Car Danchi

Going for a piss is not an option right now. I’m wedged between two other dudes on a foam mattress and wrapped tighter than a pharaoh in a pair of midwinter sleeping bags. Thermals on. Hood up. More to the point, it’s minus 27 degrees celsius out there. The prospect of unfurling myself from this mound of merino and goose down to clatter out into the freezing dark does not appeal. Instead, I hold on to my bladder as dawn creeps across the silent carpark, breath hanging in the air like the kid from Sixth Sense...

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Antti Autti is the first up. As usual. He wriggles free from the top bunk and, still in his base layer and snowboard socks, slips quickly into the front of the van to start the engine. It rumbles noisily into life, shaking the plastic walls of the cabin and stirring the rest of us from our fitful slumber. A few minutes later, hot, precious air is blowing through the fans. We fight to get our boots onto the heaters first.

It’s 6.30am and the service station remains closed, but the rest of the crew has already assembled in its small foyer. I pump 300 yen into the ubiquitous vending machine and it spits out a warm, slim can of coffee. Breakfast.

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Others are more organised: in one corner, Neil Hartmann – a tall, softly-spoken American ex-pat who’s been living and riding in Japan for 20 years – has fired up a powerful gas jet and is boiling up a packet of noodles; close by, his friend Shinya is already tucking into a mess tin of ramen, slurping at chopsticks from behind a cloud of steam. We share hot water and tales of the night as another local, Hayato, rolls out a rubber mat and begins contorting himself into the kind of splits that would make a young Van Damme wince. It’s a relaxed yet purposeful atmosphere. Then, a few short minutes later, we’ve jumped back into our various vehicles and are forming a convoy at the carpark exit.

The Car Danchi crew are on the road.

***

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Anyone who’s seen the David Benedek movie In Short will have caught a glimpse of Car Danchi. From Halifax to Alaska, the film provides a series of five-minute snapshots of snowboarder’s lives across the world. One of the stops is a grainy, black-and-white portrait of a Japanese powder chaser, living out of a van. This is Shinji Ohmori, one of the original Car Danchi gang.

Neil Hartmann, who has been documenting Shinji and the other’s exploits for nearly a decade now, explains that it all came about as a reaction to the freestyle scene of the early 2000’s. Everything was so contest orientated at the time – like the Nippon Open halfpipe, and the Tokyo big air. And then rails and street riding was suddenly the focus of the magazines. But all the dudes up here were like, ‘we’re not really into that any more’."

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By ‘up here’, Neil means Hokkaido, the quieter, colder and snowier of Japan’s two main islands. It sits to the north, directly across the sea from Siberia, and its tree-covered mountains and volcanoes are an annual dumping ground (literally) for prevailing easterly storm fronts carrying bucketloads of powder. These days of course, Hokkaido’s biggest resort of Niseko is famous throughout the world for its epic snowfall, attracting a who’s who of snowboarding superstars as well as an army of Australian punters riding the crest of an economic boom. But it wasn’t always this way: when Neil arrived as a 19-year-old in the early 1990’s and – with zero experience – landed a job DJ’ing on the local radio, “there were no foreigners here, there were no Aussies coming to ski in Niseko, it was a totally different Hokkaido to what you see now." Back then, Neil’s nationality alone made him something of a novelty (hence the radio gig) and before long he had scored another coup presenting a Burton-sponsored TV show on which he interviewed visiting pros like Jim Rippey and Brian Iguchi. It was the boom years of snowboarding and the world was going mad for the shred – nowhere more so than Japan, where just like baseball and Elvis before it the locals lapped up this latest form of American culture.

