Travel Features

Japan On Instinct

Gigi Rüf & Elias Elhardt Follow Their Nose to Powder and Pain

[Gigi Rüf’s olfactory areas are honed to snuffle out the best conditions.]

Matt Georges cruises Japan with Gigi Rüf and Elias Elhardt for the new Pirates mini movie, Follow Your Nose…

Words & photos: Matt Georges

Have you ever found yourself drinking rum at home to try and re-live the feeling from your holiday in the Caribbean? The taste isn’t the same, is it? I have the same thing with the sushi, because every time I eat it I remember that food just tastes better in its country of origin. It’s not the same for fried food though, because everyone wants to claim the invention: the French with their French fries, the American with their Freedom fries and even the Belgians… But I digress. So when Gigi Rüf and Elias Elhardt invited me on a trip to explore Japanese food and do a bit of snowboarding in between the meals in order to ease the digestion, I didn’t hesitate for a second!

It was a very special mission because “following your nose”, as the title suggests, it is not an easy task. By the way, I never really understood this really weird expression. Because if you follow your nose when you look in the mirror, you’ll end up banging your head against the glass. If you follow your nose while you piss, you end up in a puddle… and even worse, if you close your eyes, you can’t even see your nose and so you’re totally lost. You feel me? But golly gosh, that’s your nose that you have to follow, right?! What the hell have I been talking about for two minutes?

Butter might not be used that often in Japanese cuisine, but Gigi applied it liberally.
Face shotted.
Gigi has clearly had enough of all Matt's French 'jokes'.
Elias's first front 7.
Following the Jennifer Lopez -> J-Lo trend, Gigi would be called G-Ruf. Trouble is, he’s the least gruff person we know.

Suddenly, a multitude of questions are bombarding my brain. What is THE RIGHT way to do this? Can I follow somebody else’s nose? Is it a solo mission? Do those with bigger noses have less chance of banging their foreheads? In my eyes really, among our whole team in Japan, Gigi is the winner by far! The multiple times his knee has collided with his face on big landings has totally defeated his nose, which has been broken several times during his career.

Everybody in the group agreed we should follow Gigi’s nose, which I thought was a really wise choice because it was his 10th trip to Japan. Needless to say that the biggest snowfalls mainly occur in the northern part of Hokkaido Island. Its Russian neighbour, Siberia, is always really generous and sends Hokkaido all her cunnilingus…. err, I mean her cumulonimbus or whatever, which are big clouds carrying big weather. Sorry, my mind sort of wandered because I just remembered those vending machine selling used panties. Really sorry! So, the snow can fall here every day in very large quantities, to the point where it might be useful to remember where you parked the car the day before, otherwise your neighbour will send you a big “arigatooooo gozaimasuuuu!” for having cleared the snow around his car instead of yours!

Gigi blends into his surroundings effortlessly.
Gigi makes snowboarding look so fun.
Gigi ollie.

All these manners are fine, yes, but where was Gigi’s snout pointing? The latter brought us by road to a remote area in the northern part of the island. As the closest city was an hour-and-a-half drive away, we wouldn’t bump into any foreigners during the whole trip. To make the most of the exploration of the Japanese backcountry it’s best to get off the beaten track, take your car and to get lost along the countless mountain passes.

You may be aware that the City Council of Barcelona recently defeated the skateboard scene. The police there are less and less indulgent and it is not rare to get a fine, even when just riding on the sidewalk these days. Hokkaido island is on the same track because some snowboarders and skiers crews have historically just parked anywhere on the roadside, preventing the all-powerful work of the snowploughs. There is now zero tolerance to this and we can almost understand it, so it’s best to excavate a large spot to park your car away from the snowploughs’ path.

The drive times are sometimes really long but if you want solitude and the possibility of riding fresh spots, it’s the only option. Is not really good for your carbon footprint, but we like to think we offset it somewhat when we walked for hours, without using lifts nor sleds. Finally, we got some good karma points back.

In Japan, the trees double as kickers. Gigi rides the rodeo.
"Excuse me, kind sir. Do you happen to know where we might find the cherry cherry pow pow?"
Gigi gets down with the locals.
Topiary, Rüf-style.
The control Gigi has over his snowboard is close to unnatural. Wizard!

