The Japan Diaries 1: Snowboarding Hokkaido's White Heaven

Words and pictures by Ben Strivens
Published October 2007

the city of Sapporo, during the annual snow festival

Japan remains one of the most intriguing and even life changing destinations for the Western skier or snowboarder. Four years ago, Ben Strivens quit his job and came to Hokkaido, Japan to see if the rumours about snow storms that buried houses were true. He never returned home. This is his story.

Hokkaido - Land Of The Snow

The North Island. Ezo. That bit at the top of Japan with all the powder. Home.

Hokkaido has been called many things. Most of them true. I've lived here since 2003, when I came out for a career break, a chance to live somewhere completely different and a chance to learn to snowboard properly (I'd had a short time in Chamonix the year before, and knew I was hooked). Like a lot of people who come to Japan, I came for a year. Like most people who come to Sapporo, a year turned into a lot longer.

I came out with a huge English teaching school (who are now in the process of going spectacularly bust!) which, luckily enough, set me up with a job, apartment, flatmates and a schedule that allowed me to snowboard six days a week. The job was fairly easy and the people I met were fairly like-minded; easy-going and snow obsessed.

I was ecstatic to find that both of my flatmates were good lads and one of them was a snowboard obsessed Canadian who had a huge stash of snowboard DVDs. We spent the summer happily watching these, playing Amped on the Xbox and buying my first bits of snowboard kit. Luckily, the Japanese are "new model" obsessed, so last year's jackets, pants, boards and bindings were all going for a relative song.


The First Winter

As the first winter rolled around, the fever pitch that we had built up at home exploded onto the mountain and our local hill, Teine, became my second home. Until, that is, I managed to convert a huge amount of newbie over-confidence into a separated shoulder. I spent Christmas in a sling and after four weeks of occasionally strapping in on the couch, I emerged again onto the slopes and started trying to get over my body's fear of falling over again. After the first season finished, I had stopped thinking of returning to the UK, and had started thinking about goals for next season.

Sapporo is the fifth largest city in Japan, but weighing in at 1.8 million people, it's far from a bustling metropolis. It does, however, have the largest entertainment district North of Tokyo, an insane area called Susukino, full of high-rise buildings with 5 bars to a floor. It is also the centre of the sex industry, and a Yakuza (Japanese mafia) stronghold, but I can honestly say that I have never felt safer walking home at 3 a.m.

The people are friendly, the food, booze and rent are cheap and everywhere you look you can see a mountain at the end of the street. It also has a pretty spectacular beer festival, where five central city blocks of park are devoted to the best Japanese beer has to offer. Three weeks of happy summer fun with the locals running up to you to test their English and, better yet,  share their booze.

Hokkaido's Mountains

Hokkaido has an embarrassment of mountains. Granted no one's going to mistake any of them for Alaska, Whistler or the Alps, but that's not really important. It snows. All the time, from December to March. Icy cold air from Siberia loads up on moisture from the Sea of Japan and then dumps its snowy load all over Hokkaido and western Honshu.  Not only is the snowfall insane, but the lift lines are short and because of the relatively low altitude, the tree runs are plentiful, powderful and chock full of hits.

Within an hour and a half's drive from Sapporo, there are around ten mountains to choose from, some lit until 11!  Make it a couple of hours and you've got Niseko and Rusutsu, which attract pro-shreds year in year out. Rusutsu is still the only place where I've ridden and just giggled like a fool for the whole, huge, run through the armpit deep powder.

Back To The Real World?

After four amazing winter seasons, some of the best people I know, I met on the mountain. Unfortunately there are a lot of good-byes too as people decide to head back to "the real world" and do something serious and they are sorely missed when the snow comes around. But we've got a fairly solid crew of die-hards who haven't left yet and we've been planning some adventures around the island; finding new powder stashes, cat-boarding and generally working as little as humanly possible.

November 11th, opening day at a tiny mountain on the coast, is now what we're waiting for. Waxing parties, new video home premiere parties, endless weekends of scouring the shops for last season's gear on sale.

November 11th has been a whisper in the wind for the last few months, but as the temperature dips into the single figures, it's starting to become a shout. A landing strip of over-populated, slushy, dirty, man-made snow. Right now, it's best thing I could possible imagine.

Tune in next month for part 2 of the Ben's Japan Diaries.

Related Reading:

The Fukui Fellowship; Snowboarding Japan

SEASON BLOG: Working the Winter in the French Alps PART 3

Best Day of a Bad Season; Working the Winter in Whistler