Saturday, 6 February 2016

Snow Sports at Hakuba, Nagano


For years I’ve appreciated snow…from a distant warmer climate. In fact, some of my favourite movies feature snow-enveloped settings such as Home Alone 2 and In Her Shoes. But with snow comes painfully low temperatures and subsequent personal discomfort— factors unfavourable for someone low in body fat and a high desire for sun-kissed skin and hours of pool-side lazing.

For well over 10 years I’ve been claiming ‘I’ll try snow sports one day’— and on Wednesday— that day finally arrived. The logistics for such a short stay (3 days) were so straightforward that I was finally stumped when it came to producing an excuse not to go.

My super lax attitude towards any sort of preparation worked highly in my favour. For anyone considering a trip to Hakuba to enjoy the snow, I’d really recommend trying to restrain yourself from pre-booking everything online. Aside from accommodation, I had no pre-arranged gear, lessons, passes etc. I managed to effortlessly accumulate all of these within an hour of stepping off the first (free) scheduled shuttle. Based on my experience, if you’re willing to ‘go with the flow’, you’re likely to save tons (of money & time) while winding up with exactly the same gear as what the 'highly-organised you' would receive.

Upon arriving in Goryu, it was obvious which companies were making a killing from the foreign market. While some might argue that these companies supply better service and equipment, I was very satisfied by the quality gear and efficient service I received from a locally run company called Cliff Rental Goryu Shop. For 12,000 yen (approx. $150 AUD), I was fully kitted out with branded snowboard, boots, jacket, pants, gloves, goggles & helmet. Even the receipting system gadget operating from an iPad was seamless; within minutes my email inbox had retained an itemised receipt.


Next I made my way into the Goryu Plaza to investigate which English speaking school would provide me with a lesson at (very) short notice. There was only one English-friendly provider operating from Goryu (as opposed to two or three in Happo), however, their ‘Batman phone’ located at the booking stand allowed me to tee up a lesson in under two minutes. After hanging up, all I had to do was make my way to Iimori (see map below) via a free shuttle service, sign my fate over to the spirits of the mountain and part with 7,000 yen (approx. $85 AUD). All lessons take place at Iimori because it receives far less traffic than Hakuba 47 and its inclines are less aggressive.


When I arrived at the bottom of Iimori mountain, I was met by Dougie and Dan who co-own Hakuba Snow Sports School. They appointed me to the beginner snowboard group which was headed for Slope 1 with instructor Gaz. I thanked my lucky duck when it was time to begin and no one else was standing at my flag. I got a two-hour private lesson with handsome British Gaz at a bargain price. Whilst walking to Slope 1, Gaz reeled off his fascinating, yet unconventional employment history. He has worked in a number of continents across the globe while managing to avoid summer in over a decade (my idea of a horrific nightmare). 

Gaz is obviously a brilliant snowboard teacher, given that within two hours, I was already learning how to change from heel side to toe side whilst cruising down the mountain. He frequently praised my efforts, admitting that my speedy progress was rare. Given how naturally unsporty I am, my helmet was the only thing keeping my ego under wraps. He said that most people have greater difficulty staying relaxed while maintaining the unnatural ‘gangster’ stance. If he knew I came from Frankston, perhaps he wouldn't have been so surprised by my natural ability. 

As my lesson neared the end, I was both physically and mentally drained. Each time I’d allowed my legs to adopt a jelly-like state, I’d find myself uncontrollably gaining speed, and rather than applying what I’d learnt, I’d resort to the most basic, yet painful model—voluntarily throwing myself onto the ground. Given the amount of spills I endured, I thought it was appropriate to call Mum the next morning to thank her for giving me strong bones.  


The following day I returned to the same hill in an attempt to consolidate what I’d learnt with Gaz. Unfortunately, my jelly-legs had set firmly overnight and the more attention my mind gave them, the less they were willing to cooperate. I allowed my physical exhaustion to over-power my mind’s readiness to stick at it after battling my fourth run down the slope. Despite the fact I forked out 5,000 yen (approx. $60 AUD) for a daily lift pass, I’m glad I know for next time that my body isn’t conditioned to endure consecutive days of snow sports. I think in most cases, people who journey out to the snow over-commit themselves because they want to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. I'd recommend that snowboarding newbies living in Japan work towards building up their muscle strength by opting for a series of day trips over the winter season. 

The bus ride to Hakuba is a wonderful experience in itself, as you can enjoy snowy mountainous views from the comfort of a warm coach bus. Some of the trees look like their branches have sprouted silver leaves when the light shines upon them. Aside from learning how to snowboard, my personal highlight was feeling soft snow fall on my cheeks while dangling my legs from the chair lift. The snow falling upon the traditional Japanese landscape is a beautiful site not to be missed. I've got to admit that the snow does have some spectacular characteristics, despite potentially being a huge pain in the arse.



Here are links to the companies mentioned. All of which are just regular business operators who provided me with exceptional service.

Bus service (approx.. 5 hour trip departing Shinjuku Station) https://www.highwaybus.com/rs-web01-prd-rel/gp/foreign/frgSelectLine?lang=en

English snow school operating from Iimori, Goryu http://hakubasnowsports.com/

Cliff Rentals, Goryu (no website availble)

Where I stayed: Hakuba Alps Backpackers http://hakubabackpackers.com/