Japan and more specifically the north island of Japan, Hokkaido, is hands down my favorite place to ski to date. Trumping all other snow-destinations, I have traveled, Hokkaido, at times makes me feel like I am on another planet. My home for the extent of my five-week stay was a little resort called Kiroro. Referred, by the locals as “snow world” and locally branded with the motto, “five stars by nature”. Derived from personal experience, all I can say is that Kiroro falls anything but, short of excellence. This was my third trip to Japan; indubitably the best experience I have had in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Unlike my previous ski-escapades to Japan, this trip fell under a new opportunity in my skiing career. Japan 2016, Land of the Rising Pow, was the works of SASS Global Travel, a guided backcountry ski and snowboard company with foundations in both Japan and Argentina along with a year-round surf school in Puerto Rico. Last season I was able to link up with SASS (Surf and Snow Sessions), on crew for a three part-video-series in conjunction with The House BoardShop and Teton Gravity Research, staring my good friend, Garrett Russell. Since last season’s film session, the guys at SASS brought me on as one of their own; offering me a job, guiding in Japan.
Together, as a team, we learned the terrain in and around Kiroro; slowly naming lines and peaks, checking each feature off our to-do list. The move from Niseko to Kiroro happened because of our inclination to serve our SASS family clients the best we could offer, upping each of our clients expectations of Japan and the invaluable experience we all would soon enjoy.
Located an hour and a half Northwest of Sapporo and only a half hour from Otaru, the oldest fishing community on the North island; we stumbled upon a friendly mix of tradition as well as the best skiing to be found. A destination we all dreamed about, a tiny magical island where snow-systems circulated frequently, and the whole time we were there, refused to stop snowing. Utah claims to have the “best snow on earth” and Vail, Colorado claims to own the trademark of “champagne powder” yet clearly, Hokkaido is flying under the radar of the claims and un-known certainties. Standing tall at 5’6” we called our new founded patch of heaven, “Benny-Deep”. Light, fluffy pow that I had the pleasure of parting with my waist, my chest, and more so than not, my neck. Out-of-towner’s can get overwhelmed by the amount of snow we witnessed, but for the locals of Japan’s North island, snow is a way of life. Removing it, embracing it, riding it, and inventing the proper tools to live and function with it.
The first week we mainly were focusing on shooting an article with the likes of Paddy O’Connell, Editor at Skiing Magazine. Showcasing the ins-and-outs of SASS, including program operations, our experience as backcountry guides, and the reasons behind our across-the-world treks to Japan year-after-year. Being Paddy’s first time in Japan, he soon discovered why, “the Last Great Snow Ninja’s” (Garrett and myself) keep returning year-after-year. At 6’4” and 240 lbs. Paddy-O should have brought his snorkel, and maybe a tank of air as well. Disappearing under layers of fresh snow, replenishing its blanket of deep pow, turn-after-turn and after just one run, Paddy-O became a believer of Japan and too joined the band-wagon of hoping to return next year in search of JaPow.
As days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, clients came and went, new friends and old. The one constant element that stayed consistent week after week, was the rising snow-levels and theundeniable feeling of powder beating against our awe-shaken selves.
As the snow banks grew taller, our appetite to explore more and more became stronger. Slowly, we crossed routes of existing ski lines off our team topography map: 7-11, Lemmings, High Scool Reunion, Watermelons, Japan’s steepest line (most elusive), Willows, Worth-it, The Womb, Field Goal, Canadian Field Goal.
There’s a common misconception that avalanches do not take place in Japan; but due to unforeseen risk, this is simply not true. Highly unlikely, is a more suitable misnomer when speaking about Japan and its avy danger. Rarely do you see huge swings in temperature from day-to- night, and the constant snowfall allows each snowflake to bond together nicely; making Japan’s snowpack ideal for skiing big lines and more than ideal for powder hounds. We dug several pits; chuckling at the results. With 30cm of fresh blower on top and followed by a perfect fist-to four fingers density, it was reassuring to see such consistency when guiding clients and more importantly, being responsible for the group in its entirety.
The most dangerous part of skiing in Japan are the steep convex rolls that exit into creek beds. These treacherous holes could potentially ensnare a skier and cause a life threatening situation, engulfed with running water and freezing ice. Over the extent of my trip: a five week period, only one of 72 clients got wet, easily rescued without serious injury. This is a testament to our SASS team along with the forgiving snowpack of the Land of the Rising Sun.
Throughout my skiing career, I have come to realize: powder skiing is an addiction. Similar to a drug, once is never enough. I get contact high of its beauty, the sedation of riding its power and aroma of winter seems to ease my restless mind. Japan is the one place that I continuously find my fix. The destination,the journey, the respectable people and sincere joy of life brighten any mood on a cloudy day. The food is similar to gambling, in that you are never quite sure the cards you are being dealt,yet usually are satisfied and crave for more. The language is hilarious, and the rich culture is welcoming, inviting, and friendly. It is easy to fixate on health, and feel time-to-time a bit homesick as the Jspanese people are very family oriented. Plus, one of my absolute favorite chunks of Japanese culture is: the Onsen a.ka. Japanese Bathing House a.k.a The Jonsen. Mineral rich hot water flows out of the earth due to seismic activity on the island. The natural spring water is soothing to sore muscles and I too accredit it with allowing me to ski five weeks straight, bell-to-bell. This ski après was typically followed by a trip to the beer vending machine; then a sit down meal of Hokkaido fried chicken, Kobe beef, Maguro, Toro Yellow Fin Tuna, and of course, a hot bowl of miso soup. Crushing pow, hot springs, beer, sushi,and a lifetime of memories shared with good friends is what my ski trip to Japan consisted of, not too shabby, huh?!
So it’s said… a picture is worth a thousand words, well, here’s a thousand or so words explaining the rest of my experiences. I want to thank SASS Global Travel (Travis and Lucas Moore, David Burge, Pete Connolly, Mauri Cambilla, Garrett Russell, Andrew Burns, Max Tabor, and Guts), Paddy O’Connell, all my sponsors (Lib-Tech Ski,BCA, Leki USA, Strafe Outerwear, Smith Optics, The House Boardshop, Sierra-at-Tahoe), Kiroro Resort, and all the clients that made this trip the time it was.
A very special thank you to the Japanese family that accommodated our fair-well-dinner by feeding us Higuma Bear (the most fierce animal in all of Hokkaido), and having your five-year-old daughter pour our crew’s beer until the keg was completely gone. This trip has given me memories I will take with me forever, and will stay a pleasant memory I will never forget.