Betting on Japan

You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take

I am not much of a gambler. I’m tightfisted and worry prone, and I like certainty (I’m fun, I swear!), so booking a Christmastime ticket to Japan last July, with zero idea of how the snowpack might shape up, was close to ulcer inducing. But a lack of snow can drive you to do out-of-character things, and after the Northwest winter that wasn’t I was struggling. So in the sweatiest part of summer, when we could barely remember powder turns, five friends and I decided we needed a fix. It always snows in Japan, we told ourselves.

We all pushed purchase on the tickets, booked a slightly sketchy seeming AirBNB (comes with van!) in Niseko from some guy named Yoshi, and crossed our fingers that it would dump. It always snows in Japan, we kept telling ourselves, as the days got colder and shorter.

Except when it doesn’t. Storms rolled east off the Pacific, toward our home range of the Cascades, which scored the fattest early season in a long time. Meanwhile, Hokkaido was high and dry. I emailed the marketing guy at Grand Hirafu, one of the mountains in Niseko, to ask about conditions. “Warmest greetings,” he emailed back. “And I mean that. It has been unusually warm.”

We boarded our plane to Sapporo in a FOMO-inducing flurry of PNW powstagrams. “It’s going to be cool, it’s Japan,” we said to each other, guts churning that we’d just bought tickets for some expensive groomer skiing.

The first day was clear and bright, Mount Yotei gleamed in the distance and we fought jetlag by schwacking through scrubby sasa forests, trying to find some fresh turns. We resigned ourselves to sunny ski tours. Not a bad thing, just not what we were gunning for last summer.

But that’s the thing about gambling. Sometimes it pays out. Most of the time, the house wins. But luck would have it, we hit the jackpot on Christmas.

Amie Engerbretson scores the money spot in Japan. PHOTO: Will Wissman
Amie Engerbretson scores the money spot in Japan.
PHOTO: Will Wissman

It started snowing on December 24th and didn’t stop. Centimeters then meters, cold and light and deep. The stomach sink of the first scratchy days disappeared. I forgot what visibility was like or what it was like to use my edges. I forgot what my toes felt like until the end of the day when we’d slip naked into an onsen—no showers in Yoshi’s house—and they’d come back to me, tingling.

We cycled through the storm cycle like that. Get up, load the van, stop by the convenience store (oh my god, the convenience stores) for breakfast rice balls. Put boots on, then push through thigh-deep snow till our thighs gave out. Put ramen in our faces and then go ski some more. Then we’d hit the onsens, 100-yen massage chairs, Sapporo classics, and early bedtimes. Conveyor belt sushi and karaoke for special occasions. If there’s a better way to live, I have no idea what it is.

The trip to Japan could have just as easily not panned out. The weather could have stayed sunny and dry and we could have just come home with panorama photos of volcanoes and stories about the time we ate horse sushi. Snow, like anything you roll the dice on, is crushingly unreliable, but that’s what makes it so good when you get it.

People like different things about skiing. Maybe you like the stomach sink of sending cliffs, or the G-pulling snap of arcing turns. Maybe you’re the kind of person who only responds to steepness. But if you, like me, are a sucker for snow, it’s hard to imagine a more winning feeling than the zero-effort float of super-deep turns. Sign me up for next year. I’m on a winning streak.

Marquee Photo: In Japan, the odds are in your favor. PHOTO: Garrett Grove