Jump Into Japan
Powder to die for, monkeys to swoon over, and a culture that’ll have you becoming another of Japan’s many lovers.
Alliance Airlines Magazine - June/July 2019
Words by: Michelle Hespe | Photography: Andy Solo
Japan has always been in the top few places I wanted to visit. Now, having explored some of this remarkable country, I can safely say that everything you hear about it is true – the crazy, cool, colour and energy of Tokyo, the time and love put into preparing and presenting unbelievably good food, and the snow – ahh, the snow. My friend once said: ”Skiing in Japan is like playing around inside a beanbag.” Yes, the beer and whiskey offerings are amazing, and, of course, there’s endless awesome sake. The bullet trains are an adventure in themselves, and you can’t go to Japan without hanging out in an animal café at least once – take your pick of cat, dog, rabbit, hedgehog (highly recommended) or owl (not so recommended, as they keep them awake during the day). Then there’s the cherry blossom bonanzas, ice-sculpting and fire festivals, and enough art, culture and beautiful traditions to make your head spin. From immaculate geishas, fastidious tea ceremonies and sumo wrestling, to heavenly flower-filled gardens and onsens in snowy mountains and busy cities, Japan is utterly intoxicating.
Art lovers rejoice in the ancient forms of art – from ancient pottery and ceramics, to calligraphy on silk, origami and tapestry. And then there’s the modern day marvels, such as the world’s first digital art museum (Mori Building Digital Art Museum: EPSON teamLab Borderless) and, of course, Japanese comics and anime.
One thing is for sure: every time you think you’ve thought of everything to see in Japan, someone will add something else to your list. So in order to avoid being overwhelmed, narrow it down to doing a few things every time you head back there – as we did.
GET INTO MADAPOW
Aussies are understandably adept at skiing on ice and slush, because sadly we’re not blessed with the kind of snow found in the US, Europe and Japan.
Japan is famous for its awesome snow, and there’s a staggering 500 or so ski resorts packed into a country that’s only 379,000 square kilometres (Australia is 20 times the size), but there’s one little place that you may not have heard of (yet). In the northern part of Nagano prefecture, between Nozawa Onsen and Myoko Kogen, majestically sits Madarao Mountain.
In a picture-book pretty village, the mountain rises to 1,382 metres tall, has 31 separate courses and 13 lifts. It also hosted Japan’s first Freestyle Skiing Competition, so there are many unique courses to choose from – and 60 per cent of them are ungroomed.
This little niche is so famous for its powder snow that it’s been nicknamed MadaPOW, with Powderhounds saying it has the best powder on earth!
Australian couple Andy and Dan Solo recently bought an old ski chalet in Madarao and have transformed into the coolest, most stylish and cosy place to stay on the mountain – Snowball Chalet. The chalet has 13 rooms and a beautifully intimate lounge room, where guests can relax and meet others before and after hitting the mountain. There’s also an incredibly luxurious yurt in the yard next to the chalet, made for honeymooners or special parties. The suite has its own designer fireplace created by a 450-year-old company (which started as a samurai sword manufacturer in Gifu prefecture), a vinyl collection and turntable, a reading area, two lounges and private Ofuro (Japanese bath) with mountain views.
Two years into their new venture, the couple, who divide their time between Bondi and Madarao, have also opened a bar and restaurant just a stroll down the road. Called Shaggy Yak, locals and tourists flock there to listen to cool tunes, courtesy of a DJ, while indulging in après-ski drinks.
Snowball Chalet offers guests a few select tours to be enjoyed once they’ve had their fill of powder, including an authentic onsen experience and the chance to hang out with snow monkeys in their natural mountain habitat.
A word you’ll need after a big day on the mountain (besides noodles, beer and sake) is onsen. An onsen is a Japanese spa facility built around natural hot springs, and as Japan is a volcanic island, there are more naturally occurring hot springs in this country than anywhere else in the world. In fact, there are 30,000 onsens and 3,000 onsen resorts in Japan.
A group of us travelled to Maguse Onsen, about an hour’s drive from Snowball Chalet. There are rules when it comes to bathing at onsens that should be taken into account, such as men and women bathe in different areas (some onsens are mixed-gender), clothes aren’t worn and tattoos aren’t welcomed. It's one of the most wonderfully liberating experiences to bathe with strangers, naked, and for no one to bat an eyelid. And at Maguse, you are also blessed with one of the most stunning views in the region. Sitting in the hot springs, the steam rising and an evening mist creeping through the valley and across the mountains, is an experience that you won’t easily forget. Whatever your problems or challenges in life, an onsen makes them fade away, along with relieving tired muscles and busy minds. They offer Zen time.
Even as an adult, it’s hard to say ’no’ when in Tokyo to hanging out for a wee while in a hedgehog café and cradling one while you enjoy a beverage.
Things get a load more exciting at Jigokudani Yaen-Koen – the wild snow monkey park, where you can watch wild Japanese macaques bathe, pick nits off one another and monkey around. It would be easy to presume that monkeys around the world follow suit and enjoy an onsen, but in fact, this spot is said to be the only place where they do this. So why do they do it, and why here, in a remote part of Japan? The story goes that one young pioneering monkey decided to take a dip and relax in the hot springs, and its behaviour influenced the entire group.
It’s widely believed that bathing in hot springs in Jigokudani is an integral part of the creatures’ way of surviving the harsh winters. So, in warmer seasons, they forego baths and simply enjoy the spectacular surrounds. It’s an incredible experience, and the monkeys don’t seem bothered by the many people who now come to visit. But be warned: do not look a big male straight in the eyes, as the boss does not like competition, monkey or not.
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