The Land of the Rising Sun - guest post by Kurt Larson
Japan has that exotic lure, like something you want to experience but somehow the right reason eludes you. It eluded me for over 50 years of skiing on this planet. Now that I’ve had the experience of skiing in the Land of the Rising Sun I thought it would be good to share it with you. These words are meant to accompany the pictures, so please enjoy the usual staged photos and some unexpected stories from the Far East.
This adventure had roots in Michigan’s Copper Country, just like Shaggy’s. In August 2018, my stepson Jack had finished ‘high school’ in the United Kingdom. As a special treat, I hosted him and three of his friends at our place on Portage Lake near Chassell in da U.P. After a fortnight of boozing and boating in Houghton County we went south to stay with my sister Paula and her husband Roger Perrault near Boyne City. One of the highlights of the trip was a tour of the Shaggy’s factory, and afterwards Jeff and Shari Thompson convinced me that I needed a pair of Shaggy’s. I succumbed. Roger and Paula arranged to deliver the skis to Big Sky, Montana, in time for my 60th birthday celebrations in December with friends and members of the family. It was special.
Kurt getting to grips with the Ahmeek 95 on the slopes of Big Sky in December 2018, just hours before a big 60th birthday blowout at ‘The Cabin’ in Big Sky.
Even more special was that during the August adventure, Jack and his mates all received their entrance exam results for UK universities (at 3 am Michigan time). They all got in, elected to defer their places, and set about organizing the ubiquitous ‘gap year’. For Jack, it was a choice between loading lifts at Jackson Hole or working in a restaurant in Niseko, Japan. Much to his mother Victoria’s approval, Japan won. I pledged we would go out to visit, and he set off from London in November.
We left a wet and windy Scotland in mid February and, after a short break in Dubai (a good idea to break up the jet lag), landed in a snowy Sapporo on the night of February 16. Even though we traveled three hours in the dark by bus through the wilds of Hokkaido Island, I could tell we were heading into big snow country. I thought I was back in mid-winter Chassell for a moment, seeing the snow cut back into vertical faces along the roads and sidewalks and piled in as high as the single story timber frame buildings.
Unfortunately, we did not receive much of that famous Niseko powder during our week’s stay. Instead we experienced the first days of sunshine in nearly a month, sandwiched between a warm front bringing fog and slushy spring-like conditions at the base. Fortunately the upper slopes and tree skiing areas retained good snow conditions. I live to the mantra of ‘any day on the hill is better than a good day in the office or anywhere else’ and took the conditions as they were and skied to them.
Niseko United is actually comprised of four separate skiing facilities set on the Niseko Annupuri volcanic complex. It is in a national forest where development appears to be restricted to the base areas. Ravines, which are strictly off-limits, act as natural barriers between the four areas. One can connect between the areas either by traversing from the top or by shuttle bus at the bottom. One lift pass covers the entire United area, and it is pretty reasonable at about $250 (US) for seven days. Hotels vary in price depending on how far you want to stay from the lifts and what you want for facilities. We stayed at Chalet Ivy, which was pretty good and a five minute walk from the lifts. I would class it as expensive compared to US resorts, but you get what you pay for and the Ivy delivered.
The lifts at Niseko are a mixture of gondolas and quad chairs serving the base and middle of the mountain. One could say that the mountain has three distinct levels, each of the lower two levels being about 50% higher in vertical terms than say Mount Bohemia. In general terms, the lower part had a Bohemia feel to it - tree-lined with hardwoods and a rugged appearance. The upper level is above tree line and is served by some rather antiquated double and even single-seat chairs. The single-seaters are known locally as ‘pizza boxes’ and by nature are a bit precarious in the wind. They probably act as a deterrent to keep beginners off the more challenging upper level terrain.
Riding up one of the infamous single-seat ‘pizza box’ chairs to the upper level at Niseko. Kurt was heard shouting out “Shaggy Ski - numba one!” In the background is another of those famous volcanoes obscured by clouds, Mt Yotei.
In order to reach the summit of Niseko Annupuri, you have to climb for about 25 minutes with your skis over your shoulder. The steeper bits fortunately have ski boot notches from predecessors making the climb. Patrollers are there to make sure you are fit enough, and if you are going into the backcountry over the other side you’d better have an avalanche transponder with you.
A procession of skiers hiking up from the top of the pizza box lift (lower left of photo) to the summit of Niseko Annupuri (far right of photo).
The climb was not that grueling, as it is relatively low altitude. The summit at Annupuri is at 1,308m (about 4,300 feet). From that point you can actually ski off-piste all the way to a decent bar and restaurant called ‘.308’ (which is not a rifle caliber like my Finnish-made Sako but the base elevation). So my math makes it about 1,000m or about 3,300 feet of maximum vertical. I’d say that the maximum lift-reachable vertical is more like 2,500 feet, but that is direct without traversing, and you can get in some decent ‘coast-to-coast’ runs (as I call them) if that is what you like.
On the hike up you can stop to see some interesting terrain if the weather is clear enough to do so. We could just about make out the ocean in the distance, and the volcanic geology was obvious, making for a spectacular setting. The hike was well worth the effort.
When you reach the summit of Niseko Annupuri there is welcome rest and a chance for a few photos at the summit shrine. Kurt and Jack are smiling with the sun shining and some good off-piste skiing waiting.
The run down Annupuri reminded me of Lone Peak at Big Sky - minus the rocks at the top and snow fences everywhere - but still a ferocious wind even on a clear day. The pitches are similar to Lenin, Marx, or Dictators, but with more length. Even without fresh snow there was plenty of blown-in powder. You can take the direct route down like we did or traverse across for about two miles to pick a line. You can also elect to enter the backcountry and go down the other side of the mountain but then have to hire a taxi back to town.
I found that run pretty exhilarating and the Ahmeek 95s handled the varying conditions with ease - windblown powder, soft powder between bumps, and more bumps as you approached tree line. It would have been pretty amazing with fresh snow, but I wasn’t complaining. I did not hit a rock all week!
There is a lot more to Niseko than just the climb up Annupuri. We found lots of stashes and places where we could make good turns in the trees and still find fresh snow after a week without anything coming down from the sky.
The use of gated entrance areas to the off-piste at Niseko is strictly enforced. Kurt found the further instructions to get his ass in gear and start skiing at gate 5 rather amusing.
The Japanese culture appears to be risk-averse, especially in relation to the general public. All of the off-piste is roped off and access is only allowed at well documented gates. If you are caught going under a rope or go through a closed gate, you lose your lift pass. Likewise, if you have any incident past the ropes and the gates, you are in for a big recovery bill. They make that abundantly clear with signs and loudspeakers blaring out the message on lift lines. One almost thinks that a police state exists, but when you get into the trees and start skiing the pure joy of it comes home.
The Hanazono area at Niseko was perhaps my favourite place to ski. As you can see, no lift lines, sunny sky, and a mountain you just conquered looming above you in the distance.
These guys have a good sense of humour. ‘Yard Sale’ was a decent and aptly-named mogul run on a steep pitch running down to Niseko Village. My Ahmeek 95 handled the big bumps just fine. So sorry, no yard sales to report from this trip.
Kurt demonstrating that the Ahmeek 95s can provide the flexibility to do it in the big bumps on Yard Sale above Niseko Village.
Thanks for the guest post Kurt! You look to have had an awesome time, and we hope to make it over to Japan at some point as well!
To those reading - if you have any reports of cool trips you've made while skiing on your Shaggy's, feel free to send us your write-up, as we enjoy featuring content from the Shaggy' Family on this blog.