Paradoxically, Japanese seems to be an overpopulated country especially in a megatropolis like Tokyo, but as soon as you go a few kilometres off the more trodden paths, you are really on your own. Once parked, put on your snowshoes and hit adventure mode by following your nose… or in our case Gigi’s nose. Here on the side of the road, it’s always the same. You generally have to cross a small river to get to the other side of the small valley to reach the good spots. This is a real mission and it all depends on your size. Because if you’re a light person then there is no problem, the snow bridge will hold and you will cross without a hitch. But if your job is to film or shoot snowboarding, remember to put on some Gore-Tex clothes because when you fall after the snow bridge collapses under your feet carrying your 50-pound bag, frozen water will only give you a few seconds before it slowly penetrates your guts!

The first spot we hit is a big pillow gap, rather fat, and the 25 inches of fresh pow are not too much. Elias sends a big Front 7 straight off the bat, but he goes too high and too far and crushes on his board on this landing that is really to flat to absorb this type of impact. A big banger for the beginning of the trip! He tries a second time in order to have it clean for the movie. He goes a bit slower but pops more and lands in his previous hole… He hits his face with both knees, passes out for a few seconds before he realises he’s broke his two front teeth and cut a bit of his tongue. More shaken than really hurt, right?

Elias sends the second, fateful front 7...
Broken face and a knee full of teeth.
Not good.
Finally, Elias gets medical attention.

But he seems a bit dizzy when standing up, then he falls back down to the ground really dazed. Gigi is close to him and runs in his direction to help him get back on his feet. Elias has a big cut in his pants and blood is starting to leak around his leg. When rolling up his pants, we realise that he has a big wound on the thigh just above the knee. It’s an ugly hole! It’s really disgusting… And kind of embarrassing because we really don’t know how we are going to get him out of here… It’s a 30-minute walk to the car and at least a three-hour drive to the closest hospital.

Gigi has already had to manage injury situations like this during the course of his long career, involving himself or others, and often in the middle of the backcountry. So he takes on Elias while we are gathering all the gear. We make him a tourniquet around the leg with a backpack strap, give him some water and sit him on a snowboard with the leg straight and attached, while sliding him really slowly on the snow to reach the lower part of the gully. Getting back out to the car will not be easy because the snow is really deep and our footsteps are not hard enough yet because it’s the first day we’ve spent in this zone.

Gigi lipslides the loop.
The abandoned temple was Gigi's personal playground. Miller flip.

The arrival at the hospital is kind of funny because no one speaks English and it’s really hard to understand each other. After a load of examination and tests, the surgeon seems a bit worried and wants to perform surgery right now. Apparently, Elias has some pieces of teeth inserted in his femur and is at risk of a large infection if the wound is not cleaned as soon as possible: because our mouth is full of bacteria!

The operation goes well and we get back to the hotel hoping that Elias will recover soon. We will stay in this area for the three-quarter the trip. Every day we’ll see a 12-inch snowfall and we’ll have sometimes difficulties to find our own footprints from the previous day. Gigi is really be amazing for his ability to stay motivated and will ride several spots a day on his own, while Elias is recovering slowly from his big wound. He will finally get back to Innsbruck a few days after surgery, not being allowed to do any sport for one month because of his infected wound.

With Elias broke off you might stress about getting enough shots with one rider. Unless that rider is Gigi Rüf…
Corked Cab 5 from the Notorious Gigi Smalls.
Rüf goes full ninja.

In order to prepare this trip, the filmer Flo Eckardt had the island scrutinised using Google Earth to locate all the spots. After few hours of drive south and lots of exploration in the area, we finally find this old abandoned Chinese park in the middle of the dense forest. Luckily the great tower can be seen from really far away, which makes it easier to find. Gigi will land a lipslide loop, banging his head on concrete a few times. We will spend a few days there, in this ravaged scenery, haunted by old souls, before getting back home to eat sushi in Europe… with Elias of course!

Don’t forget to check out the last Pirate movie: FOLLOW YOUR NOSE!

[Below: There are no blurred lines with Rüf’s riding, just pure, timeless flow.]


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