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Just Add Water and Stir Briskly
Michael Finkel
April 06, 1998
The result is room-temperature, artificial snow for those who prefer to ski indoors
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April 06, 1998

Just Add Water And Stir Briskly

The result is room-temperature, artificial snow for those who prefer to ski indoors

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If it hadn't happened right in front of me, I would never have believed it. I was in Kobe, Japan, in the manager's office of a recently opened indoor snowboarding arena called Free-Ku. It was late last summer. The office temperature was about 60�F. The manager, Itaru Furukawa, opened what looked to be a sugar packet and dumped the crystals into a small plastic container. Then he poured in a cup of tap water and stirred.

The solution turned cloudy for an instant, and then the water vanished. The crystals expanded like a yeast mixture in overdrive. Within seconds the container was full of a billowy white substance that looked strangely familiar.

"Snow," said the manager, beaming.

Well, almost. Free-Ku is the world's first facility to make use of a product called PAS, which stands for polymer-based artificial snow. It's a skiable material that can be produced at room temperature. PAS is the invention of a Japanese company called Snova, which keeps the product's ingredients secret.

"It is similar to the absorbing material in disposable diapers" is all that Furukawa would divulge. He also mentioned that PAS is safe enough to eat.

At Free-Ku's in-house shop, equipment rental costs about $50, which includes a 90-minute snowboarding session. After changing, I descended two flights of stairs, passed through a sliding-glass door and emerged "outside"—or, rather, in an entirely new type of inside. The Free-Ku snowboarding room, roughly the size of a K Mart, consists of one groomed slope and one carefully sculpted half-pipe, tipped at a gentle pitch and coated with several inches of polymer snow. The temperature was about 45�F. A concrete stairway that runs up the middle of the room separates the two slopes, which are 164 feet long, and serves as the ski lift. The walls and the ceiling are painted gunmetal gray, music is piped in (Japanese rap), and bill-hoards hang everywhere. Ah, the great indoors.

PAS did make a fine impression of actual snow—with a few limitations. I found it impossible to pack a snowball, and the polymer snow "melted" in my bare hand in a peculiar way, becoming a sort of syrupy lotion. Also, all over everyone's clothing and hair, sparkling under the lights, were crystals that seemed not to have absorbed any water—the PAS version of unpopped kernels of popcorn. It was as if we'd all taken glitter baths.

That explained the presence of a dozen high-pressure air hoses posted near the exit. When the session ended, I lined up with everyone else at the hoses, blew off all the crystals and stepped back into summer.