Text and photography by Peter Lundström
‘I’m a little sea-bass, and I’ve lost my way.’ She made me sing that crap in front of over a hundred parents of my best friends. Boy, were the bullies going to have a field day with this one. For some reason, she – our 4th grade music teacher – had somehow gotten the impression that I could carry a tune and therefore included me as the only solo act in her poorly composed school play. It was to be some sort of ghetto Moby Dick fairytale meets a Finding Nemo musical. It sucked, to say the least. And unfortunately, so did I. As yours truly, reluctant and trembling, took the stage, I knew I was no little sea-bass, but I definitely felt like a fish out of water. Thanks to a vile concoction of stage fright and a limited vocal range, I was off key for the entire three minutes. Three horrific minutes that could have just as easily spanned an entire lifetime. I could see the parents cringe in their seats at my feeble attempts at hitting a note, but managed to plough through the sea-bass song only to receive a muted round of applause. I’ve got three words for you: traumatic childhood experience.
Since that mentally scarring evening, performing in any other form than in a band was out of the question. I became the guy who, just as silent as a granny creeping about on slippers, slunk his way to the back of the room whenever the karaoke machine was brought out. In the winter of 06/07, it was finally time to confront my inner demons.
Together with three Scandinavians named Anssi Manninen, Jonte Edvardson and Kalle Ohlson, all musically gifted in their own way, the sails were set to a country where avoiding a karaoke session is as hard as avoiding losing the plot after a bottle of Miintuu. It’s impossible. The set destination was also the cradle of karaoke and karaoke machines, namely Japan, where the activity was popularised in the early 1970s by a famous singer from Kobe. The quartet had already spent a few weeks brushing off their vocal cords in musty bars in China during the Nanshan Open, making playlists and psyching themselves up for the arising bombardment of karaoke bar viewings. Since there were sponsors with no real interest in our future singing careers putting up plenty of loot for the trip, we had also agreed to do some snowboarding.
After a week of umm-ing and ahh-ing about where to go, the Scandi posse finally headed straight up to the north island to meet up with the Japanese riders-cum-guides JT and Teppei in Sapporo. Panic started spreading like wildfire as the group of four first witnessed there being almost no snow around the tarmac at the Sapporo airport. Had we just flown halfway around the globe for the same poopy conditions as back home? The unusually warm climate in Europe during last season had luckily only claimed its victim in a small quantity of snow in Japan, not the quality. The locals did, however, state that two-and-a-half metres of extraordinarily dry and light snow was considered a ‘bad season’. Spoilt bastards!
Teppei, our humble guide and one of Japan’s best riders, showed us around and could easily have found any form of snow mushroom asked for. Within the first two days, he had taken us to snow formations resembling a gargantuan phallic symbol, and one the size of a SUV. If you haven’t heard about Teppei’s infamous heel-edge catching in to various spins on one of them things, you just haven’t been paying attention. During one afternoon, Kalle Ohlson and I agreed that what we were witnessing was the wildest thing we’d seen performed on a snowboard, all films included. After quite a few metres of travel from a decent sized kicker up on to a four-metre high hard-packed mushroom, Teppei threw in a backside 90 to catch the heel edge on purpose. After catching the edge he tried to huck a backside rodeo off the mushroom. This trick was attempted five times before it was concluded that it just would not work, at least not that day. Make sure you are not prone to getting whiplash injuries before trying this trick out. Edge catching in to a variety of inverted spins is so next-level. Unfortunately he didn’t quite make it the whole way, although he was annoyingly close. If you want to know if he eventually stuck it during the season, you might be able to find the answer in the flick promoted on www3.ocn.ne.jp/~weird/.
