Japan, Any Way You Can

The logistics of visiting Japan on the limited budget that the snowboarding lifestyle has blessed us all with doesn't make pleasure trips to the Orient very realistic. Fortunately, once a year, the Japanese distributors of American-made snowboarding products decide to import a few of the top sponsored riders of brands they sell. The theory is that bringing these celebrities across the Pacific for a few autograph sessions and an appearance or two at the local ski hill will increase the sales for the particular product endorsed by the pros. And because the biggest trade show for the snow industry in Japan happens in February, it is no coincidence that professional snowboarding's annual pilgrimage occurs in the same month.

A Simple Plan

After standing by and watching this happen year after year without me, I made plans to somehow land myself a spot amongst one of these tours. In the months leading up to February, calls were made to people in higher places. I attempted to convince them that they needed to bring me and my journalistic skills along to, ahem, document the trip. After all, I was an aspiring member of the snowboarding media, almost certainly guaranteed to get them some kind of coverage. And who doesn't need coverage? Despite repeated attempts, I finally exhausted this angle and had to fall back on a good ol' standby–begging TransWorld for a ticket. All I had to do is come back with a story and some photos, how hard could that be?

Culture Shock

The first stop on the journey was what is possibly the world's most futuristic city, Tokyo. The city is one staggering maze of lights, traffic, and architecture straight out of the movie Blade Runner.

Before leaving Los Angeles, I had met up with professional snowboarders Blaise Rosenthal, Kendall Whelpton, Chad Otterstrom, and Dionne Delesalle. Besides being the subjects of my proposed story, this group was also in Japan to do some appearances for their sponsor's distributor. Not long after landing we met our host, and he did his best to ease the culture shock. His solution was to take us somewhere we would all be familiar with–a theme-style restaurant, in the TGI-Fridays tradition. After flying halfway across the world we were staring at a menu that, although we couldn't read, promised to contain all the food we're supposed to like as Westerners. Although I had my doubts, it actually wasn't half bad.

However, we didn't come all the way to Japan to eat burgers and pasta, so for the remainder of the trip we requested more traditional Japanese cuisine when mealtime rolled around. At times this proved to be a true test of our host's English skills, as something inevitably gets lost in the translation when describing a plate of cold fish eyeballs over seaweed. Luckily, almost all Japanese restaurants provide some sort of visual display along with their menu. This was either in the form of a simple photograph or, more often than not, a waxed replica of the dish. Anyone who has visited a Japanese restaurant has probably seen a version of this. I always assumed that these were a courtesy used to aid the illiterate Japanese and tourist, but they were common in almost all restaurants we frequented, both inside and outside of the cities. This led me to the conclusion that the food is so bizarre at times, even the native Japanese sometimes have a hard time imagining it without a visual crutch.

Futurama

For the next few day we were free from the “hassles” of having to go snowboarding, and let loose on the streets of Tokyo. While Tokyo is hours, not to mention, a few-hundred dollars in road tolls from the nearest resort, there are still snowboarding options. The “ski domes,” as they are called, are indoor snowboard resorts whose names reflect their architecture–usually a chaiift and an incline long enough to justify charging outrageous prices for admission. One dome even houses an indoor halfpipe. But instead of wasting valuable time here, we had more important business to attend to–shopping for electronics.

I think that after a lot of pro snowboarders careers are over, they could find work in the home-electronics business. Collecting the latest video camera, mini-disc player, portable DVD, or whatever is becoming more than just a hobby, it's an integral part of maintaining professional status these days. Some of our group knew more about the items they were buying than the Japanese salesmen did. But of course, there was plenty of electronica that none of us had ever seen before. Besides the palm-sized cell phones that were cheap enough to be considered “disposable,” there were aisles of gizmos and gadgets that did just about anything you could think of smarter, faster, and smaller than their American counterparts. And if this wasn't enough to inundate the senses, it was nearly impossible to go down a street that didn't have two or three state-of-the-art video arcades on each corner. I must admit I'm not a video-game connoisseur, but the games here made the latest selections in America look like Pac Man.

