"Free the heel and the mind will follow." These are the words of advice from Gondola Snowsports ski instructor Miha Grilj, a passionate telemark skier helping to raise the profile of the sport in Niseko. Hailing from Slovenia, a tiny country in between the Adriatic Sea and the Alps, Miha started skiing at the age of four and has never missed a winter season since. He is now heavily involved in the sport of telemarking, both as a fully-certified instructor and coach of the Slovenian telemark demo team, and and as an international telemark promoter for the ski association of Slovenian instructors.
Miha arrived in Niseko in 2013, bringing with him ten years of teaching experience, and in the process, ticking off a life-long ambition to ski Hokkaido's famous powder.
We caught up with Miha to discuss all things telemark, including tips for getting started and Niseko's thriving telemark community.
How did you get involved in telemark skiing?
As a child I was always impressed when I saw Norwegians in the Alps skiing down the slopes. For years I wanted to try telemark skiing but never had a chance to practice, because the rentals were not available. When I turned 18 I bought the equipment and decided to learn by myself. It was a very interesting experience, so after some time I got introduced to the legendary telemark skier Mr. Miran Stanovnik who trained in Norway. He noticed my talent and ability to share the knowledge to students so he recommended me to take a telemark level 1 instructors course. I finished the course with highest scores in the group and since than my telemark career has just escalated.
What do you like about telemark skiing over regular skiing?
The boots are way more comfortable and the freedom it gives you and the sensation in the powder just cannot be matched by skiing. Telemarkers like to say “free your heel - free your mind”.
What is the telemark scene like here in Niseko? Have you met many good local skiers?
Japan has many great telemark skiers. I met many local legends like Takanashi, Yoshiuake, Moiri and my good friend Azusa Uehara (snow diva).
I have organized the Niseko telemarkers Facebook group. The goal is to meet once a week and just telemark together, talk and have fun on the mountain. In the season we were doing the Wednesday get-together event, where more than 10 telemark skiers joined at one time. I was also part of the ladies telemark week, organized by Azusa. And I joined the telemark clinic for a day run by American demo member Ross Matlock in association with TAJ (Telemark Association of Japan) and PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America).
I have many telemark friends whom I regularly ride with and share the passion for the sport. We like the fact we can all learn something from each other, not only the technique but also the Japanese language.
What motivates you to promote the sport, and what are you doing to promote the sport in Niseko?
Telemark skiing gave me a new perspective on the mountains and skiing in general. I fell in love with the mountains again after some heartbreaking winters on alpine skis. Here in Niseko I am promoting the sport to my clients and locals through the Facebook page and events. My clothing sponsor Bergans of Norway is strongly connected with the origins of the sport the Norwegian god of snow. The company tries to promote the telemark skiing and I am helping them spread the word about their great ski clothing.
Can you see telemark skiing getting very big here in Niseko or other Japanese ski resorts, or will it always be a bit of a niche sport?
It is becoming more popular because of better equipment. Telemark is very popular in Japan in general and even in Niseko you can see a lot of local skiers enjoying it. Among them are also the ski patrol and lift operators. The largest telemark festival is running just now in Hakuba.
If you are looking to get started in the sport, what’s the best way to do it? How is the transition from regular alpine skiing to telemarking?
Do not do the same mistake as I did! Get an instructor to teach you the basics. The main difference is in the gear—the boots with a flexible toe part and bindings that detatch and enable you to lift up the heel of your leg in the turn. Because the heels are loose the equipment offers you a lot of free movement. “Face planting” is very common in the powder!
What are the three most important pieces of advice that you give to your students?
Visiting a gym before ski season helps. Choose the correct gear and boots. And set up a goal for a day/lesson.
What is your favourite thing about skiing here in Niseko? Your favourite run?
Endless powder runs and amazing night powder skiing. Miharashi of course.
One piece of local advice, please! Anything…
Respect the local customs and blend in with the locals and you will discover a whole new world in Niseko you have never seen before.
Can we take a lesson with you? And why should we?!
I am the only telemark instructor in GoSnow so you have no choice! If you are looking for a professional telemark instructor and a guide who has been here for the second season and is very knowledgable about the area, you should take a lesson with me. Not to mention I can take you to the fresh powder lines even at the end of the day in the busiest period!