Tracing the sacred path around Daisetsuzan National Park on Japan’s Hokkaido Island
The headlamp pointed up to the dark sky and then back down at the felt board. The old man seemed to be speaking to the swirling snowflakes as they landed on his tablet—the size of an iPad. He held it out like a child sticks out their tongue to swallow a flake.
He looked at the stellar shape through reading glasses and a magnifier loupe. He muttered something in Japanese and then wiped the board with his oversize mittens.
Katahira Takashi lives in Tokyo when it’s not snowing. He’s been coming to this spot on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido every winter since 1965, photographing snow crystals. Inside a makeshift tent with a macro setup pitched outside his Toyota van, Takashi, wearing a large insulated jacket and gaiters around expedition-style boots, shoots the snow using a Pentax camera and Canon macro lenses.
I asked him why he chose this spot. He smiled a grandfatherly-like grin, the whiskers of his thin mustache showing the salt of his age. “I don’t like the city,” he replied in broken English. “It’s peaceful here and it never stops snowing.”
Outside our hostel at the base of Asahidake Ropeway, a ski area at the foot of the tallest peak on the powder haven of Hokkaido, the active stratovolcano 7,516-foot Mount Asahi, I too stared up at the falling snow.
Time slows in Hokkaido, especially and even more so in the mountains of Daisetsuzan National Park—an amoeba-shaped triangle consisting of 875 square miles located in the center of the island. A faucet of snowfall cranked full blast will do that. When it doesn’t relent, rushing is not required, even if your goal is to orbit the powder park.
It seems standard now during capricious North American winters for skiers to careen their necks east for the sure thing: kona yuki, the Japanese phrase for powder snow. In February 2014, that lot included a collection of skiers led by Ingrid Backstrom. After suffering a near-career-ending Achilles injury the season prior, the 36-year-old wanted soft snow to ease back into winter. Known more for sweeping super-G turns on open Alaska faces or technical lines navigating British Columbia pillows, Backstrom didn’t seem like the type hankering for the mellow slopes of Hokkaido. The terrain on Hokkaido, consisting of deciduous birch and maple trees, is known more for its playfulness rather than steep, high-alpine exposure.
“It’s comforting to know a place like this exists,” said Backstrom.
When I arrived in mid-February, the snow faucet eased off, allowing for the sun to strike. A sun-crust developed, creating a layer within the voluminous Hokkaido snowpack.
Leading our group was a Japanese mountain guide named Makoto Takeishi. A ski patroller of 10 years—two of those years spent patrolling in the more popular Niseko zone 180 miles to the west—the ruddy-cheeked Takeishi, or Mako as we called him, was born in Tokyo, raised in the mountains of Nagano, and moved to Hokkaido to attend an outdoor-oriented high school. In our heightened mode of anticipation for the powder of our dreams, Mako’s pace reflected that of the natives in the mountains. That is, despite our constant inquiries about the forecast, the 38-year-old didn’t rush or feel the pressure to procure life-altering runs for his clients. Perhaps his relaxed verve acted as a product of the relentless snowfall, knowing the sacred snows would soon come.
“It snows so much that it shapes our lifestyles in many ways compared to the city,” said Mako, a stout and bullish man who has skied Asahidake for 20 years.
In Daisetsuzan, which translates to the “great snowy mountains,” the largest national park in Japan features 18 peaks over 6,500 feet. The mountains are not as high as the Japanese Alps of Honshu due southeast, but the higher latitude and proximity to the Sea of Japan makes for a colder climate and snow that averages four-percent water content.
From the top of the Asahidake Ropeway ski area, which is on the northern side of the park, short tours took us to 500-foot, 35-degree descents among the distinct birch before it benched out. We’d blow the featherlight snow off our mitts and skate down to another lap, the 50-person tram loading every 20 minutes. Of course, we found ourselves among the sacred forests, home to kami—defined in English as “spirits” or “deities” with abstract “natural” forces in the world.
As Canadian Riley Leboe flipped himself off natural features and American Drew Tabke, making his inaugural trip to Japan, flew through the arched trees, forces of a different kind seemed to be in play. “There is something different here. Some sort of spirituality,” said Tabke.
Which includes the geothermal activity that makes for the other most important activity in Japan: soaking in hot springs, or onsens. Back at the lodge, we indulged in the outdoor baths. Adhering to “Japanese Hot Spring Law,” the onsens contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements and must be 78 degrees or hotter. Disrobed, I found Mako soaking and smiling, drinking from a can of Sapporo. “I always onsen after skiing,” he said. “Backcountry skiing, onsen, and beer.” I looked at the stars through more falling snow and couldn’t help but mutter arigatou in gratitude for the kami.
In our quest to find bottomless powder, we left Asahidake and drove north to Kurodake. There, in a small town at the base of the mountain, we walked through the zany Sounkyo Ice Festival alongside Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese tourists. Lit up in various neon colors, the ice sculptures resembled a Halloween-like corn maze tour. The next day, despite being the only skiers in the nearby Kurodake tram, the strange experience and challenging conditions forced us to hop back in Mako’s van.
But true to Mako’s patience, after driving all night on ramen and vendor-fed sushi and candy from the ubiquitous 7-Elevens, we awoke at the Hakuginso Onsen to snow falling at three inches an hour. Located at the southeastern end of the national park and the base of the Tokachi Mountains and 6,273-foot Furanodake, the dreamy onsen is a launchpad to some of the deepest turns of your life.
As we traded off breaking trail and trekking through midriff-high snow, I called to mind our first night, analyzing micro-millimeter snow crystals. Katahira, Mako—men of the mountains. We moved with bated breath with the impending descent, and a calm stride. We were here in the serenity of sacred spirits and snow. I looked up and down and it was all white.
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