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Asiafest 2020: Niseko, Hakuba, Tokyo

Cathy Margiotta | Published on 4/30/2020
with contributions from Yong Cho and Tom Crockett

Yong at Niseko
Yong at Niseko with Mt. Yotei in the distance
There are fourteen time zones, a thirteen-hour plane ride, and a six-hour bus trip between the Peninsula Ski Club and Hakuba Valley, Japan. That didn't stop twelve of us (mostly Crocketts and their friends) from taking this daunting journey for the experience of skiing in Japan. This trip was sponsored by the Blue Ridge Ski Council and had over one hundred other skiers and riders from six other mid-Atlantic ski clubs.

Yong and Wan Cho, along with a few dozen members of other BRSC clubs, departed five days ahead of the main group for the pre-trip extension to Niseko, regarded as Japan's best ski resort. Niseko is located on Hokkaido, and is south of Sapporo, the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. Getting to Niseko takes even longer than getting to Hakuba, with an extra flight from Tokyo to Sapporo, and they didn’t arrive at their hotel until 12:30 a.m. on February 18, losing a day in the process thanks to the International Date Line. Nonetheless, Yong was up first thing in the morning to hit the slopes and was greeted by 7” of fresh snow, with more during the day. He and a few companions took advantage of the conditions for some gate-accessed tree skiing. With several more inches of snow over the next few days, he and Wan had the best skiing of the whole trip.

Japanese toilet
No, not THAT button!
On Saturday, February 22, the other ten very tired travelers met up with Yong and Wan at the Mominoki Hotel in Hakuba. While it might be too much of a stereotype to say that Japan is a country of short people, that stereotype certainly played out in our hotel rooms—smaller even than those at the Snow Lake Lodge. Plus, the bathroom, a.k.a. a walk-up water closet with tub, sink and a fancy schmancy toilet, wasn't exactly roomy either. In my opinion, however, the heated toilet seat made up for the lack of size. Learning what all the buttons meant was at times a cheap thrill, I must say.

Hakuba Valley features 11 ski areas that are spread out over about 12 miles, but most of us only skied at three or four of them. Unfortunately, Japan was suffering through the worst snow season in decades. What that meant for us is that some of the smaller areas were outright closed or that skiing was only possible at the higher elevations of the ones that were open.

Cathy at Tsugaike Kogen
Cathy at Tsugaike Kogen
On Sunday, everyone's first day of skiing, another unforeseen event affected our skiing. Turns out that the new Emperor, Naruhito, who ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 2019 was having his birthday, so, just like our national holidays in January and February, the Japanese were enjoying a three-day holiday and half of them enjoyed it by skiing or snowboarding. Not only were the lift lines long, but the shuttle buses from hotel to resort were a "teensy bit" stuffed.

But the Hakuba Valley skiing wasn’t all bad. Cathy Margiotta, Tom and Amy Crockett, Mary Alice Williams, and Mike Gardner ventured up the valley on Monday to the Tsugaike Kogen ski area where snow conditions were excellent on the upper two-thirds of the mountain, the skies were blue, and the holiday crowds were easing up.  On Tuesday, despite a forecast of rain moving in, the morning turned out to be decent and Cathy, Tom, Jordan Moede, and Michael Crockett got in a good half day at Hakuba47 and Goryu, adjacent ski areas just down the valley which are connected at the top. As it turned out, the rain down low was snow up high and it continued off and on for a couple of days. By Thursday, our last day in Hakuba, the resorts had accumulated a foot or more of fresh snow (a tad heavy to call it “powder”) which made the tree skiers really happy but the groomed snow aficionados somewhat less so.

Wood stove at Mominoki Hotel
Jordan, Michael, Mike, and Mary Alice at their favorite hangout in the Mominoki Hotel
There were plenty of non-ski activities to entertain those who wanted a cultural experience. Tom and Susan Crockett, their daughter Amy, and the Chos took the side tour to see the snow monkeys at the world famous Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park. For Susan, watching the monkeys in their natural environment was the highlight of her trip. On another day, Amy and her friend Mary Alice got a complete makeover in kimonos to participate in a traditional tea ceremony.

Mary Alice and her husband Mike took over the area in front of the wood stove at the Mominoki. They were perhaps the most adventurous: Mike struck off on his own by rail to the Sea of Japan for a day, and another day he and Mary Alice ventured inland with Susan and Amy to a lovely neighborhood in the town of Omachi where they soaked in the local culture and enjoyed some cold soba noodles that were the best they ever had.

In the trees at Tsugaike Kogen
Michael in the trees at Tsugaike Kogen
Tom's son, Michael, and his friend Jordan weren't all that interested in anything that distracted them from skiing. They were hot to be on the slopes every day and paired up with Yong on their last day at Hakuba to explore the best of Hakuba's tree skiing. You can see more of their photos on our website.

Although Yong skied like a beast every day, he never got enough tree skiing and would have liked the trip to last longer. Yong preferred the Niseko area to the Hakuba area for a number of reasons. If I ever go back to Japan, I'll take his advice and plan to ski at Niseko.

On our return to Tokyo, we rode the bullet train. It's a ride that is sleek, comfortable, quiet, and smooth. I clocked our speed at 147 mph. As an added bonus on that ride, we could see the imposing and majestic Mt. Fuji rising above the very flat plain that surrounds Tokyo as we approached the city.

Shinkansen, a.k.a. bullet train
Shinkansen (bullet train) at Tokyo Station
Our travelers split up in Tokyo. Yong, Wan, Cathy, Michael, and Jordan, along with new members Todd Butler and Pam Atwell, headed home on Saturday.  Tom, Susan, Amy, Mike, and Mary Alice stayed on for two more days, joining forces with Robyn Larson and Mark Lavery from Richmond Ski Club for more adventures in Tokyo. Highlights included the Shinagawa neighborhood around our hotel, the Imperial Palace area, the Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district, a morning in Harajuku (Japan’s center of youth culture), and an afternoon stroll through the expansive wooded grounds of the Meiji Jingu shrine.

But the biggest adventure was Saturday night on the town in Shibuya, Tokyo’s counterpart to NYC’s Times Square, where Mike led us into the back alleys for dinner at a traditional izakaya (kind of a cross between a bar and restaurant) followed by after-dinner drinks at a basement bar — a satisfyingly deep dive into Japanese culture.

Sensoji Temple
Sensoji Temple
Exploring Shinagawa
Avoiding viruses in Shinagawa:
Wan, Yong, Susan
Dinner at Jambon Shibuya
Dinner at Jambon Shibuya:
Amy, Mark, Mike, Robyn, Susan

Despite the growing coronavirus outbreak in Japan, our arrivals back at Dulles were uneventful and we were out the door waiting for the parking lot shuttles within 45 minutes of getting off the plane. All Nippon Air (ANA) provided great service in both directions and eased the stress of the long flight. We'd fly with them again.

Although the weather didn't make for ideal ski conditions, there was enough knee-deep powder along with immaculate grooming that made skiing there an experience I wouldn't mind repeating.

View from Hakuba47
View from Hakuba47

For more photos, see the Asiafest 2020 Photo Album

Traditional drummers performing during the group dinner at Goryu.


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