Sacred brown powder
What is up in those mountains?
It was actually my partner Helen’s idea to head up into the Japanese Alpine area of Nagano on our first trip to Japan. It was almost immediately I found myself staring at the densely wooded, mysterious mountain sides and pondering- “What is up in those mountains?”
She knew instantly that line of questioning inevitably pertained to mountain bikes. I was captivated and hugely drawn to know what was hidden within what seemed like endless mountains of green. I had experienced similar levels of curiosity in other parts of the world while traveling either on non bike holidays or while confined to riding on the road but there is unexplainable extra levels of mystique that apply to Japanese mountains. Over the course of a couple of years and many trips to Japan with my now business partner Matt who shared the curiosity, we set about discovering exactly what it was drawing us to discover these secrets.
A connection with land and country is variable in relation to a given culture and Japan is a great example of just how strong that connection can be. While for many of us, Japan represents more cliche imagery of modern technology, lights and fast paced mega cities like Tokyo, the reality of existence outside of these places couldn’t be more converse. How mountains are perceived and experienced in Japanese culture is of significant romanticism and reverence. They are home to Gods, Spirits and Deities. Sources of healing, nourishment and growing. A place where the long gone rest in ancient graveyards. Shrines and huge overhead gates appear around corners in seemingly impossible locations and perhaps equally significantly, they are a place of openness of emotions like joy and true appreciation in a culture that is more often than not, suppressed or covered in a veneer of what should be, in place of what is.
What we found upon setting out and ascending upwards was a history of relationship with nature dating further back than is truly appreciable outside of the culture these intriguing topographical marvels reside in. Immediately, you find yourself conscious of the smell of thick damp foliage, detritus and towering graceful trees. These towering giants often create a dappled, almost dream state like light that is contrasted upon finding yourself in a clearing with a stunning view out over a valley. It’s here you become conscious of breath, how easy it comes to you, in what can only be described as pure oxygen, as you marvel at how high you are, often looking out over cloud inversion covering the towns and farmlands below.
The trails we found were nothing like we had experienced prior in our travels riding around the world. The ground covering on even the most frequented ones was often still cushioned with what seemed like endless years of falling and decaying organic matter. This then combines with the given soil composition for that area to create what has famously been referred to as “Brown Pow”. The skiing and snow boarding relationship doesn’t end there as the most distinctive feature of Japanese trails was slowly starting to reveal itself. At, or near the bottom of most trails, you will find a temple, shrine or sometimes a castle. It’s the construction method of these that has created something that has to be experienced in the absence of an ability to describe it. Tunnel trails. Created by unknown years of horses dragging logs down the mountain sides. Riding tunnel trails can’t truly be put into words. A mix of skiing, surfing and mountain biking. Often at warp like speeds with grip levels seemingly created by the gods themselves to deliver a pure balance of support and grin inducing slides and “doriftu” (drifting).
These were hard earned experiences. As accommodating and pleasant as Japanese culture and people are, they were not giving up the secrets of their mountains easily. In the absence of initial formal assistance, we resorted to various maps, footage and the odd riding app to slowly but surely piece together networks of what would become our Japanese Alps tours.
It’s engrained within Japanese culture and our foremost directive in the use of these mountains.
One of the questions we asked ourselves upon unlocking the secrets hidden within the Nagano prefecture Alpine area, was, “why are there not more people riding here?” The difficulties in locating appropriate riding areas as explained above is partially why, but also the “grey” state of much of the land they are on. Mountain land ownership in Japan is extremely complex comparatively to Western countries we know well. A given area is often partially owned in title to dozens of people or family names. This can be traced back to things like valley farmers and town folk being allocated strips of land on mountain sides for fire and construction materials. Its these factors that make the winter time progress and success of snow activities and resorts even more impressive but also gives us hope of further development and understanding of summer ones other than the strong traditions of hiking, mushroom picking, hunting etc. Upon the discovery of the trails we now use we have begun building stronger relationships with locals in committing to both maintenance of existing, and building of new trails. A similar commitment to support local guides, drivers and of course business providers also contributes to furthering stronger ties. The welcoming and accommodating nature of regional tourism regulatory bodies also providing us with confirmation of our use of these mountains becoming more and more accepted.
Perhaps the initial process of discovering these secret gems for ourselves was much more a part of the culture than we initially realised?
With approximately three quarters of Japan designated as mountain, the future of further discovery, secretes and adventures seems endless.
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