LEON BUTLER | A Season in Hakuba, Japan

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Japan is a beautiful country with some of the most forgiving and generous people I have come across; they can never do enough to help you. I worked for a well-known ski and snowboard shop called ‘Rhythm’ where there were a few locals working with us and I can honestly say they were the most amazing people who are always stoked on life and want to share their happiness. Whether it’s getting your carve on or partying, they are just a good time. It was these people who made my experience in Japan one I will never forget. In fact the whole crew at Rhythm are pretty special.

Leon Butler Hakuba
The beautiful mountains of Hakuba

There is no better feeling than going riding with your friends followed by an Onsen and chowing down on Ramen or Sushi. An Onsen is natural hot water that springs from the earth and is routed into public pools. The catch is that you have to be in your birthday suit, which at first its pretty strange, but once you realise no one cares about your junk, it actually feels natural and is amazing for resting aching muscles after a day’s shred. Japan is the total experience. The food, the people, the culture and the riding all mix together to create this complete package that is unlike most places i have been to, and it’s the reason you need to go to Japan at least once in your life.

When it comes to exploring the backcountry it’s a slightly different story. The locals keep their cards close to their chest and are careful who they share their knowledge with, and while it can be frustrating, I think it’s a positive thing. You have to earn your turns before you have even got onto the snow. It also protects this very special place from becoming overrun with people.

Leon Butler Hakba
Sushi feast

There are two really good guiding companies in the valley, Evergreen and The Good Guides. The Good Guides is run by Jerry Williams, a very good guide who has been in the valley a long time. Evergreen is run by Dave Enright, another person who has been in Hakuba a long time. There is also one of the most prominent avalanche researchers in the world called Bill Glude ( See him on the ‘Billabong Lines’ movie). So there’s no shortage of people to ask.

Although still a relatively sleepy place, Hakuba is starting to become more well-known. Situated on the south island of Japan and about 3 hours from Tokyo on the bullet train, it receives slightly less snowfall than the more well-known Niseko which, on average, will get around 14 metres annually, while Hakuba will get a mere 11 metres. … Hakuba more than makes up for it with the sheer size of their mountains.

This year they hosted the first Asian Freeride World Tour Qualifier event which brought with it some of the biggest names in skiing and snowboarding (maybe you saw a certain Travis Rice throwing down). I noticed over winter there were a lot of names and film crews, so while it’s still Niseko’s little brother I feel it’s an area on the up. ​Japan has the most ski areas per country than anywhere else, the figure is now around 500 although it was once a lot more than that. The Hakuba Valley is made up of 11 resorts ranging in different heights and aspects, meaning there is always snow to be found if you know where to look. Happo One, Tsugaike and Goryu are the biggest and are the gateways (literally) into the huge mountains that dominate the background.

The terrain around Hakuba is very unique. The mountains are huge with horribly steep faces, throw into the mix the huge amounts of snow that Japan gets and the endless terrain traps and it makes for an intimidating prospect. Doing your research is important here, you need to have your snow safety knowledge up to scratch and keep an eye on the ever-changing weather. Hakuba weather changes so often. We hiked in winds that you could barely stand up in, weather forecasts that predict 10cm will drop over 70cm and cloudy days will become bluebird at the drop of a hat.

But saying that, just getting out and exploring is recommended, its hard to judge faces from photos here, but you can usually skin up a safe ridge line out of the resorts and get a good look at the potential….of which it seems there is a lot. Just always be willing turn back around.

​I didn’t get out as much as I wanted this winter, but the times I did go backcountry were incredible. It was definitely quality over quantity with some of the deepest snow and epic line choices. It seems like it takes a little bit more effort than most places to get the goods, but it’s totally worth it.

Hakuba splitboarding - Doug Stoddart
Dropping into a spine run in the Hakuba backcountry. Image – Doug Stoddart.
Hakuba Splitboarding Doug Stoddart
Hakuba slash. Image – Doug Stoddart.

I’m not going to be the one who spills the beans on the secret spots, but I will share one of the best lines we found this winter. For me, it was the best line of my season and it happened to be on the last day too. We set off early from Goryu (after mistaking woman’s make up for suncream, although it still did the job) in order to beat the ever-increasing warmth.

We had a rough idea where we wanted to get to, but had no idea if the line was possible or if the conditions would be safe enough. Putting our skins on at the top of the resort we set off up through the trees and into the alpine, luckily there was a pretty decent skin track already so no breaking trail. We were expecting a tough skin and while there were a few tricky sections it was nothing too taxing and after 45 mins we were stood on top of the ridge line that lead to our goal. It was exposed and windy but the views soon took our minds of it. In front of us were Alaskan style mountains rising into the sky while behind us the snow dropped dramatically down to the valley floor.

There were a few people around, but in Japan it seems to be less skiers and more people hiking with camping gear and crampons, I find it insane to climb up these mountains and not feel the need to ride back down, but it’s good for us.
After a quick transition from touring set up we rode down to the top of the spine we had been eying up. Both of us had the same strange thought, absolutely scared but had a good gut feeling about it. Doug did a few stability tests which made us feel more comfortable.

Hakuba Splitboarding Josh Williams
Early season splitboarding trip in the Hakuba backcountry. Image – Josh Williams.

Standing above this spine was awe-inspiring, we were looking straight down the perfect looking steep, snowy face that just seemed to drop away into the valley below. I dropped in first and rode some beautiful soft spring pow, stopping half way down to wait for Doug. Once we regrouped, Doug dropped in to finish the rest of the spine, the snow was on point and accentuated by the rooster tails being kicked up from his skis. I followed and found a nice open face on the left that dropped back into the valley, getting some turns in on some flawless Japanese snow.

Once we got to the valley floor the snow suddenly changed into porridge, we struggled to keep speed up on the flat ground. This is pretty typical in Japan, as the elevations aren’t the highest you do get a lot of sticky snow on the lower slopes. We didn’t want to stay around too long due to the heat and danger of wet slides, and after a short stop involving me falling into a river, we ended up back at Goryu. Looking back at the mountains we had just come off left a feeling of achievement and the stoke was high.

To end it all, as we got back into resort, there was a race going on. Not just any race, but a kayak race……on snow. It was carnage, but the free beer was flowing and it was hilarious to watch.

Welcome to the craziness of Japan..


Leon Butler is a big mountain snowboarder from Great Britain. Having competed on the Freeride World Tour Qualifiers and traveled extensively in the past few years, he’s currently gearing up for another southern winter in New Zealand.

Follow Leon’s adventures on InstagramFacebook and his blog.

Leon is sponsored by Never Summer, Fatmap, Fitwell and Panda Optics.

 

 

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