Warren Smith pioneers powder camps in Japan

An English ski instructor called Smith has plunged one of Japan’s most celebrated ski resorts into crisis. The imagery could almost be likened to the classic scenario of a robot (symbolising the ski area of Furano) being asked to perform contradictory functions – result: confusion, panic, and meltdown. Or possibly, in this case, enlightenment.

Warren Smith’s Ski Academy is well-known in the Alps, particularly in Verbier, Switzerland, where he and Melody Sky organise a number of events, most famously the Verbier Ride, an annual tournament at which young Turks on skis are locked in fierce freestyle combat on steep cliff faces – anathema to most skiers in Japan.

Smith and Sky, a professional photographer and film maker who supervises the Ski Academy’s image bank, decided to visit Japan with a view to setting up powder camps there next winter. The problem with powder camps in Japan is not finding the powder (Hokkaido, where snow blows in from Siberia in huge quantities, is swamped with it every winter) but being allowed to ski in it. Skiing off-piste is still taboo in many Japanese resorts. Niseko, the Hokkaido resort most influenced by Australians and Americans determined to ski in the trees, is the ideal spot for a Warren Smith powder course: the roller-coaster ski-powder culture has already arrived here for good. So too is Hokkaido’s highest peak, Asahidake, where for 2,800 yen for day pass (about £13.30) and the services of a guide like Chuck Olbery from Hokkaido Powder Guides (approximately £90 a day) you can ski off-piste to your heart’s content on the flanks of a volcano with steaming fumaroles. But Furano is very much old school and a much more difficult to crack.

Although the resort uses a powder skiing imagery in its marketing, the truth is that it is one of the strictest resorts in Japan when it comes to stopping visitors skiing off-piste. This remark, posted on a website, is not untypical: “On all the promo brochures and websites you will read about all the powder, sounds good but when you get there you are not allowed on it, no off piste. You have to stay on the groomed runs, so I don’t understand why is it promoted as a powder paradise? Perhaps you’re just meant to look at it?”

Another disappointed visitor reported: “We read great things about Furano but we were really disappointed. The resort is seriously lacking English signs to explain the rules. We almost got kicked off not even knowing what we did wrong. If you’re expecting any back-country ski, stay away from Furano.“

The city is famous throughout Japan for the long running televison show, Kita no Kuni Kara (“From the North Country” – said to be the Japanese equivalent of Little House on the Prairie), written by one of Japan’s best-known authors, who has made his home here.

Furano is nicknamed “the belly button of Hokkaido” because of its central position in wide, flat valley in the centre of Japan’s second largest island, and has magnificent views of Daisetsuzan-kokuritsukoen, Japan’s largest national park. The name means Great Snowy Mountain, an apt description of the 15 peaks of more than 2000 metres. In the local Ainu language the name translates to “playground of the gods”.

When we arrived, accompanied by an intrigued Hokkaido TV crew who followed us for two days (and were a little astonished to find we skied so fast, especially Warren-san), we too found the most exciting parts of Furano’s playground – deep-snow skiing in the trees – were off limits. We were told we could ski the back-country behind the ski area, not run by the resort, but only if we reported to the local police station and spent an hour or more filling in forms. We just didn’t have time.

We duly remained obediently on piste before flying back to mainland Honshu to explore Kyoto, the wonderful old imperial capital, where Peter MacIntosh, a former Canadian soccer player who married a Geisha, organises Geisha parties. During dinner we were enthralled by the unusual opportunity of being pampered by these doll-like and ever attentive hostesses topping up our glasses of warm sake and cooking our fish on hot stones – a rare, surreal and even sensual experience not to be missed if you ever get the chance. I tucked a bib into my shirt, but my Geisha companion never looked remotely likely to drop food down her hugely expensive kimono, which can cost anything from $30,000 to $80,000 or more. (Her white marble-like make-up, designed to show up in candle-light, would once have been achieved with nightingale droppings.) The dinner ended with the three Geishas performing a programme of Japanese folk songs and dance accompanied by a three-string cat-gut guitar.

Back in Hokkaido, Smith and Sky had not given up the battle. They had returned to Furano where – after an initial setback – they had some surprising success in breaking down the off-piste barriers.

“At first we were in big trouble” says Sky. “The ski patrol were standing there waiting for us. There was no point in trying to go back in trying to get away from them, so we faced up to our crime. They asked us if we knew we were skiing in a ‘strictly out of bounds’ area. We told them we’d been following the local snowboarders. They warned us they’d confiscate our lift passes next time.

“We didn’t actually have to go to the police station in person in the end, but we did have to fill in forms with our names and addresses, details on what safety equipment we had, whether we had avalanche transceivers or not, if we had radios and if so what frequency they were on, and even what emergency food we had.

“We then had to show our permits to the mountain patrol. One of them escorted us up to the barrier that fences off the back-country at the top lift, and let us through. Then he waited 10 minutes to make sure nobody followed us. It was amazing. Nobody had been there. It had dumped a good 50cm of snow and we had masses of terrain to play with. It was the best snow I think both of us had ever skied. I got some amazing images where Warren was completely immersed in the snow. At the bottom, we followed a river through the forest to get out. The next day we spent eight more hours filming some fantastic shots in a snow storm!”

The Japanese paranoia about off-piste skiing is neatly illustrated by the most challenging “in bounds” run in Furano – Kuma Otoshi (roughly translated as Bear Drop), at the top of the Kitanomine Gondola. It’s a long, rugged off-piste run which will shake you about but makes a welcome change from the groomed runs to which the vast majority of skiers and snowboarders are normally confined. But bizarrely, they can only ski it for 10 minutes, at special times, twice a day.

” I think the idea is that it’s so steep that even a bear would tumble down the hill” says James Mutter, a Canadian employed by the regional tourism association to look after us. “While I was in the ski patrol office waiting for an injured foreign skier to be pulled down the mountain, I asked about Kuma Otoshi. There was a huge crack in the snow cover there. One year, a large avalanche occurred, flowing all the way down to the bottom and onto another run. The ridge above had also been showing signs of cracks.

“When they open the run for a 10-minute period, one patroller sits at the top of the ridge and another sits over to the left where the fracture points are. They count all the skiers and make sure everyone makes it off the run. If there were to be an avalanche, the patrol would have a good idea of how many people were caught and be able to offer immediate assistance. This area has been a problem the last few years and they are looking at doing some work on the run this summer to avoid a similar problem next year.”

This is certainly progress in the heart of a bastion of Japan’s “thou shalt not ski off-piste” mentality. The arrival of the Warren Smith Ski Academy bandwagon next winter will probably add considerably to that momentum. Will Furano veer towards panic – or enlightenment?

Photo Melody Sky