The Fukui Fellowship: Snowboarding and Skiing with the Kids in Japan

By Sam Baldwin
Interpretation by Brandon Wright
Published November 2006

Where my dogs at? Shiro the school pup on a snow covered rice paddy, Kamisho, Ono, Japan.

I grab four bottles of Yebisu beer from the fridge and give the landlord a customary nod. I’m at Bar Yumeya in Ono, Fukui, a cosy hangout for local lovers of snow. Yasu, the owner, is somewhat of a legend in these parts, having conquered several Himalayan summits in India, Pakistan, China and Nepal. An ice pick, snowshoes, and many pictures of sabre toothed peaks decorate the walls; souvenirs from past expeditions.

Like many foreigners in Japan, I went there to teach English, an easy option to pay the way, having heard intriguing tales of deep powder and amazing tree skiing in an exotic land. Though snow was not the only reason for my desire to visit Japan, it certainly played a key role in my decision to leave gloomy Britain and explore more of the world.

Some of the Mixture Crew and the God Father Yasu, at Bar Yumeya

But things don’t always go as planned; despite my placement requests for the snow Meccas of Hokkaido or Nagano, to my initial dismay, I ended up in Fukui, a small, rural prefecture in west Japan, not known for its skiing and largely unheard of even to the majority of Japanese!

On arrival, I was sceptical on what Fukui could offer me as a snowboarder. Though I knew there was some skiing here, little detailed information on Fukui’s resorts existed. Snow had already led me around the world, but having visited the mountains of Europe, New Zealand and Canada, I wondered if little Fukui could live up to the competition.

I was lucky to get placed in Ono, a small town in the east of Fukui, completely encircled by a 360 degree ring of mountains that had eight ski areas within a 45 minute drive. I remember well my first night skiing trip to the tiny area of Kadohara, one snow stormy January eve. The snow was falling in dense sheets, the roads were completely covered, and I had never seen so much snow in my life.

Hiking through deep snow, at Rokuroshi ski area

As I sat alone on the chair lift, hooded, gloved and goggled, I realised I was outnumbered by lifties, 3 to 1. I was the only person in the whole ski area! It seemed the snow storm had persuaded everybody else to stay at home, and every ounce of that thigh deep Fukui powder was mine. That night put a whole new slant on the mantra “no friends on a powder day” and was the start of an excellent season.

As the winter progressed, I visited all of the resorts in range and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Fukui was comprised of several small, yet fun ski grounds that were never busy. Although Fukui’s tallest mountain was around just 1600m and most ski areas had short runs and some just a couple of lifts, there was plenty of snow, and the sheer number of different ski grounds offered much variety and kept us entertained all season. In fact, despite going snowboarding up to four times a week and clocking up over thirty visits in total, I never felt the need to leave Fukui and only snowboarded outside of the prefecture once that winter.

As the season drew to a close in late March, we wanted to extend the skiing and were lucky enough to find Yasu. A 47 year old Ono local who was once a student at the school that I worked, Yasu not only knew all the local mountains like good friends, not only had experience of some of the world’s gnarliest peaks, but was also a cheerful, friendly character and the owner of bar Yumeya, the best bar in Fukui, and quite possibly all of Japan!

Brandon under a lone tree at Katsuyama Ski Jam

Owning a bar gave him the freedom to continue to climb and ski mountains, sometimes for days at a time, whenever the desire presented itself. Often, we would turn up at his bar ready for a night of drunken revelry, only to find the lights off and the door locked; Yasu was out climbing mountains again!

Our friendship quickly blossomed during the long winter nights through a mutual love of mountains, snow and music, over cups of sake, and his famous smoked cheese (which he smokes himself!). Though his English and my stumbling Japanese often made communication basic at times, with fellow snowboarder and talented Japanese speaker Brandon Wright onboard, we laughed and joked, as Yasu led us deep into the backcountry of the Okuetsu mountains, up tree studded slopes, and down steep snowy chutes.

The lack of English information on Fukui’s ski resorts prompted me to carefully document my two seasons and compile the much needed Fukui Ski Guide, which included photos of the area, and reports of my back country trips, and would inform future generations of snow loving foreigners living in Fukui.

Yasu cooks up his favourite mountain dish - cow intestines, atop Kyogadake

It was though my many experiences of snowboarding in unusual locations and meeting so many amazing people like Yasu, that I was spurred on to set up SnowSphere Magazine. It was also through Yasu that I was introduced to other local skiers and snowboarders, including the “Mixture” crew, a collective of Japanese in their late twenties who ski, snowboard and skate in Fukui.

The Mixture group was conceived by Yomei Daisuke, who wanted to meet other like minded locals to ski and snowboard with. Using his web design skills, he created an online forum which allowed people to get in touch, and hit the hills together.

Since its inception in 2004, Mixture now has a core posse of 30+ regular skiers and riders, who ride every weekend during winter. As a group of jozu (talented) freestlyers, it seemed natural to film their rail riding and aerial endeavours, and last season they released their second DVD, (Mixture Vol. 2) showcasing their talents on the local terrain, which is distributed via their website and through Fukui’s ski shops.

Looking down on Mt Arashima, Fukui

I got to together with Yomei Daisuke, Adachi Kenji, Yukari Kawagishi and Rie Ozawa, four core members of Mixture, to get their take on Japan’s world of snow sports.

How long have you been skiing/snowboarding?

Adachi: I started skiing at elementary (primary) school, so 21 years.
Yomei: I’ve been skiing for 13 years.
Yukari: I’ve been snowboarding for 9 years.
Rie: I’ve been snowboarding for 7 years.

The 2005/6 season started early with record breaking snowfalls that buried west Japan, did you get to sample the pow?

There was so much snow, we couldn’t go skiing! We were too busy shovelling our roofs and parking spaces. It’s a shame, but it had to be done – several houses collapsed under the weight of snow this year.

We notice that there are still a few places in Japan that don’t allow snowboarding, for example Karigahara in Fukui only allows snowboarders at night, why do think this is?

We don’t really understand it. The ratio of skiers to snowboarders is pretty much 50:50 now, so it’s bad business sense to ban half of your potential customers. Perhaps older people still think snowboarding is dangerous. I ski, but I like to ski with skiers and snowboarders because it makes things more interesting, that’s what’s great about Mixture.