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Original Issue


A unique ski culture produces a slalom ace

When Chiharu Igaya, the young slalom expert shown at the top of this page, emerged from his homeland of Japan to become, as a Dartmouth college student, two-time U.S. national champion in his event, it was a surprise to many. Few people associate the Land of the Rising Sun with mountains, snow and ski slopes. Actually, as the color pictures on the preceding pages show, skiing is a major passion for more than eight million Japanese.

Like many of his countrymen, Igaya saw his first slope at the age of 2, when his mother strapped him onto her back, papoose-style, and skied off down the mountain. Also, like the vast majority of Japanese, he had no intention of becoming a racer. "But," he remembers, "in 1948, I won the first all-Japan meet and realized my position." From there he went on to 11th place in the 1952 Olympic slalom, then to Dartmouth and his U.S. slalom titles in 1953 and 1954.

As a racer, Igaya is something of a rarity in a nation of recreational skiers. And as a racer, his observations of skiing in Japan are quite different from those of a casual skier.

"Our mountains are low," he says, "so we can't develop very much in downhill skiing. But for the slalom, we Japanese have one big advantage: we have shorter bodies, and we can bend more easily and make tighter turns.

"But," he continued, "we are too far away from other skiing countries. When I was racing in international meets in the States, I noticed what an advantage it was to me to compete against the best Austrians. It encourages you. You race with them today and you are five seconds behind. But next time it may be only three, or two."

To the mass of Japanese, all this talk about races and cutting seconds is as foreign as the countries in which Igaya competes. They are more happy to potter around the dozens of resorts—with their rope tows, T bars and occasional chair lifts—pinpointed along the mountain ridges of the main Japanese island of Honshu.

Each weekend these skiers, already bundled up in their ski clothes, pour out of Tokyo and the other big cities aboard snow trains headed for the mountains. The confusion is wonderful. Each person is loaded down by a knapsack bulging with his food, extra gear and a camera slung around the neck. Skis and poles jut out from the baggage racks, joining overhead in a precarious arch that sags from overcoats and rucksacks.

If the train is heading for Yuwaza, the passengers endure for four hours while the train winds into the hills and spirals through a pair of deep mountain tunnels. If headed for a more remote spot like Kusatsu, the ordeal of the train is extended three hours by a churning little bus. If bound for Akakura, or the Bandai-Asahi National Park where spring skiing goes on into July, the riders will sit or stand for 11 mortal hours to get one day on the mountain.

When the skiers are actually on the slopes, a Japanese resort is barely distinguishable from an American resort, except that everybody is a little shorter and no one has aluminum ski poles. Bamboo is the standard.

The real difference between American and Japanese ski culture, according to Igaya, is in after-ski activity.

"The Japanese people," he said, "enjoy mostly the skiing itself. They ski until dark, and then come in for a cup of green tea. There is a lot of chatting and not much action. We don't have much dancing. The geishas don't go to the snow."

According to the testimony of one American, just back from skiing in Japan, it could be deduced that Olympian Igaya just never went to the right snow. When this particular tourist came in from his day on the slopes, he found half the staff of his inn lined up to say good evening. A maid took his wet clothes, brought him a quilted kimono and gave him some slippers to wear inside the inn. He was then directed down a long corridor to a sulphur bath.

"The water was hot enough to boil a lobster," he recalled, "but snow was falling in through the loosely spaced shingles overhead. Offered the choice of boiling or freezing, I risked boiling. Actually, it was very relaxing."

His room was also a revelation—no furniture but straw mats and cushions. For heat, there was only a sand pit filled with glowing charcoal. A frame was fixed over the charcoal, and a heavy quilt over the frame. Facing this arrangement, the skier squats down cross-legged, pulls the loose end of the quilt around himself and eats his dinner of rice cakes, sukiyaki, or whatever, while the warmth of the fire flows around him.

Then he can slide between layers of immensely heavy quilts and lie down to sleep on the matted floor. Or he can remain awake. "Saturday nights at the inns," recalled the tourist, "are usually big party nights. There is plenty of warm sake around, and you see many geishas, in their bright kimonos and wooden sandals, hurrying through the snow-covered streets on the way to parties."