Land of Riding Gaijin

By Zack Giffin, 19 November 2012

  • DATE

    19 November 2012


    Zack Giffin


    Skiing & Snowboarding

The idea of traveling to Japan for skiing was first brought up in conversation in Argentina. At that time I was doing everything I could to keep my expenses to a minimum. The thought of traveling to Japan, (one of the more expensive places possible) was not something I could see happening any time soon. But I never vocalized my doubts and before I knew it the plan had been made. Months went by and still, I waited for signs of the plan falling apart and the inevitable that would keep our trip from happening. The weird thing was, we never ran into a major problem and before I knew it I was on a plane heading to Japan. 

For many reasons, all good ones, I wound up on a separate plane from the rest of the group. Being one to not shy away from a good adventure, I arranged to meet the group in Myoko; a town about four hours of train rides away from Tokyo. What was to be an easy couple of transfers with plenty of time to spare, turned into a day of travel on trains that kept stopping to clear the tracks of snow. Finally I reached Myoko. I grabbed my luggage and prepared to step off the train. The doors closed and I could hear the faint noise of the breaks release as the train began its trek to the next cold foreign town. Frantic, I used all my strength to pry the doors open, as I imagine myself being taken away to the unknown. Thankfully, someone on the outside saw my struggle and got the attention of the train master. The breaks were again set, the doors opened, and I was allowed to finish my travels and settle into a cozy Japanese style hotel—waking to fish, tea, mushroom salad and a meter of snow that had fallen overnight! 

Apparently that kind of snow doesn’t fall every day in Japan. But I wouldn’t be able to attest to that because nearly every night we were measuring the new snow by the foot---not by the inch. The Japanese however, mostly measure the snow in centimeters and for the purpose of not scaring away their potential Japanese clients, laughably under report the new snow. The second day’s 10 centimeters turned into about two feet. The third day they reported 15 and we were somehow neck deep. However the official reporting, the reality was huge snow by the end of our week in Myoko. Pillow lines became slopes, trees became pillows, roads became trails, and the mountain transformed itself as over ten feet fell during the time we were there---all with virtually no competition for lines. 

At the end of the day “Onsen” was the only word any of us cared to hear. In fact, other than a good meal and a warm body to stay the night with, Onsen is the best way I know to improve on a stellar powder day; Onsen means “hot springs”. In Japan hot springs aren’t just for the monkeys, they are for every one and virtually every hotel in Myoko has one. It was said to me that if you dig about 100 meters into the ground nearly anywhere in Japan hot water comes up! I’m not sure if it is entirely true, but it is true that hot springs have been a part of Japanese culture for a long time and they feel really good after skiing in a blizzard all day. It was not long before Onsens became part of my morning ritual as well. Equiped with a Kimono style robe and special Onsen slippers, I’d make my way to the Hot springs stopping by the dining room on the way back to see how adventurous I wanted to get at breakfast. Raw egg on rice with sweet octopus? Or fish, Miso and fermented spiderweb beans?

After eight days of pillow smashing, barrier hucking, and literally digging our selves out of the snow, the sun came out. Our time in Myoko was up. One day of travel brought us to the headquarters of the Japanese alps – Hakuba. A mecca for Australians on holiday and home to by far the largest alpine mountains I’ve seen in Japan. As you take the series of lifts up Hakuba’s highest mountain Happoone, the Beach and Birch trees turn into brush as the typical Japanese forest scenery falls away revealing what seemed to be a portal to Alaska. Long lines off large fluted peaks absolutely buried in a deep maritime snow pack. It looked like the best line of your life off of every peak on every aspect. A certain amount of remoteness combined with deep valleys, super steep side-walls and absolute avalanche exposure in every direction contradict the inviting aesthetics of the lines. 

Seeing all the new snow the past week we were understandably wary of slides. On our first sunny day the snow seemed surprisingly stable and consolidated. We skied some good long runs that day and made plans to push out early the next morning. As it so often happens, the opportunities only present themselves for a short time and by the next day the storms had returned and our window to the Japanese alpine was closed. Satisfied with my two long runs I skied the next few days down in the forests enjoying the open tree lines we all know from the movies. The powder was terrific the rest of our trip, but my mind kept wondering back to those few sunny moments; high out the gate at Happoone, when the true possibilities in Japan were revealed to me. My last question about Japan’s legitimacy as one of the best places on earth to ski had been answered. Japan is not only about fun happy pillow hopping, Snow Monkeys, and Ramen. There is world class big mountain skiing and that means Japan has everything a skier wants, with more snow, less people and better food.

Zack Giffin

Gold Hill, CO

Zack Giffin grew up skiing and playing soccer with two brothers in the small mining town of Gold Hill, Colorado. Years of ski trips and movie projects with brothers Jeff and Sam lead to involvement and eventual leadership of Right On Brother Productions, a film company now headed by Sam.

In 2003, Zack and Sam moved to Mt. Baker Washington to work in the terrain park and pursue film making in the Pacific North West, where they both still live. A close relationship with friend and photographer Grant Gunderson created many travel opportunities and photos published. Called one of Washington’s “Alpine Icons” by Ski Washington Magazine, Zack has been featured in every major ski magazine, and he has done video projects for ESPN, Skiing and Powder magazine.

These days you can find Zack traveling the winters in a 112 square foot Tiny House he built in the fall of 2011, or in a remote part of British Columbia filming for the upcoming Sweetgrass Productions release “Valhalla.”​

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