The heavens open for Derek Begley and his fellow powder worshippers
Kamikawa National Park, in central north Hokkaido, is known in the local Ainu dialect as ‘the playground of the gods’.
In early November, some of the strongest disciples of the Holy Church of Hokkaido Powder converged on a lodge at the base of a heaven-ascending gorge in the heart of the region, willingly offering their bodies, livers, boards and souls in pursuit of winter nirvana.
Like all religious movements, the pursuit of Hokkaido powder involves sacrifices and commitment that question the body and test the mind. Fortunately, this congregation included some of the longest serving, deeply committed followers, with decades of experience in the pursuit under their tunics. These high priests and priestesses are well versed in the tenements and psalms of the movement, encapsulated in the Trinity of Holy Vows.
Patience is a virtue
After a typical Niseko summer – overstuffing on barbecue, going over the handlebars on the mountain bike and sneaking onto hotel tennis courts – the converted had become restless. A call went out for a four hour trip into the blustery north for a chance to ride Japan’s first lift-accessed powder of the season, before christening a bar/nightclub that had sat empty (yet fully stocked) for the past four years. The call to Mecca went out via excited emails, Facebook pages and cell phone texts, and soon pilgrims were packing their bags with gear and cars with passengers to split the tolls and kilometres that lay ahead.
Our particular caravan consisted of three Canadian locals and a lone Australian in the advance posse, Rich. Four hours later, as the caravan inched along the windblown side roads, and the merits of various Toronto Maple Leaf versus Montreal Canadiens goalies were debated for the umpteenth time while the Tragically Hip blasted from the radio, the first signs of the commitment being asked of us showed itself in Rich’s pained, unblinking eyes. Finally, deep into the night, bloated on unidentified rest-stop meats and canned coffees, the glorious ‘Gorge of the Clouds’ revealed its majestic cliffs, steep faces, bottomless powder, and… completely shut down gondola due to high winds.
The crew groaned, standing at the base of such a magnificent temple, yet cast away and forced to persevere. As more pilgrims arrived at the lodge, distractions such as snow-skate rail sessions, poker games and snowboard movies only served to fuel the fires burning inside. As morning turned to day and fellow believers continued to pour in from across the island, the congregation became pregnant with anticipation and unreleased energy, leading to…
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom
What happens when 40 skiers and boarders, holed up Alaskan-style at the base of an inaccessible mountain, are unleashed upon an abandoned bar full of free alcohol of indeterminate age and quality, a pumping sound system and décor straight out of Boogie Nights? Mayhem.
“Walking into the 1984 bar was like stepping right back in time,” said party goer Kevin Keith. “People had uncovered ski suits and gear from decades ago. Bottles of liquor left on the shelf when the place went under five years ago were consumed with semi-catastrophic results. Beer helmets appeared, a replica Stanley Cup was drunk from, the dance floor kicked off and people were cutting up the retro carpet in the bar. Everyone was having a wicked time – even the cops did when they showed up at 3am. At five, I dragged myself to bed, being careful to not step on the passed out bodies, passionately wiggling sleeping bags and vomit. What a night.”
Passion and belief are the basis of all enlightenment
7 am the morning after. At times like these, the faith of the young, the weak, and the crippled is sometimes tested, as last night’s dreams of fresh tracks and bottomless turns are replaced by the realities of warm blankets, soft pillows and headaches the size of Alaska.
Happily, the high priests are well versed in battling these demons. 30 minutes later, Pennywise and Iron Maiden still ringing in their ears and black coffee coursing through their veins, the masses congregated at the top of the lifts to bear witness to the greatness that is Kurodake. What they saw before them was 120cm of light, fluffy pow on a solid base, blue skies peeping through the cloud cover and riders from the Car Danchi video crew and Japan Burton team throwing first run back flips over tree gaps. It was on.
Quickly the powder zealots broke into exploration parties, and the congregation began to exult in their religious rapture, hooting and whooping in, around and over the mana from heaven. Souls drank deeply with each silken turn and landed jump, spirits filled and bliss restored. Each of this congregation’s members has lives and jobs and things to do, but every Niseko business owner, every Sapporo shop clerk, every English teacher stuck in crappy fishing towns throughout northern Hokkaido is here for moments exactly like these. Moments that justify the lives we have chosen and the paths followed. Moments that make living on the other side of the world away from loved ones, plausible, even logical.
In the words of Erica, an English teacher in Sapporo, spoken moments after slashing through an untouched gully that seemed endless in its perfection: “I love snowboarding because it makes me feel sane, like I’m not crazy for doing this, that everyone else is crazy for not. It simplifies life.” Erica then bursts into laughter and does her little snow dance, and we all revel in the presence of someone so happy with what they are doing, so stoked, on such a simple pleasure that it stokes us out as well. We smile, hike up through the waist-deep powder (which, truth be told, nearly did make me see God, but in a stopped heart, ambulance trip to the hospital kind of way) and get back on the lift to praise the gods in our own way again.
If you want to see paradise for yourself, talk to Clayton at Black Diamond Lodge in Higashiyama. Kurodake is not for everyone, but those who like it, like it a lot.