Travel Diaries #12 - Winter

An old post, this one on the joys of snowboarding and mountain life, and the reason I went to Japan.

This is an old post I wrote a couple of years ago while I was in Japan. You can find the original - along with loads of practical info about skiing or snowboarding in Japan - at

For more stories and essays about travelling Japan, check out the full archive of posts here.

It’s snowing when I arrive in Hakuba on a mid-January afternoon and the next day it’s still snowing. It mightn’t have snowed the following day, but it definitely snowed the day after that, and then it kept snowing until the day after that. And ‘round here, when it snows, it pours. Even in the flats of the village I’m working at, the stuff piles up rapidly. Several feet in a matter of hours, and by the following morning the car is buried. Shovelling snow is a never-ending routine that must be done more than once a day, and then again the next day. Early mornings are spent digging out submerged cars, part of the endless routine of winter. Weekends here mentally stick out as being slightly busier with people, but other than that days follow a predictable and psychologically endless cycle.

Wake up, shovel snow, go snowboarding, repeat.

I have some work to do in exchange for bed, board and board rental, but the next couple of weeks continue more or less like this. Amazing days riding inspire a resurgence of deep joy and euphoria of a kind that has lain dormant within me for years. There have been other joys – motorbikes, trail running, hedonistic music festivals, general highs that come with the normal passing of time and living of life – but nothing has ever quite worked its way into my bones like this.

The snow in Japan is known for its dryness. You can pick it up and blow it out of your hand like a handful of dust. You get covered in it in seconds on the way to the shop but you don’t get wet. It’s powder. Powder is good. Japan is even known as ‘Japow’ in the scene. Riding a snowboard through dry powdery snow gives this sensation of surfing waves in the mountains.

It’s been a while, and ploughing through this stuff burns your thighs and core like leg day at the gym. It might be light but it’s not air. This is a sport. This is hard. A 5 minute run through trees, full of technical turns, tight squeezes, near misses and bursts of adrenaline, not to mention the altitude inherent to this sport, will have you gasping for air by the time you line up for the next chairlift. But like being winded on the ground after you run the length of the pitch to get on the end of an inch-perfect cross and nudge the winner into the net, this exhaustion carries an elation that negates the discomfort, turns it into something to feed off. The bigger the gasps for oxygen at the end, the bigger the smiles. The bigger the high-fives. I’m reminded that the speed, the aerodynamic flow, the underfoot sensations of running downhill or riding a bike can’t compare to this. This is why I came back.

An early powder-day trip to Cortina resort on the northern edge of the Hakuba valley provides some of the deepest snow conditions I’ve ever ridden in. Cutting sharp turns unleashes waves of snow overhead, like getting overtaken by a truck in torrential rains – but you’re surfing the flood. I’m momentarily blinded and I need to stop lest I hit a tree. On our first run my friend Michi takes a tumble and is buried up to his neck – though thanks to the lightness of the snow he’s able to lift his arms and dig himself out without too much fuss.

You do need to be careful in such conditions, sometimes the snow is so thick that it slows you down to a halt, or the terrain flattens out, or your legs just aren’t strong enough, you’re just not skilled enough to stay upright, and you have to burrow like a dog through the snow to find your board at your feet, unstrap and swim to safety (an advantage of skis – your legs aren’t tied together so it’s easier to get out of trouble). But we’re both experienced enough at this, Michi having spent several winters in Niseko on the northern island of Hokkaido, the home of powder skiing in Japan.

So enough of the caution – days like this are for letting rip. The deep and dry snow offers all and no resistance. ‘Normal’ snowboarding on pistes is a reference point, as is surfing a wave in the ocean; but they’re not the same things. When riding powder there’s a cushion beneath you that gives way but also gives enough of a push back. You can’t feel the bottom when your board is flat, but you’re able to create your own waves when you turn. It’s like floating through air, or more specifically like flying on a magic carpet.

The moments where you reach a state of flow and are completely present in these conditions are divine; your body moving half a beat before you’re mind has a chance catch up and finding the perfect line through a technical zone, or just having at it and opening up through an untouched snowfield, momentarily at one with the lay of the land and the earth’s contours. Although physically testing and frustrating at first, once you’ve ridden powder you wonder if there’s any point in going back to pistes or parks.

Memories are triggered of the first times I was dragged into the Revelstoke side-country to experience real off-piste riding. Giddy joy so effervescent that childish laughter was the only reaction my body could muster, a feeling that I’d previously mostly experienced at music concerts. There’s an artistry to finding your own line on the mountain, at once restrained by the flow of the mountain but limited then only by your imagination, your skill and your mastery of fear. Skiing may have been around for centuries as a means of functional transportation; but surfers knew when they took their boards to frozen mountains that it could be more than mere function or pleasure; this was a path to transcendence.

And like a surfer knows that most of their life is spent bobbing in the ocean – waiting, waiting, waiting, and often failing – there’s more to it than just the photo reel, the action shot, or regularly winning The environment plays a huge part. The mountains form their own majestic ocean, surrounding as far as you can see, isolating the small mountain villages and towns from the dry land of the outside world, the more southern reaches of which remain untouched by snow and breathe freely throughout the winter. Being immersed in the heart-aching beauty and vastness of endless mountain ranges is part of the snowboarder’s life, the place you must venture to in order to partake in it is part of the magic. It’s important to pause often and take it in, for the beauty of the land is as important for the soul as the rush and exhilaration of travelling through it at high speeds as its master. Chairlifts are a time to meditate, to wait for your wave. And the fresh air is not to be taken for granted.

Back down in the valley, I settle into the slower-moving and always shivery routines of ski-town winter. There is a culture here that we only understand in Ireland from Christmas cards, that we think we know due to our own experiences with shite weather and the rare and exciting overnight snow, that melts by morning, but in reality we know nothing of its kind; a range of sights and experiences that come with living on the frontier of civilisation. There is a small feeling too when here that every day is Christmas, particularly when it’s snowing and you can’t wait to get an early night to jump up early the next morning and unwrap your presents on the hill.

There’s also a slower and more methodical pace of life, where people get on with their journeys, head down into the flurry of snowflakes blowing at them in the wind; slowly digging themselves out of hibernation every morning, grinning and bearing it through extreme cold and lack of sunlight, one day at a time. On sunny days the mix of icy air and dazzling snowblindness from the sun’s reflection on the brilliant ground electrifies the senses, wakes you up like an ice bath. A steaming hot onsen under a dump of snow is a magical thing. The Echoland village outside of Hakuba, for all its rather non-Japanese atmosphere, exudes a charm reminiscent of the planned frontier-town street grids of Revelstoke, where I fell in love with British Columbian ski life, a youthful winter romance. There’s a camaraderie amongst the people here that comes with journeying to extremes to do something you love – something active, something thrilling, something that requires care and skill and a sense of adventure – or just from getting on with life right where you’re from.

The secret is out at Hakuba Cortina, and we wait impatiently for over an hour in snaking lines to get on one of the inadequate 2-person chairs to get halfway up the mountain, then another. We strap in, newbies to the resort, meandering a little aimlessly down a cat-track flanked woods through dispersing crowds. Half unsure of the lay of the land, half scared of disappointment, unsure yet if it’ll be worth the wait. I’ve been waiting to drop in here for a while.

Snowboarding is about more than just fun – it goes far deeper than that.

If you enjoyed this then sign up for free regular updates on the latest essays and stories about travel, the outdoors and general stuff that’s good for your head.

Or do share it if you think you know someone who might enjoy it.