The Elusive Search for Japow
Tahoe skiers seeking deep turns in The Land of the Rising Sun make the best of a low snow year
My wife, daughter and I were waiting out the midday heat in a casita in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca when a text lit up my phone. Two of my Tahoe friends were planning a large group ski trip to Japan, and they asked if I wanted to tag along.
Being nowhere close to a skiing mindset, I ran the idea past my wife, Lauren.
“Why not? That sounds amazing,” she said.
Looking back at the moment now—socially distanced with the thought of international travel a mere pipe dream—I couldn’t be happier that my general rule of thumb is to always say yes.
Tahoe’s “Japow” Craving
Japan, as evidenced on social media every winter, is a popular destination for Tahoe skiers.
While part of it may have to do with Tahoe’s 13th month, June-uary, when winter gives way to dry, summer-like conditions, the main reason is Japan’s famed snow quality—aka “Japow.”
My ski partner Josh Anderson sums it up as such: “It’s monastically deep. I’d swear off women for the rest of my life to ski under snow that deep, light and yet somehow supported. When it’s fully Japowing, every turn is like a painless punch in the face, just seeing stars.”
It was with these thoughts in mind that my two friends, Jordan Basile and Brandon Skinner, rallied a sizeable group of born-and-raised Tahoe powder hounds for a 12-day trip to Japan in January.
As it turned out, the 2020 winter was one of Japan’s worst snow years on record, with a measly 88-inch base recorded at some of the resorts. Before we left, resort webcams showed dirt up to mid-mountain. Some resorts hadn’t even opened.
But we had no choice but to get fired up anyway. We rented a van and planned a road trip on the island of Honshu. Besides the last-minute addition of Anderson and me, the entire group (including Trevor Semmens, Kyle Georgeson, Fred Stamm, Spencer Headley and Eric Messier) had grown up skiing together in Tahoe.
Making the Best of It
Our goal of devouring sushi, crushing beers and skiing deep powder seemed tangible. What stood in the way was a mysterious illness and a lack of snowfall on mainland Japan.
In the days leading up to our departure, most of us were bedridden with flulike symptoms. Skinner and I could barely move for days.
“I was actually worried about spreading what I had to both passengers on the plane and the people of Japan,” says Skinner, who was still dealing with the effects of his illness when we returned home.
But there was no snow in Tahoe, and we weren’t about to let our tickets go to waste.
We were met with an overstimulating barrage of big crowds, illegible neon signs, and the challenges of portaging our oversized bags through the subways and streets of downtown Tokyo. Like most dirtbag out-of-towners would do in the big city, we stuffed nine guys into a tiny two-bedroom apartment, gorged ourselves on ramen and drank away our jet lag in the tiny bars of Golden Gai.
The following morning, we boarded a bus bound for a beautiful, brand new rental home in Hakuba.
I was astonished to witness the complete lack of snow in this ski town that had once delivered the most ridiculous snowfall I have ever seen. We did what we could to stoke the morale and decided that our best plan of action was to go skiing.
The initial gondola ride revealed dirt-covered ski runs and a giant cloud hovering over the upper reaches of Mumezawa. As we glided up the mountain, we entered the cloud and emerged to find a much more suitable mountain scene. The crew split up, with my group strapping on our skins and touring outside the resort boundary to see what the high country had to offer.
Although not comparable to my previous visit to the area, the snow up high was knee-deep and delicious. We shredded some laps in ethereal foggy conditions before running into a couple of Australian ski guides, who clued us in to the best beta of day one: The northern-facing slope was holding snow and skied to the base.
We dropped in with mild apprehension and descended some 1,500 feet in variable conditions ranging from powder to ice. The edges of a dirt road at the base of the mountain held just enough snow to sustain our ski tracks as we exited at dusk.
A trend had been set. From there on, we ended each day after dark.
Awaking to a mild sushi hangover the following morning, I opened my jet-lagged eyes to see fat flakes falling from the sky, and the previous day’s dirt-laden fields blanketed in fresh snow.
Having a wide variety of resorts and side-country options makes the Hakuba Valley one of the most unique ski destinations in the world. Using the info we gleaned the day before, we set our sights on the backcountry terrain of the nearby Tsugaike Kogen resort.
Snow was deep and shedding at the higher elevations. Navigating the ridges and spines was sketchy but also predictable. As we descended, conditions quickly turned from awful to epic.
Our make-the-best-of-it attitude worked wonders for the group. While most visitors we met complained about the lack of snow and their ruined trips, we switched our gears toward adventure skiing. Long tours and big days set us on a path to greatness.
Our knowledge from the first day and Anderson’s familiarity with the area led us to some of the best side-country skiing of the trip. The Yama Buta boys, or Wild Hogs, as we called ourselves, dropped in on a steep set of north-facing trees. Featuring ribs and spines and dropping away into a deep river valley, the pitch offered plenty of room to share the waist-deep snow.
