I have spent the last 20 years trying to check off every possible place on my skiing bucket list. Some years I would tick off more than others and some years I actually added more places to the list than I could cross off. A few years ago there was a lot of hype about Japan and people that had been told epic stories of copious amounts of light and dry powder, tree skiing that never ended and a really unique cultural experience. Every athlete and photographer I knew had gone to Japan and nailed it for powder. Being more of a realist than an optimist, I figured that eventually someone was going to go to Japan seeking the dream and get completely skunked. I didn’t want to be the one that came home with nothing to talk about but groomers and carving.
Over the summer, I started thinking more and more about Japan, so when an offer to go shoot with elite photographer Grant Gunderson came up, I jumped on the chance. As the trip approached I surfed the internet looking for an accurate weather report. We were heading to Myoko on the Honshu peninsula of the main island. Although this area is believed to get more snow than anywhere on the planet, the forecast I found called for a dusting of snow during the 10 days we were slated to be skiing there. Grant said to ignore the forecast and told me that it always snows in Myoko in January. Our tickets were already booked so I figured I would just take what I got and deal with it.
We arrived in Tokyo, hopped a bullet train and started the three-hour journey to Myoko. We drank beer served from vending machines and had our first of what would become endless meals of sushi. We arrived in Myoko under starry skies. Day one was clear and the locals were calling for light snow. We took advantage of the weather and toured above the highest lift at Akukura Onsen ski area. We skinned for 30 minutes and set up shot one of the trip. Within minutes, fog rolled in off the Sea of Japan and climbed up the mountain, engulfing us in a misty shroud. We skied the birch forest for some depth of field until we ended up back in the ski area. We were all tired and jet-lagged so we took a few laps to get our ski legs and headed to the hotel for afternoon tea, an early dinner and bed. As I looked outside I could see snowflakes picking up in intensity and size.
Our second morning couldn’t have been more different than the first. As I pulled open the curtains, I was shocked to see a full meter of new snow. I had never seen it snow so much in such a short amount of time. It was 7 a.m. and I had to control myself for 90 minutes until the lift opened to deliver us to the goods. In North America, a storm like this would almost guarantee a huge line-up for the chair. We found the ski area completely void of anyone but lifties waiting to brush of our lift seat.
For the next week, I skied the best and deepest powder of my life. We had more than 9 feet of snow during the trip and a bluebird day following each major storm. Myoko had some other skiers eventually show up, but they were not there for the powder. All the hype about the tree skiing in Japan is true. The forests are made up of birch trees that have no branches near the ground so you just line up a lane you want to ski and drop in. The trees are perfectly spaced and the snow is hero snow so you can just charge all day long.
I wasn’t expecting super gnarly terrain in Japan, but I quickly found out that you can get into trouble quickly if you get too adventurous. Nothing in Myoko is off-limits, except skiing under the chairlift, and little is marked so going off-piste is the real deal. Plenty of pillow lines, spines and steep gullies waiting for those with a nose for adventure.
The routine of eating sushi for breakfast, slaying powder all day, soaking in the natural hotsprings (called onsens), and then feasting nightly on a bounty of seafood and sake did not grow old. Now that I have been and tasted the nectar of Japanese skiing in January, I’m not so confident that anyone will get skunked, but I can gladly tell you that it wasn’t me. If you keep a bucket list, I highly recommend Japan be added to the docket, unless of course you are averse to powder and sushi.