By Trevor C. Hale
Our first time on Japan’s snowy north island of Hokkaido, we found ourselves at a housewarming party close to the slopes. Guests were mostly gaijin (= gringo), but there was a pack of Japanese girls who worked on the mountain (collective noun for group of Japanese girls? Pod, gaggle, giggle?) Our friend Greg, sensing my son Spencer’s boredom, whispered to the girls in his perfect Japanese (fluent gaijin) that Spence was a professional snowboarder. Spence’s 18-year-old self dished the same scruffy handsome sauce as his 26-year-old self does today, so it was believable for them to think he was a Shaun White in the making. They looked at Spence and collectively “tee-hee-hee’d” behind politely raised hands.
“Uh, Dad, the girls asked if I could leave with them,” he said a bit later.
“See you back at the condo,” I replied, barely containing my pride. #That’smyboy! (Knowing full well that if this was my daughter I’d have a very different reaction #hypocrite).
They had fun at a local watering hole, and the next morning they called the condo to see if he would meet them on the mountain.
“You did tell them you weren’t a professional, right?”
“Well…it never really came up,” he said.
Their search for him that day, and indeed the next three days, was fruitless, as he was hiding in plain sight on the bunny slope learning how to snowboard with his old man. Our days were spent on the mountain slowly nailing our S-curves, and our nights with me and the grown-ups indulging in succulent Japanese fare while Spence hung with the Giggle. The fourth day, walking into the condo, we found Spence talking to one of the girls, who on closer view, seemed in her late 20s. When she offered a “konichiwa” in a low lounge-singer, tobacco-stained voice, I thought, OK, this has gone on long enough. #That’smybabyboy! It’s one of many fun memories we have of the small ski town named Niseko that gets more snow than any other resort on the planet.
Living in China, it became the go-to place for Chinese New Year holiday boarding and skiing. I was lucky to go several times, experiencing the hospitality and history unique to Japan, including a side trip to see the famous snow monkeys #worthyofaseparatecolumn. I returned this February with the fam, sadly sans-Spence, to show it to my wife and provide her a safe and powdery platform on which she could learn how to snowboard.
It’s no lie that Niseko gets more snow that anywhere. Its micro-climate is unique: Cold, dry winds blow over the warm Japan sea from Siberia, creating the perfect conditions for killer pow pow. Literally feet of powder every day. Like many in Alabama who ski, I was lucky to be able to experience the majesty of Colorado as a kid and learned to ski at an early age (we tried Gatlinburg’s faux snow one year but I was ruined after CO.) Our extended family took a few unforgettable trips to CO when we could find the time and the bank. It was my first time experiencing the cool CO cowboy culture—a completely different, laid back, leather-bound world.
I couldn’t wait to take Spence when he came of age, and remember fondly his first time in Steamboat. Glancing over and seeing my son cruising down the mountain with me made my heart sing. There is something about being in motion together—whether skiing, riding motorcycles, trekking, whatever—that’s magical in its ability to reinforce, on the slopes, as in life, the ability to learn how to dodge obstacles and find the smoothest way forward. It’s one of my fondest memories.
As I write this, he’s working on the same mountain in Steamboat, along with a pack (gang, millennial, SnapChat) of Bama boys who have found a fun seasonal calling working on the mountain, commuting to work via snowboard.
He’s spent a couple seasons there. He’s not quite “I teach boarding in the winter and white water raft guide in the summer” yet, but I can see the temptation of the fantastic lifestyle. Great gig if you can pay the bills, I tell him #secretlyjealous. Maybe not sustainable if you’re raising a family, I cajole. #UAB!
I digress. If you find yourself with an opportunity to go to Japan, Colorado, Gatlinburg, or anywhere it’s possible to ski/board or indulge après ski, definitely go. It’s worth the trek. And if you see Spence in Steamboat, tell him you’re from Bama.•