Thursday, March 3, 2011

What other things you can do around Samurai Riders

I may sound redundant, but what a great day! And we didn’t even go skiing. This time Chen and his wife Vivian, themselves Chinese but locals to the Bandai area, took us for a tour around the Aizu area; that is, the area that Alts Ski Area overlooks on a clear day.

Our first stop was Lake Inawashiro, the fourth largest lake in Japan. There we got up close with nature — we played amongst, and fed, the ducks and swans gathered along the lakeshore. We bought some bread and immediately we had hundreds of new web-footed friends. They ate right from our hands.

After the lake, we headed to Aizu Wakamatsu, the largest city (about 150,000 people) near Alts Ski Area. There we checked out the Tsuruga-jo Castle. The history of the castle goes back 600 years, but the present one is a remake of one built 400 years ago. Aizu Wakamatsu was renowned for its samurai.

The most famous samurai story goes thusly: About 140 years ago the Meiji government went to war with the Aizu samurai to reestablish its rule in the region. Twenty young samurai called the White Tigers, all of them between 16 and 17 years old, witnessed the battle for the Tsuruga-Jo Castle from a hillside. The smoke was terrible and it seemed the castle was already burning to the ground. In despair, they committed suicide rather than surrender, disemboweling themselves in a ritual called sepuku. It turns out the teenage warriors were rash — victims of their impatient youth. Only the surrounding area was burning; but the thick smoke made it appear as if the castle had fallen. In fact, it was holding strong and didn’t fall until weeks later. One of the young samurai survived to tell the story of the White Tigers.

From the castle, we headed to a neighboring city called Kitakata. The city is famous for its ramen noodles as well as its hundreds upon hundreds of kuras, or small shops/warehouses. People live in the kuras, sell wares or food products from them, and even brew sake. In the Ohara Brewery, we sampled some fantastic sake. They say the flavor owes to their special recipe. The brewery follows the traditional rules of sake production, with one exception. Apparently, the brewers discovered that “playing music increases the fermentation activity of the yeast." Music also helps more of the yeast survive and keep the flavor clear of dead yeast. Happy yeast makes for good sake.

And what music do they play you ask? Hip hop? Funk? Kenny G? AKB48?

The answer:


Go figure.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The terrain park, the kitchen and the fantastic bath

Today we met Ricki, a ski instructor and well-known freestyle skier here at Alts. He took us up to the park to re-instill in Brendan his confidence on the rails. Let’s just say his laid back, let’s-have-fun, attitude did just the trick. Since his first-day disaster, Brendan had been claiming he wasn’t going to try another rail for at least another couple of days, but within 10 minutes of hanging out with Ricki, he was up and sliding.

Before I go on, I should mention that the Alts area has one of the most extensive and best kept terrain parks in Asia. As a whole, the park consists of zones, each being set up for a different ability group. In total, the park includes a great half pipe that, if you want to, will boost you well above the lip, a multitude of boxes and rails, as well as table-top jumps of a variety of sizes.

We were excited for a full day in the park today, but the only problem was a soggy weather system trickled in and the cold air had yet to catch up, so it was raining. But the basic mission was accomplished. Brendan was back on the rails. His orbs had redropped. He was again a man.

Manhood intact, we immediately hurried out of the rain and cooked a chicken lunch at Samurai Riders Hostel. Let me explain why this chicken we cooked is significant. It’s a bit different here. The reality is that although Japan has 128 million people on a land a bit smaller than the size of California (Cali has 37 million people), there are still some remote areas. At Alts, non-skiing infrastructure is limited. Alts and Nekoma are ski areas — end of description. The pluses and minuses of this are debatable, but it is just how it is. That means when it comes to restaurants and bars, well, you aren’t going to find much. The friendly staff at Samurai Riders Hostel can be willing to take you down to town (if you’re super nice and don’t push your luck) to hit the grocery store. There you can stock up on all sorts of tasty options and cook in the community kitchen. The system works. Cooking in the kitchen also provides a great way to cross paths with other travelers and talk about life, love, food, and most importantly, skiing. In the end, Brendan and I saved a lot of money cooking for ourselves as opposed to eating at the few pricy restaurants. I should mention the beer is cheaper purchasing in bulk at the grocery store too. So, enough said. The chicken hit the spot.

After our chicken, we headed to the onsen. Ah, the onsen. This is definitely worth a visit, or rather, multiple visits. Staying at Samurai Riders Hostel will get you a 20 percent discount at the onsen, or hot spring bath. The 960 yen is worth it. Split for men and women, the bath includes multiple tubs of various temperatures, including a mineral rich (so rich its rusty red, but this is a good thing) pool and an outdoor sulfur pond that overlooks Lake Inawashiro. We enjoyed the hot water just as the rain turned to snow. Powder anyone?