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“I’m surprised at how easy it is to find solitude in a country famed for its dense population"

But as the US-led scene became more and more freestyle focused, so the Japanese market began to mature and explore its own niches. For Neil and his friends, this meant “hiking backcountry, exploring roadside, finding pillow lines." It’s been often said that the UK’s rail-focused domes have spawned our current generation of jibbers, and in Hokkaido the exact opposite appears to be true. This is a land of plentiful powder that invites soulful carves rather than grimy boardslides, and with the usual Niseko haunts becoming gradually more tracked out, local riders took to their cars to hunt down fresh spots. “My friend Ken and some guys were based down in Nagano [on the main island of Honshu] and they came to visit us. They slept in their cars and that was kind of a key moment for us. It was like, ‘Ah yeah, I guess it is cool. If you have the right equipment, it’s not a big deal.’" He snaps his fingers ­to indicate a lightbulb. “That kinda sparked everyone off here, and the next season we all went out and bought sleeping bags – good warm ones – and began venturing off the beaten path, to places we’d never been to before."

***

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Our convoy makes steady progress along the frozen highways. The sun has barely kissed the landscape beside the road, a vast icy tundra dotted with sleeping farms and houses. I’m surprised at how easy it is to find solitude in a country famed for its dense population, but I’m learning that there’s more to this land than the crowded zebra crossings and neon lights of Tokyo. Soon we take a left turn and begin the slow climb up a mountain pass known as Kiritachi, huge red arrows suspended above the tarmac pointing the way – a reminder of how stormbound and drift-covered these routes often become. We are a strange many-wheeled snake, a motley collection of cars, minivans and full-blown campers. This, in fact, is the origin of the name Car Danchi. “Danchi "means ‘apartment’, like low end apartment buildings, and that was the image," explains Neil. “It wasn’t people car pooling, it was more about individual little units all lined up in the parking lot at night. ‘Car Slum’, basically!" he laughs. “That’s what the word means really."

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We park in a long layby designed for snowploughs to turn around in and I cast my discerning eye over the other vehicles in the group. There’s an Audi A4 estate – the sportiest of the bunch – with a roof box for boards and fold-flat seats in the back allowing for a decent (if confined) night’s rest; there’s a Mitsubishi Space Wagon; a square-looking 4x4; and behind these a black Toyota people-carrier, with a fox-like little Japanese dog christened Haru (‘Spring’) leaping excitedly at the open passenger window. The rest are mostly obscure local models of van, with varying degrees of interior comfort. “You end up carting around a lot of gear – snowshoes, poles and so on," says Neil. “Some people like to build a bed and use that as storage space underneath; some dudes are just rough with it, not very stylish, but there’s some who spend a lot of time with their woodworking. Like one of the guys has got a wooden draw that he built into the bed, he slides it out and he’s got all his gear packed nicely in there. That’s part of the fun too." One thing every vehicle has is some form of insulation, including silver pads to stick over the windows – vital when the overnight thermometer plunges below zero.

Our own set of wheeels is part monster truck, part Mystery Machine

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Our own set of wheels is a ‘93 Toyota Surf, a muscular conversion with a thirsty engine and huge chunky tires on jacked up suspension. It’s part monster truck, part Mystery Machine, and it’s Neil’s pride and joy. Inside, the rear cabin is divided into two wide bunks – ample space for two or three, an ambitious squeeze for our current crew of five plus assorted film/photography paraphernalia.

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There’s a civilised array of cupboards however, and the wall is plastered with a collage of stickers that attest to nearly half a decade hosting shred crews. In an amazingly generous move, Neil has handed us the keys for the duration of our stay while he bunks down in an extreme-weather tent.

“The campers actually came later," he explains. “They’ve gotten cheaper now in the last five years, but they were so expensive before, it was not something that any of us could afford.

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"So in the beginning it was just cars, and the guys that were lucky had a Mitsubishi Delica van – it’s like a loaf of bread, a box, and that was what everyone got into ‘cos it was cheap – two to three grand. Rip out the back seats, put a nice bed in there and that was perfect for the time. Gasoline was way cheaper back then too – it was really cheap to drive all over the place and look for new spots."

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As for the awesome mobile home we’re staying in: “I got it three-and-a-half years ago. The prices had come down and I’d been looking for the chance. Hayato got his, Mino got his, and I was like, ‘Yeah, dude, campers are just the way to go.’ Mino saw this one at the same dealer he got his and called me up – I went and reserved it right on the spot."

