Cover Photo: Kellen Mohr
I met David when we were both about 8 years old at summer camp in Minnesota. I don’t know what’s more weird, the fact that I, a kid from Boulder, Colorado, went to a summer camp in the middle of the Northwoods (a camp my mom found on Google) or that 15 years later I’d be climbing and skiing Japanese peaks with David. Back in those days he was a punk kid whose older brothers introduced him to gangster rap too early. Nowadays I’d probably still call him a punk kid, but he’s traded the tall tees reading “GMFB” (which totally means Good Men For Business, mom ;) ) for Goretex.
Our paths stopped crossing for a few years when we both moved on and aged out of summer camp. This was right around when Myspace gave way to Facebook, so we managed to stay in touch when David would answer a message, something that can still take him weeks to do. Skiing was the main thread that would continue to weave our paths together as he would pop in and out of my life in Colorado and later Washington. He would call, and we'd share a couple days together, rather randomly it seemed, every two years or so.
Constant consumers of ski culture, with an eye for the artistic, we both acquired an admiration for Eric Pollard and the Nimbus Independent crew. At one of our shared places over the years we both, unknowing to the other, had bought the latest Pollard pro models. This fandom cemented one certainty in both our minds, we must go to Japan someday.
I had planned to make my pilgrimage in January of 2016, after I graduated a semester early from college. My parents’ desire to celebrate mine and my brother’s graduations, as well as my friends (David included) inability to extend their winter breaks meant my Japanese dream trip turned into a family vacation. It wasn’t what I had planned for, but amazing nonetheless.
In August of 2016, I was working in a brewery packaging beer; five months removed from skiing and tired of the monotony of manual labor I was susceptible to stupid ideas, like booking a flight to Japan. David posted on Facebook that his tickets were bought, and even though I didn’t have guaranteed work beyond the brewery’s busy summer season, I wasn’t far behind. We were going to make the Japow dream trip happen, me, my friend I met 15 years ago at summer camp in northern Minnesota, and a motley crew of friends. What a world we live in.
Fast forward a few months, and I’m in a car headed to the Seattle airport. I left on a Saturday. Probably still drunk from the night before and far too little sleep put a haze on the morning that made my departure all the more surreal. One hangover and a heinous set of connecting flights later I was in Sapporo.
I snapped out of the dream, as I found David, Mackenzie, and Hibbs in the airport the next morning, and soon after cracked my first Sapporo beer of the trip, at 9 AM, thanks to Hibbs. We cruised out to the popular Niseko ski area where we would pick up our rental van. Sapporo quickly gives way to the classic rural Hokkaido views of flat farms and rolling hills covered in naked birch trees. We rolled into the Niseko ski area where we were picked up in our rental van for the first week of our stay.
Chris and Kellen arrived later that night, and it didn’t take long to fall into our skiing, fizzy-yellow-beer drinking, and ramen eating routine.
Each morning we’d get up, make breakfast and slowly load up the van to head to the day’s ski resort or backcountry zone. Depending on where everyone fell on the scale from passive to aggressive, or just passive-aggressive, a pilot for the day would be chosen. About half of the time the driver was self selecting, simply by who hadn’t cracked a drink yet. Kirin Grapefruit Chu-Hai was the favorite morning beverage, make it a Strong for Hibbs. A stop at Seico Mart went without suggestion needed so Kellen could stock up on donuts, and the rest of us could get our riceballs and beers for the day of skiing.
Thanks to portable wifi and my relentless research (see unproductive days at work), we didn’t have much trouble finding awesome skiing. After one of our more adventurous mornings, we found an a pretty special zone for our first day of touring. I “met” Kellen years ago on Newschoolers.com, when we were both little shits flipping ski gear to make cash. I knew he had some touring experience, although his bindings had him on the brink of giving it up by the end of the day. Chris, however, had never been on a tour in his life. This area was the perfect introduction, with a mellow switchbacking ascent in the sunshine to the kind of Japanese tree skiing we’d grown up watching in the movies. The Onsen at the base of the zone was the icing on the cake, it had an ice cream vending machine, too. Onsens and ice cream became part of the routine rather quickly as we’d wrap up a day of skiing and head to the public baths.
We were staying on the shore of Lake Toya, which appeared to be a pretty popular summer destination, but the small town our Airbnb resided in was pretty desolate in the winter. The skiing in Japan is located in some pretty rural areas, still dominated by farming rather than tourism. Coming from big US resorts like Mammoth, Kirkwood, and Colorado this is something that took a lot of the crew by surprise. I think this is what gives visiting skiers a lot of the exotic and “lost in time” feel of skiing that people get here, a funny concept once you get back into the huge cities like Tokyo.
As we were headed over the mountain pass back into Sapporo to pick up our vehicle for the second leg of the trip we ran into our only instance of botched planning. The Airbnb host agreed to refund a night’s stay due to the lack of running water in the house, so we assumed that our last night that we had discussed with the host would be free. As we popped in and out of service on drive to Sapporo we learned that the host felt differently, and had reported us to the police for stealing the night’s stay, among charges of messing up the house, good thing we were about to get a new car. The language and wifi service barriers here led to our biggest scare of the trip here, and we probably should have cleaned up a bit better, but everything settled out okay.
Frantic emails and a pretty drive through the mountains later we faced our next challenge, fitting all six of us and our ski gear into the small RV that would be our home for the next five nights.I was skeptical of the RV from the beginning, and one rental company even turned us down because they said we wouldn’t fit. David and the rest of the crew succeeded in convincing me to go for it. So there we were figuring out how best to strap our skis to the back of the 15’ camper. My doubt faded quickly as I realized we might just make it happen.
Our original plans had us heading for Central Hokkaido, towards backcountry zones I’d been with my family. The forecast, however, had three times the snow falling back in Kiroro, where we’d skied the week prior. Somehow the ability to park directly at the base of ski areas slowed, rather than sped up, our already casual pace. Maybe it was the Kirin Stong’s, and Suntory “The Brew” beers, or a week and a half of shredding, but even anxious and impatient me didn’t seem to mind at this point in the trip.
With wind and rain coming to Kiroro, we headed out of the mountains to the coastal town of Otaru. The warm and wet weather made for some spicy driving conditions as I piloted the RV down the switchbacks out of the mountains. I’d slide a good long way into each turn, hoping to get traction back before the bend, the crew didn’t seem to mind as they got drunk in the back, sporting the new Aussie accents they picked up in Niseko.
Otaru would be our last night together with the full crew of six. We parked the rig right next to a convenience store, drank some beers and looked back on the trip. After tirelessly trying to build jumps every night, Hibbs finally succeeded in convincing the boys to do some after hours skiing. The result was a Kirin fueled shred through the streets of Otaru. In way, this night was a fitting end to the trip. Sure we skied some of the deepest powder of our lives over our two weeks, but it's the quirky things like cooking breakfast on the snowbank of a convenience store and getting yelled at by the employee for skiing down his sidewalk that stick around in your mind. A couple nights in Sapporo would wrap up the trip for me as I got myself to the airport much in the same way I left, still drunk and in a dream. Maybe it was a dream: the powder, the conveyor belt sushi, and way too many riceballs. If so, I’ll have another drink.
Video by Chris Naum with help from Michael Hibbs and David Wells