Oh, and did I mention that Brendan got his manhood back?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Nekoma Ski Area

What a day today! To start with, we got up at the crack of dawn and met up with three Bombardier cat drivers to crawl up the mountain to catch sunrise. On the way up the hill, I spoke to Dave, a New Zealander who drives one of the groomers for the mountain. He explained that Alts Ski Area is ideal for beginning and intermediate riders. With that said, he also said that those willing to push the boundaries can find untouched stashes of powder for days after a dump. He also emphasized that the terrain park at Alts was one of the best, if not the best, in Japan, probably Asia. The reason being, he explained, was a couple of local mountain samurais learned from senseis in the U.S. and brought the secret knowledge back with them. Dave himself prefers his kickers larger, but the quality he assured me was top-notch. I have to agree. Personally, I thought the biggest booter, which rises taller than I am when standing on the table, was plenty big.

Brendan and I took some photos, then took a freshly-made top to bottom groomer to start the day — the lifts still weren’t open yet, not until 9am.

At the resort center, we caught the intermountain bus that links Alts with its sister ski area: Nekoma. Lift tickets purchased at either resort count for both mountains.

Nekoma Ski Area is almost directly on the backside of Alts Ski Area. Both flank Mount Bandai. Alts faces south, Nekoma faces North. The corporate owners plan to connect the two areas via a ski path, but the plan has yet to be given the green light by the government. In the meantime, you can take the free bus (or if you know the route, apparently you can hike from one area to the other). It's worth the journey, and not just to reach Nekoma, though that’s plenty reason enough. But also the drive winds among forests, rivers and lakes, as well as passes snowy villages and farms. On the way, Brendan and I spotted a quail, as well as two snow monkeys wrestling like kids. Moreover, during the drive you almost make full loop around Mount Bandai and therefore see her from various vantage points.    

At Nekoma Ski Area, we joined up with Kei, the GM. He knows every square inch of the mountain and so gave us a full overview of its features. First of all, the ski area is about half the size of Alts Ski Area. It also has a bit less vertical. However, it also is higher than Alts, and since it faces northward, the ski area collects significantly more snow and remains about five degrees cooler on average. That makes the snow quality better, and the powder deeper. At Nekoma, the terrain park is much smaller—that is until spring, when a major park is built. Apparently, its nastiest feature consists of a 50-foot table. Nekoma runs longer than most ski areas in Japan, ending its season in the first or second week of May.

Kei is such a relaxed and pleasant person. His attitude shows in his riding. He’s having fun like a kid who knows he has the best toy in the world: a ski area. He took us down the groomers, through the trees, and into his self-designed playground, a series of spine jumps that allow beginners to experts enjoy the mountain on the same run. Brendan and I were beat by the end of the day and were happy to catch soft-seat shuttle back to Alts. We appreciated the beautiful scenery the second time just as much as the first. What beauty!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Alts hucking

Today was another spring-like day on Alts. Perfect. If you paid attention to our last post, you’ll know that Brendan took it easy today due to his too close encounter with a rail. He was gracious enough to put the camera on yours truly. We quickly sessioned the terrain park again, this time hitting the biggest tables. They were perfect. I’ll unabashedly paraphrase myself to re-explain what I like about them:

-The in-runs allow you to easily catch speed.
-The ramps are perfectly so you can get upward lift without needing a ton of extra speed to clear the knuckle
-The tables are shorter tables;
-The transitions are long and steep

I’ll go even more in-depth about the parks in another post because today, though we briefly revisited the park, we decided to play around with the natural terrain features of Alts Ski Area.

The fact of the matter is Alts is not an overly steep mountain. It’s mild and perfect for beginners and works like a charm for those who are advanced skiers but prefer to take it easy rather than risk cart-wheeling down a 50-degree slope. With that said, you can still find some terrain to play on if you are willing to hike or venture into the forested pockets between the established runs (should mention that the grooming here is impeccable). Brendan and I spotted a ridge-line below the gondola that no one had touched when it was powder, and still no one had touched with the spring-like corn of today.

So, without further ado, here is a cornice I floated off of, as well as a cornice-cliff I hucked off of: not exactly smooth on the last one, but the potential…Oh, and don't be disturbed by Brendan's opening bathtub scene at the Samurai Riders Hostel. It gives you a great peek at what must be one of the most satisfying bathrooms of any hostel on earth (and don't worry, Brendan doesn't turn the camera on himself...sorry ladies!)


