Zen and the art of mastering your snowboard
Ekow Eshun is known as director of the ICA, and a regular on BBC’s Newsnight Review, but beneath his sharp suits lurk the baggy pants of a snowboarder. We sent him to Japan to indulge his passion for powder
When I first took up snowboarding a dozen years ago, I was a danger to myself and others around me. Having never skied, been on a skateboard (good training for snowboarding) or indeed, even stood on a snow-covered mountain before, I was no more steady or accomplished than a toddler taking its first steps. What I was good at was falling; the performance of spectacular rococo tumbles that would launch me cartwheeling down the mountainside in a mass of flailing limbs. Small children applauded as I careered past, their cheers – and the cries of angry parents – pursuing me down the slopes.
Small triumphs were followed by regular setbacks such as the belated discovery, on my third holiday, that I had been trying to ride the board backwards, which explained some of my ineptitude but sadly did little to rectify it.
Still I persisted. And because the experience of being up in the mountains looking down at the clouds and the valley below was so utterly novel, each pratfall and rib-cracking body slam only increased the sense of giddy delight I felt with each halting step forward.
Even now, when the donning of the astronaut’s kit of gloves and boots and helmet no longer feels as scary as preparing for a trip to the moon and I’ve come to welcome the vertiginous sensation that follows launching yourself into the void off the overhanging lip of a snow-covered rock face – even now I still feel the naive exhilaration I did as a beginner. It’s why I go away each year and head off beyond the crowded pistes in search of the untrammelled back country, where the mountains are stripped of ropes and flags and people and the abrupt encounter with semi-wilderness makes you feel you really have travelled into a realm of vast beauty and solitude.
I’m well aware that such words smack of an overly romantic view of snowboarding which isn’t necessarily shared by all others, particularly those who have been interrupted on the piste by a reckless youth in a pair of sagging trousers whooping past on a board with razor-sharp edges. It is true that boarding – or rather boarders – can tend to the juvenile. At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, 18-year-old American prodigy Shaun White was probably the first Olympic athlete to win gold while listening to his iPod.
This is, in part, due to snowboarding’s roots in skateboarding, which wears perpetual adolescence as a badge of pride. But snowboarding’s origins also lie in West Coast surf culture, which encourages a respect for nature and the cultivation of a zen-like calm in the face of Brobdingnagian waves. And it is that feeling of tranquillity and joy – transcendence really – that I am in search of with each visit to the mountains. Short of a couple of trips to North America, I haven’t generally gone any further abroad than Europe. It’s hardly necessary when some of the world’s finest terrain is only an hour or so away by plane. Last season though, with parlous conditions across France, Austria and the Pyrenees, I decided to venture further afield, to the mountains of Hokkaido, the most northerly of Japan’s main islands.
My timing was way off. According to locals, the 2006/7 season marked the worst year in living memory for snowfall. For Europe, which faced a similar situation, the result was slopes rife with exposed rocks and grass and the prospect of a snowline rising so precipitously in the future that it would leave low-lying resorts bare for good. But Hokkaido’s resorts didn’t have it as bad. They were forced to struggle by with an average snowfall that ‘only’ measured 15 metres through the season. So even in a poor year, this means the region still counts as one of the top powder destinations in the world, a rival to mountain meccas such as Whistler and Sundance. In other words, it is a place where ‘bad’ only ever means less of a good thing than normal.
Much of Japan’s skiing takes place on the main island within reach of Tokyo at resorts such as Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics. But it’s Hokkaido and its main resorts, Niseko, Rusutsu, Tomamu and Furano, that consistently get the best powder. Eastward winds from Siberia pick up moisture over the Sea of Japan, strike the flattened cone of the dormant volcano Yotei, ‘the Fuji of the North’, and unburden themselves on the wooded mountainsides below on an almost daily basis.
The peaks are mainly low-lying and the sky tends to be clouded over through January and February, meaning you are denied the sort of grand panoramic views commonplace in the Alps. In addition, those Siberian winds mean temperatures often fall to -10C. But there are compensations in the form of aesthetic pleasures impossible to find further west – the brooding presence of Yotei looming over the slopes; the steam from an outdoor hot spring evaporating into a sky of falling snow; two foxes, spotted at night, languidly crossing the piste and winding their way to invisibility through a copse of silver birches.
Go back a decade and the idea of travelling to Japan for the skiing might have seemed gratuitously exotic. The country can boast more than 500 resorts, putting it on a par with France or Austria, even if many neighbourhood sites amount to little more than a chairlift and one piste. But most areas did little to welcome foreigners, with few local English speakers and little in the way of coherent tourist information.
