By Nicholas Wolken
By Nicholas Wolken
These past few years we’ve made our annual journey to the land of the Rising Sun, in part for the Interstyle tradeshow in Yokohama, but mostly for the bottomless powder in Hokkaido.
Our main men on the ground over there are Neil Hartmann, from the legendary Cardanchi crew, and our friend Atsufumi Mizuno who always has his camper ready to roll out to wherever the conditions are good.
After a look at the snow forecast, we decided to make our way over to Neil’s House in a less populated area outside of Sapporo. We only had a faint idea of what this area is like, but we figured it would pay off to listen to the local knowledge. Perfection in planning doesn’t always make for a good trip, but having the right people that form a good crew like this is way more important.
May I introduce:
Our friend from Canada, Spencer O’Brien, aka “Panda” or “Japanda”, who joined the trip spontaneously a few days in. It was great to have her in the crew throwing some estrogen in the mix and making us boys keep at least a little bit of manner.
Lars Popp aka “Sponge Popp”: this kid really does his surname justice. With plenty of pop and a skate influenced backcountry style he launched like a rocket off of pillows, blending massive airtime with powerful turns and style.
Christoph Thoreson aka “Pofel”, a snowboard legend from the Robot- Food film days, turned filmer and drone specialist, accompanied us and took charge of the video side of things. Always up for a good laugh and going the extra mile to get the shot, he was an excellent addition to the crew.
Markus Fischer aka “Fischi”. Another legendary shred-head who has seen it all and is always up for a good ol’ adventure! A long-time friend and camera wizard like none other just so happened to be looking for a crew to join in Hokkaido, and we were happy to have a spot open for him.
Aaron Schwartz: a less known fact about this guy, while spending the majority of time behind the lens, he does alright in front of it as well! Also, never short of a funny word, his good vibes were great to have on a trip like this.
And myself, of course.
The first day out we hit up the closest resort near our cabin. Initially it looked pretty decent, but I felt miserable from the flu and jet lag, so in all honesty I was fairly disappointed about the snow conditions after having traveled from so far. I decided to skip some runs and have some ramen and indulge in self-pity, and when the rest of the crew joined me at the restaurant we made the call to head home and save some energy for the upcoming days. Our plan was to scout out a sidecountry zone just a short hike from the top of the resort. That’s when we popped over a back ridge and into paradise! We looked upon an absolutely quiet, untouched winter wonderland with trees set perfectly apart to provide contrast, but not as to get in the way when riding. It looked unreal and was every bit as good as we’d imagined!
From that point on that was our daily business, and let me tell you, business was good! We knew instantly we would be coming back to that spot the following day with fresh legs. The “Back Gully”, as we called it, ended up being one of the main zones we frequently revisited on this trip. We rarely encountered any other folks over there, and each time we went back and took a slightly different way out, we stumbled upon new spots and features. Having such a diverse crew also made it all the more fun to film and shoot.
Our cabin was in the outskirts of a little mountain town known for its onsens (hot springs), so our evenings were often spent bathing and recharging the batteries and then going out to enjoy authentic Japanese food. Our favourite ramen spot was run by an elderly couple, who were the 3rd generation in their family to own and operate the tiny establishment. We also frequented a soup curry spot closer to Sapporo, owned by a small Japanese lady who had decorated her restaurant with all sorts of snowboard memorabilia. She had snowboard movies playing on the TV and always greeted us with the biggest smile (maybe cause she knew we were snowboarders).
While these are all very fond memories indeed, I am honestly a bit ambivalent about doing trips to Japan these days. On the one side, there is some of the greatest powder in the world and a very different, but awesome, culture to experience. However, on the other hand a lot of places are getting painfully crowded with foreigners visiting from all over the world. All of these people, us included, are producing massive amounts of CO2 on these trips and this is clearly not doing the environment any favours.
To some extent these crowds are forming through the glorification of the Japan powder experience featured and hyped up in magazines and videos in recent years. This is making more people decide to travel there on behalf of needs and cravings that might not exist otherwise. So I find myself in a moral dilemma, as it is part of a job I love doing. But it brings obligations with it that are starting to collide with felt growing moral obligations towards mankind and the planet. Informing myself I learned that while individual decisions like transportation choices are important, using your voice in activism and especially political voting in favor of the planet, lead to much broader and larger systemic change.
Anyway the paradox is that after travelling to so many good places and having ridden some of the best snow on this planet, I still enjoy riding close to home the most. The chasing of inner fulfillment by finding the perfect conditions and terrain is great for the moment, but it’s temporary and ultimately leaves one in a place wanting more of what didn’t fully satisfy us in the first place. Which leaves me hungry for more, rather than being content with what we have access to in front of our door steps.
To a certain degree, these trips are even taking something away from my local mountains, because the experiences in bigger and deeper ones make the ones nearby feel insufficient. So before anyone makes the decision to fly to Japan (or anywhere else abroad for that matter), I’d like to point out that there are indeed also some downsides to consider.
First off, there is a fairly brutal 12-hour flight followed by severe jet-lag to deal with, which for me usually ruins two days on the way there and back. That’s four days that could be spent on snow close to home, feeling fresh and having fun with friends. Also take into account that the more popular resorts in Japan are totally packed around peak season, with long lift lines and loud-mouthed foreigners who track an entire resort within 2 hours. On this past trip we did spend a few days in bigger resorts, but the quality of time and snow wasn’t nearly comparable to the times we spent hiking in the backcountry.
In general, I like to support smaller resorts wherever I am for the very same reasons. They usually use less artificial snow, have more affordable ticket prices, and the money goes towards growing the local community, rather than big wealthy corporations who own bigger resorts and make it hard for the small ones to exist.
If you really want to get after the goods and experience true stress less powder and backcountry, small resorts and/or hiking is the key to a fulfilling trip to Japan. The snow is really deep, so bring a pair or snowshoes coupled with a very wide board, or a split-board if you prefer. I would estimate we hiked for about 80% of our turns, and the best days were the ones we put in some extra time to walk out further. The weather was mostly horrible, but it delivered the snow quality we were searching for which has been quite frankly still pretty damn awesome!
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