Despite coming to Japan during winter, Craig and I (and to a lesser extent, Beth) decided not to include much snowboarding or skiing in this trip. We did, however, decide that it was worth going at least for one day to try out. And that day was awesome, though perhaps limited by our poor timing.
Our aim was to arrive at 12pm and purchase the half-day tickets allowing us to ski freely until 5pm. Despite getting up at 8:15, Craig and I didn’t leave the house until about 10:45. To confuffle us further, we could not for the life of us navigate the trains: the line we were supposed to catch according to googlemaps did not exist, and when we inquired about it we were told to go to Platform 20. When we got to Platform 20, we were told to go to Platform 18, which apparently did not exist (like the legendary 9¾). When we finally got the right train, we approached the information desk to ask about how to get to Ishiuchi Maruyama and were told that it was not a good slope for beginners. They instead recommended Gala Yuzawa, and eventually we made our way there.
The guy at the resort was very concerned that we had never surfed or skateboarded let alone snowboarded, and strongly encouraged us to hire some pants and jackets “to protect us”. But we brushed him aside (I paid hundreds of dollars for my snowpants with the express purpose of using them) and bought some simplified tickets for the end of the day. When we approached the desk to hire snowboards and boots (my poor, no-longer-waterproof shoes were somewhat sodden), they too were of the mindset that it was not a good idea for first-timers to pick boards over skis. One fellow in particular essentially laughed in our faces and told us he’d love to go up their with a camera to watch us struggle. (He also called one of his colleagues a “halfguy” – half Japanese, half English. I was repulsed by his rudeness, and juxtapositioned with the politeness of the Japanese around him, I can see why they considered gaijin barbarians.) By the time we got out gear and put it on, struggling a bit with tightening the boots (I had to ask for help) and got up to the mountain, it was 3:30.
Getting on the board was interesting. When both my legs were strapped in, I (obviously) could not move one without the other. Without the ability to walk I found it very hard to get around. I quickly discovered that most people had one foot strapped in and one foot out in order to push, and experimented for a while with walking, sliding and falling in all directions. The snowflakes were massive and hitting us hard in the face, and the snow was powdery and yielding. I seemed to pick up the basics quite readily, changing directions, flipping 180, falling and getting up safely, even shifting my weight as I glided to turn slightly. After a bit of practice, Craig and I made our way to the beginner’s slope.
Despite the advice we’d been given at the resort, I made the mistake of following Wii Fit’s example and standing side-on. I quickly gained too much momentum and had to collapse onto the ground, scooping up an armful of snow to stop myself. The slope was gentle enough that it really took some effort to build up enough momentum to slide continuously, but when I did it was so much fun. Craig improved markedly, having a particularly good run of maybe 20 metres, changing directions and weight to control himself. It was excellent.
Unfortunately by the time we got down it was 4:15 and the skilift to the beginner’s slope had shut down. With a touch of sadness, Craig decided to catch the gondola back down to the main resort. I resolved to snowboard the 2.7km path back to the resort, but it turned out to be closed. Instead, having been robbed of my second slope, I snuck onto the main skilift to try out the longer beginner’s course. I chatted with the Americans whom I shared the lift with, and they (very supportingly) suggested I try the intermediate slope which more-or-less went straight down rather than gently winding around. I reluctantly agreed in the interests of time (I didn’t want to pay the extra half-day fee for returning the gear later than 5:30) so I followed them.
They gave me some great advice by showing me how to zigzag, turn slowly and then come back the other way. I found it daunting to face backwards down the mountain but gave it a try and was able to slowly make my way down. I discovered that keeping the board sideways provided the most friction, but what really mattered was where you put your weight. If your weight was back, you could apply so much resistance (by the angle of the board cutting into the snow) that you could come to a dead stop, even on a steep slope. It was through minor shifts in weight that you could alter the speed of your descent in this manner. Also, which side of the board was angled down would be the direction you would go in, and to avoid tumbling off the mountainside like so much cheese, I quickly learned to zig-zag and stay within the course-parameters. My new American friends were very encouraging and stayed with me, stopping to take photos as I struggled to catch up to them and then watching them zigzag off with sudden, sharp changes in angle. When I could see the gondola and realised the slope was ending, I thought “What the hell, I may only ever do this once”, I turned fully side-on and picked up as much speed as I dared. When I’d calculated enough distance for a safe and gradual descent, I turned the board sideways to slowly begin to brake. The sudden friction caused my board to instantly freeze in place while my torso kept going and I faceplanted pretty hard. I kept rolling and came to a skidding stop, spitting out snow and feeling the wind knocked out of me. Redfaced (literally), I came down the last few metres and waved goodbye to my new friends, then limped off to the gondola.
All in all, I think we spent just the right amount of time there. I was feeling pretty dejected after that final fall, there was snow in my clothes (and it scraped my face and back as I slid through it), my knees ached from the sudden lurches required to change directions and from the awkward falls over one leg. Despite my practice, I did use my arms to brace some of my backwards falls and my wrists ached (looks like more ushiro-ukemi for me). Back at the shinkansen station we had ramen, amazing and warm and vegan, for dinner and I slept on the train home (my knees giving out every couple of minutes as I struggled with exhaustion). All in all, an excellent day. I think that with a few more hours practice I might be able to ski down a beginner slope without falling over, and after a few more days I might survive an intermediate slope without faceplanting. Nevertheless, next time I’m in Japan I might try skiing instead.