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“The board quivers, the slashy turns, the camper wagons: it’s all a wintry spin on the classic surf lifestyle"

The slopes above our parking spot look promising – a pristine playground of trees, pillows and glinting Hokkaido powder – and the locals are smiling as they unload boards and lace boots, many of them sparking up cigarettes in the crisp morning air (the Japanese, I have discovered, smoke like chimneys). They don’t live like this all winter – it’s more a case of sporadic missions over the season – so there’s a weekender buzz as familiar faces say hi and prepare to slay some freshies. It’s interesting to see that while the local ski bums are as loyal to their favourite American brands as the rest of us – more, even ­– fashion plays second fiddle to functionality; here in the cold hinterlands of Asia, it’s all Gore-Tex North Face jackets and lightweight Patagonia puffas. Meanwhile, their snowboards are a fascinating mixture of swallow tails and experimental spoon shapes with one aim in mind – namely, floating over the deep stuff.

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The board quivers, the slashy turns, the camper wagons: for these guys, I realise, it’s all a wintry spin on the classic surf lifestyle. Tune out. Drop in. And it’s one that, despite the Japanese interest in all things kakko (‘cool’), wasn’t really a viable path until recently. “Japan is famous for [the attitude] ‘You can play and have fun up until you’re out of college, but once you get a job you have to quit all your hobbies’. That was the traditional way of life. You’d meet people who were like ‘Ah I used to snowboard, but I sold all my gear, I don’t have anything anymore.’ You’d be like, ‘Why?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh I got a job’. It’s like, ‘Er, OK…’ I mean in other countries you have your vacation time to enjoy that stuff but Japan’s not like that, they kinda want you to settle down and just do your job. But when the bubble burst 20 years ago, that was one big thing. You’ve got kids Hayato’s age who’ve just turned 30, and he was 10 when it burst. His whole life has been an economy on the down. It’s become harder and harder to find good stable jobs anyway, so a lot of people will just find part time work. In Hokkaido for example, there’s these jobs where you go out and paint white lines on the roads, cos the snow erases them every winter. That’s a huge industry in itself, where you go out for a month or two on the road non-stop. And it’s actually pretty good money, and you have nothing to spend it on cos you’re out in the middle of nowhere, so you save up and use that for your next winter season."

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We scramble up the roadside snowbank and begin the first of the day’s hikes. Tyler Chorlton, Brit-come-Andorran mountain goat (complete with goatee) is breaking trail ahead of me, making conversation about 911 conspiracy theories. Tyler is a veteran rider these days, who’s gone from shralping rails and park kickers to earning his backcountry stripes alongside international crews in the sled zones of BC and AK. He’s taken to eating healthily, growing out his beard and donning a tin foil hat when watching the news. Behind me is Swiss-Italian Alvaro Vogel, a cheshire cat with the driving skills of a grandma who’s just stoked to shred. The last member of the riding team, Antti Autti, is on a mission of his own over on another face, along with his filmer and fellow Finn Teemu Lahtinen. Antti made his name as one of the most successful big air and pipe pros of the last decade, but has more recently broken out of the contest circuit to do the whole powder thang. Unbelievably, this is his fourteenth visit to Japan, so the strange food and language barrier hold no more surprises. He and Teemu are working on a new Billabong movie project based on his travels. With French photographer Matt Georges rounding out the group, there’s definitely a fusion flavour to this Asian road trip, but each of us has sampled the delights of the local yuki (snow) before and have leapt at the chance to come back.

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Up to a metre of fresh can fall overnight in Hokkaido and bootpacking these untouched slopes is seriously hard graft, so we’ve followed the locals’ lead and invested in snowshoes. As with their outerwear, the Car Danchi crew prioritise lightweight quality, and in this regard (so we are told) there is only one model on the market worth looking at: the MSR Lightning Ascent. These minimalist square-ended crampons make easy work of ploughing up steep sections and strap neatly onto your backpack for the descent ­– in fact the sight of a pair of MSR’s receding down the mountain will become one of the defining images of this trip. Along with snowshoes, the local riders all sport two-way radios and avalanche transceivers. Japan’s relentless snowfall, consistent cold temps and abundance of trees makes for a relatively stable snowpack, but out here in the wilds avalanches are not unheard of so it pays to be safe.

