Japan: the land of the rising sun. Although… I didn’t find it to be those exact words; I saw the red sun a mere two-times in my three-week stent. Japan, to me was a living snow-globe. Everyday a changing environment and with it, came hidden stashes, reminding me of the reasons I continue to chase snow for a living. Not only was I expecting a “Nuclear-Winter” (due to previous travel four-years prior), but it’s what my soul needed for the historically low snow-pack and most definitely, the lack of deep snow in my life. I need it. It feeds me and keeps me in a balanced-momentum. Pushing me forward to the next destination in search of the best snow on earth. The state of Utah claims such a statement, but based off my personal experiences, I would have to disagree. The best snow on earth is NOT located in Utah…no, the best snow I’ve ever indulged, is located on the tiny island of Hokkaido.
Light…fluffy… POW engulfing my 5’7-self, that I had the pleasure of parting… with my neck. Not the most difficult task at 5’7 and 145 lbs., but none-the-less, waist-to-chest deep powder is what we’re after. Surrendering under California’s snow-pack standard, this much snow is a rarity, however, for the locals of Japan’s northern island…it’s a way of life. Removing it, embracing it, riding it, and creating the right tools to embrace such tasks.
I met my friends at SASS Global Travel under the bright-lights in the bustling city of Sapporo. We had a casual night of reminiscing before checking out the iconic snow-festival. Consisting of international snow-sculpting, this festival is held annually since it’s beginning in 1974. An amazing way to be immediately submerged in culture with food and tradition. The next day we began our trek north to Kiroro Resort where I was immediately blessed with some of the deepest turns I’ve had, that I can consciously remember. The snow continued to come down at a rapid pace, yet ever-so-gently. Falling straight down in-between the magical trees that were as much part of the riding experience as the snow stacking up, blanketing my feet. We continued to seek out terrain both in the resort and the connected-side as well as the backcountry. We wanted to find some zones for the days ahead when our videographer was to show up to film the fourth and final WEBisode of, The Garrett Russell Experience, produced by, The House Board Shop, in conjunction with, Teton Gravity Research. Needless to say we found what we were after. Short hikes to sustained powder fields, pillow zones, waist deep snow producing plenty of face shots with the occasional, Mt. Yotei or Sea of Japan shots, peeking-through on the rare occasion of stillness and a let up of snowfall. A perfect way to define both mine and Garrett’s style of skiing and the way we approach the mountain. This type of snow turns us into kids, just playing and having the best time ever, skiin’ smooth, undulating terrain complimenting the turn ahead with quirky pillow drops on edge.
Each day seemed to end very similar for me; a few beers with high-fives, laughs and smiles upon our powder-worn faces. Après ski is a bit different in Japan then other parts of the world. It usually consisted of going directly to the Onsen for stretching, a bit of rest, relaxation, and soaking in natural hot spring water pouring out of the earth. This place is alive and you can feel it. After leaving the Japanese bath-house restored, fresh, loose; I felt good, and this usually led to a traditional Japanese meal consisting of plenty of fish, ramen noodles and veggies that would boost the battery up to 100%.
Each day gets sweeter and sweeter. Not only was the snow getting continually deeper and the area more familiar as we started naming zones and lines, but we had our crew assembled to start producing both still and moving pictures with the likes of Ethan Stone and Jeffrey Lowe. To me, we had the perfect conditions for filming, all while capturing the essence of skiing, here in Japan. I will forever remember- those classic super-slow, neck-deep, powder shots that will make just about anybody jealous. There’s no better feeling then powder billowing off your chest into your face. Each and every run, could possibly be, the BEST run of our entire lives.
The one, and only day the snow stopped falling from the sky, we decided to head down to Ottaru for a light festival and a cultural experience, I will never forget. The greatest part of this so called, “down-day” was that there was no “down-day” at all. We were able to ski powder from the high alpine to the Sea of Japan. With a little help from David Burge and Lucas Moore at SASS; behind the wheel of our diesel vans, we were able to get picked up and dropped off with minimal hiking between the three-pitches off the side of the highway that lead straight to the ocean. This experience was my first time ever skiing light fluffy snow at sea level. And the final cherry topping this sugar-coated day, was the embracing, cultural rich fishing community that welcomed us with open arms upon our arrival. We walked the streets for hours admiring the creative works of the people and their snow sculptures, lighting our path, reflecting off the snow beautifully. We found our way to a hole-in-the-wall gyoza/noodle shop that produced amazing food and conversation. Six- Americans occupied the entire eating space and the traditional Japanese woman provided us, hands-down, the best gyoza dumplings of the trip. A bit later, we wandered back to our personal- hotels accompanying one-skier in each room. The smallest, most efficient space, allowing for limited movement; but for our crew served its purpose beautifully.
We made our way back up to Kiroro the following morning. Our goal for the day was to hike a few lines near a familiar zone we had our eyes on to ski in the days ahead. This particular line required a bit of planning, route finding, and logistics to ensure safety and efficiency. Starting early, we split into two different groups, navigating two different ridge lines. Both groups checking the stability of the snowpack on different aspects and elevations. We had Jeff on the barbie-angle. He had eyes on both groups, and could coach us through certain sections on our approach through a forest of frozen trees up into the alpine. Both groups arrived within minutes. We sat there for an hour or more waiting for light to shoot. We sat waiting for the perfect shooting opportunity, one that could capture the, “moment” for all of us…on a 6K-camera on the barbie. It never came. Itching to get this line we could not sit still any longer. We all had our lines picked out, and we sent it one-at-a-time, watching one another ski to the bottom before the next one would drop. I went last. Gabe Ciafre and I had a similar line choice, which we ended up calling “The Womb”. We all agreed that this 15-hundred-vertical-foot-shot of snorkeling-through-powder, was one of those legendary runs that explains and defines our lives. The perfect pitch, bowled out, and wide-open ending with shouts of exhilaration and pure joy. By far the longest, most sustained pitch of the trip. It was one of those lines I look back at and see only the signatures we left behind. For me, this is why backcountry skiing is so very appealing. I love the approach. I love checking out the snow, and I absolutely cherish the moments I’m in the mountains with my good friends doing what I love to do the most. SKI!
A perfect day to end our skiing adventure in Kiroro, and head back to the SASS house in Niseko. A day at Moiwa before packing our gear and heading to Sapporo for a night of partying at the Sapporo Brewery. The kind of experience you need to have at least once in your life. With an all-you-can-drink, all-you-can-eat atmosphere, great beer, and a hot-pot with an open flame burning below that housed all sorts of veggies and thin strips of meat. Tending to it deliberately between cheers-and-laughs while reminiscing about the best skiing on earth. Japan for me is a place I will return to year-after-year. I love the culture, I love the people, the language and communication is hilarious, and the skiing is all-time.
Arigato Gozimas to everyone at SASS Global Travel (Travis and Lucas Moore, Pete Connolly, David Burge, Garrett Russell, Gabe Ciafre), BCA, Lib Tech NAS, Leki USA, Dalbello, Smith Optics, Sierra at Tahoe, Strafe Outerwear, The House Board shop, I appreciate the support!