An Eastern Education

by Eric Klassen

Photos by Yoshiro Higai

The ancient Buddhists believed that by detaching from society, one could reach a higher state of enlightenment. They also thought those who traveled to distant lands experienced the true nature of life itself. Although visiting distant lands isn't so difficult anymore, the feeling of detachment experienced when you leave the comfort of your own culture behind, submerging yourself in an entirely foreign one, remains strong.

It takes an open mind to seek out new ideals and customs, and by embracing people from radically different origins, we are able to experience that true nature the ancient Buddhists spoke of. As a wannabe Buddhist, I was quick to accept an invitation to join my Arbor Snowboards teammates Ken Perkins and Rick Armstrong on a journey to Japan. In classic East-meets-West fashion, we'd be hooking up with Japanese snowboarders Ryu Nagai and Makoto Furuya to experience the mountains of Niseko on the island of Hokkaido. I'd never visited the East, so I prepared myself with a camera, my snowboard, and a big jar of peanut butter.

Things got interesting as soon as we touched down in Japan. Ken joked with the customs official that his 6,000-cubic-inch pack was filled with vegetables and foreign currency. Not amused, the officer made Ken sit in a corner until we were to be picked up. Left on my own with some time to kill, I got my first lesson in Japanese culture when I leaned on a railing and gazed down at the baggage claim area below.

Where I come from, baggage claim means an irritable mob of people pushing and shoving in an effort to grab their luggage before anyone else does. What I saw below me was completely different. Nobody pushed, nobody yelled. In fact, everyone seemed incredibly relaxed and respectful. I realized at that moment just how well the Japanese people treat each other.

After a while, Masahito-”Masa” for short-finally rescued Ken and got us on our way to Niseko. Little did I know then just how unique and cool Masa would turn out to be.

We arrived at our hotel and were quickly welcomed with huge smiles from the management. The inn was a traditional ryokan, so we took off our shoes and were given slippers to wear when we walked the halls.

Our room was about as big as any in a Motel 6, but it had considerably more ambiance thanks to the less-is-more theory-no beds, dressers, chairs, tables, TVs, or cheap paintings. All three of us sensed the simple beauty of the Japanese aesthetic. Two small closets housed our clothes and the mats we slept on. The floor was covered with woven bamboo, and the only piece of furniture was a twelve-inch-high wooden tea table. Once settled in, we were awed by how welcoming our simple quarters were.

We still had a few hours of daylight, so we threw on our gear, met up with Ryu and Makoto, and charged to the mountain. We spent the next two hours battling 30-knot winds and frigid temperatures. Regardless, we scored some of the best powder I've ever experienced, and when we reached the bottom, nobody complained about the cold or wind. Instead, we all darted smiles at each other, followed by cackles of laughter and a snowball fight.

We had a hard time communicating with Ryu and Makoto, but it didn't matter. Although we hardly said three words to each other, we established an incredible rapport. It was then that the power of snowboarding struck me. Despite all the talking we do, the simple motion of sliding on snow together can demolish the barriers of language, cultural conditioning, or any other differences that can otherwise prevent people from getting to know each other. The more years I spend riding, the more I'm certain that the true value of snowboarding lies in the basic human need for companionship.

As our trip unfolded, Rick, Ken, and I couldn't believe how well we were being treated. Literally everyone we met went out of their way to put us at ease. I was also learning more about Japanese culture each day, and found it fascinating how much impact the age-old traditions and customs have on the people. Japan's collective religious beliefs are rooted in Shintoism, the notion that the world began in a state of chaos but gradually, through the dualism of the yin and yang, the lighter particles of matter rose to form heaven while the heavier particles settled to form the Earth. Just like the birds, trees, rivers, and clouds, humans were created through this separation, and a great deal of importance is placed on the basics of humanity-the sincerity of feeling and action and the honesty of emotions. The realization of these beliefs was apparent everywhere we went.

Nowhere was it more apparent than in the people we were hanging with. Although Masa is in his forties, he was the biggest kid in the crew, continually making everyone laugh by finding humor in little things that slipped past the rest of us. He also possesses a youthful vigor that allowed him to do things like trying to huck backflips for the first time, getting right up after each slam with a smile on his face. His low, muffled laugh was especially contagious.

Hiko, our main contact in Niseko, saw it as his duty to make sure we were treated like royalty. Thanks to his efforts, our trip went off flawlessly. And whenever he got together with Masa, it was like a stand-up comedy routine.

Ryu and Makoto are both aggressive snowboarders. The more-experienced Ryu charged with a controlled flow that comes from being a lifelong rider. While out riding, he was quick to suggest building a giant kicker, and was always the first to go. Makoto, the youngest of us all, was driven to constantly improve, and I could tell from his riding that his focus was paying off. From the permanent grin he wore, I could also tell he loved what he was doing.

An aura of mystery and satisfaction surrounded veteran photographer Yoshiro Higai, who was on the lookout for beauty at every possible moment. I was often blinded by a flash, realizing he'd captured another honest, uncontrived moment.

And then there were the people we met along the way, sometimes just for an instant-the cooks, waiters, storekeepers, hotel workers, and even the strangers we passed in the street-not one person during our two-week stay expressed any sort of attitude, irritation, or anger. Instead we were treated with respect and kindness everywhere we went. It forced me to examine my own culture and question its effectiveness.

The overuse of the word “soul” makes every snowboarder cringe, but when the feeling is there, the word glows with sincerity. There's nothing more special about our sport than the way it helps us connect with our soul-riding with my new Japanese friends made that crystal clear.

When I returned to L.A. and experienced the frenzy at baggage claim-the pushing and shoving and cold, irritable voices-it felt like I'd gotten up from a professional massage and walked out into a freezing storm. My Eastern education had come to an end. Then I realized that I'd never lose the experiences I gained in Japan. Instead, I'd build on them, letting the Japanese way of life continually enlighten my existence. Driving home to Mammoth Lakes, California, I smiled looking forward to the tai chi classes I'd be taking.