Words & Photos: DCDS Ambassador Kyle Smaine
Within the ski and snowboard world Japan has built an impressive reputation. For decades, skiers and film crews have been traveling to Japan for the same reason: the seemingly never-ending supply of deep, light, powder. Year after year, more people travel here and continue to come back with similar tales of snow that never stops, lifts with no lines, and a culture so welcoming and courteous that even the strongest patriots will consider a long term change of locale. All these things and more peaked our interest and motivated our journey to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Ask any skier or snowboarder what their favorite type of skiing is, and you’ll almost unanimously get powder as the answer. I don’t know what it is about sliding down mountains on a blanket of freshly fallen snow that is so uniquely satisfying. Even after 25 years of sliding down slopes I had never bothered to specify why it is so dang fun... whether it is just because a good powder day is a scarce resource, or that it invites excited camaraderie among friends, or the ability to effortlessly float down the mountain no matter the terrain that makes those days in the mountains so cherished. I’ve never felt a reason to define what makes those moments so unique, and sometimes surreal: it's not a question science can answer, just something magical and a little different for each of us. Regardless, the pursuit of powder has been entrancing generations of skiers for decades, almost as though it is the magic pixie dust drawing all the lost boys and girls to Neverland. Japan was our Neverland and after all these years of wishing and dreaming, we were ready to take the leap.
Admittedly, this wasn’t my first time to Japan. My maiden voyage was this same time last year, and the experience was special enough to seduce me into returning to Hokkaido again — perhaps the start of an annual pilgrimage, but it is too early to say for sure. My friend Andy (who was among my travel partners last year) and I led two more of our childhood friends on their first international ski trip.
There is so much information on Japan it can be overwhelming at times. Every trip report or new edit pulls you towards different regions, time frames, and flight itineraries. Both years And and I decided on traveling up to Hokkaido, the northern Island of Japan. Hokkaido typically receives more consistent snow conditions thanks to colder, drier storms that arrive more frequently. Our primary goal was to ski powder every day until our legs couldn’t muster another turn, and hopefully ski some of the lightest and deepest snow we had ever experienced. Hokkaido sounded like the place that could deliver. It certainly helped that Kiroro Resort, the "best ski resort in Japan", was a part of the Powder Alliance and all of us would have three free days of skiing on our Sierra at Tahoe passes from home. When traveling overseas on a 20-something's ski budget, every hack makes a difference.
The main challenge when traveling to Japan is finding lodging. A booming tourism business keeps the prices of lodging going up, and availability continues to drop. Thanks to a friend, we managed to find a lodge in the small village of Akaigawa to call home for the trip. After many years of traveling the world mainly for leisure and halfpipe contests, I have found there are two main ways to travel abroad. The first way is to choose many locations to stay during a trip and travel between them — this way you can physically see more of a country, but you end up spending a substantial amount of time traveling, as well as packing and unpacking along the way. The second is to stay in one place and visit spots that are within a distance that you can easily drive to and from. The beauty of this method is that you spend enough time in one place to really connect and discover the town and community that call it home. This time, we opted for the second travel method. We settled on the small village of Akaigawa, conveniently located 20 minutes from Kiroro, 45 minutes from Niseko, and only 20 minutes from the coastal town of Yoichi. Unknowingly, we also had close proximity to a handful of really fun backcountry zones: zones we likely would never have noticed without spending the extra time in one place and befriending the locals who eventually gave us a little beta on their favorite stashes.
I’ve found that on ski trips, jet lag often becomes an almost beneficial side effect of the long travel days — forcing everyone to wake up before dawn not because of an alarm, but instead our confused biological clocks releasing their drugs. Green tea and coffee from DRINK COFFEE DO STUFF are the only methods of making it to the end of the first few days. Each morning we woke early, checked the snow reports and discussed day's plan over a hot mug. By the end of the trip it became routine, just chatting about where to ski powder that day. It was never a matter of whether or not we would ski powder, just where we would find deeper, less trafficked powder, each day feeling more confident in our predictions. When it snows almost every single day, it becomes hard to want to journey too far from the lift accessed terrain. Thanks to our good friend Cam we knew many secret stashes at the resort: it was just easier to go out and ski 8-12 inches of new snow and hop back on the lift for another lap.
When we were willing to tour, we were always rewarded. Despite so much easy access to the backcountry it felt like we were almost always the only ones out there. Setting first tracks down perfect slopes constantly rewarded with face shot after face shot. Hours passed by cresting one ridge only to see three more behind it: blank canvases waiting to be skied.
Despite heavy, tired legs by the end of the trip, all I wanted to do was tour. Each day we scoured the mountains from the car to spot a rad zone. Once spotted, we would quickly flip around and find a place to park and get our kit together for a nice long walk... never confident that our car would remain in the parking spot without being towed or ticketed. The risk was worth taking for finding new thrills and spots that felt as if we were the only ones who ever sought them out.
Japan rewards those willing to step outside the resort boundaries. More and more people continue to tick Japan off their bucket list, so when you take the next step in discovery and leave the more crowded slopes (still basically empty compared to the states) you find what Japan really has to offer.
This trip wasn’t about creating an edit or a shot list or skiing the biggest lines we could find. This was a group of friends who grew up in California binging on ski movies and online forums out to find a new part of the world, get a taste of Japanese culture, and throw away the responsibilities of growing up even if it only lasted a couple weeks. We all skied some of the deepest and certainly the lightest powder we had ever experienced. We made many new friends, and ate some strange and delicious foods along the way. My buddy Brian Walker pulled out his camera and collected little snippets of magic: a collaborative effort just to create something cool because we wanted to. Thank you for reading and watching, and I hope that our trip to Japan helps inspire you to take a step into the unknown and find somewhere or something new.