Tuesday, February 17, 2015


A good friend of mine once said that the cold is awful, but at least there’s winter sports. In other words, to survive it, embrace it. With this in mind I eagerly accepted an invitation to go snowboarding for the first time. 
If this uncoordinated fool can snowboard, you can too!

And eager doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. I’ve always been one to get overly excited. The night before catching a plane, or even the first day of school, I can hardly sleep. I wake every a few hours only to find that alas, it’s not yet time to make coffee.
The anticipation of snowboarding definitely fell on my excited spectrum. I went to bed at ten; we were to meet at seven am, and I had to get my rest! I woke a few times and always fell back into restless dreams of snowboarding in Colorado with my brother (an event that’s never happened). I had gotten out of bed, eaten coffee and drunk my breakfast by 6:15, only to realize that 6:15 is too early for even me to eat anything. Undeterred, I fixed my wife a cup of coffee and lured her out of bed. I spent the next ten minutes dressing and undressing (though I’d already laid out my clothes the night before) polishing my goggles, and going over what little I knew about snowboarding from youtube. 

Raquel finally came downstairs and drove me to McDonald’s. I bid her farewell in the parking lot and proceeded to chatter inanely to Steve while he drove us up a mountain through his hangover.

We found the slopes nearly deserted. There were maybe 5 other people braving the early morning cold. Excellent I thought, no one to embarrass myself in front of.  We marched into the ski lodge and I demanded the largest boots they had. They fit- barely, and with a nod and a Daijobu to my instructor, I was ready.

Fukushima-san was always encouraging.
A note on my instructor. Steve introduced him as “Fukushima, like the nuclear meltdown.” Fukushima-san had patient eyes, and just a touch of gray hair that poked out from his ski cap. His snowboard though, was what held my attention. It was hardly wider than a ski, as tall as he was, and black as obsidian. It looked like a super villain’s snowboard, or perhaps something made to surf the rings of Saturn. I looked at my own fat red rental with relief. His board gave me motion sickness just looking at it.

We went to face the mountain.

“Skate?” Fukushima-san asked me and I tried to mumble an excuse that would both make my soon to be obvious lack of snowboarding skills understandable yet explain why I was willing to go snowboarding when most people were still asleep under electric blankets.

I went with, “not really for a while… er… ever.”

It seemed to have the desired effect because he showed me how to strap in my boots, and pushed off across the flats, using one leg to propel him every few meters, then balancing on his board until he slowed down. I looked at Steve and tried to explain myself but he just laughed, “Yeah I hate this shit.” He skated away on his board with a bit less grace than Fukushima-san.

I half-slid, half stumbled after them, and was relieved to find that unlike skateboarding, snowboards can’t shoot out from under you and roll off into a busy street, instead they bring you down with them. But the snow was soft, and after a few slips I was at the bottom of a shallow hill. Fukushima-san was already at the top, Steve was tromping up after him, using the edge of his board to dig into the slope. I followed, already breathing heavy, yet when I got to the top, my heart truly began to race.

They had brought me to the ski lift.
This can’t be right! Where’s the bunny slope?

“This is the bunny slope,” Steve said and shuffled after Fukushima-san who’d already boarded a lift and was rising up the mountain into the growing blizzard.
I stumbled after Steve and managed to get next to him before the ski lift hit me in the butt and I crashed down next to Steve.

“Careful to lift the nose of your board up. If it gets caught you’ll get sucked off the lift and bust your ass.”

I lifted the nose of my board up.
After a frightening five minute ride, we disembarked and I tried not to get smashed by the ski lift. The whole day nothing was more difficult than getting on and off that cursed ski lift. It’s the adult version of those rotating gates at swimming pools that kids can exit through but not enter. I kept imaging myself twisted and mangled, hanging from the wires, my blood forming red icicles, and going up and down the bunny slope for a frozen eternity. 

By the time I shuffled over to the top of the hill, I was actually ready to snowboard. Anything seemed better than that damn ski lift. 

I kept my board perpendicular to the slope and slowly eased forward off the edge, and, just like that I was snowboarding! I coasted maybe 20 meters before plopping on my ass. This was fun! And just by slightly adjusting the angle I could go faster! Why didn’t anyone tell me how easy this was? Steve boarded up next to me and offered a pat on the back, and Fukushima came over and gave me an encouraging thumbs up. I noticed he still hadn’t strapped his one of his feet into his board, though.
I pointed the nose of my board down the hill and WHOOSH! Away I went. Faster and faster I plummeted, only to realize that I didn’t really know how to stop. In an effort to not create a sonic boom and cause an avalanche I turned my board perpendicular to the mountain and….
YEEEAAAARRRRHH!! I tumbled head over heels down the mountainside. Eventually coming to a rest within earshot of Steve laughing maniacally. Fukushima-san boarded over, still with only one foot strapped in, and said only, “slower, like a falling leaf!” and thus I was a snowboarder.

