Wasabi Powder Diet
Clouds cover the valley like a woolly blanket, with imposing, steep mountains rising up above it.We are in Hakuba, a valley with ten different ski areas. This is where the downhill and the Super G were held during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Although Japan has a reputation of being relatively flat, the high mountains of Hakuba look just like Alaska. That is one of the reasons why Jeremy Jones filmed part of his movie Further here. Dave, the lead guide and owner of the Evergreen Outdoor Center, introduces Hakuba to us: “Hakuba does get a bit less snow than Niseko, but it is all relative. I would give Hakuba an 8 for snow and Niseko a 10. For terrain I would rate Niseko a 4 and Hakuba a 9.5. It is lift-accessed heli-skiing, but I guess I am biased having lived here for years.”
We put on our skins and ski tour the mighty mountains of Happo-One, one of Hakuba’s ski resorts. Huge peaks and steep couloirs surround us. After a few hours it is finally time to drop into a large bowl, where 1,000 vertical metres of heavenly powder await us. The powder is so dry that our spray remains visible like a cloud of smoke in the air. Euphorically, we ski towards Dave and, as always, we are hungry for more! In the afternoon, we head into the famous Japanese birch forests, which look like a wintry jungle with their twisting branches covered in snow. We soar down in perfect conditions, which only seem to exist in the ski movies. The snow is so light that it is virtually impossible to breathe.
Whooping, we arrive at the road, where the Evergreen driver awaits us. To top it all, he points out wild monkeys as they dangle from trees along the way!
For us Westerners, Japan is a country of idiosyncrasies such as heated toilet seats, adults with ‘Hello Kitty’ clothing and vending machines selling beer accessible to anyone and located in every imaginable location. Wherever we go we spot spelling mistakes, such as ‘calefur snow falling flom loof’, ‘fast aid kit’ and ‘experts onry’, which make us giggle every time. Japan has been virtually free of foreign influences for centuries. In this homogeneous society, with 99% of the country’s 127 million inhabitants being Japanese, preserving the traditional culture continues to play a major role today.
A spectacular festival, the Dosojin Matsuri, is held in the village of Nozawa Onsen on January 15th, starring the village’s 25- and 42-year-old men. The Japanese Shinto religion regards these ages as yakudoshi, meaning unlucky.
During this festival, the men display their courage by defending a gigantic wooden shrine from the other villagers who try to set it on fire. By doing this, they hope to be able to avoid a year of misfortune. It is a fierce battle, with the ‘unlucky’ men fending off blows from blazing torches to prevent the fire from setting the structure alight. This spectacle goes on until the attackers run out of ammunition. The yakudoshi men have displayed sufficient strength and courage and, after the entire structure is set on fire, peace slowly returns to this charming village.
Maintaining the wa
With the latest snowstorm bringing 70 centimeters of fresh powder we head for lunch consisting of fish, vegetables and purple rice, with Nalini and Aurelien, two of our newly made friends. Nalini, who works in the Marketing department of the ski resort Happo One, tells us that when she first came to Japan, she was told she would need to learn to bow as bowing is an intrinsic part of the Japanese culture. Bowing can mean many different things, depending on the social situation, and the deeper the bow, the more respect you show. Each morning Nalini (and her colleagues) practiced the perfect, 30-degree angle bow. Her colleagues joined her because of the “wa”, the underpinning principle of the Japanese society. “Wa” can be loosely translated as maintaining social harmony, which exists when collectivity stands above individuality. Nalini explains that in Japan harmony exists when everyone in the group knows precisely his/her place in the hierarchy and behaves accordingly. In other words, when personal feelings are kept out of the equation and everyone lets loyalty to the group override the desire for fairness and personal happiness. Later that evening Aurelien, a French ski instructor, adds after a few beers that back in the days maintaining the ‘wa’ was even more important. When a student would fall during a ski lesson, all other students would also lay down, in order to keep social harmony. I am not sure whether to blame the many beers, my Western mind or to actually believe Aurelien…
“Nana korobi ya oki”
The land of the rising sun has been plagued by disaster on numerous occasions: a catastrophic tsunami, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and two atomic bombs. The typical Japanese saying “Nana korobi ya oki” (literally: fall down seven times, get up eight) expresses the great resilience of the Japanese people. This ability to bounce back is related to a culture that values personal responsibility and hard work, as well as modesty and a sense of solidarity with a community. Japan is a fascinating country with a rich (ski) history. The Austrians introduced skiing in Japan some 100 years ago. Building on the successful 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, the popularity of the sport peaked in the mid-1980s, when there were as many as 700 ski areas. An economic recession in the early 1990s forced many ski areas to close and led to a decrease in the number of skiers. The Australians with their strong dollar pushed these numbers up again when they discovered the Japanese powder.
Japanese après-ski: the naked truth
Although it’s −20 degrees Celsius outside, I take my ski clothes off as quickly as possible. My bare feet sting in the snow before I step into the scorching onsen. Chuck, our guide from New Zealand, is already comfortably sitting in the 48 degree Celsius water drinking a beer. He takes a sip and laughs as we rowdily try to get used to the hot water. When we have finally acclimatised a few minutes later, Chuck tells us more about the onsens: “The Japanese believe that onsens have healing powers because of the minerals they contain. It is physically and mentally cleansing and relaxing.” I soak in the hot water and enjoy a cold beer. In my mind I relive the day’s infinite powder. I conclude that I’ve been spoilt for life by 21 days of fresh snow in a row. If I where ever to be on a diet, it could only be the Wasabi Powder Diet!