Monkey man skies with monkeys in Japan

Alf Anderson (monkey man) goes skiing (kind of) with monkeys in Japan.

Travel Ideas Skiing in Japan
Meet Alf Anderson

“I like the fact that you’ve got a very good chance of scoring good powder
here, and I also appreciate the way local skiers respect the mountain
environment; for instance, there were proposals recently to install a ski lift that would have impinged on a quiet part of the mountain that’s popular for ski touring, and they ended up being dropped so as to maintain that natural environment for those who appreciate it”.

“Well, this is a first for me on a ski trip,” said my friend Seb. I should tell you that Seb is a very well- travelled skier, so I was intrigued as to what that ‘first’ may be. “What’s that then, mate?” “Having monkeys running around my legs whilst I’m in ski gear” he replied. Yup, can’t argue with that – in fact, it was a first for me too.

Monkeys and skiing are not subjects that generally come up in the same conversation, but while skiing in Japan, we came across such surreal combinations that weren’t at all unusual – and to be fair we were not actually skiing.

Monkeys in Japan Travel Ideas

We were actually between the ski resorts of the Hakuba Valley and Naeba on Honshu Island, and our location –  Jigokudani Monkey Park – was a
convenient, nay, a not-to-be-missed stopover on the four-hour drive between the two ski areas. The park is famed for the scores of Japanese macaques that live here and bathe in the hot springs, heated by Japan’s vast sources of geothermal energy.

I have to admit I’ve never been much of a monkey man, but these characters were undoubtedly worth half-an-hour of my time, largely because they’re so used to human visitors that they’ll brush right up against your legs as they do whatever monkeys do on a cold, grey day in January, and you can’t get much more up front and personal with a monkey than that (nor would you want to given the size of their incisors…).

The previous two days had been spent skiing in the Hakuba Valley, the focal
point of the sport on Honshu, and some three hours from Tokyo on the
appropriately named ‘Kagayaki’ (‘Brilliant’) bullet train – 160mph and smooth as Cary Grant, it’s the only way to travel in Japan.

Hakuba’s slopes were busy with a mix of Japanese and Aussie skiers and
boarders, and unlike anywhere else I’ve ever skied you’re accompanied
everywhere on the slopes by the sound of tinny J-Pop belting out of
loudspeakers on the ski lift pylons; not everyone’s cup of saké, perhaps,
but once you get up a good lick of speed on your skis all you can hear are
the sound of the wind in your ears and the occasional whoop of exhilaration that seems to burst out unbidden, but is entirely appropriate.

Skiing in Japan Travel Ideas

The highlight of the Hakuba leg of the trip came on day two, which was spent ski touring above the Tsugaike-Kogen ski area, one of eleven resorts in the Hakuba Valley. Since we were heading on an off-piste adventure we made sure we do so safely by employing the services of an Alaskan mountain guide, Bill Glude, who has spent the last twelve winters in Japan on account of it being so ‘snow sure’.

With Bill we discovered some classic Japanese mountain landscapes beneath the high, craggy peaks of Mount Hakuba-Yare-Ga-Take, Mount Sakushi-Dake and Mount Shirouma-Dake, all just under 3000-metres and located in the Chubu Sangaku Kokuritsu Koen National Park.

I asked Bill why, when he comes from a part of the world that isn’t exactly short on snow and mountains, he chooses to relocate to Japan each winter.
“I like the fact that you’ve got a very good chance of scoring good powder
here, and I also appreciate the way local skiers respect the mountain
environment; for instance, there were proposals recently to install a ski lift that would have impinged on a quiet part of the mountain that’s popular for ski touring, and they ended up being dropped so as to maintain the natural environment for those who appreciate it”.

Skiing in Japan Travel Ideas

Bill guided us to a high mountain bowl of forested, untracked powder where the trees were ideally spaced to add drama, but without any real danger of collisions with the timber. This allowed us to enjoy swooshing through the knee-deep snow between the trees despite the fact that thus far – late January – the winter had only seen light snowfall by Japanese standards.