Geographic Reality

Eventually, although somewhat reluctantly, we made our way to the snow. For those of you not familiar with the geography of Japan, two islands make up the majority of the country. Whether or not I had stored this information in the back of my mind somewhere over the years, it became something that will be hard to forget anytime soon. Over the next couple days all we heard was how great the North Island was, and how they were having a record year, over and over again. We were stuck on the South Island, and with the exception of the Nagano region, it was much like visiting the Midwest, only with a severe lack of snow. While a tight schedule prevented us from ever confirming the greatness of the North Island firsthand, the quantity of stories and photographic evidence to back it, was proof enough.

Alternative Fun

Not everything was a wash, however. After all, it was still Japan, and even if we were completely bored snowboarding at times, at least we were bored in Japan, which is still somewhat exotic. Having traveled several hours outside of Tokyo, we got to see a side of Japan that was completely different from the city. Contrary to fact that this country suffers from an overpopulation problem, there are actually uninhabited regions. Sure they might only be a couple of square miles here and there, but in more ways than the quality of the riding, it's reminiscent of the Midwest. That is until you checked into a hotel. In Tokyo accommodations are relatively Westernized, but out in the sticks the true traditional culture is dominant. Rooms consisted of straw mats with futons to sleep on. Bathing takes place in a common room similar to a high school locker room. The shower heads were all low to the ground and came with a six-inch-high wooden stool, which you were supposed to sit on while scrubbing. In the center of these rooms was a giant tub, complete with fresh kelp, I wasn't sure if we should use before or after showering. To avoid the possibility of breaking tradition, I played it safe and bypassed the tub completely.

Amongst the other attractions around town were the infamous karaoke bars. Now, I always assumed that the karaoke references about the Japanese were somewhat of a generalization, but I have to tell you after seeing it firsthand, they are truly passionate about their karaoke. I would almost go so far as to say that it is sacred. No matter how isolated the town, there was always a karaoke bar to be found, and never did I see one empty. In fact, they were always filled to capacity with a mixed crowd of both young and old. Some couples dropped by to do a quick tune or two, and would leave without even consuming a single drink. Our participation in these establishments was very limited, and not because they weren't fun, but because of the ridiculously high prices–to come inside and sit down was the equivalent of 30 dollars. Add some drinks to the mix, and your looking at a very expensive way to get loose and belt out some Neil Diamond tunes. When we got hit with our bill the first night, we thought that there was some kind of mistake, and the price must have been for the entire party, not per person. But, we were told that the bill was stated correctly. To confirm that we hadn't been had, we visited another establishment a few days later, only to find an even higher price. Needless to say, this was the last of our karaoke experiences.

Big In Japan

Not to exclude too many of you loyal readers, but those of us who came of age in mid 80s were raised on catchy little tune called, “Big In Japan” by a band called Alphaville. While this song didn't have a huge impact on my life, I did find myself unable to resist calling it up from the mental archives–especially after witnessing the mayhem the Japanese engage in when in the presence of a famous pro snowboarder. Hell, you don't even have to be famous, as long as you looked like you were with a pro. This became obvious when on more than one occasion I was asked to sign an autograph simply because I happened to be standing next to Blaise Rosenthal.

Things went to another level at the Nippon Open, Japan's version of the U.S. Open. Competitors from around the world were present at this event, but most notably, some guy named Terje was there. While the contest itself turned out better than average due to the construction of two back-to-back halfpipes of extra-large proportion, it was far more interesting to watch Terje's escape routes from the crowds that mobbed him after each run. I kid you not–he literally had to run from the bottom of the pipe to the safety of his hotel room between runs. Although no one else got the attention Terje did, any pro snowboarder automatically has celebrity status in Japan–even when they're away from the mountains, in the cities, someone will inevitably be recognized on the street, and an autograph session will follow. Only now did I truly know what it meant to be “big in Japan.”

Epilogue

Besides being a culture of overly polite, genuinely nice people, the Japanese are said to be very honest. This character trait is evident in their crime rate, which is virtually nonexistent. In Tokyo, for instance, one of the world's largest cities, people leave their bikes unlocked on city streets day and night.

