Words and Photos by Ethan Stone
Most skiers travel to Japan to gulp face shots of ultra-light powder. Ever the iconoclasts, Will Wesson and Andy Parry just had to go and do something entirely different.
The mood is high in the communal kitchen of the Hakuba Powder Lodge, where half a dozen tired and hungry skiers are exchanging post-powder-day stories while cooking up a half-dozen post-powder-day dinners. By all reports—both accurate and exaggerated—the skiing was fantastic at all the resorts up and down the valley.
“Where did you guys ride today?” someone asks Andy Parry.
“Oh, us?” Parry says, looking up from his frying gyoza dumplings. “We were at a playground on the side of the road.”
In Hakuba, one of Japan’s powder-skiing capitals, it’s a little hard to explain why one might travel here from thousands of miles away, just to ski in a playground. At the Powder Lodge, the bunks are packed with foreign skiers who’ve been lured here by the siren call of o-yuki, that’s Japanese for “a lot of snow.” They’ve come to the right place: Hakuba just received the bounty of a classic mid-February blizzard—nipple-deep Japow all day long, I’ve-died-and-gone-to-heaven powder skiing. So why the hell are Parry and partner-in-crime Wesson skiing in playgrounds?
Reason #1: Ubiquity
“Why do we ski in playgrounds?” Parry asks himself. “Because they’re there.” Playgrounds are everywhere in Japan. “Finding a playground is often easier than finding a good rail in Japan,” he adds. Parry has been here three times with the Line Traveling Circus and skied playgrounds every time.
“There’s a playground around every turn,” he says. “They’re not being used, they’re always around, and there’s always something to do in them. You’re batting 1.000.”
“We got on a bus to Hakuba and found two spots just looking out the window,” says Wesson. “Every time we come to Japan, we stumble upon something new without too much effort or searching.”
Reason #2: The Bust Factor
“Japan is notorious for getting [you] busted quickly,” Parry says. “There’s a higher bust factor because of the culture: ‘You shouldn’t be doing this because it’s against the rules.’ But being in a playground is like, well, playing, and it’s more likely to be looked upon favorably.”
“A playground is usually seen as public property for you to play in—for little kids, usually,” says Wesson. “But in winter, you’re less likely to make someone mad in a playground than when you’re stripping paint off a rail in front of their home or business.”
Reason #3: Originality
“A down rail is a down rail. A dub kink is a dub kink,” says Parry. “Maybe the flats are longer or the downs are steeper, but it’s always a dub kink. But these playgrounds are like, ‘what the f-ck?’ The features are so unique.”
“The appeal is the surprise factor,” adds Wesson. “Every playground is different [in Japan]. In North America, every playground has prefabricated obstacles that are similar. Here, every playground is completely unique and custom-built. You might find a 200-foot slide with curves and banks. You might find concrete stumps with no apparent pattern or
plan. You might find concrete culverts, like sewer tubes. Japanese playgrounds are like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get.”
Reason #4: The Snow
All the other reasons to ski Japanese playgrounds depend on this one—the huge annual snowfall in Japan’s alpine regions. The deep snowpack turns the playgrounds in these areas into, well, playgrounds for the skiers who can figure out how to ride them.
“There’s an absurd amount of snow,” says Parry. “You can build whatever you want. It just depends on how much you want to shovel.”
To be honest, with all that snow, it’d be a damn shame not to ski any powder at all. “We had perfect timing and skied two of the best pow days of my life before starting this project,” admits Wesson. When in Japan, right?
Reason #5: Because Japan
Finally, there’s the very convincing argument that any reason to come to Japan is a good one. Just consider the incredible food, the deeply intriguing culture, the mountains of snow and the adventures (or playgrounds) waiting around every corner. For whatever reason you decide to go to Japan, you’ve made a good call.
A few days later, the two roadside features are in the bag, plus a wooden labyrinth-style playground atop the hill by a Buddhist temple. The group is about playgrounded out, especially Will, who locked on to yesterday’s slide feature a bit too well and rode it out for a hundred feet, crashing into the platform at the end.
Back at the Powder Lodge, Will shows a father-son pair from Taiwan some old Traveling Circus webisodes on YouTube. The kid’s eyes are glued to the screen as Will explains to the dad the life of an itinerant urban skier—explaining why someone would come to Japan to ski playgrounds.
“Hashtag life ruined,” says Parry, recognizing the look on the kid’s face. “This is all he’s going to want to do now. Another life ruined by the Traveling Circus.”
And that’s maybe the real reason to ski Japanese playgrounds: To put that look on that kid’s face. To ski outside the lines, to discover the unusual, to use your imagination and ultimately, to stoke out some kid somewhere who will never look at skiing the same way again. Oh yeah, and did I mention that the food is great?