The deciduous forest slopes feel more like the UK than the Alps or America, but everywhere massive globules of pow hang delicately in the spindly silver branches like marshmallow clouds, and at times we pass tropical-looking bamboo shoots that remind us we’re in the Far East – apparently much of the island is covered in this stuff, a huge wicker mat buried beneath the snowpack which springs back into life each summer.


Machines of Loving Grace

Go anywhere in Japan and you can’t help but notice the omnipresent jidohanbaiki a.k.a. vending machine. From railway platforms and street corners to hotel foyers, chairlift stations and even empty fields beside the road, this mechanical standing army is forever at your service.

The first such machine in Japan was built to sell tobacco and went into service in 1888. Today, there are over 5.6 million. So why here more than anywhere? It’s all down to a remarkably low vandalism rate and love of technology – apparently, the machines are thought of almost affectionately as robotic servants. Need an umbrella in a hurry? There’s a machine for that. Absolutely must have a wank, like, right now? Go stick your sweaty change in the porn vender. Footballs, eggs, ties, hot drinks, fortunes and even live lobsters (complete with a giant claw to catch your chosen claws) – it’s all available 24-7 at the push of a button.

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And if you’re keen to purchase a pair of used schoolgirl’s knickers, you’d better act fast – the product was banned in 1993 but rumour has it a few specialist machines still lurk in the shadier corners of Tokyo (for the record, a pair of tighty whiteys will set you back 3000 yen – about 20 quid).


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At the ridgeline, we strap into our boards and touch base with the spotters down on the road. The lilting language of the Finns over the radio sounds like a pair of Star Wars characters. But as Shinya drops in first and begins carving smoothly between undulations in the terrain there is no need for translation ­– we are united in a simple love of the shred. Yabai! comes the cry from one of his buddies. Sick! answers Tyler.

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One by one the rest of the group set off, threading individual routes already plotted in our heads a hundred times on the long hike up. Mind-lines. Watching the Japanese guys tear up the pow is mesmerising. They all have their individual styles, of course, but somehow they also share a common free-carving aesthetic borne out of years riding deep snow. While Antti and the boys might boast superior bags of tricks with which to impress the camera, the locals’ wide flowing turns are just the most natural thing in the world, completely in harmony with the landscape.

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Neil has whipped out a small camcorder to capture it all. Not for him the giant booms and hundred thousand dollar cine-lenses of The Art of Flight. Inspired by the Japanese appreciation for all things small, perhaps, he packs light, and the reward is the opportunity to ride himself between capturing footage for his latest movie. There have been no fewer than six Car Danchi films now, with number seven on the way. Each has its own twist (“number five takes place as a series of dream sequences" recalls Neil) but all essentially follow the adventures of this mobile community of powder-lovers. It’s a peculiarly parochial and low-fi documentary phenomenon, still largely unseen outside the country and yet still going strong. “Number 6 sold the most of any," he says. “DVDs too – which is unheard of these days. Japan is one of the markets which still is viable for DVD – they just haven’t jumped on the web download thing as much as other countries have." Their ongoing popularity (“Even now I’m still selling 10-15 of the first and second one a month") is what enabled Neil to make the bold decision of eschewing any sponsors – since the fourth film there hasn’t been a single brand logo included in the beginning or end credits. “Sponsors brought pressure, and not actually much money," he reasons. Instead, he supplements his income doing commercial shoots and Car Danchi remains a strictly purist operation.

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It’s my turn to drop. I’ve brought along a specialist pow deck for the trip (a Jones Hovercraft – inspired, so I’m told, when Jeremy Jones tried out one of the local ‘Gentemsticks’) and it slices through the freshies like butter. I hammer my heel edge into an inviting back of snow and am temporarily blinded, choking on cold smoke, before emerging from the white room with a wide grin and about a kilo of ice plastered on my beard. All too soon however I’m roadside, high-fiving the group and busting out the little slang I’ve picked up so far. Syco! Awesome!