The bottom of the mountain was a different story. The lower we descended, the sportier it got, to the point of full-on adventure skiing. Our few good turns were combined with skirting ravines, swinging off willows and billy-goating across creeks. The key was to avoid mistakes. Skiing at the back of the pack, I often found snow bridges deteriorated or gone by the time I arrived.
The next challenge was the Hira River, which is easily crossable during big snow years, but not in 2020. As such, our crew was forced to employ various winter river-crossing techniques.
I removed my boots and socks and plunged knee-deep into the frigid runoff. Meanwhile, Skinner and Semmens chose the boots-on bum-rush method, while Stamm awkwardly (but successfully) rock-hopped his way across in stiff ski boots. In the end, we each had varying degrees of foot wetness.
Dusk turned to night as we skied out the access road, which once again had just enough snow to sustain our tracks. After losing part of the crew skiing through a quaint Japanese neighborhood, I experienced one of those perfect travel moments.
Cold, wet, hungry and tired, I decided to switch from skiing to walking before fortuitously bumping back into Messier and Skinner. Five minutes later we stumbled upon a sushi bar. As the fish circled by our eyes on a conveyor belt, we toasted cold Sapporos and adventurously ate off color-coded plates delineating the price of each order. It was a great end to a great day.
Tight Quarters and Fire Festivals
Opting for a single Toyota Hiace instead of two small Delicas made for a tight squeeze the following day. Imagine nine ski bums with all their gear and suitcases piled into one van. We pulled two seats out, stacked the skis and bundled the poles. By the time we were packed we had to clamber over the rows of seats to fill our spots. Realizing that we were one seat short, we made one out of luggage and drove 90 minutes to Nozawa Onsen.
As we passed Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, the skies darkened and a steady rain began, turning pastures into muddy fields. We split into three groups of three upon arrival and moved into our cultured Japanese tatami rooms, each with bamboo mats, a low table and sliding paneled doors. It was time to rest up for the famed Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival.
Nozawa Onsen is a charming hot spring ski town dating back to the eighth century. Located at the base of Kenashi-yama Mountain, the town hosts one of the most unique festivals on the planet.
Villagers cut down trees in the nearby hills and carry them into the town square. A massive shrine known as a shaden is built and endowed by priests moments before the fire battle begins. A number of “guards” sit on top of the shaden to protect the deity it represents. At the same time, villagers attack the shaden with offerings of torches, hoping to burn it down. The spectacle is fueled by copious amounts of sake consumed by both the participants and spectators.
With mobs of people packed shoulder to shoulder as the rain turned to snow, the protectors of the shrine held off the torch-wielding villagers. Hours later, with thousands of onlookers eagerly awaiting the burn, the festival organizers set the shrine ablaze as the soaking-wet crowd rejoiced.
The next morning was a difficult one. Though it was a beautiful bluebird pow day, our movements were lethargic. We made it to the mountain around the crack of noon. After a little searching, we discovered some amazing tree skiing to help ease the tension in our heads.
Our final destination was Myoko. We approached the mountain there with one goal in mind: Find the lift that went to the highest elevation and tour from there.
The woes of the low snow year were apparent as we climbed the caldera of 8,000-foot Mount Myoko.
A steep, sporty skin track weaved through dense bamboo and willows, forcing us to cling to limbs at times for support. Once again entering a giant cloud, we continued upward until eventually emerging into the clear.
Mount Myoko, a stratovolcano, offered unique perspectives at the edge of its rim, into the caldera and up to the lava dome, which juts out from the center of the caldera. For the next two days we skied knee-deep snow in scenic terrain above a dramatic wall of clouds.
Our last turns of the trip led us deep into the caldera down to the crater, where fog shrouded our view and thick plumes of sulfurous gases filled our nostrils. We eventually found our way by following a river that flowed from the bowels of the caldera.
And with that our skiing in Japan came to an end.
We experienced two different worlds during our time skiing in The Land of the Rising Sun—one below the clouds and one above. Sure, the timing of our trip was bad, but we made the best of the situation and returned home with memories to last a lifetime.
So often in life, opportunities present themselves and we have the option to put them off for “next time” or say yes.
As I sit here distanced from the things I love—the social life I once had and those ever-elusive new stamps in my passport—I can’t imagine the disappointment I’d feel if I hadn’t experienced “the worst snow year Japan ever had.”
The time I skied a combination of dirt, bamboo stalks and deep snow. The last time I expanded the depths my culinary palette through street meat, okonomiyaki, a wide variety of raw fish and steaming hot bowls of ramen. The last time I happily squeezed myself like a sardine into an undersized passenger van. And the last time I happily bathed naked with the Yama Buta Boys Club in a steaming hot onsen after a questionable ski day through the dreamlike forests of Japan.
Ryan Salm is a Tahoe City–based photographer, writer and world traveler. His extensive travel photography can be found at ryansalmphotography.com.