Snowboarding in Japan:
a Lesson in Hokkaido Style
Horizon Lines Episode 2

It was not only my first time to Japan, but also my first time leaving North America. Not for lack of interest, but perhaps for lack of opportunity. So when the opportunity did arise to travel across the world on two days’ notice, I immediately accepted and cleared all obligations. Like me, it would also be Griffin Siebert’s first time traveling to Japan. We both had a strong idea of the Japan landscape and plentiful snow, based on word of mouth, descriptions from friends who had visited, and media produced following others’ trips there. We would be joining Forrest Shearer, Andrew Miller and Nick Kalisz, who had all previously spent time in Japan and had intentions of exploring various aspects of its snowboard culture, rather than arriving with a mindset based on the legendary snow alone.

Kael Martin dives into his first bluebird day in Japan.
Kael Martin dives into his first bluebird day in Japan.

We would also be accompanied by Kenji Kato, a friend and resident of Hakuba on the main island. Kenji’s local knowledge, ability to drive for hours in snowstorms, and connections in Hokkaido would prove essential during our visit. I have semi-jokingly referred to Kenji as our adult babysitter, as he absolutely made our lives easier while we were there and helped instill the significance of the events we experienced on our trip.

It’s hard not to be inspired by the beautiful textures of the North Island.
It’s hard not to be inspired by the beautiful textures of the North Island.

Had it not been for Forrest’s vision, it would have been easy for us to spend our entire time in Niseko. But we would likely have finished our trip on our own terms, without making personal connections with local riders or understanding the different approaches taken on snowboarding throughout Hokkaido. This became the central theme of our trip, traveling to different locations while joining and spending time with riders local to different regions of the island.

Forrest Shearer was here.
Forrest Shearer was here.

During our ten days in Japan, we were continuously on the move, never spending more than one day in the same location or with the same group of people. Perhaps I didn’t realize it going into this trip, but my time spent in Japan would have more significance and purpose than if I had traveled there on my own.

The Sardine.
The Sardine. 6 guys, 10 boards, 4 cameras, and a whole lot more, crammed into this mini-megatron for a 10-day powder safari.

To allow for such a travel-intensive itinerary, we employed a special mode of transportation. When your vehicle is also your home, you can cover a lot of ground. Our home, in this case, was a four-wheel drive, diesel, mini-motorhome that averaged twenty-five miles to the gallon and seemed to have its own personality and character. When we first laid eyes on the camper two things were obvious: we had found one of the most unique vehicles we’d ever seen, and it was going to be a unique challenge to get six people and all of our gear inside.

Kael Martin watches outdoor TV as we cruise along the coast of Hokkaido.
Kael Martin watches outdoor TV as we cruise along the coast of Hokkaido.

Every movement in the camper or trip outside affected another person. Each person received a small area in a cupboard for personal things, and that space was sacred. At night all of the bags were piled in the driving area, and we had just enough room to fit three people on the upper bed and three people on the main bed. Once our systems were intact, this shared living arrangement became very enjoyable, and we quickly forgot how small our quarters actually were.

Imagine turning the corner and finding this
Random roadside findings. Imagine turning the corner and finding this, Forrest Shearer and Kael couldn’t help themselves.

This vehicle gave us the freedom to explore and roam at will, which we took full advantage of. We were there to snowboard but would be taking something very familiar and experiencing it through a different lens, a product of being guests in a new culture. With that in mind, we would do our best to view snowboarding as dictated by the places we went and people who hosted us. Which at times, admittedly, was quite challenging. My background growing up riding Mount Baker has been largely focused on going fast, riding powerfully, and hitting features.

Kael Martin felt right at home on these Japanese pillow barriers
Hailing from the PNW, Kael Martin felt right at home on these Japanese pillow barriers, he was stoked.

Looking around in Japan, there are pillows, and cliffs everywhere, and my first instinct was to head straight towards them. While we did get to ride plenty of that style of terrain, we also adopted a strong appreciation for different aspects of snowboarding. Predominantly, these were nuances of precision and control. We followed the lead and style of the people we crossed paths and spent time with during our trip. We began to emulate those riding styles and found great satisfaction in living each day exploring a new place with a new approach.

