This Hakkoda Mountains in northeastern Japan are a place of incredible beauty. Over the years locals have gained a healthy respect for these temperamental mountains, whose moods swing from gentle to terrifying on a whim. Paul Vanderheiden was drawn to the Hakkodas in search of the deep powder they are known for. He formed a deep connection with the mountains and the people in this far corner of Tohoku, never imagining life would take such a dramatic turn.
The following story is one part of a documentary series chronicling the lives of people in Tohoku affected by the events of March 11, 2011. The program will be aired on April 27 on JIBTV and NHK World.
“During winter, the weather in Hakkoda is merciless. Pretty much every day is a complete whiteout. When I was still learning how to be a guide on the mountain, my sempai (teachers) would aimlessly ride into the whiteness, or so it seemed to me. I wondered what was the matter with these people; how they knew the terrain so well was a mystery to me.
“It seemed liberating to be able to know the entire mountain in the back of your head. So I wanted to memorize the mountain as quickly as possible,” says Hiroshi Souma who runs the Hakkoda Sanso Lodge and is the Lead Guide at the Mt. Hakkoda Guide Club.
“When the sun comes out, my jaw drops at how beautiful is the scenery. But my sempai would say, 'Now is the time to study the mountain. Look and memorize.' They would always say the beautiful scenery should be appreciated, but these days are rare, so this is the time to study,” he adds.
The Hakkoda Mountains rise just south of Aomori City, the capital of Aomori Prefecture. The area is a natural playground for outdoor lovers throughout the year. Locals have gained a healthy respect for the Hakkodas, especially in winter when weather conditions can change in an instant.
Masamichi Kaimori knows these mountains better than just about anyone; he’s been a guide in the Hakkodas for more than four decades and has trained many of the guides on the mountain today, including Souma. He’s guided the Royal Family in these mountains for 28 years, and he and other earlier guides explored and discovered many of the trails.
“It wasn’t as difficult as you might think,” he says. “At night, while drinking, we would have a map out and draw a line with a red pencil where it looked like fun. If the weather was good, we’d go out.
“If customers we were guiding wanted to come along, we’d tell them, ‘Sorry in advance if we fail, but if we succeed you will be part of discovering a new trail.’ That’s how, day by day, we increased the number of trails. So it wasn’t actually all that tough,” he modestly states.
Back in the day most of the winter touring was done in spring, when the snow pack was more stable and there were more sunny days. In fact the Hakkoda Ropeway, which opened in 1968, didn’t start operating in winter until later. In mid-winter, day after day of seemingly bottomless snow falls on these mountains and there are few clear days. Giant trees, frozen in twisted shapes, watch over the pristine white slopes like guardians of the Hakkodas.
Certain mountains in Japan, however, carry weight within the community of skiers and snowboarders who love riding backcountry powder. Hakkoda’s location near the top of the Tohoku region, in northeastern Honshu, means you must be dedicated to travel to this relatively remote region of the country to get your powder fix.
Yet the sheer amount of snow is unrivaled, and when the skies break after a big storm, powder junkies come with beacons packed, powder boards and fat skis in hand, waiting for the first ropeway to claim fresh lines.
The weather here can change in the blink of an eye, so it’s wise to also carry a healthy respect for the mountain. It’s also prudent to go with a guide, unless you have a lot of experience in the backcountry and firsthand knowledge of the mountain.
“The main difference between Hakkoda and other mountains is the snow is not packed or groomed. There are many ski resorts in Japan, but Hakkoda is extreme. There is no mountain like it in Japan,” says Takanori Fukuchi, manager of the Hakkoda Ropeway.
“There are routes you can call proper courses but, unlike other resorts where they deforest the mountain and show you exactly where the course is, at Hakkoda there are only orange poles to help guide you to these relatively easier routes down the mountain.
The two basic courses are called Forest Course and Direct Course. Apart from these (basic courses), you can pretty much venture anywhere you want on the mountain. There are also regular touring routes but, if you are with a guide, the mountain can be limitless,” he notes.
“It seems like a ski resort, but it's not," says Souma. "No, it is not," agrees Kaimori. "If you are an avid skier at a resort, and you want to try this mountain and test the powder off the basic tour routes, the most important thing is to hire a qualified guide and follow his lead.
Unlike most resorts where they flatten the terrain, here there are naturally formed traps. There are huge tree wells you can easily fall into, the wind can create big cornices out of trees, and one can easily fall into a crevice. You don't get this kind of experience at a normal ski resort,” Kaimori adds.
The most famous example of just how merciless these mountains can be occurred on Jan. 23, 1902, when two infantry regiments of the Imperial Japanese Army set out to traverse Mt. Hakkoda. They soon became lost and disoriented in a blizzard as they desperately tried to find their way out of the mountains. This routine winter training exercise would later be known as the Hakkoda Death March claiming 199 lives with just 11 survivors.
