02. Narnia, Tsugaike Kogen, Hakuba, Japan
In 1998 I spent a month working on the Olympic Winter Games and contrary to my initial knowledge of skiing in Japan I was amazed to find that Hakuba sat in the shadow of a range of mountains that reached 10,000 feet into the blue sky and there was a depth of snow of snow that I hadn’t seen for many years. There was one caveat though, the bright white and red warning signs – “off piste strictly forbidden”.
Years later an old Australian ski racing colleague of mine, Steve Lee, started posting photos on Facebook of stunning off piste skiing and I was very curious to what had changed. Steve told me that the locals had relaxed their original strict policy, as the ski market had collapsed in Japan and many of the resorts were running out of cash, so that had to open up new opportunities to attract new foreign customers. Right away I planned a trip to join Steve there the following year and rustled up my best skiing buddies to head East to explore the backcountry around Hakuba.
Tsugaike Kogen has perhaps the longest and widest and flattest nursery slopes that I have ever seen. The would have been completely full of aspiring skiers twenty years ago, yet as we rode the gondola that hardly gained any vertical height on its way up, we stared down on bare open pistes, with hardly a soul on them. At the top we donned our skins and headed up into the trees for forty five minutes and skied down some sparkling terrain, opened up our sandwiches at the bottom and then headed up and down a couple of times before we were perched above a white forest of silver birch trees, every branch glazed in white ice. Steve told us “just head down to the bottom” as he took his camera out to grab a few photos of us charging down between the widely spaced trees, with their over reaching canopy, which acted like a sieve, keeping each snowflake gently layered on top of each other with such a great depth that it was like skiing on bottomless white duvet of weightless feathers.
We found a continuous roller coaster ride of steep pitches and ridges and humps that were the most ideal playground for any keen skier; all covered in the most perfect snow, that made skiing the easiest that it has ever been. It was magical – Steve had brought us to his Magic Garden. And one of my buddies mentioned that it was “just like Narnia”
Which is why, unless you ski with either Steve Lee or his colleague and friend, John Falkiner, you will never find Narnia – the name is not on any map. It really is the Secret Magic Garden.