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February 2018

Freeing the Heels in the Land of the Rising Sun

Words and photos by Lianne Marquis

Hakuba Valley, Japan’s Largest Snow Resort

Hakuba Japan Ski Trip Welcome to Japow!

With the magical Northern Alps reaching elevations of 3,000 metres as a backdrop, Hakuba is blessed with an abundance of great terrain and an incredible annual snowfall of over 10 metres. With nine alpine ski resorts, 135 lifts accessing over 200 runs, Hakuba is the perfect destination for on-piste and backcountry skiing.’

Hakuba Ski Resorts are huge 9 resorts, 135 lifts, over 200 runs.

Skiing in Japan had been on my bucket list since watching a friend’s slide show about 10 years ago while working at a heliski lodge. Getting 2 weeks vacation during peak season working for a heli ski company was never a possibility, however this winter it all came together. Thanks to Vernon Valhalla Pure Outfitters, I was able to join a group of 10 others to the magical land of Hakuba Valley guided by Marc & Lilla (both full ACMG Mountain Guides) their 6-year-old daughter Ella and great friends of mine. They had been there 2 years prior guiding, so they knew the area, booked our accommodation and rented two vans to haul us around the valley driving while driving on wrong side of the road!!!

Ski touring in the deep skin track in Japan The skin track was DEEP!

We had one down day, due to rain… a lot of rain (which then gave us over a meter and a half of fresh snow the following day) so we drove to one of the most popular attractions, a few hours drive from Hakuba to visit the onsen-loving Japanese macaques (also known as snow monkeys) in Jigokudani Monkey Park. The park has one manmade onsen (hot spring pool), where the monkeys descend from the steep cliffs and forest in the morning to sit and enjoy the warmth of the onsen and return to the higher grounds at the end of the day. The monkeys live in large social groups; they are accustomed to humans, so the monkeys can be observed from very close up and completely ignore you while you walk around them. We weren’t the only skiers who made our way to the monkey park…a perfect way to spend a down day by all!

The legendary Hakuba Monkeys

I loved our morning ski touring tradition. The group would head to the local Lawson or 7-11 store to pick up our lunch for the day on our way to the ski resort. It was a great local morning hangout; we would always run into other group of skiers getting their fresh lunch for the day. Our ski touring lunches always consisted of onigiri (aka rice ball) made from white rice formed in a triangular shape and usually wrapped in nori (seaweed) made fresh every day to fill our bellies. With 3 easy steps listed on the packaging of how to open the package, to get the onigiri out in 1 piece, it took us a few tries to get it right! I actually missed eating them the days that I wasn’t ski touring, they were that good and it was so satisfying eating them in the mountains.

Lunch on the ski tour Japanese style!

My two weeks were spent on piste as well as ski touring with lift access to the top of the ski resorts. I was lucky to have all conditions, a few 50cm days at the ski hill and some blower powder face shot turns in the backcountry. Marc and Lilla would decide where the group should head for the day, based on conditions, weather, snow, lift access and what ever else they needed to determine our destination. They were amazing at finding us the goods day after day, and found us some blower Ja-pow!!

Another Japanese tradition is spending time in the onsen, especially after a day on the slopes. It is said that soaking in Japan’s magical onsens is one of the world’s greatest pleasures, so make sure you put this on your list of things after your ski day, or any day really. After a full day on the mountain, an after ski onsen (to help recover the body for another day), what else was there to do, but go out for dinner at one of the many local restaurants? Every night was something different, authentic and delicious. The sake and local beer (we went for the Asahi beer) was always a must for this group. The Japanese are so hospitable, welcoming and caring, we were well taken care of every step of the way. P.S. I even went to the local Crossfit Gym (not that I needed any extra leg work outs!!)

Gotta get a workout in!

Skiing and beer - a cross cultural norm

It was a pleasure spending these weeks with dear friends of mine from Canmore, and meeting new ski touring friends in a magical setting. I have to mention my time spent with Ella. We had so much fun building forts, skiing, coloring, exploring, laughing, and playing cards together (which for the record, she was the champion) over my two weeks in Hakuba.

Ella - my Japan ski BFF

Thank you Hakuba for sharing your beautiful, magical mountains with me, for all the amazing memories I have of your homeland, it was truly a trip of a lifetime. I will be back one day for more Ja-Pow, exceptional hospitality, snow monkeys, face shots, beer and onigiri’s. Thank you VPO Vernon, Brent and all the staff that covered my shifts to allow me to spend 2 weeks in Hakuba, it was the perfect way to bring on 2018!!

Photo credits: Marc Piché, Lilla Molnar, Nick Joosten & myself

My ski touring gear:

DPS Yvette Skis Rottefella NTN bindings Scarpa TX Pro boots Osprey Kresta 30L pack G3 Alpinist skins Arc’teryx Airah jacket & Sentinel pants Smith IO/S goggles & Smith helmet Zeal sunglasses

About the author:

Lianne Marquis Lianne Marquis is the store manager at VPO Vernon. She’s been with VPO Vernon since June 2017. When not working, she can be found seeking powder, SUPing on Kalamalka Lake, mountain biking or at Crossfit Vernon. Follow Lianne and the rest of VPO Vernon on their Instagram account.