We went down the bunny slope again and again. I learned to dig my heels in to brake, to cruise back and forth across the width of the slope to keep my speed down and to always, ALWAYS fall on my butt and not on my face. We even tried the course on the other side of the ski lift, and though terrifying, I managed to bridge the thick powder, avoid the ski lift poles, and get back to main course without hurting myself too bad. I was a natural! I was born to do this! Not since Tonyhawk’s Proskater had I found a sport that suited me so well! Sure, the ski lift still terrified me, children were skiing circles around me, and I could only ride on the backside of the snowboard and never the dreaded frontside, but that would all come in another fifteen minutes!

I was so sure of my natural aptitude that when Steve suggested we go to the higher (aka highest) slope I didn’t protest, not even when Fukushima-san looked at Steve then back to me and said, “crazy,” did I protest. I knew how to stop, how bad could it be?
The much taller and more terrifying slope,
complete with slalom course.
Ten minutes on a nearly abandoned ski lift and I was quaking in my ski boots. I had just seen a snowboarder plunge off the top of the hill and vanish. Like, literally. One second, he was there, real as the cold, then he pushed off and was gone. He reappeared seconds later, a tiny blur at the bottom of a long steep hill.

Fukushima-san gave me a thumbs up and I asked to see him go first. Mistake. He vanished just like the last guy, to appear as an even faster blur even farther down the mountain.
That obsidian board of his was really something. I was beginning to wonder if I could put sandpaper on mine.
But with a nod from Steve I plunged onto the course. Well, maybe not plunged. More like kept the back of my board dug into the thick snow, and slowly slid down the mountain. We’re talking glacial speeds. Not my finest moment. People skied past, a lot of people. Hey at least I was giving the pros an obstacle. But the hill started to flatten out, my confidence returned, and away I went, not really trying to keep up with the blur that was Fukushima-san, but at least staying close enough to be seen if I crashed.

We came to an even smaller and more precarious ski lift than the last, and rode it back to the top of the insane slope. This time I accepted that I would go down the mountain slower than thawing snow and actually enjoyed myself.  Steve and I traded places as we boarded in and out of each other’s paths, Fukushima-san raced through a thick layer of fresh powder and I followed, then pulled ahead, eager to impress my teacher, only to discover that snowboarding through thick fresh powder looks way cooler than it actually is.
I crashed, and found the snow had molded itself perfectly to my body. Try as I might, I couldn’t get up. I looked up to find I’d crashed directly under the ski lift, and people were either awkwardly avoiding looking at me (in japan, sometimes I can taste the awkward) or just laughing their ass off at the giant westerner who’d stuck himself in the snow. I struggled and thrashed but could not move. I’d push myself into a sitting position, only to have the snow collapse and engulf me yet again. Fukushima-san couldn’t stop laughing and Steve was demanding I give him my phone to take a picture. I should’ve, but I didn’t see how I could possibly reach it without sinking deeper. Finally Steve offered me a corner of his board, I unlatched a boot from my own board, and pushed off Steve to half-crawl, half-drag myself free of the snow. I was steaming with sweat, my glasses were fogged, my breathing labored. Fukushima-san and Steve queued up for the lift, and I shook my head.

I couldn’t do it.

Steve nodded and told Fukushima-san they’d do a few more runs than meet me back at the lodge. I nodded, pretending I understood the Japanese and not just Steve’s look of pity when I asked the way back.

Fukushima-san pointed to a narrow path before me that zigzagged through the woods.

It would have been beautiful if I wasn’t so exhausted and terrified I’d find myself in another snow drift. The path was almost empty, and had gentle slopes that connected flat stretches of fresh snow. I boarded back and forth, my thighs burning, stopping at the beginning of each slope so I wouldn’t have to skate through the flats. Old men skied past with their grandchildren. Snowboarding babes tried not to giggle while they asked if I was alright. I’d nod and give ‘em all a daijobu and push on.

Thus, I was a snowboarder.
I finally found my way back to the lodge, unstrapped my board and drank some Sports Sweat, as the athletes do here in Japan. Steve and Fukushima-san showed up a while later and we feasted on ramen and hot coffee from a vending machine before trying to bunny slope a final time. 

I managed to make it down with only falling twice, a personal best, but the second time I fell forward so hard my head spun, and when Steve told me he didn’t usually like to go back out after lunch I nodded weakly, blamed the early afternoon crowds for compacting the snow and making it more difficult, and bowed my thanks to Fukushima-san. 

He told me to call him if I ever want to go snowboarding again. Kind words, I thought, until I remembered how hard he’d laughed when I was stuck in the snow. Anything to break up the monotony of winter I suppose, and nothing warms the heart like laughter. 

 J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with his darling wife, and is waiting for the snow to melt. If you enjoyed this post check out the rest of what he did in January!  

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