Japan Expanse

I love the north island of Japan. I have been going to the Niseko area in January for nearly a decade by now, and I still find new things there every time I go. I am trying to host a trip there in the near future so I really wanted to expand my understanding of the area even more. I have a pretty dialed program there by now, but there is a lot of terrain there, and as I said, I find something new every time I go. I wanted to meet some new people in the area as well as further expand my network of friends there.   

^My little boy, Amos, loves to travel too, and he was begging to come with. I don't think he is ready for international travel just yet, and when he is he will certainly need to wear some pants! This kid cracks me up all the time. Quite the little goofball.

^The travel grind over the big pond is legit. I went from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas to Tokyo to Sapporo this time around, and the flights went well. No matter how much I travel though it always wipes me out. Especially big routes likes Japan. A lot of planes, trains, and automobiles by the time its all said and done.

^Lost twenty bucks in the Las Vegas airport too. 

^A good ten and a half hour flight from Las Vegas to Tokyo.

^The two and a half hour bus ride from Sapporo to Niseko is a beautiful ride though. Time flies by when views like this are in your window. Its always cool to watch the snow banks grow the closer and closer the bus gets to the Niseko area too. It helps the excitement build. 

^It stormed really hard while I was there so my mission to tour the whole time became difficult as the avalanche danger rose higher then I have actually ever seen it go before there. That meant more ski resort time, and that also meant some lodge drinking with some of those new friends I was hoping to make. A group of Ukrainian friends and I made great use of the down time. Alexey, on my left in the picture, is a telemark skier who I met in Japan many years ago. He converted after meeting me and my crew there back then. It was super cool to reconnect with him this year and see how good he has mastered the telemark art over the years.  

^It wouldn't be a complete trip if we didn't have some sort of debacle along the way. One day on our way to tour near Kiroro we had the brake on one front wheel seize up leaving us stranded in Kutchan. I was meeting up with a new friend who is a local guide, Sven Gorham, and a friend of his Johan. At a stop light in Kutchan a loud clunk came from Johan's van and we all knew something bad just happened. Thankfully we were right near a mechanic shop, and Sven's local connections got us back to Hirafu. Sven and I salvaged a resort day, all the while Johan dealt with his car troubles. Funny thing was when we were walking through Kutchan I saw another friend I had been trying to meet up with there for years. Another local guide there, Sergio Cabestrero. Sergio and I have been talking for years, but had never managed to get together and then I saw him at an intersection in Kutchan! That is hilarious to me. As I said to Johan and Sven as we walked through town with all our gear, "These are what make for the best stories. If everything always went perfectly it wouldn't be nearly as rewarding."

^Sven and I still had a killer day of powder skiing out the gates of Niseko United.

^Sven proving it.

^Then I ran into my good friends, Andrew Schauer and Makenzie Mailly in the lift line of Hanazono! Gotta love the random meet up in the middle of a foreign country halfway around the world. I go way back with these two by now in the telemark game, and I was pumped to meet up with them.

^Got to take a couple runs with Andrew too. Also deep.

^Famous Niseko United single chair.

^Sun rise from the YHA Niseko Fujiyama Karimpani, the hostel that I always stay at just outside the Hirafu madness in the rural countryside of Niseko. That's more my style. I am not one to really posh it up, and this warm cozy place is really homey for me by now. I have come to consider the owner, Max Ito, a telemark skier, a good friend by now. He and I first met many years ago when I came for a Telemark Skier assignment to make an entire issue about Niseko and we ended up staying with Max because he was a telemark skier and wanted to work with us on the issue. I have stayed with him nearly every single time since, and he has introduced me to so many wonderful people in Niseko. I love that place, that guy, and his family. His hostel is perfect for me, my budget, and my style. I always make friends with new people from all over the world when I stay there.  

^Max giving me a ride into town to meet up with Sven for a big touring day with the majestic Mount Yotei in the background that looms over the Niseko skyline each time the sun makes an appearance, which it rarely does in January. Usually its just slamming snow the whole time I am there in January.

^It felt like a gift to get some sunshine the last day I had in Niseko. Sven and I jumped on the chance to do some touring in an area I had skied often before, but with Sven leading the day I was privy to a lot more local knowledge, He really helped me bring it all together on the peak of Mt. Iwaonupuri by answering my barrage of questions about the skylines we were seeing with the clear skies. I was finally able to get the big picture with my own eyes beyond the extensive topographic map research I have done over the years. I have skied a lot of the zones in the area, but getting up above it all with clear skies helped me see how all those areas really come together, and that goes a really long way in understanding in the backcountry game.  

