A snowboard riders paradise
Once considered the bad boys of the slope, as its new majority snowboarders are now its saviours. Sure, a few locals may cling to the fears of yesteryear, but none can deny this winter sport has revived Japan's "ski-resort" industry, making it a rider's paradise.
Like elsewhere, riders in Japan were once the bane of skiers and resort operators - frowned on for their sagging pants, in-your-face board logos and bad manners (a particularly egregious offence here) on the slopes. As skiers griped, many resorts limited riding or banned it altogether. But attitudes have gradually changed with the times.
"Although snowboarders are still banned from some ski areas in Japan, I never detected any tension between skiers and snowboarders on the slopes," Sam Baldwin, 29, says via e-mail from Edinburgh, England. The veteran rider returned there from Japan last year to found SnowSphere.com and write for various winter sports publications. He adds that the rider-skier enmity is a "thing of the past" and Japan has thawed to snowboarding in part because "it's been used to advertise everything from cars to computers and is now an Olympic sport." In fact, key turning points in the global acceptance of riding took place in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Soon after its founding in 1990, the now defunct International Snowboard Association hosted the first international snowboard competition in Hokkaido. In 1995, renowned U.S. gear maker Burton Snowboards opened shop in Japan, which now accounts for nearly a third of its global sales. Three years later, riding debuted in the Nagano Olympic Games. Japan and its flagging resort industry took notice. By 2003, it was the first market where riders comprised more than half of resort attendees, according to Burton.
"Japan is a Mecca for snowboarding - and skiing," says Baldwin. "That's because it gets an incredible amount of snow, and has so many ski resorts - around 500 - which means wherever you are in Nippon there's bound to be a piste in range, from sub-arctic Hokkaido to sub-tropical Kyushu. The overall snowboarding scene is strong." But not every resort here has completely warmed up to the idea.
"Despite being touted as a futuristic nation, Japan is a little behind the times in certain aspects," Baldwin says. "In the whole of Europe and North America, I believe there are now only 4 out of thousands of ski resorts that don't allow snowboarders. In Japan there are still quite a few that don't allow full access." He offers two examples in Fukui where he lived and rode for two years: Karigahara Ski Resort confirms that it only allows riding on Saturdays and Sundays, and riders are only allowed on the slopes at Imajo 365 Ski Resort at night. "I asked many of my Japanese friends why this was," Baldwin says, "and it seems that snowboarders were still considered 'dangerous.'"
Pension Hayaokidori owner Masaki Bono, like Baldwin, notes that many resorts have done away with such restrictions most likely due to revenues they began to lose as the ranks of riders surpassed skiers. Bono even points to a resort near his inn in Nagano's Hakuba that dropped its ban on boarding in recent years. The avid skier says now up to 60 percent of his customers come with snowboards and complaints about riders haven't changed although they have decreased; but he wonders if it's simply because skiers have gotten used to their affronts.
"The most thing people say is (riders) tend to be careless around them when they go down the slopes," Bono says, adding he thinks it's due to the position of the blind spot of a rider's sideways stance. Also, "they really don't care where they sit down and put their legs with the boards attached. Sometimes it stops up the gateways." On the other hand, "Some snowboarders complain that skis may fly over them when skiers fall - it's really scary, the skis might hit them." The innkeeper seems to accept the changes - to a point. "Now snowboarders say there are more of them than skiers," he says, then laughs, "but people still call them 'ski slopes.'"
Whether name or numbers should take precedence on the slopes, Matt Cox, former author of SnowJapan.com's Chairman of the Board column, indicates a double-edged board cuts both ways. "To never sit in the middle of the slope or the landing areas of a park," he writes, is one of the codes of the snowboarder. Another is, "To struggle ceaselessly to free the snow, thus ending all bans on snowboarding forever." "This," he adds, "is your highest duty." It may just be that, here at least, where etiquette takes precedence over everything, heeding the former has been helping to achieve the latter. But one thing is for sure; there are few better places to ride than Japan.
"The best thing about snowboarding in Japan is the volume of snow, the variety of ski areas, and the fact that Japan itself is an amazing cultural adventure for the Westerner," Baldwin says. "Some of the most well-known and largest ski areas are Niseko (Hokkaido), Hakuba (Nagano) and Naeba (Niigata), which are all superb, but I've probably had my best days in small local ski areas in Fukui and Ishikawa, which have just a small number of lifts and a few runs.
"These places were always very quiet, and on a couple of occasions, I had the entire ski area to myself - talk about no friends on a powder day!" he says. "It was my incredible experiences in these small, unknown ski areas that inspired me to set up SnowSphere Magazine in the first place."
Read about amazing snowboarding in Japan and elsewhere at: http://www.snowsphere.com; see Sam Baldwin's Fukui ski guide at: http://www.fjet.org/cityguides/activities/fsg/index.html. To peruse the archives of Matt Cox's sometimes zany Chairman of the Board column at Snow Japan check out: http://www.snowjapan.com/e/features/chairman-index.html. Get the scoop on accommodations at rider-friendly Pension Hayaokidori and its nearby resorts in Hakuba at: http://www.hakubajapan.com.