A Different Take on Snowboard Coaching: Team Utah Scores in Japan

Team Utah Snowboarding is a nonprofit club and coaching program that strays from the traditional contest focus. Catch up with coach Jacob Levine in the words below to learn about their film- and freeride-focused program and how their riders are given a leg up into filming the side of the industry. This comes to us after the team’s successful tour of Japan by train—an efficient mode of transportation many snowboarders don’t take while in the Land of the Rising Sun. With additional input from all-stars Scott Stevens and Griffin Siebert, let this piece enlighten you on a new wave of snowboard “coaching.”

The Team Utah Snowboarding crew ascends active volcano Asahidake. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

Words by Jacob Levine:

The nonprofit club Team Utah Snowboarding, Inc. now offers an alternative to contest-focused coaching programs. The club's mission is to make the pursuit of the snowboard lifestyle more accessible and to facilitate lifetime participation. For the third year in a row Team Utah has hosted a trip to Japan with the goal of making it possible for the up and coming generation of riders to live the dream of experiencing Japanese powder and culture. Team Utah Travels is a film- and freeride-focused program where riders gain the experience of international travel and working as a team in a film crew. Where most kids with a coach are being prepped for the contest circuit, the concept of Team Utah Travels is to give riders a leg up on the other pass to a career as a snowboarder: filming.

This year's trip assembled a crew of eight people, six riders: Colin Lacy, Jacob Hunsaker, Shane Chappell, Sawyer Clegg, Chase Wiskerchen, and Matt Williams, as well as photographer and videographer Kevin Westenbarger and travel coordinator Jacob Levine. The crew planned to shred in three zones: Hakuba, Niseko, and Asahidake.

Fast like a bullet. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

With a two-week window of time to work with and a goal of experiencing more of Japan than simply ski resorts, the decision was made to travel by train. The rail system in Japan is amazing, and visitors to the country have access to a reasonably-priced Japan Rail Pass which can be purchased for blocks of time and gives ticket holders access to the whole country, including use of the bullet trains.

A couple tips: One challenge was lugging gear through the train stations to make connections within short windows of time. If you plan to use the train system for a shred trip in Japan shipping your snowboard bag makes ground transport easier and can be done from the airport in Tokyo. You can also rent a mobile hotspot for about 10 bucks a day which is super helpful and cheaper than an international phone plan.

Tokyo

Chase Wiskerchen explores Shibuya in Tokyo. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

After an 11-hour flight from LA, the crew landed in Tokyo and split up into three taxis headed for an AirBnB that would be home for night one. Using hand gestures and Google Translate, we gave the drivers our destination but had no idea if they understood as we wizzed through the streets of Tokyo just after dark, suddenly finding ourselves in a quiet residential neighborhood about a 20-minute walk from the Shibuya District.

For our first meal we found a smoky hole-in-the-wall noodle house obviously not accustomed to seeing foreigners. With the help of pictures on the menu and more hand gestures we filled our bellies with fried pork cutlet, rice, and miso soup. There was a stereotypical crazy Japanese game show blasting on the TV and magazines on the tables that would've been considered X-rated in the states. After the initial surprised looks by the staff and patrons when we entered, tension in the air dissipated, and as we were leaving we were given souvenir spices, candies, and warm smiles.

A Japanese rap group pumps up the crowd. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

We spent the rest of the night exploring Shibuya; this trendy area of Tokyo is filled flashing lights, video billboards, thousands of pedestrians, and street performers. On one corner an aspiring Japanese heartthrob singing to girls through a micro PA system, on another a rap battle.

Narrow streets in Nagano. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

The next day we left Tokyo and headed to Nagano with the primary goal of finding snow monkeys. The snow monkey park was closed due to too much snow, so we explored the town's narrow streets and Buddhist temple.

Matt Williams hiking through the landing of the wallride. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

A Japanese friend made during last year's trip named Daichii drove his big American van a couple of hours to come hang out with us. He was our savior for this part of the trip, negotiating with the locals of the town gaining us access to a zone where we found monkeys and helping to sherpa our gear to Hakuba in his van.

