Yama No Kami – Kronicle Magazine

Originally published in Kronicle Backcountry Snowboarding Magazine – Winter 2011/12

I’ve skinned past snoring bears holed up in a tree and seen rabbits jump straight out of the skin track, but it took no sasquatch sighting to recognize the Japanese Northern Alps are a living, breathing landscape like none I’d experienced before. Touring amongst the tangled forests the birch trees seemed to grow right in front of my eyes, and riding above treeline the tempting but touchy blankets of pow had a schizophrenic mind all their own. The gracefully sculpted snow
panels hanging precariously off the ridges only added to the feeling. Every backcountry slope in Japan appeared intricately manicured…like an alpine zen garden. Stepping foot outta bounds offered spiritual grounds for powder meditation, but likewise demanded utmost respect.

I dreamt it would feel like this—fast, porpoising turns, snow billowing in our wake as we blasted through the stately forest—but this was no dream. This was ear-to-ear, shit-eating grin reality. We were finally here, lapping up legendary Ja’Pow faceshots in the misty trees of the Japanese Alps.

It was day one of a late-February trip to Hakuba, Japan, a mountain town located 220 miles northwest of Tokyo on Japan’s main island. Surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Kita (north) Alps, Hakuba is a year-round adventure destination with agricultural roots. Ten thousand residents, seven major ski areas and a few dozen rice paddies call the Hakuba valley home. My wife Allison and I had pulled the trigger on a last-minute journey to the quaint village after hearing rumors of bottomless pow and endless epic backcountry terrain.

Watching a couple hundred shred flicks all shot on Hokkaido, Japan’s north island, had brainwashed me into thinking the Japanese Alps were simply rolling ridges pock marked with hidden pillow gardens. Not so in Hakuba.

From the 5,500-foot summit elevation of Hakuba’s ski resorts, the peaks continue to rise another 3,000 feet before cresting above 9,000 feet. Here, towering rocky peaks hold down the title ‘Alps’ with authority. Several major ridgelines snake their way to the crest, each with a separate resort at its base. As the ridges rise past the resort boundaries the forested flanks open up revealing legit alpine terrain: dog-leg coolies, spine walls and all. Open access gates at most resorts seals the deal. Hakuba is a gateway to a diverse and spectacular backcountry playground. Prior to arriving, I blindly emailed Hakuba local and pro snowboarder Daisuke Ojima through a second-hand contact to inquire about hooking up for a backcountry tour, or maybe a hotel recommendation. His reply couldn’t have been sweeter:

“Me & Takashi (Takashi Minamiura, he kind of Japanese Tom Burt), we live in Hakuba and snowboard every day. Let’s shred!” wrote Daisuke. “Also good thing… Takashi’s family owns a hotel. I asked Takashi’s mom this morning. She said you can stay.”

The grand tour commenced within an hour of dropping our bags. Daisuke and Takashi scooped us up from the Silkwood Hotel and delivered us to the serene trees of Hakuba 47. The intention was to shred inbounds that first session but after one lap it was obvious that outta bounds was where we wanted to be. Like most Japanese resorts, Hakuba 47 roped off inbounds technical terrain like pillow gardens and cliff drops in the name of “public safety.” This buzz-kill reality wasn’t lost on our local guides. Second run they spirited us away into a secret sidecountry tree stash.

Only a few scattered tracks sliced and diced through these hidden shots, even though nearly a week had passed since the last storm. Crossing more tracks wouldn’t have mattered much to us. Our eyes were transfixed by the trees. Riding through the leaf-less, pale-barked silver birch trees was a true thrill. Even in the densest stands, the lack of low branches allowed you to bob and weave amongst them like you are slaloming gates. Our virgin views of the forest went next-level later that afternoon as a fog layer blew in and plastered all the birch branches with massive frost crystals. When the fog lifted, the forest lit up like someone strung white Christmas lights on every tree. The next morning we woke to drizzle and an inch or two of wet snow on the ground. Takashi caught up with us in the hallway as we headed down to breakfast.

“It’s not a good day to ride,” said Takashi. “Let’s go to the shrine.”

After a quick stop at 7-11 (the default breakfast/lunch spot in Japan), we rallied to the Togakushi Shinto shrine high above the city of Nagano. During the car ride Takashi explained that Shintoism is the indigenous spirituality of Japan and nearly the entire Japanese population practices the faith in some fashion. He regularly visited Shinto shrines to meditate, pray, and among other things, find inspiration for his next pro-model graphics.

Shintoism is not so much a religion, but more so a faith based on paying respect to ancient ancestors and the natural forces of the world. One Shinto belief is that all things contain a spiritual essence known as Kami. Sacred people, trees, rocks, mountains, waves and other natural phenomena all have Kami that are specifically defined and revered. According to Shinto tradition, honoring the Kami will avoid you misfortune.

When we arrived at the shrine the rain drops turned to fat snowflakes. We boot-skied around the rolling grounds and visited several sacred sites, including a special Sugi (Japanese cedar) tree with vibrant multi-colored bark which Takashi had patterned the top-sheet graphics of his latest Voltage Designs pro model after. The towering tree had a small natural cavity at its base guarded by a knotted rope—the residence of the Tree Kami.

