The first time on a snowboard can be painful experience etched deep in your muscle memory. Catching an edge once will keep you on your toes – or heels, as the case may be. And for some the pain will outweigh the pleasure and one less rider is born. Others learn to fly.
Cultivating new customers in any industry is an ongoing challenge requiring a significant investment of time and resources. Snowboarding is unique in that the commitment required to get “first timers” on the slopes usually involves driving, dollars and a few dustings of the derrière. While the first two may be unavoidable, snowboard-maker Burton has made a concerted effort to prevent the third through their Learn To Ride (LTR) program. LTR was first showcased on U.S. slopes in 1999, and their goal remains getting novice riders to enjoy snowboarding from day one.
The LTR program was such a hit that, after two years, it made the leap to Japan where it is now featured at 10 resorts, three providing instruction in English. NORTHSTAR outdoor adventures at Norikura Kogen Onsen, Nagano, is one of them and one of the most progressive proponents of the sport in Japan.
“LTR is more than a teaching method or specialized rental equipment,” gushes NORTHSTAR founder Dan Junker. “It is a philosophy that combines instruction and hospitality, giving your guest the best product and best service you can.”
He enthusiastically continues, “The LTR program is designed to provide rentals, teaching and an overall experience that will let the new snowboarder have fun, a concept that can be quite foreign to the typical Japanese ski/snowboard school, but a key ingredient for new riders so they will want to ride again.”
The gear itself is straight-forward: a highly flexible board with a concave shaped base to help avoid catching an edge and one-touch adjustable bindings. Burton Japan’s Koichi Tamaoka notes, “Using your edges when riding is a basic snowboarding technique, but for the brand new rider, using and trusting their edges can be the biggest hurdle. We don’t want newbies to catch an edge on a frontside turn, slam and give up.”
Dan echoes this sentiment, saying, “Our goal is that guests do not fall and within 90 minutes they are connecting turns. This is not a promise but, practically speaking, it often happens with LTR.”
Confidence in the LTR program is not limited to the amateur ranks, though. After retiring from the pro circuit in 2006, Olympic snowboarder Michiyo Hashimoto was looking for other avenues to spread the snowboarding gospel. Having already started the “Kirara Kamp” in 2003 for kids interested in freestyle snowboarding, Hashimoto knew it was only a matter of time before her sponsor, Burton, brought her on full time as an LTR advisor.
Michiyo’s camp has seen a steady increase in numbers, hosting 31 camps last year alone. In the past six years, 1,800 kids have benefited from Michiyo’s instruction and the LTR system.
“Teaching beginners can be a tiring process,” admits Michiyo. “But I come away feeling so refreshed. New riders are so stoked saying, ‘Snowboarding is awesome’ and ‘The snow feels great,’ and this puts my heart in the right place.”
Kirara Kamp has been held at various resorts in Japan for the past seven years, and the most up-to-date information on upcoming camps is available on their home page. However, Michiyo has made a special point to work for the last three years with NORTHSTAR, one of the three schools in Japan offering instruction in English.
“NORTHSTAR began offering the LTR program at the same time I became an LTR advisor,” she says. “That winter I made the trip there, fell in love with the place and set out planning kids camps there.”
Kirara Kamp’s collaborative efforts with Northstar are not limited to winter. The “Kirara Adventure@NORTHSTAR” three-day program introduces kids to all sorts of outdoor fun to be had in Norikura Kogen when the snowflakes aren’t falling.
“Kirara Kamp itself is modeled after some of the U.S. camps such as High Cascade Camp (in Oregon) and Camp of Champions (in Whistler),” she explains. “NORTHSTAR resembles that atmosphere, from the jib park right outside to the river out back. There’s a climbing wall when you walk in the door, and it is OK to pull out the trampoline and jump to the rafters. From the moment the kids arrive until they fall asleep, they are constantly having fun and doing it without TV or video games.”
With ten resorts throughout Japan offering the LTR program, it is safe to say LTR is not a one “powder-hit” wonder. So rather than heading south this winter in search of warmer climes, spread your wings here in Japan and learn to fly.
LTR Schools in Japan
Alpha Tomamu* (Hokkaido), Alts Bandai* (Fukushima), Iwappara (Niigata), Tangram, NORTHSTAR* (Nagano), Dynaland (Gifu), Ski Jam Katsuyama (Fukui), Biwako Valley (Shiga), Rokko-san, Yamagoya (Tottori). *English Instruction Available
Location: Various Resorts in Japan
NORTHSTAR outdoor adventures
Location: Norikura Kogen, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: (0263) 93-1688; Fax: (0263) 93-1699