When I go back to the U.S. and talk about skiing in Japan, people ask, “They ski in Japan?” I’m like, “Remember the 1998 Olympics in Nagano?” “Oh yeah,” they say, wrinkling their foreheads as if recalling some 8 mm black-and-white ski movie while exhibiting enough doubt that I know they’re going to look it up on Wikipedia when they get home. “Really,” I say to back up my point, “it’s a country with over 700 ski areas.” That’s when they really think I’m lying.
Despite Japan’s strength in winter Olympic sports such as ice skating, speed skating and ski jumping, Japan has only ever won three medals in alpine and freestyle skiing events. This must be what accounts for the lack of recognition of Japan as a major skiing nation.
The fact is, skiing has been around for a long time in Japan. The first ski club was reportedly founded in 1911. Skiing was even taught to Japanese soldiers who were preparing to fight in Mongolia.
Japan’s biggest skiing icons are the legendary Miura adventurers. Keizo Miura (1904-2006) was a Japanese skiing pioneer who in 1981, at age 77, was the oldest person to climb and ski Mount Kilimanjaro.
He later became famous for his invention of centenarian skiing. I can say he “invented” it because, well, how many people do you know who have skied into their hundreds? A diet of fish, hijiki seaweed, and natto kept him healthy enough to ski into his hundreds, with a preliminary qualifying run down France’s Mont Blanc glacier at age 99. He died at 101 just shy of his 102nd birthday. His life and accomplishments are canonized in an annual memorial ski race in his honor at Mount Teine in Hokkaido.
In 1964 Yuichiro Miura, Keizo’s son, set a world speed record at 172.084 kph in Italy and in 1966 was the first person to ski down Mount Fuji.
In 1970 he became the first to ski down Mount Everest which, by the way, I imagine will some day be an Olympic sport. His “parachute-aided” descent down Everest was featured in the 1975 documentary “The Man Who Skied Down Everest,” a film that went on to win an Academy Award for best documentary.
In 2006, at 70 years old, Yuichiro climbed Mount Everest and is determined to do the climb again at 80! In the meantime, in what must be a rather tame job for the man, Miura heads the “Snow Dolphins” Ski School in Teine Highland Resort outside Sapporo. Gota Miura, his son, has been to the Olympics as a freestyle mogul skier twice (Lillehammer in 1994 and Nagano in 1998) and, naturally, has also scaled Mount Everest. He also helps out instructing at Teine Highland Resort.
Skiing came into the mainstream in Japan 1930, when the government hired Austrian Hannes Schneider (1890-1955) to teach skiing to the Japanese public. According to skier and film-maker John Jay, Schneider ended up teaching classes to thousands of students at a time on Mount Fuji. Schneider had to call out instructions over a megaphone.
Now you know why they chose Mount Fuji — How could you fit all those skiers anywhere else? Perhaps the education-minded Japanese liked the idea of a ski school since it has the word “school” in it, giving an academic aura to the sport: you had to be smart to ski! But with so many students, the bonus for Schneider was that he could just throw the unruly students down the crater — one of the many advantages of skiing on a volcano.
John Jay recorded episodes of Japanese learning to ski in the early days in his movie titled “Winter Magic Around the World.” In the movie, you can watch tiny Japanese people on skis that resemble telephone poles, earnestly trying to muscle the poles into the snowplow position.
Most of the time this didn’t work, and they couldn’t stop. Soon they were running into each other, getting tangled up in intimate positions with people they didn’t even know. I wonder how many romances blossomed this way. Despite these run-ins with strangers, or perhaps because of them, the sport was a hit in Japan. The good-natured Japanese are some of the most resilient skiers in the world.
Skiing got another boost when Chiharu Igaya won a silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics. He remains Japan’s first and only Olympic medalist in alpine skiing.
In 1987, the hit romance movie called “Take Me Skiing,” got the whole nation skiing. See? Those Mount Fuji classes had ulterior motives after all.
So, to the Americans: Yes, we ski in Japan! And we ski well.