|Millions of Tokyoites and visitors a year rush past this strangely-shaped building, wondering what it may be (it's clearly visible from both the train and bus routes to Narita airport). Only the happy few -- diehard adherents of a most un-Japanese sport -- know that this is, in fact...|
The Tokyo SnoDome
You've probably heard of this place -- it's where you can go skiing or snowboarding inside, without the inconvenience of actually going to a mountain. Yes, they've brought the mountain to you. This was perhaps the most completely only-in-modern-Japan place I went to on the entire trip...
The building is about 200 feet high, maybe slightly more, and even from the outside it's obviously an enclosed ramp. Those huge boxes under the building are the air-conditioning units; and they need those air conditioners. On the day James, Kimi, Jasper and I went to the SnoDome, it was 85 degrees and very muggy outside. Ah, but we knew that frosty cold would await us... (sure enough, it's 31.5 degrees and dry inside the SnoDome at all times).
|You walk up to the modern entrance (at left), and enter the long lines waiting to buy tickets (at right). The day we went was a national holiday, so it was very busy, although I've heard that business at the SnoDome has dropped off a bit since the halcyon days of the Japanese bubble economy.|
|Some people show up at the SnoDome with their own equipment and wear, at left. If they already have their SnoDome pass, they can stroll past this first line -- it's very odd to see someone walking along in the 85 degree humidity in their snowboard gear.||The SnoDome definitely has the whole thing nicely systematized -- when you come in, you sign your waivers and get a little electronic card (I think it's the same resonant-frequency kind as the card keys we use). For the rest of your day, you don't actually pay anything, you just wave the card. You can either pre-pay for the whole day of the slopes, or wave your card in and out for a per-hour charge for your actual time on the snow. Unless you're both skiing and snowboarding (see below), the timed charges are a better deal.|
We were a bit disappointed at the line, because we were trying to get an early start. You see, at the SnoDome (and, I'm told, at the real mountain resorts in Japan as well), they don't allow snowboarders and skiers to share the same slope at the same time. I can see where this appeals to the Japanese sense of order, although of course I personally think it's absurd -- ski resorts in North America and Europe got over that years ago. Anyway, since the SnoDome only has one each of beginner, intermediate, and advancd slopes, they have to segregate by time. As of this writing, their hours are 8am-Noon for snowboarding, and 12:30-4:30 for skiing -- so we only had until noon.
James said that when they first opened the SnoDome to snowboarding, it was one hour per day for boarding and seven for skiing. They've kept adjusting it to the current 4 each - a testament to snowboarding! And we saw later that the slopes were more crowded during the snowboarding hours than the skiing hours, so perhaps it'll be 5/3 soon!
|The first stop inside for us was a large counter labelled "Wear". That's where you get your outfit -- generic ski/snowboard pants, jacket, and gloves, all with both inner and outer layers. It all comes in one convienent bag -- you just walk up and specify your size, they hand you a bag. Here's James proudly displaying his 'Wear.'|
|After you pick up your 'Wear', you head to one of three color-coded (and of course, gender-distinguished) locker rooms to change. Obviously, we're headed for the Blue Locker Room. The inner/outer layers is how they address the rental problem -- the inners get washed every rental, the outers don't.|
|Ta-dah! All changed into my Wear and ready to hit the snow.||They even had Wear nicely sized for Jasper.|
|OK, now out onto the slopes! The entire interior of that ramped building is a large ski slope. The snow is manmade, but is real frozen snow kept at just under 32 degrees. The slope is divided in half. At the top, the left half (as seen in these pictures) comes forward a while before sloping down, so it's slightly steeper than the right half - thus, it's the 'expert' slope. The bottom of the right half is the beginner area -- that's why there's a solid line of people standing at the top of it.|
|Now onto the lifts and upwards! There are two full-size quad detachable ski lifts inside the building -- one at either side. It being Tokyo, there was about a 15 minute lift line for either one. There's also a moving sidewalk to the top of the beginner area. This is the view from the top of the 'expert' slope, looking down.||
And here I am at the bottom of my thrilling 60-second run! There's really not a lot you can do with a couple hundred feet of vertical, as much as they try. The SnoDome is an OK place to learn to snowboard...
The way the different slopes behave must say something about Japanese psychology. The beginners slope was like any beginner's slope: folks were a bit out of control, but very sorry for any minor, low-speed bumps that occurred. The 'expert' slope was populated almost entirely by people who genuinely knew how to snowboard -- maybe not the most adventurous snowboarders, but there was nothing bad going on there. But the intermediate slope -- the top part of the right side -- was the scariest collection of snowboarders I'd ever seen. People had no idea what they were doing up there, but they were doing it with gusto. Going up the lift, I saw snowboarders colliding on that section of the slope every 10 to 15 seconds. I've never seen anything like that anywhere in terms of the frequency and speed of collisions!
Needless to say, I stuck to the 'expert' slopes when I actually went up and took a run. But I spent most of my time teaching James and Kimi to snowboard, and watching Jasper while they practiced, since that was what the SnoDome was best for. When we came, we were worried about what to do with Jasper, since he's a bit young (2 1/2) to learn to board. It turned out we just put him in his 'Wear' and let him loose on the beginner's slope (under a watching eye) and he ran around, played in the snow, and generally had more fun than anyone else. So much for that problem!
|The core of the SnoDome's business seems to be Tokyo teens who treat it kind of like a chilly disco. Given that, it's not surprising that there's music, lights, and fog to match!|
|Still happy after their first day of snowboarding lessons -- always a good sign.||Time to head off to that nice Japanese restaurant on the second floor over the base of the slopes (I guess ski resort design principles are pretty transferrable).|
One of the things I had heard about the SnoDome beforehand was that it was terribly expensive. Well, it was a lot less expensive than I expected -- with all rentals and time and so forth, it came out to about $100 per person. We realized afterwards that this was probably a conscious decision on the SnoDome's part to make the SnoDome cost about the same as a real mountain ski resort does, on the theory that if you like skiing/snowboarding, you must be able to afford that much!
I was also noting that the SnoDome is one of those social outlets for the younger generation of Japanese, who unlike their fathers, don't want to go get drunk every night. The heavy after-work drinking with your workmates seemed to me to be getting noticeably generational -- if you're over a certain age (maybe around 33?) you tend to still do that, under a certain age it's less common. That means the younger crew needs something to do instead, and I can definitely see where the SnoDome and things like it are a viable option -- even though it's hardly like riding Squaw Valley!
Sadly, all did not end well for the Tokyo SnoDome. The SnoDome closed in late 2002. According to a number of web reports, the SnoDome never made enough money to pay off its financing. In the odd world of ski resort finance, this makes a fair amount of sense: many if not most ski resorts depend on revenue from the sale of real estate to pay for the construction of lifts, and only manage to cover operating costs from ticket and concession sales. Chiba harbor-side wasn't exactly a charming place for ski chalets.
In a bit of snow-country irony, after the SnoDome is demolished it will become the site of Japan's first Ikea store.
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