This is what I remember from my first trip to Hakuba: the monkeys keeping their distance. Plodding through the snow in single-file silence, furred soldiers in winter. Soon they were mere shadows in the forest, hunched grey phantoms peeking around trees. And we were alone again on our skis.
That's how Japan comes to you: in pictures snapped through windows and goggles, scenes so foreign they're engraved instantly—with no clear context—to be sorted out later.
It starts in Tokyo, where everything opens your eyes. Like landing in some interplanetary arcade of the future, the sights and sounds are out of time, out of size, overwhelming. Before you even have time to absorb it you're looking for a way out. A bus, a train, maybe a van full of skiers you happen to know. Then the process of exiting the city, faces pressed to the window, nighttime madness of districts like Shibuya and Shinjuku flashing past like giant video games.
Waiting and watching. It's what you do here. Patience is a virtue. That's how Zen works. You'll eventually get where you're going and find what you came for: Snow.
There are no monkeys today, we're too high on the mountain. Picketed around us in silence, deciduous trees bent at every conceivable angle seem placed in their positions like some kind of hardwood gallery. Of course, this diorama of life imitating art has a grander purpose for us. With the last snowfall a few days behind, exiting the gate at the top of Cortina ski area will hopefully deliver the goods.
The snow sticks improbably to vertical bark and sits in branches like whipped cream cradled in an upturned hand. From a distance, the forest resembles a cotton plantation. Up close it's just scary; chunks of up to a ton reach critical mass and fall at random, making the ground shake in a land where the ground shakes often. We traverse north until we come to a knife ridge where the forest opens like a window. Framed by snow-encrusted branches, the mountains spread before us. We fumble for cameras.
The Japanese Alps comprise three volcanic ridges in the central section of the main island of Honshu. All converge in Nagano prefecture, one of the reasons this was a logical area for the sprawling winter Olympics of 1998 (Japan previously hosted a smaller winter Olympics in Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, in 1972). The range hemming the western side of the Hakuba Valley is the North Alps, and on its far side is the Sea of Japan, across which, in winter, cold winds raging from Siberia pick up moisture and deposit it on the ten-ish ski areas that comprise Hakuba resort. The area closest to the ocean in the direction the wind blows on any particular day will get the most snow; most often this is Cortina, raked by northerlies that can deposit 20 metres of snow each winter.
On days like today you know enough to take the bus from Hakuba a half-hour to Cortina, a homey area of forested slopes grouped above the castle-like absurdity and Bavarian-façade of the Cortina Green Hotel, which features no green at all, only white and brown like the forest—under a preternaturally red roof.
Cortina isn't a typical Honshu ski area. Uniquely for Japan you're allowed to ski in the trees. Powder days here—which are frequent—are like visiting the Tower of Babel. Every gaijin (foreigner) in Hakuba is here; drifting our way this morning was Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, German, French and the nasal twang of Australian. In fact, there are fewer Japanese waiting for the lift here than in Whistler on a typical midweek powder day. Here you needn't hike for fresh lines until the afternoon, and even then, should you be equipped with beacons shovels and probes, there are marked gates to walk through as we have done. After photos, we drop into knee-deep heaven through trees you could drive a truck between.
Those exiting the backcountry here must pass through the sleepy Norikura Onsen ski area to return to Cortina. But making a direct beeline isn't as much fun as stopping at the Snow Drop café for lunch, where international freeriders congregate for cheap eats. To order, you put money in a machine (No wet bills! No crumpled bills!) and the information is relayed to the kitchen, which pops out your meal in minutes. You know you're not in Kansas anymore when your order is loudly announced through a megaphone by a guy dressed like a penguin. A first lesson: nothing is too strange in Japan.
A second lesson: all this can be yours, Whistlerites, if you have an Epic Pass, which will net you five free days of skiing anywhere in the Hakuba Valley. And if you're going to go that route, it's easier if you jump on an organized trip. And if you jump on an organized trip, who better to join than our own global ski bon vivants, Extremely Canadian, which run several trips a year in Hakuba. Which was exactly what we did.
Next time: touring, trees, okonomiyaki, soba, onsens, earthquakes and fire.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.