I live in a small town that goes by the name Hakuba. It is located at the base of the North Alps. Our peaks are up to 3000m tall and the weather requires a lot of patience to truly get the most out of the surroundings. As a photographer the weather and location of the seaside mountains can be a blessing- but it can also be very frustrating... especially if you’re working with timelines and budgets.
In Japan, most film and photo crews head straight towards the North Island of Hokkaido. With consideration to the cost of travel and the people paying the tab obviously looking for marketable results- it is easy to see why most crews go with the same proven formula. I can’t blame them as it has one of the most reliable snow falls on earth and in overwhelming amounts. Packaged with culture and novelty it is an easy trip to accomplish success. Sadly the more money spent- the less the words “unique” and “adventure” stand a chance of making its way into the story line.
Hakuba on the other hand is one of those rare ski towns that might still have something new to offer. For the most part it is an old town that boomed -- and then doomed itself into a shanty ski village. The terrain and access is exceptional but the town lacks the ski town glamour that you might find in Niseko, Vail or Whistler. I think its fare to say it’s a locals mountain and not so alluring to investors. You don’t have to work too hard to get to the goods but you still have too work some. The same could be said for valley life. There is no hustling bar scene or over flow of services to revival Club Med. It is very low key and I don't think the words 'alpine ghetto' are too far from the truth . The bottom line is most folks come here to ski backcountry or to save a few bucks on a ski vacation.
About a month ago Mike Douglas sent an email saying he was considering Hakuba for an episode of Salomon’s Freeski TV. Mike, beyond his legendary freestyle skier status, also runs SwitchBack Entertainment- the company that produces Salomon’s very popular web based show. f-stop has been helping Mike and crew with packs for the last few years. He has a small crew of pack mules carting excessive amounts of gear all over world and through a wild variety of terrain- the relationship is a perfect match for f-stop.
Mike ended up settling on Hakuba for the show. For some background on Mike’s decisions to come here- he has visited Japan over 35 times during his ski career. But as he suggested he never was able to get into Hakuba’s alpine. He was hoping too this time around.
The show promises to be a good one as it focuses around a Japan native who runs Bravo Ski magazine and ski bums by winter. I won’t give the plot away but it really is a good story and genuine commentary on how some Japanese ski bums spend the winter months. For those who romance the winters chasing storms while holding a real job in the off season- it will provide more fuel to your fire.
I met up with the crew for a few days. The talent was familiar: Mike Douglas, Mark Abma and Tahoe big man Cody Townsend. f-stop Faction Pro Mattias Fredriksson was also along for the trip with Jeff Thomas as principal cinematographer and Leslie Anthony to handle the literary work. Japan local Tatsuya Tayagaki would be the central character in the show.
Locally we have been experiencing consistently 'blower' snowfalls. For Hakuba this ‘blower‘ snow actually means problems down the line. Yes light powder is amazing but without the wet dumps and moisture content in the snow, the bushes and creeks, which Japan’s mountains are decorated with - do not get packed down or covered. This can limit the terrain and a Pro skier’s ability to let loose. On the flip side you get incredible powder days with endless face shots while smiling about how great life is all day long. For a local it’s not a huge problem but for the folks on those previously mentioned timelines and budgets it can hamper progress and the gathering of unique content.
Regardless of the challenges of limited terrain available, the crew made the best of it- each day was a hustle from sun up to nightfall. Their goal was to create a complete episode with story line- this involved a very busy and time consuming shot list. I was a little unsure of the crews’ feelings of success other than they all wanted to spend much more time skiing here. I could see that Mark and Cody were anxious for some bigger terrain.
While they managed to stack the footage it was apperant the last day in Hakuba would dictate the flow of the show. In typical road trip style there is always that one day that just erases all the hard work of the days before. It was no different for Mike’s crew as there last ski day in Hakuba was met with a big storm- 30cm reported but about 50-70cm of goodness on the mountain. This snowfall was pretty much a party for anyone on slope that day and as an image below shows; if you can get chest deep images out of 6 foot 2 inch Cody Townsend - chances are the trip was a success.
This image perfectly expresses the first week of January in Hakuba- a wise time to visit. Skier Cody Townsend, Photo: Mattias Fredriksson
A big thanks to Mike and Crew for taking a chance on the underdog(Hakuba).
- Ian Millar