Think back to any video you’ve seen on skiing or snowboarding in Japan. Cue a timelapse montage of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, people in facemasks, huge pedestrian crossings, Harajuku girls, performance sushi. Now cut to the mountains; high fives, face shots, edges slamming into trees, a ton of action with the odd shot of a temple spliced in.
All of this is on offer, but the times I’ve spent on Hokkaido have been less about finding adrenaline and more about oxytocin. Coming from snowboarding in the Alps where riding is all about finding crazier lines or going bigger in the park, you could be forgiven for thinking that this approach is universal. However, there are other ways.
‘Ikigai’ is a concept for bringing purpose into your life. In French you’d call it ‘raison d’etre’, and in English it loosely translates to ‘thing that you live for’, but in Japanese culture it has more of a holistic meaning. By combining what you love doing, what you’re good at doing, what the world needs and what you can be paid for, you find something much more valuable and rewarding than a passion or profession – you find a purpose.
It’s been touted by many as the key to living longer. If your job is not just a means to a paycheck but your entire reason to get up in the morning, people stay more active for longer. They find peace and fulfilment through work and are thus able to adopt a gentler pace of life.
It doesn’t have to be associated with high flying jobs or trendy careers either. In Japan you see it everywhere, from fishmongers to snow clearers, supermarket bag packers to train conductors, all surprisingly (from a Western perspective) content and happy finding beauty in the mundane. This attitude also breeds respect: there’s no reason to look down on any given career if someone can find complete inner peace in doing so, so the concept of a dead-end job applies less.
It applies to skiing and snowboarding too. Yeah, you could ‘get better’ by constantly going bigger, faster, by adding an extra rotation. Or, like many of the local riders we met on my last trip there, you could spend your time striving towards the absolute perfect turn. The most perfect edge pressure, the perfect body balance, the perfect line.
There’s a whole movement in snowboarding devoted to this called ‘snowsurf’, practised by riders like the Gentemstick team, Happo Banks and the Orange Man (pictured above) – a guy who, put simply, likes turning his snowboard and being orange, from his board, to his outfit to his van in which he lives. Out of the many professional snowboarders I‘ve met, these were the most relaxed, contented and happiest, which is saying an awful lot.
Snowboarding has taught me an awful lot about myself and who to be, but being amongst this culture, even briefly, has taught me more about how to be. Japan, man. It’s where you can find the world’s best powder, and then some.
All pictures by Sam McMahon. Sam is a photographer and videographer who works predominantly with Nidecker. You can find out more about his work at samuelmcmahon.com