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Kyle Smaine: Japan Ski Log


Within the ski and snowboard world Japan has built an impressive reputation.  For decades skiers and film crews have been traveling to Japan for the same reason.  The seemingly never ending supply of deep, light, powder.  Year after year more people travel there and continue to come back with similar tales of snow that never stops, lifts with little to no lines, and a culture so welcoming and courteous that even the strongest patriots will consider a long term change of locale.  All of these things peaked our interest and motivated our journey to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Kyle Smaine - Japan Travel Log 2019

Ask any skier or snowboarder what their favorite type of skiing is and you’ll almost unanimously get powder as the answer.  I don’t know what it is about sliding down mountains on a blanket of freshly fallen snow that is so uniquely satisfying.  Even after 25 years of sliding down slopes I had never bothered to specify why it is so dang fun.  Whether it is just because a good powder day is a scarce resource, or that it invites excited camaraderie among friends, or the ability to effortlessly float down the mountain no matter the terrain that makes those days in the mountains so cherished.  I’ve never felt a reason to define what makes those moments so unique, and sometimes surreal.  It is not a question that science can answer, just something magical and a little bit different for each one of us.  Regardless, the pursuit of powder has been entrancing generations of skiers for decades, almost as though it is the magic pixie dust drawing all the lost boys and girls to Neverland.  Japan was our Neverland and after all these years of wishing we were ready to take the leap.  

Admittedly, this wasn’t my first time to Japan.  My maiden voyage to the land of the falling pow was this same time last year.   The experience was special enough to seduce me into returning to Hokkaido again.  Perhaps the start of an annual pilgrimage but it is too early to tell for certain.  My friend Andy, who was among my travel partners last year, and I were leading two more of our childhood friends on their first international ski trip.  

There is so much information on Japan it can be overwhelming at times.  Every trip report or new edit pulling you towards different regions, time frames, and flight itineraries.  Both years we have decided on traveling up to Hokkaido, the northern Island of Japan.  Hokkaido typically receives more consistent snow conditions thanks to colder, drier storms that arrive more frequently.  Our primary goal was to ski powder every day until our legs couldn’t muster another turn and hopefully ski some of the lightest and deepest snow we had ever experienced.  Hokkaido sounded like the place that could deliver.  It certainly helped that Kiroro Resort was a part of the Powder Alliance and all of us would have 3 free days of skiing on our Sierra at Tahoe passes from home. When traveling overseas on a 20-somethings ski budget every hack makes a difference.  

Kyle Smaine: Japan Travel Log 2019

The main challenge when traveling to Japan is finding lodging.  A booming tourism business keeps the prices of lodging going up and availability continues to drop.  Thanks to a friend we managed to find a lodge in the small village of Akaigawa to call home for the trip.  After many years of traveling the world mainly for halfpipe contests and leisure I have found there are 2 main ways to travel abroad.  The first way is to choose many locations to stay during a trip and travel between them.  This way you can physically see more of a country but you end up spending a substantial amount of time in the car as well as packing and unpacking along the way.  The second is to stay in one place and visit places that are within a distance that you are willing to drive to and from.  The beauty of this style is that you spend enough time in one place to really connect and discover the town and community that calls it their home.  We opted for the second travel method this year in Japan.   Settling on the small village of Akaigawa conveniently located 20 mins from Kiroro, 45 min from Niseko, and only 20 min from the coastal town of Yoichi.  Unknowingly, we also had close proximity to a handful of really fun backcountry zones.  Zones we likely would have never noticed or stopped to ski without spending the extra time in one place and befriending the locals who eventually gave us a little beta on their favorite stashes.   

I’ve found that on ski trips jet lag often becomes an almost beneficial side effect of the long travel days.  Forcing everyone to wake up before dawn not because of an alarm but instead our confused biological clocks releasing their drugs.  Green tea and coffee the only methods of making it to the end of the first few days.  Each day we woke early, checked the snow reports and discussed the plan for the day over tea.  By the end of the trip it became routine, just chatting about where to ski powder that day.  It was never a matter of whether or not we would ski powder, just where we would find deeper, less trafficked powder.  Each day feeling more confident in our predictions and more comfortable to explore.  When it snows almost every single day it becomes hard to want to journey too far from the lift accessed terrain.  Thanks to our good friend Cam we knew many secret stashes at the resort. It was just easier to go out and ski 8-12 inches of new snow and hop back on the lift for another lap. 

Kyle Smaine: Japan Travel Log 2019

When we were willing to tour we were always rewarded.  Despite so much easy access to the backcountry it felt like we were almost always the only ones out there.  Setting first tracks down perfect slopes constantly rewarded with face shot after face shot.  Cresting one ridge only to see 3 more behind it that beautifully stand, blank canvases waiting to be skied.  

Despite heavy, tired legs by the end of the trip all I wanted to do was tour.  Each day scouring the mountains from the car to spot a rad zone.  Once spotted we would quickly flip around and find a place to park and get our kit together for a nice long walk.  Never confident that our car would remain in the parking spot without being towed or ticketed.  Mostly willing to take the risk for finding new thrills and spots that feel as if we are the only ones who ever ski them.  

Japan rewards those willing to step outside the resort boundaries.  More and more people continue to tick Japan off their bucket list, so when you take the next step in discovery and leave the more crowded slopes (still basically empty compared to the states) you find what Japan really has to offer.  

This trip wasn’t about creating an edit or a shot list or skiing the biggest lines we could find.  This was a group of friends who grew up in California binging on ski movies and online forums.  Out to find a new part of the world, get a taste of Japanese culture, and throw away the responsibilities of growing up even if it only lasted a couple weeks. We all skied some of the deepest and certainly the lightest powder we had ever experienced.  Made many new friends, and ate some strange and delicious foods  Along the way Brian Walker pulled out his camera and collected little snippets of magic.  A collaborative effort just to create something cool because we wanted to.  Thank you for watching and I hope that it helps inspire you to take a step into the unknown and find somewhere or something new.  

Kyle Smaine: Japan Travel Log 2019


Kyle Smaine is a freestyle skier from South Lake Tahoe, CA. In addition to being ranked top 10 in the world for 3 consecutive seasons, Kyle won a gold medal in halfpipe at the 2015 FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships, 1st place at the 2018 Mammoth Grand Prix/Olympic qualifier, and is a 3x Daron Rahlves' Banzai winner. Athlete Profile >

Video & photos by Brian Walker.