A LOVE of the outdoors can stem from a desire to test your limits, go where few people have gone before and reach great heights – both personally and physically. For the head of Niseko Avalanche Institue Shinya-san his love of the outdoors would seem to be associated with supporting others to experience the same sense of enjoyment that he gets from the outdoors.
In Niseko, Shinya-san is well known for his tireless efforts with the area’s avalanche control. During the summer months, he also works hard at providing a safe place for recreation in Hokkaido’s northern Shiretoko Peninsula. His desire to enjoy life and nature and to uphold community safety comes from a simple and kindhearted aspiration: to make everyone happy.
Born in Sapporo, Shinya-san started skiing when he was only three years old and mountaineering when he was 14. Since childhood, he has always had a passion for the outdoors, which saw him spend five winters, from the age of 20 to 25, trying to climb the most difficult mountains in Hokkaido. A few years later, he felt tired after all the climbing and needed a break. Moving to his current address at Mount Moiwa 37 years ago provided the perfect elements to recharge for his lifetime of outdoor adventures.
Tucked away at the base of the Moiwa ski hill sits Woodpeckers – Shinya-san’s lodge he built himself. It is a quaint building adorned with mountain gear and memories. Posters from events, weathered black and white photos of expeditions, letters from Himalayan climbing dignitaries, portraits of the Dalai Lama and his children’s drawings are just some things that take pride of place on the walls. When asked what made him choose this location, he says, “Moiwa is a quiet mountain – the same as now. At that time, I thought to myself, this is my mountain … my place.”
Living at the lodge with his wife and its steady flow of guests seemingly provides the perfect place to reenergise. Shinya-san’s typical winter day involves waking up at 5:30 am, calling ski partrol, collecting data from the Japan Meteorological Agency and the coast guard to write his daily avalanche report (http://niseko.nadare.info/), all before 8:00 am. Since moving to Moiwa, he has also found the energy required to climb countless mountains including the Himalayas and the Aleutian Ranges in Alaska. However, the most difficult climb of his career so far is less known mountains Rakaposhi and Batura in Pakistan.
Climbing these perilous ranges is as much about mental endurance as it is physical strength; remaining positive is the difference between life and death. Shinya-san has a wise and compassionate approach for staying motivated during tough situations: “I have a responsibility for my fellow climber. Their safety is very important.” Even though Shinya-san might be feeling the same tiring effects of a climb, he says “his job is to give people confidence … my job here in Niseko is the same thing. I tell them (skiers or snowboarders) it’s dangerous, but you have experience and if you try your hardest you will be okay. Being positive, joking and cheerful is actually a good way to prevent accidents.”
Ski resorts are breeding grounds for accidents. Whilst broken bones and torn ligaments can heel, lives cannot be replaced. On New Year’s Day, an experienced skier from Sapporo died in the back bowls of Annupuri, the first avalanche fatality in 12 years. “I feel sad.” Shinya-san remarks to someone dying on the mountains he watches over. The responsibility of looking after the people that visit Niseko is something Shinya-san wholeheartedly acknowledges. He also thinks his concern for safety should be echoed by those that know better. “It’s important to lower and remove barriers between local people and visitors. It (safety and responsibility) shouldn’t just rest on the shoulders of the ski patrol. I feel if everyone communicated there wouldn’t be accidents like this.”
Whilst winter can be a challenging time, seeing people enjoy themselves on the mountain is what keeps Shinya-san going. He is also inspired by his summer vocation – leading sea-kayak tours in the World Heritage Listed Shiretoko Peninsula, Northern Hokkaido. For the last 20 summers, Shinya-san has been guiding people around the coastline of this pristine location. “Everyday we see bears, many bears, brown bears and small bears and big bears. Very gentle bears.” In the future he hopes to do the same kind of trip around the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He has been to Patagonia five times and kayaked twice around the southern most point, Cape Horn, during winter. “I’m the only person in the world to do this twice.”
When asked what he likes better – kayaking or skiing – Shinya-san responds immediately with the latter. In recently released Persona by Ebis Films (Powderlife presents January 24th at Sekka), Shinya-san describes ski racing as his favourite thing to do on the mountain. “In 1972, during the Sapporo Olympics, I was only a climber. At the Olympics, I did a part-time job – assistant photographer for the alpine races. It left a huge impression on me and I started to get more interested in alpine racing.”
This sense of adventure is something Shinya-san will always be instilled with. For now, he is sure that he will keep kayaking and skiing: “I don’t want to stop my job or life. I will keep doing my job until I truly know it’s time.”
There will be a time when Shinya-san will no longer watch over these mountains – he is currently training his protégé in the fine art of avalanche control. But, what he wants is for everyone to have fun and enjoy themselves well into the future by staying safe: “On the mountain, there are many risks – always risks. To avoid risks, you have to think about which route you take and this depends on the weather. Don’t only think about yourself – your safety – you have to think about others safety and enjoyment.”
For avalanche information see Shinya’s daily report http://niseko.nadare.info/
Words by Lizzy Hoo
Photography by Joe Corcoran — Niseko Photography