Eating Cake

What do you do in Japanuary when it doesn't snow? Wait a day.

Like every American skier, I’d been hearing about Japanuary—a trendy pilgrimage to Japan each winter to ski the deepest snow in the world—and knew someday, somehow, I would have to go. Then last winter, my boyfriend’s dad, Mike, offered to take us on a ski vacation we definitely could not afford. The only problem was the forecast: As far as dream trips go, it looked pretty dismal.

We flew to Tokyo, hopped trains, then got picked up by a friend of a friend named Greg who took us to Nagano. The next day, we’d head to our destination, Hakuba, a village at the base of the Japanese Alps, one of the most tantalizing ranges I’ve ever Googled.

Leslie Hittmeier

We stayed at Greg’s for a day before heading east, and he told us the snow wasn’t worth skiing. He suggested we check out the monkeys that splash in the hot springs. He told us about these cool sake distilleries and sushi bars, and the onsen where locals bathe naked in water that’s believed to have healing powers. Then he teased us with stories from previous years—chest-deep pow all the way from the resort to his front door.

As Greg rambled, I thought about the deep, sinkhole, blower pow I’d been hearing about for years. I didn’t care about sake, sushi, monkeys, or onsens. I’m not proud of it, but I’m irritated until I get the goods. Even if I don’t, I’d still rather be skiing shit snow than bathing naked with my boyfriend’s dad.

Later, Greg dropped us off at the Backcountry Lodge in Hakuba, our home for the next seven days. The place was warm thanks to a fireplace in the corner, and the owner, Eric, was from our motherland, Montana. His Japanese wife, Fumie, cooked us a mean ramen while we packed up for the next day.

We got up early, planning to check out the territory above Tsugaike; seven ski areas surround Hakuba and all of them have backcountry and hike-to terrain.

After an hour of hiking from the highest lift, we found ourselves in big-kid alpine terrain—the real stuff—with nobody around. It was sunny and the mountains were just as ginormous as they’d looked on Google. Ben and Mike chatted while we toured—dissecting the big peaks around them and choosing which lines they’d ski if we had more time.

Mike has always been a mountain man. Teaching Ben about the mountains was al- ways high up on his list of priorities when Ben was a kid, and now, through backcountry skiing, the student had become the teacher.

iStock Photo / Modestbike

We climbed and skied a classic peak called Koreng-Yama. The snow quality got better with the altitude but was still nothing close to what I’d seen in all the “Japan edits.” Whatever. It didn’t matter. It was the people around me who would define the trip, I told myself, not the amount of powder on the ground.

Later that night, after we got back to the lodge, the snow started to pound, cold, dry powder that fell to the ground in sheets. For the next five days, we got buried in stable storm pow and took face shots on every turn in the 4,000-foot backcountry lines that we came all the way across the world to ski. Sure, the unexpected dump was just icing on the cake. But man, it was delicious.