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Return of the Trail Ninjas

On a cold autumn morning atop Mt. Iwatake, the clouds blanket the valley and the sleeping village of Hakuba. It’s just before sunrise, and the peaks of Shirouma and Karamatsu are vividly painted by the first rays of the morning sun. Near the top of the old Iwatake downhill mountain bike track, stands a group of riders. Among them are pumped locals and diggers, photographers, a film crew from British Columbia, and a dog named “Teddy.” It’s been long time coming, but mountain biking looks to make a triumphant return to this beautiful valley. 

Twenty years ago in a small village in rural Yamaguchi Prefecture, a young landscaper from some faraway snow-less mountains walked into a family-run bicycle shop. In extremely limited Japanese, he inquired about buying a strange looking mountain/trials half-breed Araya bicycle, similar to the one in front of the shop. 

In just as limited English, the owner’s sister explained the bicycle he was pointing to wasn’t for sale, as it was her brother’s. 

“No worries,” he thought and proceeded to order the exact same one, albeit with a bit of a larger frame. 

What started out as an innocent morning shopping trip in search of a mountain bike to slay local trails turned into a three-month journey into the depths of Japan’s forests, shrines, temples, culture and—most importantly— teaching how to be in Japan. 

The bike arrived and was precisely assembled a few days later. There was only one question left to ask, “Do you know any good trails to ride, Kazuyuki-san?”  

The next day at 6 a.m. on a crisp February morning, a quiet 31-year-old Japanese bicycle shop owner and—what may have seemed to him—a hyperactive blonde demon flown in to rape and pillage the town, headed up the local hill. The latter would get his first glimpses of a mysterious and ancient land. 

“Does this asphalt road go all the way to the top?”

“What’s that say?”

“What’s that called?”

The young stranger sure could ask some questions. From that first morning the trails were sublime. At the top of almost every climb was a temple, shrine, vending machine or even a phone booth. 

“What’s that?”

“Who’s he?” 

The questions continued like a mudslide. 

“O-Jizo-san! Hajimemashite, sweet single-track wo itadakimasu.”

Kazuyuki-san had confirmation, the new alien should be committed. Over the next week or so they rode everywhere. Old trails, school trails, rice terrace trails. 

Then, while peering over the edge into a sparsely growing bamboo grove, the newly dubbed, “Henna Gaijin,” was seen to dart off the side of the trail they were on and seemingly chase after thin air while yelling back up to where a bemused Kazuyuki-san stood patiently smoking a small Hope cigarette and scratching his head.

The foreigner yelled, “Are there any ninja in here?”

This randomness sent Kazuyuki-san into fits of laughter. Indeed this foreigner was a strange one. A few minutes later, he re-appeared, covered in dirt and leaves.

“Check this out, Kazuyuki-san.”

There was a trail, and what it opened up to was like a dream. Ancient trails, left alone to be at one with the forests and hills, flowing endlessly down ridge lines, across valleys, next to crystal clear streams. The newer trails were direct and convenient, perhaps more so for walking, but the older trails were perfect for fat tires. 

These trails in forests steeped in history. Next to groves of bamboo, just hidden under the azalea and cherry trees. The attention they were getting from these bikers was making the trail feel good again. Making the hills feel good again. The journey of who would become Dr. Jimi began here. 

Some time late in the 20th century in a cold and dreary rain-soaked land was born to a young couple a boy named Evan. Lucky for Evan, his parents decided to emigrate to a sun-soaked land Down Under. A love of bikes and a teacher who had seen the light allowed the young truant to become proficient on a bicycle. 

Evan would become a landscape gardener. However, travel got the better of him and, through the skills he had obtained from landscaping, and drawing from his riding experience, Evan quickly acquired work in most places he traveled. Whistler and Queenstown are but two on a long list of where his legacy remains in the form of a trail. In Queenstown, it is the “Rude Rock” trail.

Since Evan was just a puppy, in the exhausting heat of the tropical rainforest of far north Queensland, Australia, there is a set of trails that have existed for a very long time. On the World Cup circuit for the 1994,’95 and ’96 seasons, they stayed waiting in the jungle for 20 years.