Cruising around Hokkaido, the north island, with most of the mountains having rather short runs compared to the Alps, the first impression was that it’s mostly about pow and pillows here, and that kicker spots are very hard to come by. Something that will make the kicker spot-search even harder is the Japanese opposition towards removing trees, or even the smallest branch in the run-in or in the landing. Kalle Ohlson was unwise enough to test our guides’ temper by removing a branch in the run-in to the only proper kicker spot we found (read: that Teppei showed us) during the two-week stay. The immediate response from JT was “That’s a minus point for you, Kalle". It was said in the same tone of voice as a convicted mob hit man would say “Drive safely" to a member of his jury. This is all due to their belief that the spirits live in the trees. The most obvious question that arises is of course how ski slopes are made in Japan when it is frowned upon to only snap a tiny twig, let alone take down half a forest for the sake of skiing.
Japan is a country of dos and don’ts. How to leave your chopsticks in the rice or how to dip your sushi in soy sauce may seem like a trivial thing for a westerner, but there are numerous ways to do it wrong and in so doing offend your Japanese buddies. There are numerous rules bound by culture and tradition, one more peculiar for a westerner than the other. It is frowned upon to walk and eat at the same time, as well as to drink and walk, so quite naturally, chewing gum and take-away coffee isn’t really big business over here. With all these rules about, amongst many other things, food, it is strange for a European to see that it’s socially acceptable to fall asleep at the dinner table. The Japanese tendency for narcolepsy/taking an outrageous amount of power-naps anywhere at any time, has puzzled many, including the Scandiland quartet. At the first karaoke session in Sapporo – a complete sausage fest with ten guys in a ten square metre room – the Japanese part of the crew managed to fall asleep despite the volume being cranked up to a deafening eleven on the sound system.
Going for a rail session in the outskirts of Sapporo might seem a bit excessive when there are truckloads of powder as light as dust pretty much everywhere, but after a night of rain, Teppei concluded that it would be wise to take to the streets. He didn’t mention anything about bringing our passports. After scoping and digging out the mother of all kinked rails, up rocks the five-foot tall filth. When speaking English, folks from the land of the rising sun have a tendency to answer only “Yes" when asked a negative question, when they actually mean “No". Total mass confusion broke out as our Japanese colleagues were nowhere to be found to mediate. When asked if we could hit the rail, the answer was "Yes" followed by the crossing of both arms which is the sign for “No". However, the nice little officers didn’t seem too upset by our attempts at snowboarding in the city, but when they realised that we weren’t carrying our passports, they once again made the x-sign with their arms and said “Very bad!" It seemed like we were in trouble.
After sitting around for a few minutes, waiting for JT and Teppei to show up and explain what the legal repercussions would be for not having our passports, one of the coppers called for backup. Since the crime rate in Japan is extremely low, the tiniest offence like this will have half the police force throwing their half-eaten donut in the trash and jumping in the squad car just to get a piece of the action. The otherwise very calm JT had panic in his eyes when we explained we didn’t have our passports on us and just like the rozzers had said earlier, JT exclaimed “Very bad!" After being held at the station for no longer than thirty minutes, we finally got to drive an hour back to the hotel to get our passports and sign a piece of paper stating that we would never leave home without them again.
Following ten days of a snowboarding bootcamp, it was time for a quick visit to the capital for a great deal of consumerism, unusual arcade games and a final go at that karaoke malarkey. In the secure presence of only my Scandi allies, we decided the last night in Tokyo was to be held inside the confined space of a Big Echo booth. Big Echo, the fanciest chain of karaoke bars (and probably one of the more expensive ones), was my last shot at overcoming the aforementioned traumatic childhood experience. After a few beers we had lead and backup vocals dialled, and harmonies and a cappella ventures started coming as the night went on. It was a redeeming feeling.
A constant bombardment of new gizmos, visual, cultural and culinary experiences together with perhaps the best snow on the face of the planet makes Japan a must visit, and a re-visit. With over a month spent all over Japan during the month of December and January, the conclusion is that this is a country that is so original, so peculiar, that in a mere thirty days it still feels like you’ve only scratched the surface. But despite the feeling of only having seen a miniscule part of Japan, the sum of the various experiences and impressions during this short time add up to ten times that of any other country you’ve ever visited.