“We show a lot more doable snowboarding – it’s just dudes making some nice turns in some spots you wish you could go to"

We continue lapping in this fashion for a good few hours, fuelling up occasionally on triangular wedges of rice wrapped in seaweed – the Japanese equivalent to the packet sandwich. Like all the food here, the rice balls are elegantly presented but overly packaged (you practically need a degree in origami to decipher the three-stage opening instructions) and of course there is a mystery bit of fish in the middle – mine turns out to be ‘sea chicken’, known to us gaijin (foreigners) as tuna.

Finally, with the light now fading, we stroll back down the road to the waiting vehicles. It’s an exhausting way to snowboard, but Neil explains that not every Car Danchi mission is a hike-fest. “We love to go to the resorts, we’ll find any excuse to go ride the lifts and get a few runs under our legs! I like to put footage of resort riding and sidecountry stuff in the movies cos the average person can relate to that. That’s a large reason why I think Car Danchi has been so popular: we show a lot more doable snowboarding, you know? It’s not all Travis Rice 1000-frames-per-second double cork craziness. It’s just dudes making some nice turns in some spots you wish you could go to."

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The moon is high and full as our train of cars winds slowly back down the pass and over the floodplain to base camp. We pass a sprawling industrial complex in the distance, which Neil explains is a secret winter testing facility for Toyota. Its own danchi apartments, built to house the workers, squat ominously on the dark horizon. At some point Alva, piloting the big camper on his own while the rest of us take the chance to ride with locals, stops to take some photos and misses a turn – it will be an hour before Grandma catches up.

Journey’s end is the same quiet service station in which we awoke. Like many across Japan, it boasts its own onsen (hot spring) and for a few hundred yen we can warm our bones in the volcanic rock pools while our outerwear dries in the restaurant. Nakedness is obligatory in the onsen, but any European hang-ups have been long since dispensed with as we recline amidst the steam sipping cold cans of Sapporo from the vending machine. Neil explains that these baths are central to the whole Car Danchi lifestyle:

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“The trips get planned around where our next hot spring is gonna be. I don’t think we’d be doing this as much as we do if they weren’t here. Physically, you’re so tired and you’ve been sweating from hiking, but the onsen just refreshes you. It’s like a reset button."

“’Car Slum’, basically! That’s what Car Danchi means"

Back in the restaurant, we kneel at low tables to enjoy a mouth-watering spread of noodles and sushi. There must be a dozen or more pairs of boots lined up on the radiator but the owner doesn’t seem to mind ­– we’re the biggest group of the day. “Before Car Danchi they’ve always had this word shahaku," explains Neil. "Sha means automobile and haku means to stay or sleep. So ‘car sleep’. It’s kinda always been popular with the retired generation; they’ll buy a nice van and spend the summer travelling around Japan just camping out. Every village wants to build one of these service stations to cater to them, it’s like a tourist attraction, and if you come here in the summer it’ll be full in the carpark and it’ll be mostly elderly people who’ve come up to look at the beautiful flowers or whatever. In the winter it’s too cold for ‘em so it’s just us – there’s not much other business."

At 10pm the small complex shuts its doors, and with full bellies and dry clothes we beat a retreat to the carpark. In ones and twos, the riders disappear into their snug vehicles and hunker down for the night, and I clamber back into my own double sleeping bag arrangement, still glowing from the onsen. Antti fires up the ignition for a while to build up a little more heat. Tomorrow, we will make for a new zone. Neil has explained that there are still plenty of secret stashes for the Car Danchi crew to explore, including a whole swathe of mountains to the south east of Hokkaido – tantalisingly out of reach thus far thanks to a lack of roads.

The engine is still humming as I slip into a deep sleep and dream of powder...

Fancy planning your own Japanese road trip?