Filmer Kevin Westenbarger getting stalked by a snow monkey. Keep your snacks close; they will steal them right out of your hands.

Hakuba

Jacob Hunsaker, diggin in. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

Hakuba has a number of resorts tightly packed together. The biggest challenge aside from choosing where to shred is getting cash, which is the only form of payment accepted outside of the resorts themselves. There's only one international ATM we found in the whole area, so plan ahead and bring cash. The resort we shredded is called Cortina, and it has rad terrain, deep snow, and relatively relaxed staff in regards to its out-of-bounds policy. Equipped with avy gear and Verts, we found a barrier in the sidecountry that made for perfect kicker. With nuking snow we decided to stay an extra day, and the quality of the shredding was well worth the challenge of changing our travel plans.

After two days of epic pow slashing and a successful kicker mission we travelled over 1000 kilometers via train to Niseko. Despite the challenge of lugging our gear from train to train for a heavy day of travel it's amazing how quickly the train system can transport you from one remote ski resort area to another in one day.

Niseko

The view Mount Yotei as seen from the chairlift at Niseko on a clear day. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

Niseko is a rad area that is very user friendly for foreigners. This is a great choice for first timers and experienced powder hounds alike, with a wide range of accommodations and ease of access via both train and bus. Unfortunately the mountain was closed our first day there due to bad weather, but the gracious hosts of the bed and breakfast we stayed at showed us a side-country zone in the woods where we found powder to slash, pillows to pop, and vines to swing from. The following days at Niseko were filled with amazing snow, gullies with rad side hits, and long pow filled runs starting with open bowls from the top followed by iconic Japanese tree runs.

Our Gracious hosts at the Republic of Potato Bed and Breaksfast made us elaborate breakfasts and dinners, helped us to recon the side-country, and sherpa our gear to the train station. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

Asahidake

Asahidake is a national park not a ski resort, so don't go unprepared. The upper section is above the treeline and avalanches are a real risk. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

After Niskeo we travelled to Asahidake, a remote wonderland that is the highest volcano on the North Island. This place is a national park featuring a tram that gets you three fourths of the way to the top. Not being a ski resort, there's no ski patrol or avalanche safety maintenance.

Anyone venturing to this area should be prepared with avy gear and education. The mountain is tall, and the weather can be fierce. Asahidake is better suited for hardcore mountaineering types than the lesser-experienced vacationer types. Our last day on hill there was clear, which allowed us to hike up to the billowing steam vents, and treat us to unique views not found anywhere else in the world.

Shane Chappell, Colin Lacy, Sawyer Clegg, and Chase Wiskerchen getting used to traditional living on Tatami mats. Photo: Kevin Westenbarger.

Team Utah Snowboarding wondered what the pros thought of this concept for a snowboard club, where the norm is to focus primarily on the pursuit of climbing the contest ladder, so we asked them:

Scott Stevens on the difference between being focused on contests vs. filming as a pro:

"I think the difference is the creativity. That’s not to say you can’t be creative in a contest scene, but filming is endless. I honestly would have never gone far just doing contests. Filming allowed me to travel the globe and see how far I could push myself. I love how artistic it is."

What does it take to be a part of a film crew?

"There are so many elements of filming that require patience and focus like nothing else I do in my life. In a contest it’s only you, but filming requires a filmer and a crew that become a team. Teamwork is an extremely important skill to have."

Griffin Seibert on what it’s like to focus on filming:

 “I am so happy that I found filming as an outlet for my snowboarding. It allows for complete creativity, and there is no right or wrong way to do it, and within that lies the inner beauty of it all. Filming has given me lifelong friends, taken me to beautiful places all over the globe, and allowed a platform to express my snowboarding that no other outlet had allowed before. Find a good crew of friends grab a camera and go have a good time!”