“When the snow really gets deep, the mountain can play tricks on you. The more you try to climb, the more you are actually descending. Even if you try to cut diagonally across the mountain, the snow can be so deep you aren't able to. Instead, you gradually drop further down the valley,” Kaimori explains.
“You can only comprehend this after you have experienced it yourself. Otherwise, you will keep advancing in the wrong direction, getting more and more lost,” he states.
West Meets East
To the east of the Hakkodas lies a small, but significant town, Misawa. In 1938 Japan built an airfield in Misawa; however, since 1945 it has been in American hands and is the only joint service base in the western Pacific, home to U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.
In March of 2009 an American, Paul Vanderheiden, found himself moving here with his wife Meghan, a dentist and captain in the U.S. Air Force. The young couple had Japan on their wish list for overseas assignments and, although they were heading to one of the coldest and most isolated regions of the country, they couldn’t wait to get there.
"We were super excited when we found out we were coming to Japan. We knew Japan had really good snow, but it was the culture that drew us here. They give you a 'dream sheet' so to speak, of places you’d like to go, and Misawa was on the top of our list,” says Paul.
“We've lived in the mountains and near the beach for the past 10 years, so for us, starting a family, we really wanted to live in the country, and we like small towns, so coming to Misawa was kind of the perfect fit for us.
“As soon as I found out we were coming to Misawa, I immediately got on the Internet and started doing some research. I checked out the area, ski resorts and backcountry (mountains) and the first thing that came up in Aomori was Hakkoda. It's kind of a legendary place as far as backcountry and really deep powder, and not many people go there," he remembers.
Once they were moved into their house off-base, Meghan settled into her new job, and Paul found a part-time job at a local elementary school. Misawa is a hybrid town where inaka meets Americana. You step off the base, and you’ve got great Tex-Mex, Italian and sports bars. Head a few blocks in another direction, and there are hot springs and traditional Japanese restaurants. Go deeper into the countryside, and there is no limit to the outdoor fun to be had.
Paul felt as if he had the best of both worlds; the convenience and support of the base, while experiencing the real Japan. He began exploring the area and discovered he could surf year-round (although it is cold in winter) and snowboard six months a year at Hakkoda.
Paul soon hooked up with a local snowboarder, Eisaku Mukai, and started making more frequent trips to the mountain. It didn't take long for him to have his first “Hakkoda Experience,” which he describes as “having to dig yourself out of a hole, tree well or some other natural trap Mother Nature throws at you.”
During his first two seasons at Hakkoda, he discovered a tight-knit local community of backcountry enthusiasts and knowledgeable guides. He also recognized the mountain was a formidable place for foreign visitors or people from the base who didn’t have a lot of experience skiing in the backcountry.
Paul had studied snow and avalanche safety back in Arizona and Colorado and wanted to use the skills he developed to help visitors ride the Hakkoda backcountry safely.
“I decided I wanted to start Japow Tours (www.japaowtours) because I felt there was a small niche for people coming from overseas to Hakkoda who wanted to ride a lot of powder in the least amount of time. At Hakkoda, you can get lost in two or three turns so, if you don’t go the right way, you can end up in a creek or a box canyon,” he points out.
Before he started guiding, Paul made a conscious effort to get to know and learn from the local guides at Hakkoda. Even now he usually checks in at Hakkoda Sanso Lodge before he goes on a tour to get some insight on the weather or conditions in certain areas from the guides who go out every day. He’ll also find out where the other groups are going that day, so he doesn’t take the same route.
“The other Japanese guides—such as Souma-san from the Hakkoda Guide Club—are legends; they know the mountain better than anybody, and I am basically a guest in their mountains, and I fully respect that,” he says.
“Paul comes to greet us every morning and night to say 'yoroshiku.' That’s the kind of guy he is. As a foreigner, an American, Paul is very modest. Almost Japanese-like. He has Japanese friends, and I feel like he really fits in here. I also think he respects his surroundings and the locals," says Souma.
March 11, 2011, was one of those amazing powder days at Hakkoda. Japow Tours was keeping Paul busy, but he would make a point not to schedule tours on certain days, so he could be with his friend Mukai just to ride. They rode hard all afternoon, tearing up the 30-40 cms. of fresh snow.
Paul headed to the parking lot to switch boards when things started shaking and people ran out of the ropeway station. He set his board against his car, but it fell over, then suddenly all the cars in the parking lot started jumping around in their spaces.
