Earlier this year I tagged along with the Australian/International off-pissed ski team to the slopes of Myokokogen. Matt chose Myoko because the guidebook gave it four and half snowflakes out of five in the ‘powder’ category. Also because our plan called for us to go from there to Kyoto and then onto Tokyo and we wanted to make sure our itinerary doubled as a tongue twister.
Myoko has been a ski tourism destination since the 1930s and the surrounding valley is now dotted with ski resorts. Our little troop of four Aussies, one German and one New Zealander stayed at ‘Kazamidori’ run by the perpetually friendly Mrs Midori. The nearby township was basically one long main street- wild west style-partially buried in snow. Underneath all that powder were a handful of rental places, a few pre-fab concrete hotels and a great selection of little bars and restaurants offering Yakitori (grilled meat) and traditional Japanese curries to a clientele that was mainly domestic tourists from what I could tell. Possibly because the hordes of beered-up Australians hadn’t yet reached Myoko the locals were incredibly friendly and accommodating. Rental businesses, accommodation and ski resorts all seemed to be run entirely on the honor system- which was convenient for us because EFTPOS also hadn’t reached Niigata prefecture so we frequently found ourselves short on yen and promising to settle our account once we got a chance to visit the only ATM in town.
On my first night at Kazamidori I wandered down the street to explore. The fresh powder felt like dry talc. I could close my eyes and run my fingers through it and never pick the exact moment when I stopped sifting snow and began sifting air. After a little while I reached the end of the road and, still keen to explore, I kept walking. I shot a picture of a basketball ring- almost buried- which should have served as a decent warning but I kept going and soon found myself sinking deeper. I walked until the snow was up to my waist and then kept going until it was up to my chest. By that time I’d found myself in an area of the valley that seemed to have remained undisturbed since the start of winter. Only rooftops and tall trees stuck up through the mounds of snow. I hadn’t worn the warmest clothing- which was fine to begin with- because the effort of dragging myself through the snow kept my heart rate up and my blood flowing. But as I kept going- trying to circle back to the road- I realised it had quickly started to get dark and cold and, with the drop in temperature at sunset, it had also begun to properly snow.
Progress was slow. When I decided to finally turn back I discovered something slightly disconcerting. It turned out that the only reason I had made any progress at all was because I had been spreading my weight out and effectively swimming through the powder on hands and knees. When I tried to retrace my steps via the trench that had formed behind me I just sank even deeper.
That realisation was closely followed by the thought that I hadn’t told anyone where I was going or when to expect me back. I stood chest deep in the snow for a little while- considering my options. The pine forests had looked beautiful before. Now they were beginning to look a little eerie. There weren’t many signs of life but I could faintly hear music coming from somewhere up the hill and, not far away, I could see a telephone line threading its way through the trees.
I decided to make for the closest telephone poll which was on a ridge about 20 meters away. My new-found urgency made the whole exercise seem painfully slow. To stop sinking I’d pack snow down with my hands and then carefully shuffle forward on my knees. I half climbed and half crawled up the slope and hauled myself out of the snow using the step-irons on the pole. The metal seemed to suck the remaining heat right out of my hands. From halfway up the pole I still couldn’t see any lights or roads but there was a cleared area about the size of a tennis court about a hundred meters away. I eased myself back into the snow and began wading towards the clearing. I had no watch but, by the time I reached the clearing, it definitely felt late in the evening. Sweat had begun freezing down my back and the snowfall had increased perceptibly. The clearing had been carved out by a bulldozer- forming a neat wall about two and half meters high on all sides. I lowered myself down and kicked steps into the ice for footholds so I wouldn’t fall backwards onto the bitumen and crush my camera.
It felt good to be on solid ground again but strangely isolating. There was definitely no way of climbing back out and, between the falling snow and the man-made canyon, I couldn’t hear hear or see much of anything. I followed the road for a short while- getting lighter as I shook the snow from my hood, pockets, sleeves and the ankles of my boots. The road gradually curved south with kinks here and there to avoid some hidden terrain feature. It felt like it was designed to frustrate my sense of direction. Eventually I came across a second road that seemed to go off in the right direction but the snow underfoot was thicker and there were no tyre marks or footprints.
I followed the road anyway- moving at a brisk pace to keep warm and because that little part of your brain regulating panic gets more latitude the colder and darker it gets. Several hundred meters later it turned into an icy cul-de-sac and I realised it was a driveway. In the darkness I saw the outline of a house and I prepared myself to explain, in gestures, that I was a lost tourist. The mime act probably wouldn’t have been necessary. Anyone who answered the door would find themselves looking at a blonde foreigner covered in snow with no beanie and no gloves, wearing jeans, and carrying a giant camera.
As it turned out, both assistance and embarrassment were not forthcoming. The house was empty and had been for a long time. The whole lower level was buried in snow. I mentally filed that location away under ‘places I need to break into if I start losing circulation’ as I hiked back out. I thought about the plow operator – doomed to drive through blizzards carving out roads to empty farmhouses on the off chance that their owners decide to visit. There must be dozens of similar properties all over the valley. Myoko gets an annual snowfall of about 20 meters. Plowing those driveways out every few days must be an almost zen-like ritual.
On the way back down the driveway I discovered how quickly falling snow can cover your tracks. When I reached the junction with the first road my footprints were gone. If there was anyone looking for me we’d basically have to stumble into one another. This time I followed the main curving road and ignored the off-shoots. After what seemed like an hour it intersected with a wider, two-lane road. Finally, signs of civilisation started to reappear- tyre tracks, street lights, road signs, electrical wires. A few minutes later I saw headlights. No person trapped in an icy box-canyon wearing dark clothing has ever been as relieved as I was to see a minibus careening towards them. I squeezed up against the ice wall to let the bus pass and then jogged uphill. The road curved back north until it finally led back to the welcoming glow of the phonebooth outside Kazamidori.
I kicked off the snow at the door to the cottage and prepared my apologies for the others- for having kept them waiting and for the worry I’d caused. I assumed a few of them would be out looking and, having no phone reception, we’d all have to wait for everyone to return before we could go off and eat dinner. I stepped into the warmth, took off my coat. Again, disappointment. No one even looked up. Dave and Carolyn were watching something on a laptop. Jan and Matt and Amy were sitting on the floor playing cards and drinking plum wine. No one had even noticed that I was gone.