Shreddin’ the Gnar: A Beginner’s Snowboarding Experience

A Winter Sports Newbie Conquers Japan’s Slopes

By Maxine Cheyney
February 24, 2017
Lifestyle, Sport & Fitness

Winter sports. For someone like me who grew up playing hockey on muddied or dried-up ground, this was a world unknown to me.

I have to start this by telling you that I’ve never really seen snow­—certainly not the kind that doesn’t swiftly turn to sludge. But now that I live in a country that prides itself on Nobel prize-winning literature such as Snow Country (for a reason), it was about time to experience Japan’s powder snow. And the perfect way to do that was to head just two hours away from Tokyo by Shinkansen to spend a weekend in Nagano’s Hakuba — one of the best known winter resorts here.

You might assume that an inexperienced snow-gal like myself would default to skiing. But I enjoy a challenge, and having spoken to a few people, I was assured snowboarding would test my limits.

I had heard all the horror stories: Experienced boarders wrapping themselves around trees; people colliding with hidden rocks and cracking their heads — and the moans and groans of bruised bums and sore limbs.

I convinced myself I was different.

Arriving in Happo One, there was no time to acclimatize; it was straight to the slopes. Once I had mastered standing up and moving around a little on the very bottom of a green slope, and my squeals of delight at being able to stand had subsided, my instructor arrived.

We began by taking the ski lift to the top of the green slope. No baby slopes for me!

By then I knew that getting to and dismounting from the ski lift had to be the only downside to snowboarding. Your journey to the lift is a combination of the time you learnt to skateboard but never took your right foot off the ground (you will have your leading leg strapped in), and having your body in an uncomfortable contortion.

But it wasn’t over. “Just stand up and glide away from the chair,” he said.

I ended up face down on icy ground more than a few times, and even took out a few people with me while disembarking.

To begin with, you will be moving down the slope facing the top of the mountain. Effectively, digging your toes in and very slowly moving backwards.

This was relatively simple, and there were only a few “casualties.” Once you tell yourself to relax you will stop putting pressure on the backs of your knees, where it shouldn’t be.

We followed this with a move I like to call omelet flip. Starting-off face down in the snow, I “deftly” flipped over so that I was now on my back, (you will need to muster some momentum here) ready for a face-first descent.

I ended up face down on icy ground more than a few times, and even took out a few people with me while disembarking.

This run was a little bit more of a challenge, and you will need more strength and control to stand up. But once you are finished flailing your arms around and praying you don’t go head first down the mountain, the feeling of being able to face the terror of the slope is unmatched.

This is when the falling began. My coccyx took a few hits, and reminding myself not to immediately put my hands behind me to brace myself, clearly did not work. My wrists were a wreck.

My instructor kindly advised me: “Don’t do a J.LO”. You are much more likely to fall if you continue to stick your rear out when facing down, sideways and up the mountain. And this is where your glutes, quads and abs need to work together.

The instructor felt I was now confident enough to start taking on some turns.

The wipe-outs were spectacular.

Making sure to shift my weight the right way, the difficulty came when I was instructed to look the way I wanted to go and adjust my body ever so slightly. Suddenly I was heading down the mountain and picking up speed. Knowing the right time to turn and being able to control that speed and weight-shift was vital.

Suddenly I was heading down the mountain and picking up speed.

It took a few tries. The frustration began and it almost ended in tears after my lesson when we headed to another green slope and attempted to traverse down, what can only be described as a slim winding forest pathway. It was terrifying.

I enjoyed every moment of it though, to the point that I organized a second snowboarding trip just a few weeks later. My second experience on the slope in Shiga Kogen was a bliss.

I enjoyed every moment of it though, to the point that I organized a second snowboarding trip just a few weeks later.

I feared I would have forgotten everything I learnt, and even more so with the pressure of being in a larger more experienced group. But muscle memory did not fail me, and before I knew it, not only was I safely traversing down the slopes, picking up plenty of speed when I wanted to, and turning like it was a natural thing, but I even attempted a couple of red slopes.

I disembarked from ski lifts, gliding away with ease and only wiped out when I got a little too adventurous. I say, blame the slope.

If you’re out for an adrenaline rush, this is the sport for you. And you will feel infinitely cooler than all skiers.

Preparation

Along with having a lesson, go with someone who has been snowboarding at least once before. You will save a good 15 minutes of your lesson, if not more, just learning to strap on your board and stand up. You will also need to decide in advance whether you think this is something you will definitely pursue, or whether this first time will simply be a tryout. If you decide to commit, you will do well to buy yourself some gear to wear.

I headed over to Jimbocho to the many-floored high-rises that had an assortment of ski wear on sale. I invested in a jacket (which, since has become a staple in my life), bright pink trousers so that I could be spotted from a mile away if I ended up head first in the snow, thick socks and goggles.

Of course, don’t purchase boots and a snowboard until you are at a level where you know this is going to become a hobby. When renting, your options will be regular, where you lead with your left, and, goofy, where you lead with your right. When it comes to boots, I was advised to be sure my toes weren’t scrunched up, but also that they just reached the end.

Finally: Layer up!

As someone with a few knee issues, the wisest decision I made was to hit the gym to reactivate my glutes and my abdominals. These two sets of muscles took majority of the hit on that first day.

Après-snow

Luckily everywhere where there is snow in Japan, there are onsens. And nothing is satisfying than soaking in an onsen when you’re covered in bruises and you feel as though you were dismembered and then reassembled.

If you are doing a few days, don’t forget to stretch before your head hits the pillow, or you will regret it in the morning.