Trip Report by Native Ambassador Khai Johannes.
In life, there are great things, and there are things that make those great things, greater. Combinations like pizza and parmesan cheese, personality and good looks or puppies and… more puppies. You would be hard pressed to find a winter sport enthusiast who didn’t believe that shredding (a great thing) couldn’t be made greater with a consistent snowfall of the lightest snow nature can create. For the fifth time, I find myself in Japan, at the top of a mountain searching for the “-er” to my great.
“Do you really think I could be riding blacks by January?” Rashelle asked me on the drive back from Keystone, a resort tucked in Silver Thorn Colorado. It was November 8th and resorts had just begun opening prematurely due to amazing early snow conditions. The question had practically been beaten out of her, a day of constant falling had managed to crack the confidence and optimism the earlier months of fantasizing had given her.
“For sure.” was my matter-of-fact answer, my confidence remaining unaltered. As the mile markers zipped passed us, I gave her words of reassurance that snowboarding’s crux rest in learning her edges. She managed to find comfort in the words, while the bruising from the day’s lesson failed to allow her to find the same comfort in the passenger seat.
We returned to Salt Lake and frequented Park City as often as our schedules allowed. Progress was slow and stubborn, but like a reluctant Ash tree weighted by snow, this journey slowly began to bend to our will. We found a rhythm, starting with a green run together, separating for a few hours and reunite to close out the day. On December 2nd, one month from Japan, a breakthrough.
Sharing a lift together after we’d gotten independent turns in, Rashelle’s excitement was palpable. Her words, spoken in tones of unbridled joy. Her thoughts splintering each other as they raced to exit her mind. Rashelle had finally linked her edges! Reliving the moment with her, I could feel the euphoria of her success, and I couldn’t help but feel a little sad I’d missed it. Our remaining days on the mountain became hyper-focused on fine-tuning her new abilities.
Passport, shovel, beacon, probe, stoke. The essentials: packed. Our journey: underway. After 12 hours of flying the two of us were finally 16 time zones ahead in Japan. When planning the trip in the months prior, it was decided we’d explore cities first and then continue our powder pursuit.
Japan’s urban life has absolutely no shortage of wonder to quench the appetite for the curious and adventurous. Whatever it is you’re into, the major cities of Japan have an answer. Ranging from towers of night clubs where each floor playing different genres of music, to dressing up as Nintendo characters and cruising the city by go-cart.
Of the top four Michelin awarded cities, spots one three and four belong to Japan’s (in order) Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Amidst award-winning restaurants are well-preserved pieces of an ancient time. Shrines and castles can be set atop a prominent hillside or nestled between stores in a shopping district. Japan’s fluid public transportation system allowed Rashelle and I to get our fill of city adventure. Like a dessert, thoughts of snowboarding would tease our minds away from our current reality. On subway rides, we checked snow reports. While waiting on food, we trolled Insta Gram for face shot stills.
After a week, our skyscrapers were being traded for mountains. When I’d told Rashelle about Japowder, it felt like a folk tale or glorified testimony but as our train neared Hakuba my stories seemed to lack embellishment. It was as if our train had left fall station and pulled into winter. Imagine being in a snow globe. Then imagine that snow globe being placed in a dryer. The snow was falling with purpose.
Our hotel shuttle retrieved us and our belongings from the station and we embarked towards the mountains. The next morning we woke to a blue sky and snow-covered surroundings; the perfect powder day. We explored Hakuba valley’s resort for most of the next week.
Each resort had its own energies, perks, and pitfalls. Happa one, the resort that hosted the Olympics, felt very much like skiers mountain. Catwalks flatlined faster than music careers in the 80s. On the other hand, Hakuba 47 was more boarder friendly. Tsugaike had unreal panoramic views with a comforting, local energy. Sadly, all the resorts lacked one important element; fresh snow.
Hakuba seemed set on making out to be an exaggerator. I’d mentioned the skies opened daily like clockwork, resetting the world. Instead, it appeared to be more of a lunar eclipse level of rarity. Sounding like a bad used car salesman, I kept pitching the belief, “snow will be better once we get up north!” Rashelle didn’t seem to be phased. For a first time snowboarder these who had seen snow for the first time only a year prior, these conditions were remarkable.
We’d left with sore legs and memory cards full of highlights of our time in Hakuba valley. Our journey north would require a van ride to a bus station to a train station to an airport to another bus. Pacing much slower than the train ride into Hakuba, the transition from small mounds next to well-groomed roads to sheer walls of snow make open-topped-tunnels was easier for the mind to wrap its head around.
As if the tourism board had a “Welcome to Niseko, here’s snow” switch they could flip, the flakes greeted us in their graceful glides downward. This time, it didn’t stop. Not on the drive to our hotel, nor the next morning. While questionable music choices blared into the snow, the two of us lapped lifts. Our tracks covered by the time we reached the top. Knee deep lines were the norm for our remaining time. Rashelle wore a smile on her face that managed to stay on from that first run until our last run eight days later, a black requiring a hike through gate access. That smile was a manifestation of how I felt inside.
When people ask me what my favorite destination is, I gush about Japan. I tell them of the wonders built by nature and man, the kind people and of course the ridiculous snow. This was the first I’d brought someone with me. Rashelle reflected my emotions and excitement for a place that has grown to bewilderingly special to me. Through her, I was able to see Niseko and her snow for the first time. Day after day, the time I waited for her at the bottom of runs grew shorter. I watched her grow in her new sport. I came to Japan thinking shredding was my great thing and powder made it greater. I left realizing powder was the great thing and Rashelle made it greater.