Smokin In Japan

The land of the rising sun. Volcanoes. Onsen. Nuclear winter. Car Danchi. Handcrafted shred sticks. Japan has a unique snowboard culture of its own that's thriving way out in the Pacific. Thing is, most of it's a mystery to those who've never been. We live only through images and dreams of pillow-stacked trees, blower pow, strange food, electrified cityscapes, smiles. Rather than try to explain something I've never experienced, we let our contributing photographer Ben Birk tell the tale. He recently returned from an epic trip with the Smokin Snowboards crew. Here's what he had to say along with a rad video and photo edit that captures the scene.-B.G.

Video by Matt Mead @thumprint

All photos by Ben Birk

"At customs we got sent to the end of the line three times cause because we didn't have the right paperwork, or had it filled out right. No one could figure out the language barrier so they just kept sending us around. We eventually figured out what we had wrong. Jay tried to buy four bottles of whiskey, but they only had two on the plane so the second we landed we were taking shots out of the whiskey bottle as soon as we made it through security and customs. Everyone just started buying beers and cracking beers. The airports I guess there's not open container laws."

"We met up with our guide and then from the airport there was a train underneath. And on the train Dead Lung sketched all of our names on this paper. He did that on the train the first night. We were just partying on the train. There was a dab pen rolling around, so things got a little funny on the train. We had to switch trains and ran to our second one and then everyone fell asleep super hard. Then we arrived to the town Niigata. If you looked at a map or Google Maps it might take you the Niigata on the coast, but we were farther into the mountains. I don't know, there are three or four Niigatas on the map. It's weird. I don't understand [laughs]. It doesn't really matter."

"The first day there we woke up early and headed to the local hill to shred. We stopped at 7 Eleven to get breakfast, which is where we ended up having breakfast, lunch, and quite often dinner every night [laughs]. It was a lot of Sevy food. The little rice rolls, and balls, and these triangles—everyone was trying all these different kinds of chips. They had Mountain Dew flavored chips and stuff and just a variety of other food. The gummy candy was really good, everyone bought a lot of gummy candy. Kyle Clancy saw a line right next to Sevy and shredded that. Then we shredded the resort. It was cool, it was just a little park, no powder, but there was powder on the sides of the trails. It was like Boreal or something. We just rode the park and hit some side hits. Then went and did some spot hunting."

"We found this green dugout spot and shredded that the next day. Then we shoveled out this down flat down, although it's really a down flat down flat down, but it was off this highway and you couldn't really hit the top portion. We shoveled that out of four-feet of snow and called it a day. Next day we hit the down flat down. One of the guys with us, Mako, he fell in between. See, this down flat down is actually by the train track and every once in a while the train comes. And between the train track and the ground is like this deep three-foot wide trench of water or something that runs along it. And he had to jump to get out of the way of the train and fell in between that water space."

"We stayed at like this little, I don't know if hostel is the right word. It wasn't quite a hotel I guess. It had two stories and there were no locks on the rooms and there's no heat and the shower didn't work. No shoes allowed anywhere inside. You'd get yelled at. You had to make sure you took your boots and shoes off. There was this little spot where everyone took their stuff off. It had like these little kerosene heaters. We had these little tables in the middle of the room and you stick your feet underneath them and it has a little heater underneath and a blanket on top so it holds the heat in and you just keep your feet underneath and warm them up. Its kind of communal, it makes everyone in the room sit together in one sport and chat. It's cool. There's no chairs or TVs. You sleep on the floor on roll out pads. Really comfortable. I really enjoyed it personally."

"Clancy found this big gap drop off this roof. We were waiting for the lip to get hard so we rode some pow. Then we hit this roof drop but the tranny was too small so no one landed that. Then Lane set up this large three-story wallride and we hit that. It was some old closed building with some signs on it. Lane thought it looked like asbestos and it was closed for that. Then that night we went to this bar that had a DJ, mini rap, VIP room, virtually reality golf, food. It was a really awesome bar. We were the only ones there."

"We got kicked out of a spot. So we went north to this flat to bank rail, but we started running into a problem that ended up plaguing us the rest of the trip, which was there was too much snow for the landings in these jib spots. Like where there was a landing and you connect from the wall to the snow—imagine you and four homeys landing in the same spot in powder four times in a row and it starts to make really deep ruts. So the landings were getting harder that the actual trick."

"Everyone is super respectful. It's really cool. They like to give gifts, which is really cool. If they like you they want to give you something. One cool thing of the town we were in, they spray hot water out on the road to melt the snow or ice on the road instead of doing snow removal on the roads. Every three feet there's a little sprinkler with hot water shooting out to melt eh snow and water, the roads are just covered in water. It's pretty crazy but it's like 20-degrees there. It doesn't freeze."

"Because there was no shower everyone would go to, they weren't the onsen, it wasn't a sauna, our crew referred to it as the 'penis party' because you had to go naked. I don't know what they were really called. They literally called it that the whole time. Even the Japaneses guys started calling it that. It was definitely more of a culture shock for them hanging out with us then us hanging out with them."

"We went to this resort where Craig Kelly spent a year of his life. We got to see some of the Japanese homemade board culture. Older guys who make their own snowboards out of their homes. Taka told us that they were legends in Japan, the guys we ran into. Those guys just take snowboarding serious, but lighthearted. It's not like Squaw with agro skiers. They have their big backpacks and their big boards they made and they just like to hike and ride pow. They're just simple and content. So that was really cool to see."

"Food is different obviously, a lot of noodles, not a lot of meat. If you wanted meat they'd give it to you and you grill it yourself on the grill in front of you. We didn't really run into any girls. We were only in the city for 12 hours and we just got drunk and left. They drive on the other side of the road."

"We hit the damn. We hit powder. Myself and the filmer logged our first lines of the trip. That was rad. Then we went to the resort where Craig Kelly stayed at. We got hooked. It was the most blower powder ever! Like you would not even be trying to whiteroom yourself and you would, so you really had to pay attention to what was ahead of you, whiterooming every turn. The second you come out of a toeside you have to go into a heelside and you can't see, again. It was crazy. We got hooked. And we were riding off the resort a bit and riding lines down. Our guide lived at the resort. The second day we got a little sun and got to see more of the resort. It was the biggest lines and the biggest open snow I'd ever seen in person. It was like Alaska or something. Then we drove straight to Toyko after that. Then to the airport. I saw the sun rise twice and set twice in one day, which was pretty rad."