Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A little skiing in the Japanese Alps

About the second week in January I escaped the confines of the shoebox I call my apartment and headed up to Hakuba in the Nagano prefecture. I ended up taking the bus up there, which if you ask anyone they will say "you should definitely take the train to get up there." Here's a little secret, the train is expensive. I saved nearly $100 by taking the bus, and I didn't have to do any transfers (you transfer to 3 separate trains to get to Hakuba). All it cost me was a mere 30 minutes of extra travel time (4.5 hrs and an 8,500 yen bus ticket). I stayed in a cozy little town called Hakuba Goryu. When I arrived it was pounding snow. A true sign of good things to come. I stayed in a hostel that was by far the nicest and cleanest hostel I have ever been to. So if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo check out K's house in Hakuba Goryu.

After a terrible night's sleep, consisting of a meager 3 hrs of rest I set out for Hakuba Happo. Happo is the next town north of Goryu. It's a bit more commercialized as the ski resort there, Happo One, hosted the 1995 Winter Olympic Games. Overall the town is very cool, and has held on to its Japanese culture. Once I got off the JR train I knew I needed to catch a bus to get up to the resort. The hostel told me it was real easy and there are free shuttles that run all the time. I see one of the shuttles and just to double check I ask the bus driver in my most perfect english "Happo 1?" Bus driver looks at me blankly. I again repeat myself "are you going to Happo 1?" Bus driver looks a tad annoyed and just repeats the name of the town "Happo, Happo!" I'm thinking, I know that jackass, I know I'm in frickin' Happo. "Are you going to Happo 1! Ski resort!" Bus driver again replies "iyye Happo Happooo!!!" I give up and walk away. I figure, someone in the JR station must speak some english. Not so much. I think the only word he caught was of course Happo and then he recognized "bus" and just pointed me outside. Thanks buddy.

Another bus roles by this one is public bus. I of course ask in my most flawless english "Happo 1?" Bus driver #2 replies "Happo!" At this point I'm just like "screw it." I hop on the bus off to Happo, which is the town I am already in. The bus ends up dropping me off in the downtown area at a tourist information center (Thank GOD!). I go to the clerk and ask in my most exceptional english, worthy of awards, "how do I get to Happo 1." She tells me the bus that I should get on, shows me where the bus will pick me up, and then tells me "oh and its pronounced Happo O-neh." Yeah....so.....this gai jin feels pretty dumb right about now. All the confusion, the cursing under my breath at the bus driver who I thought didn't understand his own language, ahh we all must be humbled at some point.

Okay enough of that, now to knock on the skiing. Happo O-NEH is a far cry from a world class resort. I was actually shocked that the Olympics were held there. The terrain was extremely easy. If it wasn't for the 2.5 ft of powder that dropped the night before I probably would have been really disappointed. After talking with an Aussie that was currently living there, the Japanese apparently do not know about modern avalanche control. They do not use dynamite, cannon or boot packing. Basically they weave little fences together, put up walls, and will basically kick you out if you ski out of bounds. Essentially half of the skiable terrain is blocked off. Another bummer is that it really isn't an alpine environment to speak of. The trees are small deciduous and often cluttered together. Basically skiing through the trees is nonexistent that's even if they let you cross into them (usually roped off). All around Happo One left much to be desire of world class ski resort.

The next day I had a fantastic bluebird day at the resort Hakuba Goryu (Note: Hakuba 47 is part of Hakuba Goryu) right up the street from where I was staying. They don't even list this resort in the tourist ski guides, but honestly I found it more challenging than Happo One. The resort has the same problems as noted above, but at least they had a couple challenging runs. Overall I had a fantastic day of hitting the slopes. The pics below were all taken from the slopes at Goryu, absolutely stunning views. In defense of the resort, if your a beginner, or intermediate skier you probably would have a blast skiing this mountain. Lift tickets are also reasonable running from $46 to $56 per day. Advanced intermediate and experts are best skiing somewhere else. On the ski lift I nearly broke down in tears when I looked below at all the best skiable terrain on the mountain was untouched...sniffle, sniffle.

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