Orginally published in Skiing Magazine 2016 Adventure Guide.
Like every American skier, I’d been hearing about
Japanuary—a trendy pilgrimage to Japan each winter to ski the deepest snow in
the world—and knew someday, somehow, I would have to go. Then last winter, my
boyfriend’s dad, Mike, offered to take us on a ski vacation we definitely could
not afford. The only problem was the forecast: As far as dream trips go, it
looked pretty dismal.
We flew to Tokyo, hopped trains, then got picked up by a
friend of a friend named Greg who took us to Nagano. The next day, we’d head to
our destination, Hakuba, a village at the base of the Japanese Alps, one of the
most tantalizing ranges I’ve ever Googled.
We stayed at Greg’s for a day before heading east, and he
told us the snow wasn’t worth skiing. He suggested we check out the monkeys
that splash in the hot springs. He told us about these cool sake distilleries
and sushi bars, and the onsen where locals bathe naked in water that’s believed
to have healing powers. Then he teased us with stories from previous
years—chest-deep pow all the way from the resort to his front door.
As Greg rambled, I thought about the deep, sinkhole, blower
pow I’d been hearing about for years. I didn’t care about sake, sushi, monkeys,
or onsens. I’m not proud of it, but I’m irritated until I get the goods. Even
if I don’t, I’d still rather be skiing shit snow than bathing naked with my
Later, Greg dropped us off at the Backcountry Lodge in
Hakuba, our home for the next seven days. The place was warm thanks to a
fireplace in the corner, and the owner, Eric, was from our motherland, Montana.
His Japanese wife, Fumie, cooked us a mean ramen while we packed up for the
We got up early, planning to check out the territory above
Tsugaike; seven ski areas surround Hakuba and all of them have backcountry and
After an hour of hiking from the highest lift, we found
ourselves in big-kid alpine terrain—the real stuff—with nobody around. It was
sunny and the mountains were just as ginormous as they’d looked on Google. Ben
and Mike chatted while we toured—dissecting the big peaks around them and
choosing which lines they’d ski if we had more time.
Mike has always been a mountain man. Teaching Ben about the
mountains was al- ways high up on his list of priorities when Ben was a kid,
and now, through backcountry skiing, the student had become the teacher.
We climbed and skied a classic peak called Koreng-Yama. The
snow quality got better with the altitude but was still nothing close to what
I’d seen in all the “Japan edits.” Whatever. It didn’t matter. It was the
people around me who would define the trip, I told myself, not the amount of
powder on the ground.
Later that night, after we got back to the lodge, the snow
started to pound, cold, dry powder that fell to the ground in sheets. For the
next five days, we got buried in stable storm pow and took face shots on every
turn in the 4,000-foot backcountry lines that we came all the way across the
world to ski. Sure, the unexpected dump was just icing on the cake. But man, it