The heavy flakes stacked up nicely; 8-10 inches in town and reports of 18-plus inches up high. The next day we slashed in and around the ropes at Hakuba 47, letting the fresh snow settle out as we eyed up future backcountry options. A million killer lines drop off the east-west ‘Ootomi’ ridge as it winds its way up to the high alpine peaks. Tree cover also decreases dramatically as the ridge rises, dense forest gives way to open shoulder lines and then finally, steep rocky buttresses cut with couloirs at the crest of the range. Across the valley a nearly identical ridge crawls up from another major ski area—Happo-One. All the lines have similar easy access off the ridgelines, but many of the drainages dump into creek systems that look treacherous to crawl out of.

The following day, an easy skin up the ridge above Hakuba 47 dropped us on top of a north-facing run known as ‘Ichinose’. Though we were less than a mile away from the resort boundary, the drainage felt truly wild, worlds away from Hakuba’s groomers. The steep ravines and pillowy gullies that ski patrol religiously roped off within the resort were open for surfing, and of course, suffocating should a loaded panel pull out.

Watching Daisuke and Takashi shred their home turf was a pleasure. They rode with a wicked skate style, ripping low-slung toe-side slashes and boosting big shifty ollies off any pillow or rollover within their sight. They also showed keen terrain selection skills and shied us away from a few tasty gully walls that hung over hidden creeks. The snowpack wasn’t too wind affected, so stability panned out to be pretty good. Wind-loading typically plagues the Hakuba snowpack as nasty slabs form on top of melt/freeze crusts. We saw no signs of instability until skinning back to the base of the resort, where a few south-facing gullies had ripped out huge, leaving chunky 100-foot wide tongues of avalanche debris.

Two more days lapping successively higher backcountry runs off Ootomi Ridge and we were itching to explore a new zone. Takashi made the brilliant call to chase a storm to Myoko, a neighboring resort region about two hours to Hakuba’s northeast. We stepped out of the car in Myoko into three-foot drifts; Hakuba only reported a couple inches that same morning. Myoko local and veteran Japanese pro skater Takaoki Hashimoto would be our tour guide for the day at a resort called Akakura Kanko.

Our crew boarded the gondola with splitboards in hand, thinking we might tour above the lifts to Hashimoto’s favorite terrain. Wading through waist-deep drifts leaving the top station changed our tune quickly. Earnin’ turns would be an unnecessary and dangerous sufferfest. Once again, all eyes turned to the adjacent sidecountry. Open access gates allowed us passage into fall-line gullies that flowed just parallel to the resort boundaries.

Burrowing down these sidecountry shots was a full-body affair as out-stretched arms helped keep you afloat. Our tunnels zig-zagged through the forest connecting small cliff drops at the eroded bases of the sprawling trees. At the bottom of each run, blower pow caked every inch of our bodies except for our hot, smiling lips. Looking out at the flanks of Mt. Myoko (8,051 feet) towering a couple thousand feet above the resort put our mini-golf lines in perspective though. Terrain features twice the size of what we just rode lurked on every aspect.

After a stellar day in Myoko, we returned to Hakuba where the weather forecast finally called for clear skies. The mid-winter bluebird day is rare in Hakuba, so we reconnected with Daisuke and Takashi and made plans to film some backcountry lines. Local cinematographer Ran-Ran was called in to shoot footage for Mental Digital Movie’s latest release, “Mountain Lovers”. The next day we rose early and met at Limori shrine in Hakuba. Before any of the crew would step foot in the alpine they spent several minutes at the shrine paying their respects to the Yama-no-Kami, the spirit of the mountain.

Our shooting destination was a spine wall significantly farther out Ootomi Ridge than we’d travelled previously. Touring out the ridge, I caught on to Daisuke’s comparison of Takashi to Tom Burt. Takashi cautiously led us past every hazard we encountered, meanwhile casually pointing out the rowdy alpine lines he had ridden, including a few first descents. When we arrived at the top of the northeast facing spine lines, Takashi roped up, lowered himself into an avy start zone and dug a snow pit.

The pit results showed decent stability but we had seen definitive natural avy activity so conditions were still suspect. Dropping in one at a time, we found that stability was indeed highly variable and a couple small pockets pulled out on both wind-loaded and sun-affected open slopes. The local crew noted that such variability is a common issue and one of the reasons many Japanese skiers and snowboarders are afraid of leaving the groomers, let alone leave the resort boundaries.

Walking around the shops in Hakuba that night, we saw an avalanche awareness bulletin that highlighted the local danger. It read:

“Do you think you are the exception? Remember someone is waiting for your safe return.”

The poster described exactly how Daisuke, Takashi and all the other local riders we met approached the backcountry. The shrine time before shredding, the meticulous snow pits and the calculated descent routes were all an effort to ensure their outta-bounds actions always played by house rules. I didn’t think I was pushing the limits either, but as it turns out, my eagle eye for danger left something to be desired. On one of the final days of our trip, I was caught in a shallow slide that propagated through a snow panel I had already cut across and determined to be safe. The slide wasn’t deep enough to bury me but it pummelled me pretty good.

Returning to Tahoe with lingering injuries was not part of the Japanese fantasy I dreamt of, but for better or for worse, it was a vital part of my experience. The accident made the lessons I learned at the shrine and in the Hakuba backcountry come full circle. It taught me that the mountains—whether you believe in spirits, fate or physics—demand humble respect with each and every step. It’s like tip-toeing through a garden. All it takes is one bad move and you might be stepping on the flowers. And the Yama-no-Kami don’t like that.

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