During the dry season of 2013, while working on the trail rebuild for the MTB World Cup to be held that next spring, Evan and Dr Jimi had a first exchange of banter and useless rhetoric. They shared a common warped sense of humor, a love of life and a love of what they were doing. 

One a young clown with excellent bike skills and the knowledge of how to incorporate that into a trail; the other an old clown trying not to be, but with connections to awesome riders and a place with perhaps the most MTB potential anywhere tin the world. Conversations about Japan soon followed. 
While trail building, Evan sits gazing at the hill periodically. A lot of people may take this for simpleness. The good doctor says nothing, he knows the mind of the man at the front of the line is not a place to be if you are third in line. Young Evan sometimes daydreams of one day being known as “The Trail Ninja.”

Over the years, Jimi spent a great deal of time in central Nagano. This connection will last forever. He lived with a Japanese family, serving Japanese guests. He was privileged to have been taught by a fatherly man in the ways of the bigger Japanese mountains known as the Japan Alps. In these mountains he met an old master from the North Shore. The lessons learned from these two men were immeasurable in the life of Jimi. 

The Japan Alps have big mountain trails, a lot of them rarely used by anything but deer and the occasional bear or kamoshika. These trails in these serene forests were in need of a touch-up here and there. Were these mountains too big for Trail Ninjas?

The elements of Japanese nature are in such harmonious balance that disturbing them seems a sin. Recreating a North American ski town taken over by rad dudes with trucker caps (excuse the generalization) is also not the aim. The goal is to create an original mountain bike and general cycling haven in this part of the world. 

Since Jimi and Evan both come from landscaping backgrounds and rural upbringings, their strength is using their aesthetic nature to build trails that blend into the hillside. 

The Doctor had many an autumn and winter gardening in the Kamakura area and learned from an early age of the harmonic nature of a Japanese garden and its ability to be presumably designed and yet completely at one within its natural environment. Bringing awareness of Japan to trail building can only add to the appeal and mystique of riding in the Hakuba Region. 

Horiuchi-san, a Hakuba local, and Dr. Jimi were walking down a rather ragged and eroded DH trail on a hot summer day. 

”No good for the punters, no good for the hill,” was the gist of the conversation. Dr Jimi suggested coming to see some trails that deal with a heavy wet season, a large volume of riders and a following dry season that can be just as harsh as it is wet. They descended the trail while talking of optional lines and areas. The humidity of the day was somehow reminiscent of the tropical heat of North Queensland; perhaps it was a sign. 

They organized a meeting with the local boss and asked if they would pay for a trip to see World Cup-level trails. Horiuchi was doubtful; the doctor only slightly more optimistic. To their surprise, without taking much time to think about it, he agreed. It was on, a journey to study different trail types and the importance of efficient and sturdy drainage.

Tickets were booked, and the following year Horiuchi-san headed down to Cairns. Dr. Jimi had prepared a surprise for Horiuchi’s arrival in an unknown jungle. After finding an extremely overgrown bamboo grove with his grommets one sultry January afternoon, the doctor had gone to work and created a 200-meter pump track winding through, and back in and out of the grove. Just like an amethystine python Horiuchi-san had heard lived in those parts. He was amazed. 

Pretty soon Evan strolled down the path, and the three had a meeting right there and then. They sat down in the bamboo and discussed what it may take to bring world class, sustainable trails to Hakuba without affecting the uniqueness of Japan’s mountains. 

Hakuba has a committed group of local riders from a wide spectrum of the community. Dave Enright from Evergreen Outdoor Center runs mountain bike tours and is an avid rider. He has long been an advocate for more trails and to open more terrain to allow new trails. 
Many stories come from the Hakuba crew about the stagnant time of no change. During this time, mountain biking has changed, and everything with it, from tire size to technology. 

One thing hasn’t changed is the positive energy riders feel. Like water, it will eventually penetrate and can create life. The simple joy of being in the mountains riding a bicycle brings a smile to people whether they are a novice or an expert rider. 

The adrenaline kick is the same whether spinning 12-inch or 29-inch wheels. This is the inspiration, in the most basic form, for getting the wheels spinning, to breathe new life into this mountain biking community and for the return of the trail ninjas deep in the Japan Alps. 

This story of trails, tires and hope was written with the input, support and collective spirit of the Hakuba MTB community. 

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