Wake up call
The phone blares at 6 am. Anyone who hears that in the morning certainly cannot be excited?! Well, maybe if they’re insane, I suppose. Ben springs to action and gently shakes me. As if it’s groundhog day, I respond, “5 more minutes”. He usually abides.
After some quick legwork to get the insulation panels off the windows of the van, we head to the train station. Armed with our ski/split board and gear, Ben drops me off as he goes to park the van at the exit point of our traverse. Quickly, I wrap the ski and split board with plastic as the many commuters come in and out of the train station. The Japanese people are all so curious, but too shy to ask why I have not just placed the skis/split board into a proper bag.
45 minutes later, Ben has returned from his pre-traverse traverse. We saddle up and start our journey towards the start of our traverse. 1.5 hours by public transport and we will be on our way, skiing through some, fingers crossed, JAPOW.
Fast forward a couple of hours and we’ve made it to Kokusai Ski Resort. We unwrap our skis/split board as if it’s Christmas Day! Who wouldn’t want this beautiful set up as a gift?!
Around 11:30 am, we finally begin our 3-day “expedition”. White powder all around us, beautiful saplings, and even bamboo are trampled over by our skis as we make our way along the trail. We follow what seems to be a day or so old skin track without much effort.
Lucky for us, the first day of the traverse had two route options: more incline or mostly flat. Due to the 6 hours of prep, pre-traverse traverse, and public transport, we chose the easier route; this allowed us to enjoy ourselves on the way to our first hut.
Progress to Hut #1
I sniffle every few minutes as my nose runs, but luckily I can still smell the clean, crisp air. Off in the distance, the muffles travel through the valley from the ski resort announcements. Why do they have so many announcements? As I look around, footprints of winter creatures can be seen scattered like rice on the floor. At times I can relate to the winter creature, perhaps a hare, as our tracks often resemble theirs.
Navigation was a bit sticky due to the low snow this year in Japan; therefore, we were forced to find alternate routes to cross a few streams. As a result, Ben took the opportunity to document my failures as a “skier”.
Around 3 pm, we make it to our first destination: Okuteine-Haruka Hut. A wooden structure with a red tin roof decorated with fluffy Japow. Outside, a young Japanese man is using his cell phone and we politely acknowledge him, unaware if he can speak English, so we just say “Konnichiwa”. ‘I think that’s the right word?’ Just like English, Japanese has a different greeting pending the time of day and there doesn’t seem to be a word just for “Hello”. Sometimes it seems sad that we know 5 different ways to greet someone but can’t continue the conversation much further than that. At least we try!
Entering the hut, there are several large touring packs complete with mountaineering gear. Snow falls out of my boots as I unlace them and drop my pack. A door is ajar from the main area and we can spy three Japanese college students huddled around a stove in the foyer.
Lucky for us, the students speak English, which is a pleasant surprise! They seem a bit shocked that we are even at the hut, asking us how we found out about it.
We join the crew and huddle around the radiating warmth of the stove. I tear off the top to the freeze-dried meals anxiously awaiting the water to boil. “Is that what you normally eat on mountaineering trips?”, one of the students asks. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that other cultures might not have such a ritual as ours. We explain that we are traveling on our skis for 3 days; therefore, we wanted to keep our packs as light as we could.
Hungry and not-quite-warm, the kettle on the stove alerts us with a whistle; a notification that dinner time is just around the corner. YES! Several hours of ski touring and my stomach behaves as if I starve it regularly. Maybe I do, sometimes.
We dispense the hot water into the three meals (again, my stomach calls all of the shots) and place the warm packets into our jackets. Now, we wait… WHAT?! Of course, the vegan meal takes 20 minutes.
As we wait more time, we exchange various questions and answers with the 4 students. We soon learn that freeze-dried meals aren’t a thing for the Japanese; instead, “nabe” is on the menu. Nabe is a meal with a broth base that the Japanese (or whoever is cooking) add fresh cabbage, mushrooms, and pork to the stove and let it boil for as long as it takes to cook the meat.
After their meal was cooked, they offer us a bowl to try and oh, boy.. it is oishi (that’s Japanese for “delicious”). In addition to nabe, the students explain that their mountaineering club drinks “a lot” on the trips. I should have guessed from the 5-7 bottles of various booze laid sloppily on a table near the stove; alcohol ranging from sake to gin to vodka, the whole lot.
Ben and I couldn’t help but snicker as the students passed around a can of beer, then a cup of sake, and then a glass of a gin/orange juice concoction. 3 drinks were shared over the course of the evening by the 4 students; MAN, these students do drink a lot! If only they could see what a university dorm in the U.S. looked like.
As the evening rolled on, I look at the phone for the time. It had to be midnight, oh, it was 7 pm. Ben had already headed to bed from his late-night preparations for the trip, so I continue to chat with the students.