^Sven leading another of our many skin tracks for the day in this picture above. I can't express how grateful I am to Sven for giving me some good tours, but I hope to show him a good time in my backyard when he comes to the U.S. for the USTSA Freeskiing competition I am organizing at Grand Targhee first weekend of March. I am so happy to have a chance to return the favor a little bit.  

^Some beautiful music from some local women at Max's place on my last night in town. 

^The Ukrainians, and my friends Max, Ben, and Anna from Max's staff sent me off with a good little party too! I was pleasantly surprised. 

^We drank, talked, laughed and even sang through the evening. We kept Max and Ben up really late too! At one point in the night the Ukrainian crew began singing some traditional songs from their home. When I left the U.S. my wife told me that she needed me to go to Japan and get over cancer. My son, Amos, was diagnosed with Leukemia just two years prior, which threw our family for a horrible loop. If I am honest, I took the whole ordeal really hard. It messed me up, and in truth, I was still struggling as I packed my bags for Japan. My wife told me I needed to go, I needed to get back to work on my most passionately pursued projects, and as she said to me as we parted just before my flight I needed to, "get over cancer and come back to her as the zen master husband she married." I took that so deep to heart. Unbeknownst to my new friends around the table in Max's hostel my emotional state had been in a heightened level as a result of this charge from my wife the whole trip. However, as the drunken singing began one of the Ukrainian crew, a woman named Irina, gave in to the begging of all the big burly Ukrainian men she was traveling with and broke out into a Ukrainian folk song translated to english as, "Oh, In The Cherry Orchard". Before she began, Alexey explained to me that this folk song is about the love of a man and a woman. Irina sheepishly cleared her throat and then as she began to sing the room full of Ukrainian machismo went completely silent as what I can only say was the voice of a literal angel filled the room and our hearts. I did not expect to hear the amazingly beautiful voice coming from her blushing face. As tears began to stream down my face I tried to hide my emotion from the big macho Ukranian men. However, as I looked around the room to see if anyone noticed me wiping the tears from my eyes I saw that everyone in the room was watching with the kind of silent intent that I could tell that Max, and Ben and all these strong burly Ukrainian men were feeling it too. As she sang, the memories of my wife and I going through the whole cancer battle with our little boy flooded through my mind. I couldn't understand a word of the lyrics in her native tongue, but the sheer beauty of her voice and the resonance of the silent solemn faces of these macho men all around me left me absolutely speechless. I was to leave the following morning, and a send off like that was something I could never have imagined and am so thankful to all these friends of mine at Max's quant hostel for giving me.       

^I left Max's before the sun came up the next morning,

^, and as I rode out of town on the bus to a sunrise spectacle I was again pretty emotional thinking about the charge my wife had given me. I thought about my mission to expand my understanding and network in the Niseko area. I don't really know if I got over cancer. I don't know if I am fully back to the zen master state of mind that was once paramount in my life. I do know that I was deeply touched by the experiences on this trip. I do know that Irina's beautiful voice moved me to tears in reflection of the last two years amidst the dramatic battles my young son and our family fought for his survival. I do know that I am so blessed with the old and new friends of mine in Niseko. I know that Sven not only gave me more understanding of the Niseko backcountry, but also became one of those new friends that I will cherish. I knew that morning that I was ready to go home.  

^My wife and Amos picked me up from the airport in Salt Lake City. He is such a special boy, and I am such a grateful dad. I was indeed in a better place when I got home. Over cancer? Back to zen master? I don't know for sure, but definitely closer then I was before I left and definitely ready to keep going forward in my myriad of pursuits. My work towards hosting a trip to Japan was furthered, my understanding of the expanse of the Niseko backcountry became more solidified, and my network of friends in Niseko and across the globe as enriched with the kind of good-natured souls that I value so much in my life. It seems I end nearly every one of these posts about my ski industry career experiences with some sort of deep reverence and gratitude, but all I can say is that I really just can't figure out how I could feel any other way about it when these kinds of experiences come my way so much with so many genuinely kind-hearted people along the way.