In the wake of Japan’s collapsed economic bubble though, which saw a concomitant slump in the domestic skiing market, foreign investment is helping revive the industry. In the Hokkaido area, Canadians, westerners resident in Hong Kong and, in particular, Australians, for whom the region represents the best and closest high-quality skiing, are regular visitors.
Some, such as Clayton Cannahan, who set up the Black Diamond Lodge in Rusutsu after falling in love with the area a number of years ago while visiting from his native Canada, have learnt the language and settled permanently, opening bars and sports shops to give the area a newly international flavour.
Clayton was my guide to Rusutsu and neighbouring Niseko, the two resorts I explored during a five-day visit. He took me off the wide and tranquil main runs in Niseko on my first morning and plotted a course into the deep powder beyond the out-of-bounds signs. Although off-piste activity is officially frowned upon, it’s not immediately clear to the visitor how that’s defined. Venture into areas labelled ‘Strictly Off Limits’ and you risk being pursued by the Ski Patrol and thrown off the mountain. Zones signposted ‘Uncontrolled Areas’ simply point to terrain beyond park management that you enter at your peril. The relative safety levels of the different areas seemed to play little part in their ascription.
Angry-looking off-limits signs often seemed to mark inviting-looking patches of snow nestled beside the piste. By contrast, as I followed Clayton under the rope into an uncontrolled area, the Ski Patrol cheerfully waving us through and I found myself at the foot of a peak, Mt Annupuri, trekking up the side of its face through white-out conditions to its 1,308m summit, where we were met with winds of -20C and the occasional crevasse beneath a layer of fresh snow.
On- or off-piste though, it was joyously underpopulated. In comparison to the jostling lift queues of France or Italy, I didn’t ever have to wait more than a few minutes to ride back to the top. In both Rusutsu and Niseko I found fast, efficient lifts and broad, well groomed runs. And where lunch in the Alps normally means no more than another indifferent, overpriced croque-monsieur, Hokkaido’s resorts were notable for fantastic food at great prices. A bowl of rice or noodles with meat or fish costs around £5. A dinner of sushi or sashimi, prepared to rigorous Japanese standards of freshness and presentation, was about £10.
Given the overall high standard of Hokkaido and its facilities, it’s little wonder that British tour operator Inghams is now scheduling holidays to Rusutsu and Niseko. With half-board packages from around £1,000, costs are comparable to those for a high-end French or North American resort. Interest was so high from British travellers after the first season in 2006-7 that the company is doubling its range of offers for this winter and has added the neighbouring resort of Furano.
The only real drawback is the length of the journey – a 13-hour flight from Heathrow to Osaka followed by a 90-minute domestic follow-on to Sapporo, then a two-hour coach transfer. Add in waiting time at each point on the way and you’re close to 24 hours for the trip, a strenuous way to start any holiday.
The accommodation also deserves a mention. It’s far from bad at any resort, but it can be a bit odd, especially at the Rusutsu Resort Hotel. Nestled in a semi-wilderness, this proved to be a vast 3,000-bed complex linked by a half-mile long monorail, the whole place bringing to mind the lair of a Bond villain. Albeit a Bond villain with a taste for kitsch, examples of which included a fairground carousel in the main atrium, statues of Disney-style anthropomorphised animals in various national dress at surprising intervals along the hotel’s endless corridors and a ‘musical fountain’ that struck up a choreographed show of lights and water set to Strauss waltzes and The Sound of Music every evening.
Much of this, it should be said, just reflects the Japanese penchant for ‘kawaii’ cuteness, that runs indelibly through the nation’s culture and can be seen everywhere from bags and coats and mobile phones bearing the cartoon character Hello Kitty to the Manga-influenced artwork of Takashi Murakami, ‘the Japanese Warhol’. But if, on occasion, the discovery of a musical fountain or a life-size statue of a bear in lederhosen strikes an absurdist note, that ultimately is only positive as far as I’m concerned. Just another reason why skiing or snowboarding in Japan is such a unique experience.
Ekow Eshun travelled with Inghams (020 8780 4433; inghams.co.uk) which offers seven nights at the Rusutsu Resort Hotel in Rusutsu from £1,275 or seven nights at the Higashiyama Prince Hotel in Niseko from £1,303. Both prices include half-board, flights from London Heathrow to Sapporo via Osaka with JAL and transfers. A three-night extension at the five-star Palace Hotel in Tokyo, or the Hotel Granvia in Kyoto, B&B, costs from £266 and £285 respectively, including train transfers. For further information about Japan visit seejapan.co.uk.