Yuta Watanabe was born and raised on the North Island but has spent the past couple years based in Whistler.
Yuta Watanabe was born and raised on the North Island but has been spending the past couple years based out of Whistler. We randomly ran into him at the resort and he ended up joining our shred adventure to the coast.
Forrest Shearer and Kael Martin exploring a new horizon line by the Sea of Japan.
Forrest Shearer and Kael Martin exploring a new horizon line by the Sea of Japan.
Usually snowboarding on the coast of the North Island is more of a novelty.
Usually snowboarding on the coast of the North Island is more of a novelty. Griffin Siebert didn’t expect to find turns this good.

We immersed ourselves in a culture and way of life, which we ultimately deemed “Hokkaido Style.” This encompassed a well-rounded approach to each day. Everyone we visited would take time to stretch and do yoga before going to the mountain.

The crew aligning their powder chakras with Hokkaido snowsurf guru
The crew aligning their powder chakras with Hokkaido snowsurf guru and ambassador of stoked Kazushi Yamauchi aka Orange One & friend Kazumasa Yamada.

We were welcomed to their home resort or area, and they were eager to take us to their favorite zones. There was no localism or attitude; it was all-inclusive and about making sure everyone was enjoying themselves.

Forrest Shearer works on his high-speed trim game.
Forrest Shearer works on his high-speed trim game.

Afterwards, we would eat amazing food and recount our favorite moments of the day. Tan tan, sushi, udon, and curry soup and would warm us after long days in the mountains. As if it were a necessity, we would always end up at the local onsen–the Japanese hot springs prevalent in every area we visited. Visits to the hot springs would provide necessary relaxation, decompression, and meditation. Each day felt healthy, happy, and complete. Our time spent on this schedule provided a glimpse into a very rich and full lifestyle free of concern or anxiety.

K-Tune and Forrest Shearer sharpening swords in the Gentemstick tuning bay.
Quite possibly some of the best hand-tuned snowboards in the world come out this room. K-Tune and Forrest Shearer sharpening swords in the Gentemstick tuning bay.

In true Japanese fashion, the riding style on Hokkaido is deliberate, precise and calculated. The same goes for the snowboard shapes and designs the locals are riding. The most prevalent boards were Gentemstick, likely because the shop and distribution is based out of Niseko. These boards lend themselves well to the terrain of Hokkaido, as gentle rolling hills with deep snow can easily and enjoyably be navigated on surf-style shapes. We spent time observing the attention to detail put into tuning every board that arrives at the shop.

Chris Christenson, legendary surfboard shaper, snowboard enthusiast
Chris Christenson, legendary surfboard shaper, snowboard enthusiast and the mind behind Jones Snowboards’ surf-inspired shape the Storm Chaser. Chris has been to Japan 20-something times for shaping and in the early 2000s got invited to Niseko to hang with the Gentem crew which reinvigorated his love and interest for the snow.

It was inspiring to see firsthand the preparation and the care that was taken to get each perfectly tuned. I quickly compared these methods to my own, which for the most part are non-existent and felt as though I should be putting a lot more effort into the preparation and upkeep of boards I ride. During our time spent riding with Hokkaido locals, this detail-oriented mindset was evident.

Griffin Siebert embraces the weird.
No better place than Japan to get off your twin tip and try something different. Griffin Siebert embraces the weird.
Forrest Shearer reaching triple overhead.
While the Japanese emphasize the shape of the spray instead of its size, sometimes you just gotta crack one loose. Forrest Shearer reaching triple overhead.
Kael Martin brings PNW power and style to Hokkaido.

Snowboarders, which make up the vast majority of visitors in the mountains, overwhelmingly focus on control, body position and movement. This produces some of the most inspiring turning I have ever seen, a lot of which is done at speeds so slow you can’t figure out how the rider hasn’t fallen down.

Night moves at Annupuri with O-M.
Night moves at Annupuri with O-M.

One night riding with Osamu “O-M” Okada and Kobayashi “Aki” Akihiro at Annupuri Resort expanded our understanding of a heelside turn. Andrew had explained O-M’s turns earlier in the day, but after riding with him we couldn’t exactly figure out how he made these turns appear effortless while maintaining unique and inspiring style.

Osamu Okada has one of the best heelside turns in the game.
Gentemstick rider and Powder Company guide Osamu "O-M" Okada has one of the best heelside turns in the game.