They tell me about their adventures hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, and rappeling in the summers. Japan has it all! Whenever English words couldn’t be remembered or translated, one of the students took to a notepad to draw images; real-life Pictionary! By 8 pm, I needed sleep, so I took to the comfort of our warm sleeping bag with Ben snoring, sound asleep.
An alarm goes off…. wait for a second, Ben set an alarm?! Then, I realize, it is one of the students’ AND it’s 5 am. The students were on duty to clean the hut for the next 4 hours. Before long, I go back to sleep, but it’s one of those periods of sleep where you feel more lethargic than you would have had you just woken up at the first eye break.
Finally, I get up, groggy, but ready to start the day. As we eat breakfast, the students tell me that every weekend members from their club come to the hut and perform the same cleaning duties during the winter; this includes roof snow removal, glossing the wood floors, sweeping, etc. As they were working hard, we gather our belongings, pack our bags, and say goodbye to our new friends before hitting the trail for our next destination.
Breaking new trail
The snow was so soft and light that it sprang up just as dust dances when you walk across a dirty floor. Sun warmed our backs as the wind so light as my breath grazed our faces.
Today is beautiful. What a nice change from our days in Nepal. This is Type 1 fun, nothing less and nothing more. Just a special 3 days to spend skating my feet back and forth across the snow accompanied by my best friend in the whole big ole world.
Our journey dances us over, around, and between a couple of mountain peaks, sometimes sneaking views of the dark blue sea. I am getting the hang of the split skis, feeling quite overconfident, especially when I zip around Ben. This used to be my nightmare, yet now, here I am enjoying the skiing portion as we glide downhill. The downhill takes us to another valley where we will climb a bit more another ridge. It’s hard not to feel jovial and silly when the weather is this perfect. Ben is even able to get a fun shot of us with his drone; more footage for the eventual video he’ll make of the trip.
About three miles later, we arrive at the “fantastic mellow downhill run” as stated by Hokkaido Wilds on our topo map. We both look around, branch, tree, sapling, bush, hmmmmm…. This is what everyone meant by a “low tide” snow year. I guess these would have normally been covered by several (or maybe 10) feet more of snow and there would be some “fantastic mellow downhill”.
Split ski champion
I weave in and out of the various vegetation as they tag me with their branches. It’s quite fun, a challenge, to glide among the trees trying to find the best line. Just as I am gleeful, I look over at Ben as his skis are taking him much too fast towards some branches…. BAM. Little curse words come out, someone clearly isn’t as great at skiing as I am. There’s my little alter ego with its overconfidence peeping its head up. Giggling, I ski my way toward him while he lay with his skis and poles around him.
“First time?” I ask. Surely this will encourage him a bit, right? He gives me a smug little smile, gathers himself and follows the expert as she somewhat effortlessly gets to a clearing. We made it! Here are those mellow slopes!
Without trees in the way, I decided to test out my turns on the white fluff. Right foot press harder, now left foot harder, alternate, switch, AH HA! Pro-level status here. Whoever said split boarders were disadvantaged was obviously mistaken! ::cough cough:: Ben ::cough cough::
Eventually, our downhill ends and we begin our last 30 minutes of flat trail through some less dense forest until we make it to our final hut of the tour: Ginreiso Hut.
As we approach, the roof has a large lump of snow set gently on top and around the hut is a yellow line warning of said snow. No sooner do we get up to the hut, a Japanese man steps outside to greet us. Oh yes, the hut keeper! “Konnichiwa!”
Pleasantly surprised, again, our welcome party can speak English, not fluently, but enough for us to converse. “Summit today”, he asks. We reply that we are too tired. Then he asks, “Summit tomorrow”. We then reply, no, we are just going to head home. Baffled, he asked a couple more times, until we then say, “Okay, tomorrow”. At this point, he stops asking about the summit. I guess we are doing the summit now. Thanks for the encouragement, Mr. Hutkeeper!
After brushing off every last morsel of powder from the skis, the hut keeper sets them on the porch and we step inside. Immediately, the warmth of the hut hits us right in the face, like the feeling of lifting a boiling pot’s lid just slightly. Our boots are placed on a pad next to the stove along with my bindings. Meanwhile, the hut keeper sets our gloves and baklavas on a rack above the stove with our skins.
We’ve made it to heaven. It’s funny what 800 JPY (~7.50 USD) will get you versus the 80 JPY (~0.5 USD) we paid the night before.
Home Sweet Hut
Various picture frames on the walls featured paintings, drawings, and photographs of the hut. I motion to the books and ask the keeper if he reads often. He then points to 3 photographs of 3 different men ranging from their 30s to 60s on the wall. “I am the fourth housekeeper. Housekeeper 1, 2, 3 – these are their books”.
We learn that he has been the hut keeper, or housekeeper as he calls himself, for 11 years. For 5 days of the week, he calls this place home, where he greets guests, explains the rules, and maintains an incredibly warm hut. On the sixth day, he returns to the university that owns the lodge and hands over the money he’s received from guests. And on the seventh day, he rests or goes skiing at a resort.