Even so there was still some four-metres of snow on the higher slopes and
having experienced both the commercial and more spiritual side of Japanese skiing during our brief stay in the Hakuba Valley I couldn’t wait to get stuck into some more of it after our monkey meanderings the following day.

After leaving the monkey park we were back on skis by early afternoon,
heading to the Wadagoya mountain hut in Naeba’s Kagura Ski Area. The plan was to drop off rucksacks carrying our overnight gear at the hut and then spend the rest of the afternoon skiing the surrounding slopes. And a fine plan it seemed – until it began to rain heavily.

Japan revels in its reputation for huge quantities of deep powder snow, so what was going on here? Well, I revel in a reputation for regularly encountering crap snow conditions when I go on ski trips, and sure enough, I’d done it again

Not to worry, we did a couple of runs, decided skiing in the rain doesn’t have much going for it and headed back to the hut to remove cold, wet ski
gear and order a cold, wet beer. Wadagoya is situated at 1380-metres on the
upper slopes of the Kagura Ski Area, which links to Naeba via the spectacular 5.5-kilometre long ‘Dragondola’ lift to create ‘Mount Naeba Ski
Area’.

The hut offers basic dorm-style accommodation, hot showers and baths, a
traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast and a good mix of company that on our visit consisted of Japanese, Aussie and Brit skiers, all for 7,800 Yen
(approx. 935 Rand) per night. But best of all it also offers guaranteed first tracks since we were on the slopes the next morning before the hoi polloi down in Kagura were even on the lifts.

The rain had thankfully turned to snow overnight, so along with Seb and
fellow travellers, Pete and Jane I enjoyed empty, snowbound pistes that
became increasingly sunlit as the clouds that had brought the snow began to disperse, and for the first forty-five minutes we had it all to ourselves;
admittedly it was not the waist deep powder we’d been hoping for, but it was considerably better than being stuck in front of a PC screen, which is how I spend most mid-week mornings in January.

Skiing in Japan Travel Ideas

We gradually made our way on skis over to the linked resort of Naeba, where we were staying at the massive, slope-side Naeba Prince Hotel. Our bags had been transported there for us, and before checking in we took the chance to hoon down the men’s and women’s Reisen Slalom Trails that were used in the 2016 Alpine World Cup; and yes, as you might expect, they’re alarmingly steep.

Next morning Seb, Pete and I returned to Kagura bright and early to access
the freeride ski area at the top of the resort at over 1800-metres. We were
led by Jun Nagai, a quiet, smiling ski guide who runs Junrina Mountain Service.

Jun escorted us to the very conditions that we came to Japan for – the sun beaming down on a bright, crisp winter morning, the mountains magnificent in a light covering of fresh snow and the trees decorated with a frosting of rime to replicate the traditional Japanese winter landscape paintings we’re all so familiar with.

Skiing in Japan Travel Ideas
Final Day Skiing in Japan

Non-skiers could be forgiven for thinking mountains are mountains and snow is snow, but each mountain range of the world has its own character and defining appearance, and here the Japanese Alps were showing us their finest face.

This would be my last day of skiing so I made the most of every run between the trees – the magical mix of sunshine, glittering powder crystals billowing around us on every turn and untracked snowfields shared with just a few friends left me feeling privileged to have skied in the Japanese Alps, even in what, by local standards, were less than perfect conditions.

So much so that as we made the last few turns of the day at Kagura I made a
mental note to add another ‘must do’ to my bucket list – come back and ski
Japan again.

Story by Alf Anderson

TRAVEL INFO

Alf Alderson travelled with Japan Airlines (www.jal.co.jp/en/) and stayed at
the Hoshinoya Tokyo (www.hoshinoya.com), the Kai Alps(www.kai-ryokan.jp/en/alps/) hot springs ryokan near Hakuba, the Wadagoya Mountain Hut above Kagura (www.princehotels.com/en/ski/mtnaeba/newWin/accommodation/index.html) and Naeba Prince Hotel (www.princehotels.com) at Mount Naeba.

SKI GUIDES

Bill Glude www.akavalanches.com
Jun Nagai www.junrina.com

Visit Japan www.jnto.go.jp/eng/Story by Alf Anderson

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