Japan, Deeper and Deeper Part II: Level 1 skis the streets of Sapporo

December 1st, 2012 by

“We are making a movie to promote skiing and tourism in Japan,” Hornbeck deadpanned. “We love it here, and we want to encourage more Americans to visit Japan.” The rest of our crew joined in, embellishing our “tourist video” as we saw the demeanor of the mid-50-year-old man quickly change from suspicious and accusatory to interested and appreciative.

Evidenced by his willingness to concede, Japan has indeed had a very rough go of it in the tourism industry as of late, and everyone, including this principal, has felt it. It didn’t hurt that the high school was the alma mater of Japan’s only female Winter Olympic gold medalist, Tae Sotoya, who won the moguls title in 1998. The principal gladly let us hit the gap and even helped us by coordinating some students to pose underneath it for a photo.

Tom Wallisch proceeded to throw a huge double backflip over the gap, and Bellemare crushed some stylie rodeos. “Who needs to go to the backcountry when you can build kickers in the city?” Wally joked.

As a photographer, going on a rail trip with Tom Wallisch is sometimes a little frustrating. There isn’t much doubt that he’s king when it comes to gnarly, technical rails, but the switch ups he likes to do don’t always look so hot to us photo types. This trip Wally said that he was going to do a few rails “Hornbeck style.” “Hornbeck’s the most emulated skier in the world,” Tom said after he tail-to-nose pressed a down-flat rail with a foot-long gap.

Tom Wallisch and his new puppy have something in common: they’re eager to please. On this flat-gap-down rail Wallisch pleased photographer Chris O’Connell with a simple layed–back slide on the flat before he skied up to O’Connell for a scratch behind the ears.

The best sight in Sapporo during the winter isn’t the annual Snow Festival, where they build multistory replicas of famous buildings such as the White House out of ice. Rather it is the miniskirts on the local female population in the blustery minus 15-degree nights. They all wear skirts shorter than most girls would wear during summer in Stockholm, with stiletto-heel boots to complete the outfit. The snow blows sideways and the girls flinch a bit, but it’s just another Tuesday midnight, and the streets are full of impressively long, well-kept legs. Japan is internationally known as an iconic country when it comes to style, but this takes it to another level. Hopefully Toronto, Helsinki, Ottawa and other cold, snowy cities will pick up on this aspect of culture. It would make a few million men a lot happier in the depths of winter. Just because you should be wearing a full length down parka and beanie doesn’t mean you should.

There are 1,033 Seicomart stores on the island of Hokkaido. The crew stopped every day at a Seicomart, sometimes twice a day. Think 7-Eleven with more interesting snacks, a huge liquor selection and great Japanese schoolgirl magazines. This was Bellemare’s first international trip, and he was diving right in, eating all kinds of crazy dried fish and weird shit from Seicomart. He also got the award for being the only one in the group to eat pureed raw crab brains. Yum.

Although the Quebecer Bellemare is only 18 years old, he’s already secured the cover of Level 1 Productions’ After Dark, which was the first major ski movie he appeared in. Bellemare is part of the new guard of freestyle kids. He grew up in the park, has mentors like Phil Casabon and absolutely crushes all things technical and street. He’s got a quirky sense of humor and comes off a little spacey, but he’s not. “The kid’s the real deal,” Hornbeck claimed about Alex. “He’s just crazy enough to be really good, and he makes everyone laugh, so I am sure he’ll be staying around.”

Is Alex Bellemare a pacifist? Who knows? But doesn’t the crossed-up tail grab 360 he’s throwing match up well with the double peace signs his fans are throwing back at him?

The last day of the trip brought us to a pair of tall, rectangular cement structures off the side of a road on the outskirts of town, near where Bull was born and raised. Surrounded by nothing but farmland, the structures were probably used to store grains like rice. Hornbeck and Bellemare went wild doing tow-in wall rides with Bull behind the wheel of the minivan, gunning it to about 80 kph for the lofty, elongated wall. Bellemare crushed it in a few tries and sat down. Hornbeck rocked out numerous still and video shots. But Wallisch just sat there, took it all in and cheered on the other two. Wally sitting out a feature is a rarity, for sure.

When all was done with the boys’ wall riding, Wally climbed to the top of one tower, looked out at the other and said he thought it would go. The “it” was a transfer from one tower across a sizeable gap, landing on the vertical wall of the other tower with a 4-foot-tall snow transition built at the bottom. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have allowed him to hit the feature. I don’t need people getting broke off on shoots. I am getting too old and the kids are getting too damn good. The consequences of missteps on some urban features have gotten to be as serious as a wrong turn in Alaska, and this transfer feature was foreboding.

Hornbeck and a mouthful.

Tom sized it up and called for the bungee to spring him into the feature. I still thought it was insane, but considering that many of the most consequential urban features done in the past few years have Tom’s stamp of ownership on them, I held my tongue and shot. Even Kyle Decker, Tom’s primary filmer, held his breath for this one.

We could tell that even Tom was a bit nervous, but he nailed it first try with just a little wheelie out. It was game on, and Tom hit it a half dozen more times. Just before the sun set on our time in Sapporo, he had the shot of the trip in the can. “That’s the gnarliest urban feature I have ever hit,” he claimed—a heavy comment from Mr. Wallisch.

Another quest came to an end for our crew, and we couldn’t help but think, “Maybe we’ll make a movie about our time in Sapporo so more Americans go there to visit.”

ALSO READ, PART I: Snow Traditional

*This article originally appeared in the Volume 15 November issue of FREESKIER. Subscribe to the magazine, or get it on the iTunes Newsstand.
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