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The Fantasy and Reality of Skiing in Japan

November 15, 1987|PETER AIKEN | Aiken is a free-lance writer living in Nantucket, Mass.

FURANO, Japan — I had a fantasy about skiing in Japan. I would schuss through deep, powdery snow to the foot of a mountain, where I would change and step into a steaming hot spring in the company of a beautiful geisha who, sliding open paper-thin doors, would offer me warmed sake while I soaked.

From the hotel window on my first ski trip in Japan, I watched a young girl snowplow past with a Walt Disney creature, life-size, attached piggyback to her ski parka.

She wore mirror sunglasses and yellow earmuff stereo headphones. I saw that the reality of skiing in Asia would be removed from my fantasy.

Because skiing originated in Europe, there are few outward differences when skiing in Japan. The equipment, lifts, skiing instruction are all the same. At times it looks as if some hotels have been shipped over from a Swiss Alps resort.

Signs of Confusion

But there are differences. Reading signs can be extremely difficult. On my first day skiing in Japan I decided to take pictures. When the chairlift banged into the camera in my backpack, I turned to raise it.

Then my left ski got caught behind the sign reading, in Japanese: "Keep your skis pointing forward." My ankle didn't break when it turned 180 degrees, but it was an inauspicious beginning.

I changed from chairlift to gondola and, at the summit, came to a parting of trails. I couldn't read what the signs said--intermediate or advanced--so I followed two skiers and found myself on the edge of a precipice, watching two Japanese pros slalom quickly out of sight. I am intermediate in skill.

I descended the snowy cliff horizontally, terror coming with the turn at either end. For moments I hung suspended in air, repeating over and over: "Why didn't I think of this?"

So some advice: Once out of Tokyo, English signs have a tendency to disappear. Beforehand, find out from hotel management or ski-rental people where the expert ski jump is, to avoid a nasty surprise.

Chilled by Prices

Try to bring your own ski clothing. I went to an advertised "ski sale" in Tokyo and was shocked at the high half-price totals. Skis, boots and poles can be rented at almost all slopes.

Time your skiing to avoid local holidays. Almost every slope in Japan is packed during the New Year's vacation, Dec. 25 through Jan. 7.

Hotels are booked well in advance. The first week in February is heavily booked on Hokkaido Island because of the snow sculpturing in Sapporo.

For the best skiing, go when the Japanese are working or in school, and ski during weekdays. Hokkaido is never as crowded as skiing on Honshu Island.

I found the best skiing in Japan to be on Hokkaido Island. I've never skied finer powder or waited less time in lift lines. That was during the second week in December on an island that is one-fifth the land mass of Japan but holds only 5% of the people.

You can get from Tokyo to Japan's finest slopes on a 90-minute flight.

Excursion Fares

Many ski excursion fares include hotel rooms. The Furano Prince Hotel on Hokkaido offers a twin-bed room for about $90 and has a gondola and 17 chairlifts. Ski lifts cost $24 a day, ski rentals $26. The Pension Furano charges $45 a night, including two meals Japanese style.

A Furano youth hostel offers dorm-style rooms for $24 a night, including two Japanese-style meals, one of which may be dried fish and rice and pickles for breakfast, with green tea.

Hokkaido has five national parks that include active volcanoes, crater lakes and wildlife reserves.

Skiing is as close as 45 minutes from Sapporo, the Hokkaido capital, at Mt. Teine, site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. The area has 12 lifts and night skiing, but I wanted more of the countryside. So I made reservations in Furano, three hours by bus from Sapporo.

I found a four-seat gondola and 17 chairlifts covering the slopes at Furano. For around $26 I rented ski equipment.

Capricious Weather

The snow was deep and fresh at Furano and, when the skies cleared, the skiing was perfect. The weather was quick-changing. Snow clouds, when they came, produced a thick, steady snow that fell for hours--great skiing but poor visibility. When on Hokkaido, while the sun shines, take advantage and ski nonstop.

There are many outdoor hot springs --rotenburo --on Hokkaido but the snow is so deep that they become inaccessible in winter. You would have to tunnel to some of them, so locals wait until roads open in spring. But that was not so on Honshu.

On the island of Honshu skiing can be a mix of heaven (Japan's highest mountains) and hell (within driving distance of 10 million skiers). Nevertheless, there are excellent slopes within a three-hour train ride from Tokyo.

I took the train from Tokyo's Ueno Station to Manza Kazawaguchi to ski at Manza Prince Hotel, where outdoor hot springs are accessible in winter. The hotel was built beside several rotenburo. The hotel charges $100 a night for a twin-bed room. There is also the Manza Kogen Lodge, which offers family-style bunk beds at $42 a night.

The Steaming Waters

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