Freeskier explores two sides of Japan and two sides of skiing Japan through the wild and frantic street stylings of Level 1’s jib crew and the classic pow-shredding of Nimbus Independent.
This article is featured in the December issue of FREESKIER. We present it on the web in two parts: Chris O’Connell’s experience with the Level 1 crew—shown here on this page—and Nate Abbott’s account of Nimbus’ trip, just one mouse-click away.
Part II: Barriers (Gallery above, words below)
Words and photos by Chris O’Connell
It was our second night in Sapporo, and it ended before it began. We had a couple of local ski kids guiding our group around as our real guides couldn’t join us. We had already hit the wide-bar down-flat-down rail setup a few times when the first two police officers arrived. And as soon as they did, our “guides” vanished. Our attempts to extinguish the situation entailed fake smiles and sign language negotiations. Then four more police officers arrived. No one in our crew spoke a word of Japanese, and the token English word uttered by the cops was “passport.” Within 15 minutes, a mellow 14 police officers were on scene and, while they were astonishingly polite, the situation seemed much gnarlier than what we were used to. Our entire crew, along with all of our gear—generator, lights, cameras, tri-pods—was corralled into a Japanese paddy wagon and driven away.
Hornbeck and Wallisch, thrilled to be hanging with the Japanese police.
While planning the trip, I neglected to inform the crew that a fellow photographer, and friend of mine, had been to Sapporo two weeks before with a snowboard crew and told me that the urban features were the biggest bust ever and we were going to spend a lot of time talking to the police. At the time, I felt that sharing this with the athletes and video guys was counterproductive; it could have swayed the decision on whether or not to make the trip. Banking on our inability to speak the language seemed a solid enough plan to keep us out of trouble. No need to trip anyone out before flying over 6,000 miles to slide down some metal.
Much later that evening, after a complete passport check by both uniformed and undercover police, we reconvened with our elusive “guides.” They then talked about the cops, informing us, “Japanese like foreigners, but they hate other Japanese.” They coupled that with the “little bit of weed” they had on them as the reason for their rapid departure. I conceded. In Japan, even 20 bucks worth of weed will land you in the slammer for easily a year. Japanese skiers rightfully keep their distance from police. So our trip moved to features further and further outside the city center to avoid the cops—a shame because, with its modern architecture, hilly landscape and frequent snowfall, Sapporo has more potential for urban shredding than anywhere in the world.
The northern Japanese island of Hokkaido is an absolute snow magnet. It’s rare that a January passes that isn’t all-time epic. Last winter, the calls from Japan started flooding my voicemail late in December, all claiming multiple 3-foot storms with no end to the storm cycle in sight. By New Year’s Eve, the mountains outside of Sapporo had received 20-plus feet—more snow than many of the world’s ski resorts receive in an entire year.
A sprawling urban landscape with over 2 million inhabitants buried in snow for most of the winter, Sapporo is the most populous snowlaced city in the world. With last winter shaping up to be exceptionally good, a few phone calls to Level 1 Productions were made and the dream jib crew, comprised of Tom Wallisch, Mike Hornbeck, and Alex Bellemare, was assembled and booked.
At the very least, if you’re going to get a ride in a paddy wagon, you should get a shot published in the magazine. Skier: Mike Hornbeck.
We convened at LAX, jumped over the Pacific to Tokyo, then up north to Sapporo. Nuclear reactors exhaling steam miles into the sky were visible from above during our Tokyo to Sapporo flight, which brought the Fukushima disaster to mind. Some people feel the radiation is blowing into Tokyo. “The government is lying to the people about how dangerous it really is,” a resident informed us. The surf break near Fukushima power plant has been rendered unsurfable for years to come—some 25,000 years—by the meltdown that followed the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. It was previously one of the more consistent and desirable surf breaks in Japan, but now it breaks empty of surfers. Adventure tourism in Japan could use a boost. That is the one thing on this topic that seems safe to say.
On our final approach to Sapporo, we ￼￼could see man-made mountains of snow, ￼￼larger than many resorts in the Midwwest, ￼￼dotting the outskirts of the city. Those moun￼￼tains turned out to be snow removed from ￼￼the city by thousands of large dump trucks working around the clock, seven days a week. Some peaks towered over 200 feet and had trucks and excavators compressing and shaping them to allow for more heavy equipment to drive over them. These 21st century snow pyramids were not expected to completely melt until mid-July. The average city would be in a state of emergency from the meter plus of snow that fell during the one week we were in Japan, but Sapporo ran as silky smooth as New York City on a sunny April day.
Upon our arrival at Sapporo’s airport our guide, a skier named Bull, met us with a rental van stocked with generators and lights. Bull is one of Japan’s best all-around skiers and conveniently, he speaks very little English. Shredding bottomless pow in the mountains of Hokkaido and jumping off three-story buildings to very small transitions in Sapporo is Bull’s MO.
It took us very little time to realize that Bull was a loose cannon in a good way: crazy and ridiculously hilarious. Throwing dual peace signs, laughing and saying, “No Engrish!” then laughing more was his go-to expression. He lives in Breckenridge for the early part of each ski season and has an American girlfriend who speaks no Japanese. When I asked how they talked to each other, he held up his phone to show us Google Translate. You could call him the Mike Hornbeck of Japan: everyone loves him, and his hilarity and style trump all language barriers.
Bull was nursing four broken ribs from a ski stunt gone awry but was more than happy to drive us to the local spots, smiling the whole time. He instantly became the mascot of our voyage. He was so dialed in to his country, still in the formative years of freeskiing, that Hornbeck and Decker called in more of the Level 1 Productions bros from America to join them for another two weeks and stayed with Bull at his parent’s house to take advantage of the record-breaking snow year.
Following our release from custody, we had to come up with an explanation for our presence at the local urban jibs. Thanks to Hornbeck, the perfect solution fell into our laps the next day as we were preparing an urban gap jump on the grounds of a school. After being informed of our illicit activities by a few concerned locals, the school’s principal came out and asked us in Japanglish what was going on.