Einstein’s theory of ski map relativity


Inquiring “gaijin” want to know the best ski and snowboard spots in Japan. If you’re a snowboarder, you’re lucky because starting in March, Shigakogen in Nagano Prefecture, Japan’s largest “sooki snow-bo” area, opens all its runs to snowboarders as well as skiers.

You’d think such a large ski area would be easy to find, but the fact is that Shigakogen gets so much snow, it even buries the ski area regularly and the staff has to dig out the lifts in the morning. Since Shigakogen is actually 22 small ski areas connected by 53 lifts, that’s a lot of snow shoveling. And a lot of tired staffers.

When making the trail map for Shigakogen, the members of the “Enjoy Sooki snow-bo Trailmap Association” decided to follow Japanese city planners and not name the trails. Instead, the trail map is based on what else but — mathematics! So unless you’re Einstein-san, you can easily get lost because the trail map is based on the theory of trail map relativity.

First of all, the lifts are all numbered. Though a bit of a communist approach, it looks quite uniform and orderly on the trail map.

But when we tried to follow the map, the result was our group was constantly standing at the top of each run, trail map spread out, wondering which way to take, as if we were tourists in the middle of New York City. It made me a little nervous, and I subconsciously checked my pocket just to make sure my wallet was still there.

“OK, this run says ‘more difficult,’ ” said our Japanese leader, pointing to a sign that said, “To lift No. 42.” But we wanted to know the name of the run, not how to get to lift No. 42. We wanted to know what made this run different from that “more difficult” run over there. We gaijin wanted a more personalized ski experience with named runs and distinguishing characteristics. This system was equal to naming your children “more difficult” and “most difficult.”

On my planet, the United States, if you say you’ve skied or boarded “Drainpipe” at Copper Mountain, “The Polivachini” at Arapahoe Basin or “Corbett’s Couloir” at Jackson Hole, there is meaning behind these famous runs. To say, “I’ve skied lift 42 at Shigakogen” just isn’t very mind-expanding.

But soon we were getting from lift to lift by following the trail map’s equations. Your trail map will tell you, for example, that if you take lift No. 37 at Yakebitai-yama, the lift is a 2,120-meter-long gondola that will take you 419 meters above sea level in seven minutes and four seconds. To then get to lift No. 42, where some of the 1998 Olympic snowboard events were hosted, follow this formula: take the lift number plus the amount of time it takes the lift to get you to the top, plus the meters above sea level, divided by the number of people standing in the lift line, subtracted by the number of times you’ve fallen that day, and you’ve got the most direct route to lift No. 42.

Got that? Good, because you still have to buy your lift ticket. Just to make sure skiing/snowboarding is a brainworthy experience, you must decide beforehand how long you want to ski, because this will affect the price of your lift ticket. You can buy an all-day ticket, a morning-only ticket or an afternoon-only ticket, or pay by the run. Some ski areas even allow you to buy a ticket for three hours of skiing. If you buy a packet of tickets to pay by the run, there is a point system, and each lift is worth a different number of points depending on the length, sea level and time it takes to get to the top. Lift No. 37 for example, is worth 9 points for adults and 6 points for children. Hey, it’s Disneyland on skis!

At first, I was delighted to have as many lift ticket payment plans as my cell phone does. It gives you the chance to actually save money by skiing only in the morning or by paying only by the run. With so many ways to save money, however, you soon realize that you can save the most money, 4,500 yen, by not skiing at all.