Driving back toward Misawa, they stopped at the first convenience store and saw the line was out the door; people were taking everything off the shelves. That’s when he knew something was really wrong. Power was out at their house for a while, so it wasn’t until two or three days later, when they were able to get some Internet access, when they realized the magnitude of the disaster.
While the Tohoku area they had grown to love was being broadcast into living rooms around the globe, Paul and Meghan faced some tough decisions. Their son Christian was just 20 days shy of his first birthday when the earthquake hit. He would take his first steps the day after. Meghan had to stay in Misawa for her job, but Paul and Christian had the option of being evacuated to the U.S. The family needed to decide whether to split up or stay together in Misawa.
“We chose to stay as a family. We really felt safe staying here, especially in the area of Tohoku where we were, and we wanted to help with the Japanese community as much as we could,” Paul says.
Meghan added, “We just decided as a family we wanted to stay together, we did feel safe, and we wanted to help with the humanitarian effort. There were a lot of places within a 15-minute drive really hard hit, and we wanted to help rebuild.”
“I felt 100 percent safe and a 100 percent comfortable with our decision,” she says. “We were very well connected. The base was constantly updating us; multiple times a day, on the status of the water testing they were doing. They were doing air testing, testing all the planes coming in and going out, and they would inform the community on what they found.
“But, I think one of the hardest things was watching people in the community struggle with resources; gas, kerosene…because we were provided al lot of that on the base.”
The base was organizing and running several missions a day. According to Meghan they would go as far south as Noda nearly every day.
“One time we went to the Hachinohe seaport where there were huge tankers overturned. The entire seaport section was just devastated. There was muck, huge mud piles waist-deep, fish parts, and the fishing wire and nets were all over everything, so you had to pull that out,” said Paul.
“On another outing to help with the cleanup in the tsunami-hit areas, we went to a town just 10 minutes from Misawa, called Oirase, right along the coast. They had a bunch of strawberry fields and strawberry farms.” He says.
“It was just a local farmer, and he didn’t have a very big plot of land, but what he had was completely leveled,” Meghan adds.
“Basically we tore down the green houses and ripped it up so they could replant the strawberries. It probably would have taken them two weeks of work that we did in eight hours. You know, I think there were 30,000-40,000 man-hours of volunteer work done within a 100-mile radius of Misawa.” Paul states.
A few months after the disaster, although rebuilding efforts were far from over, it was time to look to the future. People needed to go back to doing what they loved so they could move forward. For Paul that meant getting back to the mountain.
“We were like, we gotta move forward and do something for ourselves, because you just get so stressed out thinking about all the bad things that can happen, and not all the good things that you have right here on our doorstep.
“The first day I went snowboarding was so good for me. My morale after just one day snowboarding kept me going for another week after that.” Paul beams.
“Both the American military and the local Japanese community in Misawa really tried hard to return to normalcy. They went on with festivals as planned. I think it really was good for the morale of everyone.
“I think this last year, I mean, anytime a big tragedy happens, it makes life that much sweeter. It really makes you appreciate the good days, and makes the bad days seem not so bad.” Says Meghan
Nature is a real part of life in Japan. Typhoons and earthquakes, even volcanoes, occur regularly. The colorful seasons are celebrated vigorously and often. Nature in all its beautiful and terrifying forms has contributed to making the country and the people so strong.
This past winter has been one of the best snow years in recent memory. Paul’s overseas customers have left Tohoku satisfied, having gotten their fill of Hakkoda deep powder and the many refreshing hot springs in the area.
“Just being able to be up here and share this mountain with the Japanese locals, and show foreigners around has been a really cool experience. You know this is the real Japan, this is the countryside, the traditions, it’s a pretty special place.“ Paul affirms.
It’s been a year since the disaster and although winter stubbornly clings on, it’s a new spring in the Hakkodas. The relentless storms begin to subside, making way for more sunny days ahead.
“What I still love about Hakkoda is that the base of the mountain is very gentle.” Says Kaimori. “It feels like the mountain wraps around your body. I feel a sense of relief when I enter. When I am stressed I go into the bamboo forest where no one else would come and lay face down on the ground. I spend about an hour doing nothing and, before I know it, all the confusion in my head goes away. That’s what kind of mountain it is.”
JIBTV PRESENTS THE DOCUMENTARY SERIES ‘FORWARD’
The earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, caused tremendous damage across a wide area of eastern Japan. The nuclear power plant meltdown made the situation even worse. People around the world were horrified by the aftermath but also inspired by the survivors’ quiet courage.
The “FORWARD” documentary series, demonstrates the determination to recover from the devastation. “DEEP TURNS” was produced by Cipher Communications, SET Japan and Outdoor Japan Media. For program schedule and live streaming, please visit the JIBTV and NHK WORLD Web sites.
FORWARD: DEEP TURNS