How ironic, then, that upon returning from dinner one evening I found myself the victim of a rare but undoubtedly calculated crime. At first, I almost felt special in some weird sort of way, but then it hit me: I had the one item stolen that would be nearly impossible to replace anywhere in the country–my size-eleven snowboard boots. The Japanese are somewhat limited in the foot-size department, so a size-eleven anything is almost unheard of. Which leads me to the conclusion that the only possible explanation for the guilty party's actions weren't to actually use my boots, but to place them in some sort of museum.

In any case, without the proper footwear it's difficult to do much in the way of snowboarding. Despite this turn of events, I still felt as if luck was on my side: First, because I got to leave the mountain a day early and spend more time in Tokyo. And second, because I had a damn good excuse for not coming home with much in the way of action photos to complement this story.

Pull Quotes:

I was asked to sign an autograph simply because I happened to be standing next to Blaise Roy to do a quick tune or two, and would leave without even consuming a single drink. Our participation in these establishments was very limited, and not because they weren't fun, but because of the ridiculously high prices–to come inside and sit down was the equivalent of 30 dollars. Add some drinks to the mix, and your looking at a very expensive way to get loose and belt out some Neil Diamond tunes. When we got hit with our bill the first night, we thought that there was some kind of mistake, and the price must have been for the entire party, not per person. But, we were told that the bill was stated correctly. To confirm that we hadn't been had, we visited another establishment a few days later, only to find an even higher price. Needless to say, this was the last of our karaoke experiences.

Big In Japan

Not to exclude too many of you loyal readers, but those of us who came of age in mid 80s were raised on catchy little tune called, “Big In Japan” by a band called Alphaville. While this song didn't have a huge impact on my life, I did find myself unable to resist calling it up from the mental archives–especially after witnessing the mayhem the Japanese engage in when in the presence of a famous pro snowboarder. Hell, you don't even have to be famous, as long as you looked like you were with a pro. This became obvious when on more than one occasion I was asked to sign an autograph simply because I happened to be standing next to Blaise Rosenthal.

Things went to another level at the Nippon Open, Japan's version of the U.S. Open. Competitors from around the world were present at this event, but most notably, some guy named Terje was there. While the contest itself turned out better than average due to the construction of two back-to-back halfpipes of extra-large proportion, it was far more interesting to watch Terje's escape routes from the crowds that mobbed him after each run. I kid you not–he literally had to run from the bottom of the pipe to the safety of his hotel room between runs. Although no one else got the attention Terje did, any pro snowboarder automatically has celebrity status in Japan–even when they're away from the mountains, in the cities, someone will inevitably be recognized on the street, and an autograph session will follow. Only now did I truly know what it meant to be “big in Japan.”

Epilogue

Besides being a culture of overly polite, genuinely nice people, the Japanese are said to be very honest. This character trait is evident in their crime rate, which is virtually nonexistent. In Tokyo, for instance, one of the world's largest cities, people leave their bikes unlocked on city streets day and night.

How ironic, then, that upon returning from dinner one evening I found myself the victim of a rare but undoubtedly calculated crime. At first, I almost felt special in some weird sort of way, but then it hit me: I had the one item stolen that would be nearly impossible to replace anywhere in the country–my size-eleven snowboard boots. The Japanese are somewhat limited in the foot-size department, so a size-eleven anything is almost unheard of. Which leads me to the conclusion that the only possible explanation for the guilty party's actions weren't to actually use my boots, but to place them in some sort of museum.

In any case, without the proper footwear it's difficult to do much in the way of snowboarding. Despite this turn of events, I still felt as if luck was on my side: First, because I got to leave the mountain a day early and spend more time in Tokyo. And second, because I had a damn good excuse for not coming home with much in the way of action photos to complement this story.

Pull Quotes:

I was asked to sign an autograph simply because I happened to be standing next to Blaise Rosenthal

Terje literally had to run from the bottom of the pipe to the safety of his hotel room between runs.

The only possible explanation for the guilty party's actions weren't to actually use my boots, but to place them in some sort of museum.

e Rosenthal

Terje literally had to run from the bottom of the pipe to the safety of his hotel room between runs.

The only possible explanation for the guilty party's actions weren't to actually use my boots, but to place them in some sort of museum.