If you've ever seriously considered hitting Japan with your snowboard, now's the time. It's one of the only places in the world getting good snow right now. And a new outfitter operated by former pro snowboarder/terrain park guru J.P. Martin and his wife Ako, Cloudline Tours, promises an insider's line on the famous trees, bottomless pow and misty onsen experiences we've all seen in videos.
Martin rode for K2 and other companies in the 90s and actually pioneered many of the destinations on our global shred consciousness's bucket list. And don't let the blond hair, 6'2" frame and ice blue eyes fool you: he lived in Japan full-time for seven years, can crack jokes in Japanese and has been woven into the snowboard culture there since its earliest years. In 1990 he inhabited a mountaintop B&B before snowboarding was even allowed and the cat drivers would sneak him on-hill after closing. Kijima-daira in Nagano even has an unofficial run unofficially named after him: "J.P.'s Trees." In short: This gaijin's got game.
ESPN: Why is now the time to launch a service like this?
J.P. Martin: The last 10 years of amazing video parts from Japan, from just about every production house, all scream for attention. Plus, with the destruction and subsequent economic impact from last year's earthquake and tsunami, Japan needs assistance. Ski town travel is going to help small business owners to survive. We encourage everyone to come to Japan, even on his or her own.
Stories in the past of crowding, difficult route finding, and language barriers have kept people from just doing it themselves. When you come ride with us, you get the satisfaction that you didn't miss anything. We ride the best snow, with the locals, see the most interesting sights, and eat where the locals do.
Are Japanese riders different from their American counterparts?
The will to ride is the same, but some of the hurdles are far greater to overcome in Japan. Nine dollars for a gallon of gas?! Enough said... Some fairly accurate assumptions can be made by reading the signs. For example, when we go to a new mountain to ride anywhere in the world, the first thing we do is to check for "friendly" stickers on the cars in the parking lot. You can assume, that if you see a bunch of sleepy-eyed, unshaven characters crawling out of their vehicles that you are in a good place at the right time: the Car Danchi barometer has spoken.
We had a trip a couple of years ago where we had 14 locals showing us around the hill! The locals' willingness to share the coolest runs is refreshing. No secrets (well, not many) when every day is sick! This is a culture of stoke...
Why should every snowboarder fly to Japan at great expense?
The price of a trip to Japan is roughly what you would spend in five days of heli-skiing. Can your friends and family understand what you actually experienced at a heli operation? When you describe a trip that involves another culture, your story takes on a whole new level of depth. The conversations grow longer, and your memories become some of the most important ones in your life.
What makes Japanese pow so special?
My way of describing Japanese snow is to describe how it happens: The Jet Stream blows cold air across from Siberia and combines with the warm water currents from the Philippines and the South China Sea. With a majority of the resorts in Japan only 10-70 miles inland you get "lake effect" snow [e.g. SLC resorts] on a massive scale. A maritime snowpack can be agony or ecstasy depending on how warm the storm blows in. Thankfully, January and February bring amazing snow.
On a sunny day the snow can become heavy by mid-afternoon. This is a good time to take a nap, a soak, and a beer. When the lights come on, and the temps drop, evaporation can completely rejuvenate the powder to the point that it feels like when you first got it in the morning. Some of the best riding in Japan is at night!
Do you think Niseko steals all the foreign press re. Japanese shredding?
Twenty years ago, the owner of Gentem snowboards,Tamai Taro, and a few others moved to Niseko for the ridiculous amounts of snow and perfectly spaced trees. Niseko was a cow town, and they were just happy to see people come ride. Now the area is a major international destination. The local farmers and ranchers haven't changed, but some of the original ski bums have moved away in search for the next small town ski mecca. Our friends have stayed and have been working on the perfect turn and the perfect board for riding deep pow. When they tell you to "point it from here," they know just how far the speed will carry you, and how far you will have to walk to get back to the main run.
Niseko will always command attention as a resort with some of the most consistent, easily attainable powder in the world. The price you pay is not so much on the hill, but in the expansion of the town. Gone are the bars and restaurants run by ski bums, replaced by nervous entrepreneurs and the heavy debts they have incurred to be in such a beautiful place.
Tell us a bit about Hakuba.
The mountains on the main island in Nagano are bigger and steeper than in Niseko. The town has 13 community onsens (hot baths) that are open to all visitors. The mountain is huge, but has its roots as a hill run by the oldest ski club in Japan.
This area was not always friendly to snowboards. We were part of a poaching expedition back in '94 with the Cummins brothers, Jamie Lynn, and Circe Wallace. Snowboarding was not officially allowed and we had to bring our boards on the gondola in board-bags. Once we were on the upper portion of the hill, it was game on!
What kind of client do you have in mind with Cloudline?
Our clients range from industry veterans to weekend warriors. You will need to be able to have ridden a little powder, and have an understanding that deep snow can move between awesome and downright dangerous -- it just depends on how you deal with it. (Ask, and we will teach you how.)
We like to think that our typical customers developed addictions to snowboarding in college, and now that they are in the corporate world, they don't have the time to put a trip together like they used to. We love people with a good attitude. Adventure travel is what you make of your surroundings.
Is it shred only?
We have run the trip with both. We are snowboarders, and will provide a ski guide if we get more than four skiers on a trip. Otherwise come ride with the snowboarders -- the mixture of the two is a blast! See the part on attitude above. If you are having fun, we will all enjoy the trip.