Time to go to Tohoku

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After spending twice as long as I originally planned at Redwood Inn, it was finally time to make a move and resume my journey northwards: On to the final frontier of Honshu (Japan’s main island), with my goal being to make it to the northernmost prefecture of Aomori. The north (east) region of Japan is known as Tohoku – a name that might be familiar now in the west due to the unfortunate earthquake and tsunami disaster of 2011. It is this region that has so far eluded me in my Japanese travels, and one that I was keen to embrace during the winter season.

Unfortunately, many roads are closed during this period due to large volumes of snow (and no need to spend money on expensive ploughing), so visiting waterfalls and hiking are basically out of the question in most cases. However, instead, there are amazing snowy landscapes to be seen and of course plenty of snowboarding opportunities… if you have the money… which I don’t!

Good to be finally back on the road again!

Good to be finally back on the road again!

Nevertheless, as I embarked from the safety and comfort of Redwood Inn, I quickly felt the old feeling of freedom associated with being on the road and going wherever the wind takes me. I first headed over to the west of Japan in Niigata prefecture, and started to wend my way up the coastline. It was about 10 degrees warmer than it had been up at Yamaboku, and despite a gale blowing in over the ocean, the sunshine and (relative) warmth were a welcome change.

The following day I took a coastal drive between Murakami and Tsuruoka (in Yamagata prefecture) that had been recommended to me, and although the weather was blustery and the beaches completely un-swimmable at this time of year, I could still appreciate the beauty of the rugged coastline, where waves lash steep cliffs and headlands with small coves and beaches in between. I then turned back inland towards Yamagata city, which is a large place sprawling on a plain surrounded by mountains. In fact, just 30mins out of the city I found my next destination – one I had been looking forward to for some time – Zao ski resort and onsen village. See this separate post for a rundown of my snowboarding adventures surrounded by snow monsters. Continue reading

ZOMG: ZAO

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Zao is a ski resort and onsen village just 30mins outside Yamagata city that is well known for its ‘snow monsters’ – a natural phenomenon whereby the snow volume and type builds up on the trees over the course of the winter without falling off, and means that they become completely covered in white, with little tree shape left bar the general outline. Seeing these formations was one of the few main goals I had for this trip, so I was excited to finally arrive and after dropping my snowboard in to be waxed overnight and a quick walk around town in the afternoon, I went to bed early so I could make the most of the following day.

Just one of the many sections of Zao mountain

Just one of the many sections of Zao mountain

Since I have a limited budget for this trip, I can’t afford to snowboard everywhere I go and the 5700yen lift ticket for the day was a lot of money to spend. As such, I was determined to get my money’s worth, so I was up and ready to roll in time for the first ropeway of the day. In fact, Zao has no less than 39 ski lifts; the place is huge! It’s basically 4 ski areas spread out across the various faces of one giant mountain. Suffice to say, there was plenty of variety in the courses I could take, and I managed to ride on 35 of the lifts throughout the day. Each course was basically just groomed piste, which is not as interesting in itself compared to powder/tree runs, but at least there were many different routes to take. There is in fact a lot of off piste area too, but most of it is through thick trees, and on my first visit to such a complex mountain I was worried about where I might pop out should I decide to head off track. Not to mention that most of the off piste is pretty well fenced as off limits, and I didn’t want to get caught and thrown off the mountain early. With my ‘long day’ ticket, I was able to board at night too in a small area, which capped off a great day. In total – 8.30am to 8.30pm with only about 30mins for lunch and a cheeky kebab at about 4.30pm as I rode one of the final ropeways to the top of the mountain. Continue reading

WWOOFing at Redwood Inn

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Staying and working at Redwood Inn has been an amazing and fun experience; so much so that I extended my 2 week stay to 4 weeks! I’ve learned a lot, become a lot more used to winter life in snow country, made new friends, had new experiences, and of course spent plenty of time snowboarding – at a local ski field that on weekdays typically only has a handful of people on the slopes.

But enough about the boarding… I think I’ve already posted enough about my antics in that department! What about the work I do in order to earn my board, food and time off to rip up the slopes? Read on for more about what life as a ski lodge helper entails. Continue reading

Snowboarding: Can’t get enough

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As my Facebook friends would be well aware by now, I’ve been making the most of my downtime recently with plenty of boarding action on the slopes of Yamaboku Wild Ski Park here in Nagano. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to board with a regular customer of the lodge on several occasions, as well as staff from other nearby lodges, so I’m not always alone.

Not only has this provided company, but I’ve challenged myself to keep up with riders who are better than me, and that has led me to improve my skills significantly: I’m boarding faster, straighter and smoother. I can tackle steep black runs without too much trouble. I’m falling less and landing most of my jumps. I’m getting better at riding ‘backwards’ (natural instead of goofy). Tearing it up all over the mountain – piste, powder, bumps, tree runs.

Check out this short video of some of the best powder and runs from the past few weeks:

Seven types of snow

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Even though I’m fairly new to this snow business, I thought that after 4 consecutive years of going to snowboard in Hokkaido, I had some idea about snow and had seen a few types. Indeed, the powder snow in Niseko is spectacular to say the least, but most of the time it’s just ‘puking’ tons of snow as they like to say; there isn’t a lot of variation in the type of white stuff falling out of the sky.

But, after coming to Nagano, for the first time I am starting to realise why the Inuit people are said to have a hundred words for snow. I don’t know if that’s actually true, and I certainly can’t think of a hundred variations myself, but I’ve managed to expand my snow types from two or three up to seven discernible categories. Let me tell you a bit more about them. Continue reading