The first time I ever set foot (feet?) on a snowboard was last February when I went on a trip to Shiga Kogen, near Nagano, as documented in this blog. Having learned to ski at 16, I took the opportunity to change to snowboarding because I’d never tried it and because it’s apparently easier on the knees, which is something that bothers me more now than it did at 16. My single lesson last year consisted of learning to stand up on the board and consequently learning what it feels like to repeatedly smash ones coccyx against ice. By the end of that trip I was happy to be able to stand up and slide down a hill, albeit gingerly.
As mentioned in my previous blog post, the trip to Hakuba at Christmas was great fun and another opportunity to test my snowboarding skills. I was relieved to discover that the previous years’ training was still in place and that I wouldn’t need to learn to stand all over again, but would need to work on the ‘sliding downhill’ bit. You might imagine that you simply point the board down the hill and launch yourself off the slope. This would definitely work, but you’d be unlikely to reach the bottom alive. The bottom of the board is completely flat and if you try and slide down on that flat base you simply lose your balance and go flying (believe me, I’ve tested this principle many times and at a variety of alarming speeds). In order to travel downwards, in balance and in control, you must always have weight on one side of the board, enabling a metal edge to dig into the snow. The sides of the board are slightly concave, so when moving forwards, if you lean against one of them your path describes a smooth curve. The principal then is simple; glide down the hill in a smooth arc, at the end of which you simply shift your weight to the other edge and gracefully turn and ride back to the other side of the slope. Repeat as necessary to safely arrive at the bottom of the mountain to rapturous applause and enthusiastic high-fives all round. The practical application of this is slightly more challenging than my description may suggest.
In mid-January a group of us flew up to Japan’s North island, Hokkaidō to spend a long weekend skiing and boarding in Niseko, a popular resort. The slopes were spectacular, with great views of the magnificent Mount Yōtei, a huge volcano that dominates the landscape. I mentioned to the group that I was planning on taking some lessons but this was met with scorn and derision, and I was assured that if I stuck with them I’d soon pick up all the skills I’d need. Within moments on getting on the slopes, the other boarders disappeared off into the distance and I was left to wobble alone. My girlfriend, a skilled skier, stuck with me, but I could tell that she was doing it out of kindness and was craving the lethal black runs higher up. After a spectacular tumble when I almost knocked myself unconscious, I released her to the real slopes and limped back down the hill in search of a helmet and instructor.
Imagine taking a metal drinks tray, placing it on a 45º icy slope and then standing on it. You’d immediately launch downhill at a terrifying speed, wildly spinning around before smashing your head against a tree or the ice. Now imagine that during this ordeal a loud Australian man is shouting at you to put more weight on your front knee, straighten your back and ‘let the tray do the work’, and this pretty much sums up a snowboarding lesson.
Despite the sensory overload, by the end of a full day under the tuition of a particularly enthusiastic Australian, I had improved no-end. I spent the remainder of my weekend mostly upright on the slopes and performing the most basic of turns, which I was very happy with.
The town of Niseko was small and pleasant, with lots of restaurants and bars dotted around the place. We enjoyed some of the best seafood I’ve had in Japan (odd that we should have to go to the mountains for this) and discovered some lively little bars. In one bar where we were playing darts, a group of Japanese drinkers entered in various fancy dress outfits, including several superheroes a pirate and Jesus. It’s hard to think of another country where you could see Jesus at the bar having his photograph taken with girls, and nobody would bat an eyelid. When we arrived the temperature was -15ºc, but over the weekend it warmed up to a balmy -6º so there was a considerable covering of snow across the town. Most roofs were piled several feet high and the streets lined with walls of snow up to 10 feet high in places. We almost walked straight past a bar, seemingly carved out of the snow, where guest were required to enter via a fridge door. Needless to say, we ducked inside for a cold one.