Brand new this week on Icelantic's One Degree TV is the first episode of the long awaited "Return To Nature" series. An artistic, three-part web series created by Eric Sales and Aiden Ulrich, chronicles adventures into the depths of people and places held dear to skiing. Join Icelantic athletes in episode 1 called "Yōtei-Daiko" as they take us deep into the heart and soul of one of the coolest places on the planet: Japan. An adventure full of bottomless pillows, silver birch forests, fish markets, sacred temples, endless smiles, and the ancient rhythms of the traditional Taiko drummers of Hokkaido.
Last January, select members of the Icelantic team made a pilgrimage to Hokkaido during one of the deepest winters the island has ever seen. With dreams of deep powder and sushi trains dominating their minds, the gang traveled around the island soaking up Japanese culture while sampling the local ski resorts and epic backcountry.
The journey starts out in the largest city on Hokkaido, Sapporo. In between skiing at the small resorts near town, the team wanders the city, sampling a variety of food and drinking sake with the locals. After celebrating the New Year at the Hokkaido Shire, the largest temple on the island, they head for Niseko.
Niseko is powder paradise. With snowbanks towering above their van, and nearly a foot of snow daily, they fall into a schedule of ski, onsen, sushi/ramen, repeat. When a down day finally comes, they headed for the ocean and explore the city of Otaru. Wandering through fish markets and sampling all the local fare is an experience they won’t forget.
Upon return to Niseko, they meet a Taiko master, Hideo. He invites the team to a private show where they learn about traditional drum music of Kutchan and how skiing on Mt. Yotei has been such a deep piece of regional culture. Hideo graciously offered his music for use in this film.
"The trip was incredible, to say the least". The team ate delicious food, shared life-changing cultural experiences, and skied some of the deepest powder they had ever seen. Check out episode 1 on Icelantic’s One Degree TV and on Freeskier’s channels dropping Oct. 16th!
Here's a look behind the scenes while filming action with the athletes in the field.
The Nomad 125 is an ideal ski for this kind of powder.
Anecdotes And Production Notes From Return To Nature Series Producer Eric Sales On Japan, Ep. 1 – "Yōtei-Daiko"
The Icey crew arrived in Sapporo, Japan just after Christmas. We rented an AirBnB called the “Samurai House” in central Kito, a burrow on the northern outskirts of Sapporo. Kito, is like its own mini-city. You can find the bustling metropolis that Japan is known for in a short walk to ramen alley or any of the famous ‘Nomehodais’ (all you can drink).
Our first few days were frustratingly spent out of the mountains due to a massive storm that was swirling over central Hokkaido. We took the opportunity to dive into Sapporo’s lively culture. Snowball fights in the park, exploring many of the Buddhist and Shinto cultural sites, and eating some of the most incredible food, occupied our time as we waited for the storm to pass.
One night is particularly engrained in my memory. The team was tired after a long day of walking and filming. It was the beginning of the New Years holiday in Japan (the 29th), the largest holiday of the year. We were unaware that this would mean that many restaurants would be closed until the January 3rd. On our fourth attempt to see if a restaurant was open, we got lucky. Greeted by a weathered man, Shiro led us to the center of the semi-circular bar that was the only seating in the restaurant. We were the only patrons this evening. His apprentice emerged from behind a traditional Japanese curtain divider and began to translate Shiro’s instructions, “fixed price, everything fresh, only one menu”. As we reveled in the house-made sake, Shiro crafted us local delicacies with the precision only a master could possess. As the night went on, Shiro began to tell jokes through his trusty translator. We had unintentionally wandered into a unique circumstance, a private evening with a sushi master and one of our deeper immersive experiences.
The next few days were a blur as we harvested the recent storm at a small resort near Sapporo. Kokusai was an old and quite small ski resort, but it had a top to bottom gondola and very loose boundary rules. In the blink of an eye, New Year was upon us and our appetite for fresh powder was temporarily satiated.
On New Year’s eve, we did as the Japanese do. We spent the day enjoying 5$ ski day (and several Strong Zeros) at Sapporo Teine. After a late dinner, we headed to the Hokkaido Shrine, the largest temple on the island. The square in front of the shrine was packed. Surrounded by an infinite sea of Japanese, snow began to fall. The air was humid, cold, and filled with the sweet smell of hot unfiltered sake as the clock struck midnight. Aiden had made his way to the front, posing as official media for the event. Silence befell the crowd as the Temple director said a blessing for the new year. The still air was broken by the deep reverberations of the temple bell and the orderly crowd crept forward, one line at a time, to the open doors of the temple. We wrote down our wishes for the new year and tied them to hanging strings in the temple court yard. We had all come for powder, but in that moment, all thoughts of skiing disappeared as we absorbed the moment.
The next morning, we were off to Niseko. 3 ½ hours later, we were settling in to our suite at the One Niseko, gawking at the size of the snowbanks outside of our windows. The next weeks would be filled with some of the deepest powder skiing we had ever done. The snow never seemed to stop, and consistently good conditions kept spirits high.
We had grown to especially love a backcountry zone near an onsen by our hotel. The easy access led to unlimited deep powder laps, with the promise of a warm soak at the end of the day. Combining that with fast laps at Niseko United, life was good. It was a simple time for all of us: ski, onsen, sushi/ramen/Elvis kebab, repeat.
Eventually a down-day came. Low elevation rain had deterred us from skiing as we waited for the storm to get colder and bring a full refresh. We decided to head to the ocean for another dose of Japanese culture. The town of Otaru is a port village on the Northern Central coast of Hokkaido. Only two hours from Niseko, it was an obvious choice. The crew walked the streets to find all sorts of curiosities. From fresh scallops to green tea icecream, and ninja costumes to handmade wooden gifts, the docks district had it all. After a large sushi dinner, we were headed back to Niseko, with dreams of a fresh powder day on the horizon.
We immediately settled back into our regular routine. Ski, onsen, eat, repeat. Eventually, we moved in with our friends at Hokkaido Core. Staying in their tatami bunk room, the group was preparing to transition to the end of the trip. Rachel heard that there would be a Taiko performance in Hirafu before we left. After explaining what Taiko was, we were all in to attend the event. The performance was intense as snow continued to fall and bounce off the drumhead. After the show was over, one of the drummers approached us (we had our entire film kit) and asked if we would like to attend a practice. Aiden immediately accepted.
Taiko practice was one of the most memorable moments of the trip. Not only did we all get to bang on some drums, the master allowed us to film and light a private performance of the regions most important track, the Yotei-Daiko. This track would influence the entire creation of the final piece, and thanks to the master’s generous offer, be included in the score.
After a few days in the small town of Kutchan, and some sweet new boots, we were headed back to the mainland, and eventually the USA. Our trip had been eventful, to say the least. We ate incredible food, shared life-changing cultural experiences, and skied some of the deepest powder we had ever seen. Despite the snow in Tokyo that forced us all to spend an overnight on the airport floor, our trip had been an unequivocal success.
Enjoy the film!