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All Aboard the Japanese Kei Truck

For ski bums, delivering pizza is natural, unless it's in a quirky truck from Hakuba

PHOTO: Seth Hampson

Easing forward from the stop sign, we can both hear it: The engine is starting to lug. I'm seated on the left, my face a foot and a half from the snubbed windshield of the K-truck. The pizzas are stacked in the delivery bag on my lap, a map of Hakuba above them that I'm failing to decipher by the light of my phone. Not that it would entirely matter—neither of us have quite figured out how the Japanese use addresses. Lacking anything helpful in navigation, I offer the advice we both realize: "A little more gas, dude." Ian punches in the accelerator and we swing left and deeper into the narrowing streets.

It's a couple days before Christmas 2016, and both Ian and I have been in Japan less than three weeks. Before that, we'd never met, having narrowly missed one another in the Seattle ski scene. A steady stream of ski movies, topped only by the gobsmacking snowfall they showed, prepped us both for the ask, and the cajoling of our mutual friend, Rachel, made it real: This winter, we'd do it. We'd go to Japan. Rachel also pulled us into the orbit of the Morino Lodge in Hakuba—a village at the foot of numerous ski areas in the Japanese Alps—where she'd worked the winter prior, knowing three important things: We didn't have much money, we needed to eat, and we'd have to sleep someplace.

"A little more gas, dude."

And so we'd sing for our supper and the roof over our heads. A few emails was all it took to arrange. For the five weeks I was there, I'd help out in the kitchen (do dishes), tend the bar (open beers), and answer the pizza phone. Friends at home, upon hearing this, asked me: "Pizza? And you don't speak any Japanese. How can you answer the phone?" To which I'd shrug and say, "I guess I'm going to learn.”

I didn't learn much Japanese, as it turned out. My shifts involved a short walk up the hill from the adjacent Wadano Lodge where I slept. I’d walk in the door, put on my slippers, head into the kitchen, write down the orders that were primarily called in by nice folks visiting Hakuba from the UK, Australia, Canada, and occasionally the States. Perhaps the menu, which was written in English, made my job easier. Ian, however, was there for the season, and had a task much harder: Once the pizzas were out of the oven and into the box, he'd put on his hat and a look of determination and carry them out to the K-truck.

For the unfamiliar, Kei or K-class vehicles in Japan occupy a size somewhere between large bikes and what folks from the States or Europe would call a standard sedan. The meager incomes of many Japanese post World War II meant that they could not afford a car, but could manage a motorcycle. Thus, the Japanese government created the Kei-class to try to get them into small cars. Since then, engines and size limits have increased many times, such that K-class cars, vans, and trucks are everywhere in Hakuba. The Morino Lodge’s K-truck was very much at home.

Read more from David “Powder” Steele: Anything for First Chair.

However, like the folks working there, the Morino's K-truck had its quirks. I asked one of the lodge’s owners, Matt, about it one night over beers, and I began to see why it was pretty cozy in the kitchen. The K-truck had been in the fleet for seven years since the Morino owners purchased it in Nagano for "a pretty good price." A 660cc motor, "slightly less than a lawnmower," was connected to four-wheel drive via a "primitive" manual transmission that certainly felt that way. Three years prior to our arrival, while trying to pass a bus, the K-truck had tipped over into a snowbank and required "a lot fewer people than you might think" to right it. He went on to say that "last year, someone wrecked it and didn't own up, so the driver's door occasionally swings open if you take a hard left."

"Oh,” he continued, “and the seatbelt on the driver's side is a little finicky too. You're fine on the passenger side, though."

In such a vehicle, Ian would ride out nightly, typically alone, sometimes as many as 20 times to take the Morino's pies to the hungry folks who called them in. Never mind that, prior to his arrival, his total time with a manual transmission had been 30 minutes in his dad's Acura, stalling out around a parking lot in Maplewood, New Jersey. Never mind that he'd done all his life's driving experience on the other side of the road. Never mind the snow, or the ice, or the slick tires, or the confusing road system. Never mind the language he didn't quite speak, or the engineering degree he'd just finished at the University of Washington. Ignore me especially, the useless navigator/narrator spouting tips about how to drive as we wandered about in the dark, eventually delivering the pizzas on my lap after Ian puzzled it out.

Long before the K-truck, Ian was a skier. And skiers know when to step on the gas.

David Steele is a skier and writer based in Whitefish, Montana. His column, Graupel, appears every month.