Tomorrow we are going to explore Nekoma Ski Area, the smaller, but steeper, area that shares services with Alts on the other side of Mount Bandai. Stay tuned!

First impressions of skiing Alts and Nekoma Ski Areas

Yeah! Today was our first day on the Alts Ski Area (we plan to meet his sexy sister, neighboring Nekoma Ski Area, another day). It’s late February, still winter by the calendar, but the conditions were already spring-like. Brendan and I didn’t get too much into the details of runs, we just skied as many lifts as possible to get our bearings. It’s a larger ski area than you think — various gullies separate different aspects of the mountain. There are some cat roads to connect a few of the lifts, but for the most part you have to catch a ride up to the top of one lift to reach the next gully (nifty for snowboarders who always have a lift close by and so never have to traverse much). It’s mid-week right now, so there are no lift lines. The lifties themselves are super-friendly, older than I expected, making them more professional than your typical fresh-out-of-high-school employee.

For the most part, Alts Ski Area faces south, so lots of sunshine. This made it especially spring-like today. A few other things we noticed:

1. Hardly anyone skis the trees. True there wasn’t any powder, but since the ski area is mostly south facing, the tree skiing in many sections was gentle, untouched, sun-soft corn snow. The fact that there wasn’t any tracks in the trees also implies that when the snow was fresh, no one was skiing it either. I should probably also mention we saw a beautiful, fat, large white bunny rabbit in the trees as well. That’s got to be lucky.

2. The jumps, though not insane in size, which probably is for the best, are perfectly built. They are the kind we like — in-runs that allow you to easily catch speed; perfectly built ramps where you can get lift without needing a ton of extra speed to clear the knuckle; shorter tables; and long, steep transitions. There are lots of features such as boxes and rails. In fact, Brendan got real personal with one rail. Check this out:

He is now on an Advil and Kirin Beer diet, on the rocks of course, which he applies to his busted shoulder. Lesson is: Rails are fun, but be careful!

3. The ski area doesn’t quite reach a mountaintop, though it gets close to reaching the spine of a ridge, granted it doesn’t quite reach that either. Regardless of the being below a summit, the view is incredible. Alts looks over Lake Inawashiro, the fourth largest lake in Japan, and runs along the southern base and west shoulder of 1,819 meter (5,968 feet) volcano Mount Bandai (seen below).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

To Japan!

My colleague Brendan Madden and I have been invited to Alts and Nekoma Ski Areas in the Fukushima Prefecture to check out the potential here. Just the flight over makes you realize Japan is no small player when it comes to skiing. It is a rarity in the eastern hemisphere. We flew from China which has very little skiing, and what does exist disappoints due to the Middle Kingdom’s notoriously dry winter weather patterns. It’s cold enough, just no moisture. An hour into the flight I looked from the airplane window and saw the Korean Peninsula. The mountains there fare little better than China’s. There’s a classic article about skiing in Korea in Ski Magazine.

But then Japan. Boom. Snow. Completely white, snow-drifted peaks above the tree line, shimmering white forests below it. From the window of the airplane I counted no less than 15 ski areas between the Sea of Japan and Tokyo.

I’m writing from two perspectives these days. My life mostly revolves around China, but I’m American. America has skiing — particularly in the west, though I’ll give a shout out to the east coast too. Comparatively, China doesn’t. There’s some major peaks, the Himalayas and Tianshan Mountains come to mind. But there’s no infrastructure in these places, plus the looming risk that you will suffer AMS due to their altitude. Anyway, out in those mountains, you’re lucky to find roads. The rest of Asia offers little more, particularly when compared to the continent’s overall landmass. India has Gulmarg, which is sick, but hell to get to. Iran has a few resorts, but Americans are hardly allowed to get in. Turkey, but that’s almost Europe. There’s some slopes in Russia, I suppose. Is that Asia? There's Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps Afghanistan could have potential but…well, you know the problem there. Iraq anybody?

So that leaves the excellent option of Japan. We have skied here before, last time on Hokkaido, the smaller island to the north. This time around we’re in the heart of Honshu, the big island. And though we haven’t skied yet, so far it seems we are headed in the proper direction. We arrived at the Narita International Airport, threw our heaps of luggage onto carts, transferred by bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2, and met our pre-arranged van at number the #2 bus stop (thank you Samurai Riders Hostel). Slick. Five hours of relaxing driving later, or about 3 heated mini-cans of coffee from the rest stop vending machines, here we are: Alts and Nekoma.