The country of Japan has come out with a lot of good shit over the years. Ramen, sushi, Nintendo, DVDs, anime, cat cafes, electric rice cookers, karaoke… the list goes on. But the truth is, the best thing in this densely populated island country is something that even the Japanese couldn’t think up.
And there’s a lot of it. We’re talking unfathomable quantities and layers, going deeper and deeper, constantly growing, covering bits and pieces of the country. We’re talking about snow – or as the Japanese call it, “Yuki”.
Recently, a few of Rip Curl’s snow-team riders became very lucky men – the stars aligned, schedules were cleared, and it was time to get a taste of the legendary powder of the Japanese mountaintops. From Whistler to Thredbro, this is the stuff we dream of.
So the crew came together, plane tickets were bought, split boards were packed and anticipation mounted – it was finally time to get our slice of yummy yuki.
But it wasn’t easy. Planning a trip to Japan isn’t like going online to book a ski pass at your local hill. Team manager Raph Delfour quickly discovered that as soon as you get slightly off the beaten path in Japan, finding information on the web is difficult at best – and if you do happen to stumble upon something useful, chances are it won’t be in English. So Raph reverted to the archaic practice of picking up the phone. But that too proved tedious, and on the off-chance that someone DID answer, it most definitely wouldn’t be in English.
For those of you that don’t know, Japan is actually a string of 3,900 islands nested in the Pacific Ocean, east of Korea, China and Russia. It also happens to have over 600 ski resorts.
Needless to say there are options, and a lot of them. The most common choice is flying into the island of Hokkaido, which is known to get the most snow. Aussies love Hokkaido and flock by the thousands to Niseko, one of the biggest resorts in the region. But our crew was looking to escape – to ditch the crowd and write our own guidebook. So we settled on a lodge near Mount Tokashi, which is where our trip began after landing in Sapporo.
In keeping with the lead-up, it began with trouble. Despite the fact that collaborating photographer Jerôme Tanon had already stayed in this particular lodge, it took quite some time to find. From Google Mapsing to backtracking down side streets to email checking to payphone-ing, there seemed to be no simple solution. But after a few extra kilometres (a few? ha!), we finally got to what we considered a true gem – relatively cheap accommodation, on-slope hot springs, fresh snowfall, untracked powder and absolutely no one around. For riders Emilien Badoux and Nate Johnstone, skiers Raphaël Webhofer and Mitch Reeves, and the rest of us, it was nirvana… and it will remain unnamed.
The lodge itself was simple. The crew slept on typical Japanese floor mats in one big room, with the main living area being the kitchen. The whole setup made it feel totally out of this world. The five days the team stayed there were also very simple – get up early, strap in the split boards or skis and ride virgin, bottomless powder all day. In the afternoons we’d go back to the lodge and relax in the hot springs, taking in the snowy mountains surrounding us from all angles. If you’re picturing this right now and thinking, this is heaven, it’s because it was.
By the end of the week though, the poor visibility and somewhat extreme conditions had gotten the best of us, and it was time to move on. As we packed up and looked back, we all vowed to come back one day.
25 kilometres down the road we found the resort Asahidake. There, at the very end of the road, lay an impressive, desolate and rundown hotel.
Think Grand Budapest, but with a Japanese twist. Or actually, think The Shining, but without the murders – because out of the 300 rooms in the massive hotel structure, only a few rooms were booked – and they were ours. Truly surreal, in a strange sort of way.
But it was all-inclusive, so we gorged ourselves on the incredible diversity of Japanese food and drink, and forgot about everything else. Each meal seemed to bring something new; whether it was another jar of hot sake or pure bacon fat you BBQ’d and ate with chopsticks and Kupi mayo. It was all incredible, and very different.
So that’s how we spent our evenings. And they were great – but the days were even better. The riding was purely epic. The terrain at this locale is accessed by climbing inside the sole 100-passenger gondola that services the mountain – when it drops you off, the unpatrolled, boundless backcountry offers itself up, tree lines covered in snow stretching as far as the eye can see. For the next few days the crew fed on raw fish and fresh snow, and couldn’t get enough.
So from Asahidake we moved on to Furano, a resort with a more classic ski feel – with the exception of an average 8-metre snowfall. There was also night riding, and for most of us, this was one of the many highlights of the trip – memories of riding through the dimly lit trees, hearing the echoes of each rider shouting with ecstasy as they rode down the deeps.
But while the athletes couldn’t have asked for a better trip, the film crew and photographer had a bit of a nightmare. What makes for good riding – constant snowfall – can, on occasion, make for poor visibility. The lens didn’t love it. It literally snowed non-stop, with dull lighting, for ten days. Fortunately though, the very last day gave a glimpse of the sunlit paradise that lay behind the snowy skies and allowed for alpine exploration. So as the last day of an unforgettable trip, it was fitting.
That’s without mentioning our last night in Sapporo with the TransWorld Snow crew, but I think that’s a story for another time. For now we’ll stick to the fact that Japan, with its nice people, exotic food, deserted backcountry and insane snowfalls, is the epitome of a Search trip.
It really blew my mind how good it can be over there. I’ve never ridden powder so deep in my life! – Nate Johnstone
Words by: Alan Manach