Hunger hits us, and our host offers hot water from one of the seven kettles sitting on the stove. In addition, he sees that I pull out some sweet potatoes in a package, and he quickly offers to warm it up. A microwave? What? Nope.. he tosses it into a large pot of water that sits on top of the stove; I assume what must be the original humidifier prior to electricity and fancy things in the civilized world.
In addition to assisting with the “cooking” of our meals, he hands us 2 cups and asks us if we want coffee. I say, no thank you, but he asks again. Oh, is this another summit question? I then say, “tea only”. He exclaims, “Ah, tea only” and proceeds to grab 2 tea bags out of a cabinet, plopping them into the mugs.
Ben pours hot water into our mugs surrounding the tea. The aroma of rooibos fills my nostrils. YUMMY! This is heaven.
“Tomorrow. Plan?” Housekeeper asks.
We tell him that we aren’t sure other than doing the summit. He asks about our plans after, but we explain we are living out of a van and following the snow.
“No plan?” He questions. Ben responds, “No plan.”
He gives us a little smirk and then says, “No plan and van. Hippies!”
Laughing simultaneously, Ben and I look at each other. I guess we are. I knew I should have gotten dreads!
After a game of cards by the stove, we call it a night at… 6 pm. Wow, it’s that early?
Our night was less than restful as we had our double sleeping bag, which could withstand the winds of Everest and the on/off warmth of the stove. I never imagined that the stove would keep that hut so toasty after our other two experiences in Japan, but it did.
Our host is already awake when we finally make it down the stairs. He’s boiling water and creating a bento platter of breakfast items complete with white rice.
A traditional Benya meal is devoured as we sip from our mugs another bag of rooibos tea; Mr. Housekeeper had given us a second bag the night before to drink in the morning. Huddled around the warmth of the stove, hut keeper asks us about the summit. He’s really after this summit bid. Ben giggles and replies that we are headed for the summit before we return to the hippie van. Pleased with the answer, he smiles and nods.
Full bellies, we pack up our belongings and head for the door, just as two fellow mountain-goers enter the lodge. Mr. Hutkeeper assists in moving our things to the shoe area and proceeds to intake his new guests. But, before we head out, we request to have a photo with our lovely host. We were sad to not get a photo with our friends at the previous hut, so we couldn’t make the same mistake twice.
When we realized that the summit was only a 30-minute skin from the hut, it made sense why our host had been so adamant about the bid; that and he’s just a cheeky fellow. Crossing a small snow bridge above a babbling stream, we skin through some beautiful birch trees revealing a gorgeous slope. It’s filled with the fluffiest snow we’d seen yet!
Without a skin track in view, we knew it’d be a good ride down the hill; fresh pow pow baby! Ben leads the way, breaking trail on the soft snow. Climbing up, we notice our fellow friends from the hut are close on our tail; they are fast… or maybe we are slow! Topping out, we start to transition, say “Ohio” (“good morning” in Japanese), and they thank us for making the skin track. Gotta love the Japanese and their politeness. And, of course, we take a #summitselfie.
My transitions are only getting faster, or Ben is getting slower as I am already “snowboard-ed up” before he’s ready. Although, it could be the stoke of this powder!
Down we go!
Gliding down, turn after turn, it is as if I am sliding a knife through butter; so smooth, so graceful. Ben and I ski/board beside each other. As I glance over at him, I can see his eyes narrow from his cheeks pressed up so high from his big smile. I really don’t know if there’s a better feeling than a fresh snowfall. It’s so freeing. Your body is so warm from the layers, yet there’s that crisp bite across the small pieces of flesh exposed to the air reminding you of your movements. All I can keep saying in my head is ‘Thank you Mr. Hutkeeper for your persistence!”
Our downhill run comes to a halt as we hit a flat track that can be ridden some but eventually I have to walk a bit. After 20 minutes, we make it to the “Clearing” on the map. Now, we have a whole 45 minutes of riding through a glorious tree-free zone and road that leads us straight to our little home-on-wheels.
Van Sweet Van
Back at the van, we pull out a victory beer. With the van being outside in -12 degree weather, the beer is a perfect temperature with a bit of slush inside. Nothing like a cold beer to wash down the adventure and absorb your time in the snow.
Naturally, to complete our 3 days, we make a stop at our favorite sushi restaurant, Genki Sushi. Four plates of sushi can be ordered at a time via a tablet. Within minutes, you’re served $1 plated sushi via a conveyor system resembling the shinkansen (bullet train in Japan) or race car. At the same time, you can enjoy hot matcha tea to give you the energy required for the orders ahead. And oh did we order!
Want to go?
Check out the blog post by Hokkaido Wilds where we got all of the information we needed to do this tour!