Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pass the sunblock, please!

While at K's House hostel in the Fuji 5 Lakes area, we saw a poster for one of their sister hostels in Hakuba, about 44 miles west of Nagano. It is located in the Japan Alps and looked like a good jumping off spot for hiking, snowshoeing, and skiing. With more vacation time to use up, we decided on another little mini-vacation. A friend of ours is coming in September and wants to do some hut-to-hut trekking in the Japan Alps, so it seemed a perfect excuse to do some "research," as we call it.

The night before, we had extremely strong winds which made the windows rattle and the building shudder. It also played havoc with the train system, shutting down and delaying almost all the train lines in Tokyo. Normally, everything runs like clockwork - it is an issue of national pride, I believe. This happened last year when a typhoon hit the city dead center; everything shut down. After living in Japan for awhile, it sort of feels like the end of the world. The electronic signs don't give any information or times about the next train. Everyone just stands worriedly on the platform, waiting for the next train. In the photo, everything is supposed to be green colored!

Well, we missed our bus. Luckily, the helpful bus station clerk in Shinjuku helped us figure out a way to get to Hakuba with only a loss of three hours, not the eight hours we thought it would be. After passing through Nagano, the road slowly climbed up into the mountains. The light rain turned to heavy snow, and soon we were deposited at a bus stop at the foot of the mountains. With sandals on (C'mon! It was warm and sunny in Tokyo) and iphone in hand, I led Joan up the narrow roads to K's House. The area really reminded us of Lake Tahoe or any other skiing tourism community: the same small hotels, cafes and gear shops tucked in the trees.

As per usual, K's House was fantastic, and the staff were super-helpful! The style/design of all the K's Houses is a sort of Ikea meets traditional Japanese; it makes for a very relaxing and pleasant atmosphere. After we settled in, I quizzed the staff about things to do and places to go. Luck was with us as the weather the next day was supposed to be perfect. So, we decided to go big!

The next morning, we got up early and took a train, bus, gondola, and finally a rope way" (cable car) to Tsugaike National Park at 2,000 meters about sea level. It had snowed about 30 centimeters the night before, which added to the already waist-deep powder on top of who knows how much snow.

We had rented snowshoes and poles at the bottom of the gondola, which we strapped on and headed out into the bright, sunny valley with mountains all around us. There were a good number of people with the same idea, primarily skiers and snowboarders, who planned on climbing to the tops of nearby peaks above the park and then carving down through the fresh, untouched snow.

Throughout the day, we would hear whoops and yells from above and quickly look up. Soon we would see a black dot that turned into an ecstatic, gravity powered, snow rider. By the end of the day, almost all the high slopes were covered with snaky lines of tracks.

We had a map, but there were no trails, so we just followed some ealier snowshoers for a few hours. After awhile, we struck out on our own, forging through the deep powder. We quickly realized, from the burning sensation in our thighs, that it was better to stay on the more established trails. However, one highlight of our wandering in the woods and drifts was a white show hare that magically appeared from nowhere and took off across the snow in a classic dash. We backtracked him and found the door to his snug little house under the branches of a low pine.

As the day wore on, it became warmer and even sunnier! Ah, the sun! It was great, until we realized we didn't have any sunblock/screen. Well, let's just say that we got more than a little sunburned. In fact, we got fried: "Yaki-Bailey" in Japanese.

However, we both agreed it was worth it. It was Joan's first time snowshoeing, and it was fantastic. Throughout the day, she kept declaring that we were "definitely going to have to buy snowshoes."

Over 10 hours later with a reverse repeat of transportation, we finally made it back to K's House, exhausted and parboiled. A quick dinner led to drooping eyes which led to bed by 9:00 pm. We want to do it again but with better preparation. We are also looking forward to returning for the trekking this summer!

If you want to see all the photos, click here.

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