powder clinic to be held in the mountain resort of Asahidake, a 90 minutes bus ride away. There's just one cable car to take us up to a wilderness area. The snow machines do not venture here and there's powder up to four feet deep. What a magical scene in the heart of these mountains!

Torni has some steep hillside sections lined up for us, with lots of trees. "Go for it and plant that pole right forward. If you are getting out of control, just fall into the snow". We pile down through the trees and finally reach the trail at the bottom, leading down to the lift. Torni looks back and points to the top of the hillside. "Bet you're glad I didn't show you that before we started", he chuckles. At the end of the day we agree we've never seen snow like it - it doesn't come better than this!

Day 8 - 4/2/08

The pace has been hard this week, and now it's a practise day. There's even some powder that's fallen after the snow machines have been out. The weekend crowd of mostly Japanese has disappeared and there are whole areas almost to yourself. I wonder how the Club holiday to Val d'Isère has gone this last week; and whether any members would want to see SCoM organize a small group visit here to Japan.

As I make the last descent, I stop and gaze at the vista below: a snow covered plain and beyond the national park and volcano rise above the main downtown area. It's been a long way to come but this kind of skiing takes a lot to beat. Tomorrow both Barney and I are leaving, though flying in different directions round our small world. At least my overnight stop for an early morning flight from Chitose airport will allow me to visit The Yuki Matsuri, Sapporo's 59th Annual Snow and Ice Festival with its amazing ice sculptures all over the city...

Ian Harford

1 March 2008