Griffin was perhaps the most affected and for the remainder of the trip focused on repeating those turns. It was fun to emerge from that session with new goals and methods to practice. The best part was that all we needed was a groomed, flat run—something readily available at almost any resort.

This is Aki-san a young Niseko snow surfer who is apprenticing under O-M and learning all his ways and turns.

These types of experiences and lessons were gained on nearly every day of our trip and were not limited to snowboarding but enjoyment of life in general—awareness of self, living in the moment, and being intentional with actions and decisions. These methods guided us to the right places and led us to the right people. Although we were a mess at times, with a continually evolving itinerary, the constant packing and repacking of the motorhome and drying our gear in the lobbies of onsens, everything felt right.

This might look like a church, but, in fact, is a Japanese public restroom.
This might look like a church, but, in fact, is a Japanese public restroom. Griffin Siebert kills time at the trailhead.

There was a distinct serendipity to our days, where coincidences reinforced our travel plans and decisions. We met the most positive people—many times out of complete chance—who helped show us areas off the beaten path. We explored places I would have never imagined myself finding through snowboarding.

Griffin Siebert dawn patrol in the Niseko backcountry.
It was epic being able to park the RV at the trailhead and be that much closer to the zone. Griffin Siebert dawn patrol in the Niseko backcountry.
Simple beauty in the Powder Kingdom.
Simple beauty in the Powder Kingdom.

Everything was new, exciting, and different. We did our best to pick up greetings and pleasantries in Japanese and use them whenever possible. We learned a new way to express our excitement by yelling “banzai!” with our hands raised over our heads, clapping three times, which happened often because we had plenty to celebrate.

It’s easy to see why Chris Christenson keep coming back here year after year.
It’s easy to see why Chris Christenson keep coming back here year after year.

Our encounters with the people on Hokkaido were a combination of familiar faces and new acquaintances. We began to understand the strong overlap between surf and snow culture on Hokkaido, meeting and riding with legendary surf shapers who have strongly influenced snowboard design.

Exploring new boarding feelings with Yone, Nobu, and some of the Yuki-Ita crew.
Exploring new boarding feelings with Yone, Nobu, and some of the Yuki-Ita crew. Rad custom handmade powsurfers free your bindings and mind.

We spent days riding Yuki-Ita boards, or snow surfers, which for good reason have received a large following recently. Removing your feet from the bindings can turn any slope into an exciting endeavor. We joined iconic Japanese crews, such as Kazumasa “Jr” Yamada and Kazushi “Orange Man” Yamuchi of the Car Danchi films, Yuta Watanabe, Hiroaki “Yone” Yonekura, and others of Heart Films.

Orange Man has a turn anyone can aspire to emulate.
Orange Man has a turn anyone can aspire to emulate.

We spent time with Rip Zinger who took us to his favorite soup curry restaurant and showed us his favorite snacks for the backcountry. Everyone impacted our journey and made our trip special.

The boys walked in a few circles here at Kiroro resort before finding an epic gulley run.
You never know what you will come across exploring and getting lost at a new resort; sometimes that's half the fun. The boys walked in a few circles here at Kiroro resort before finding an epic gulley run.

In contrast to trips that blend together and form a memory that seems like one long day, this trip packed so many experiences, that in retrospect it seems like it could have been an entire season.

Safe to say he is a changed man and snowboarder.
It was wild to see how much Griffin Siebert’s riding was influenced by following the locals of Hokkaido. Most noticeable was how much his turn improved from the beginning of our trip to here on the final day. Safe to say he is a changed man and snowboarder.

Time spent on Hokkaido allowed us to remove ourselves from familiarity. Every day of our journey I was certain we had found the most amazing place on the island, and yet every day we traveled to a new and equivalently incredible location, avoiding stagnation at all costs. In an ongoing search for the next destination, we entered each day with uncertainty but found ourselves exactly where we needed to be.

Central Hokkaido saw record snowfall during this past season.
Central Hokkaido saw record snowfall during this past season. Usually this area is too cold to get a lot of snow, but with a record warm spell across Japan it raised the temps just enough to drop serious snowfall. Forrest and Kael heading into the powder portal.

Ultimately, we traveled to ten unique locations, all contributing to an action packed and unbelievable trip. Our day-to-day experiences were enriched, allowing us to inundate ourselves in the culture and view Japan from an ever-changing perspective, a true exploration and lesson in proper Hokkaido Style.