Querencia

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A good day is a day spent on a mountain.

Once upon a time, I used my winter vacations to escape to places like Thailand, India, New Zealand, and Nepal; places that, while my own home was buried under snow, enjoyed mild temperatures and dependable sunshine.

Not anymore.

Now I seek out the snow during winter; I’ve gone full chionophile. Last year, I scrapped a three-week vacation to Laos and Cambodia to head to Hokkaido to snowboard. This year followed suit; going back to Japan to board had always been my plan. (Korea has many, many things going for it….powder is not one of them.) And while I was excited to return to Niseko, the mega-resort in Hokkaido, for a week, I was even more thrilled to go back to Hakkoda, my home mountain while I lived in Aomori.

My love affair with Hakkoda is fairly short, only in its third year now. But it runs as deep as the snow that falls there. It’s far more than just a mountain to me.

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Winter’s work in the trees.
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My own little piece of heaven.

There’s this Spanish concept – “querencia.” It denotes a place to which someone is drawn, from which they draw their strength and where they feel at home. As strange as it may sound, my querencia is Hakkoda, with its frigid temperatures, winds that sometimes reach eighty or ninety miles an hour, and tree wells, nasty pockets that form around trees and will bury any unsuspecting skier or boarder who ventures too close to their boundaries. Maybe a querencia is meant to be your actual home, something like a worn armchair in front of a fireplace where you read or write. Hakkoda is the opposite of that; it’s not comfortable or cozy or predictable. But that mountain, for all of the times I’ve gotten bogged down in deep powder or been buffeted by its crazy winds, has made me a much better person, both in terms of snowboarding and otherwise.

I consider myself an adventurous person by all accounts; if it goes high or fast (or even better, both), I’m guaranteed to love it. Snowboarding, then, falls perfectly in line with that. Overlooking mountain vistas while bombing down an ungroomed slope as quickly as I dare? Sign me up.

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When I started snowboarding, I fell in love with it straight away, but it wasn’t until I went to Hakkoda (my eighth time out, on a day with next-to-no visibility and high winds…did I mention that “lack of self-preservation” goes hand-in-hand with the whole “adventurous” trait?) with boarders far better than me that that love took hold in my bones. I fell a lot that day. I struggled to keep up. I swore at myself, the mountain, and the friends who’d dragged me there. By the end of the day, I was sweaty, sore, and generally just a sorry sight. Basically, I was Shadow from Homeward Bound, when he struggles over the ridge at the very end, half-dead and exhausted.

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This happened a lot my first day on Hakkoda.
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A lot has changed since then…but I’ve stayed obsessed with Hakkoda’s snow monsters.

And then I went back the next day, because Hakkoda gave me what the pristine groomers and corduroy at the resorts I’d been to thus far just couldn’t: freedom. At Hakkoda, there are technically two official courses, but they’re more guidelines than anything else. The concept of “grooming” the slopes on Hakkoda goes as far as sticking orange poles in the ground to tell skiers and snowboarders the general direction in which they should be heading. And that’s it. There are a few “Beware All Who Enter Here” valleys that spell a long hike out if you venture too far into them and tree wells are a definite obstacle near the top of the mountain, but other than that, Hakkoda is pretty much a back- and slackcountry playground.

Hakkoda’s other noteworthy feature is its “snow monsters”: trees that become encrusted with snow blown by super-cold winds and get shaped into hulking, twisted, eerie forms. Snow monsters can only be found in two places in Japan. Hakkoda is obviously one. The other, Zao, isn’t quite so wild; its snow monsters are illuminated in various colors for night skiing. (Pretty sure if you tried to ride at night on Hakkoda you’d die.)

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Snow monsters on a rare bluebird day.
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There’s another fancy word I like to use to describe Hakkoda: nepenthe, which means “something that takes away your worries, grief, and sadness.”

By the end of my first season snowboarding, I was confident enough on Hakkoda to venture up on my own. During my second, I was there every weekend, usually both days; soon I was taking up Hakkoda virgins myself and showing them my favorite routes. By this year – my third season – going to Hakkoda was like going home. Going up alone, even on the windiest days, when you can barely see ten meters in front of you, doesn’t scare me anymore. (Though I’m definitely not complacent or lazy…Hakkoda tends to bite you if you ever get too comfortable or cocky.) Now I can chase lines that I used to just marvel at from the gondola on the ride up to the mountain summit. Because of Hakkoda, I am far, far better than I should be.

I think the best thing about Hakkoda is how much it’s changed me. For sure, it’s made me a much better boarder. But even aside from that, it’s brought out the best in me. When I’m at Hakkoda, I am stronger, faster, and braver than I am otherwise. I am quicker on my toes and more willing to take risks. And not only that, but it makes me happier than any other place I can think of. I’ve had more than one friend comment on how I seem to get a serious case of the giggles when we’re in a back bowl or in tight trees. On good days, I’ve been in the first and last gondolas up, because the itch to get “just one more run” overshadows my tired legs and frozen nose.

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The view from the top.

I know that Hakkoda is not the “insert superlative here” mountain. Worldwide, it’s not on many “Top Ten” lists. Even in Japan, it’s not the tallest or steepest or, on bad winters, deepest. It doesn’t have the gnarliest or most challenging terrain. Other mountains have longer runs, bigger drops, more backcountry, and more pillows. Once, when I was extolling the virtues of my querencia to another winter aficionado – a veteran skier by all accounts, someone who’s skied for almost twenty years in half a dozen countries – I was stopped short and told that Hakkoda, in the grand scheme of things, is little more than a hill. And maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s silly for me to love a mountain this way and put so much importance on it. But it’s also raw and wild and beautiful, and it gave my life so much that I never even knew it was missing. And maybe that’s what a good querencia is really supposed to do.

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