Who Discovered Japow? — Paul Parker, Yvon Chouinard and the Early Days of Japanese Powder Skiing

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | April 17, 2015      
Paul Parker and Yvon Chouinard, Hokkaido 1984.

Paul Parker and Yvon Chouinard, Hokkaido 1984. Photo from Paul’s book ‘Free Heel Skiing.’

If you ski tour, Paul Parker has changed your life. One of the most influential and long-term product developers in the outdoor recreation industry, Paul has worked on everything from the first plastic telemark boots all the way up to Garmont and on to Scott. He’s also a writer, and of course a dedicated skier.

Back in 1980s, days of ancient past, back before Chouinard Equipment morphed into Black Diamond, Paul and Yvon Chouinard went skiing in Japan. Beautiful artistic photos of skiing Japanese “Japow” powder were subsequently published in various print media.

Paul would never claim any credit for starting things, but in my view perhaps his and Yvon’s early skiing over there is the foundation of the current frenzy. WildSnowers, what do you think?

Japan skiing in a modern recreational sense has been going since the 1920s, yet Hokkaido and other such areas have much more recently gained the reputation as world-class powder heavens.

But when did the Japanese “powder pilgrimages” actually begin? In my case, the first time I learned about the place was seeing photos in a Chouinard Equipment catalog. It looked wonderful, but too expensive and exotic for 1980s budget ski travel. Yet that’s probably when the buildup began for what “Japow” is now. I recently asked Paul if perhaps he and Yvon “discovered Hokkaido” for powder skiers. Here is his answer.

Paul Parker: “I marvel at how people are now talking about skiing Japan, like it’s something new. I guess that could be because it’s not so easy to get around in Japan, and traveling over there has not been widely popular until recently. You drive on the other side of the road, any areas but the big cities road signs are in characters, there has not been much English until recent years, etc. It’s certainly good skiing and a wonderful culture. It is not new.

The first time Yvon and I went was probably 1984. We went with several Japanese friends: Naoe Sakashita, then distributor for Chouinard Equipment Japan, now BD Japan, and known as “Lucky Boy” for his Himalayan climbing accomplishments. Naoe is a remarkable athlete who in 1984 had not skied much at all. He took alpine skis, got his ass kicked and bounced right back up for more. Amazing. Isuzu Tatsuno, owner of Montbell, who was then the Japanese distributor for Patagonia, an experienced climber as well who had climbed the North Face of the Eiger, and Mr. Kenai, owner of one of the nicest shops in Sapporo.

Paul Parker's 'Free Heel Skiing' book, published in 1988, had quite a few photos from powder skiing in Japan.

Paul Parker’s ‘Free Heel Skiing’ book, published in 1988, had quite a few photos from powder skiing in Japan.

It’s hard for me to remember exactly how the idea was cooked up. As I remember Yvon was curious about skiing there, had been talking to Tatsuno about it. I was curious about skiing there and was lucky enough to be included. Yvon (as I do) has great respect for the Japanese culture which was an important motivator. I don’t recall having heard about it from anybody except those guys: Naoe, Tatsuno, and Yvon.

Mr. Kenai’s father, a very distinguished elderly Japanese gentleman, not a word of English and traditional dress, drove us around in his left-hand drive Mercedes that I think Kenai said he’d bought from the Korean embassy. He would leave us at a ski area and go hang out at an onsen and come back a couple of days later and take us somewhere else.

We based out of the Woodpecker Lodge, still there, owned by good friend Shinya-San and his wife Norieko, at a small satellite ski area near Niseko. We skied quite a bit with members of the “Japanese Telemark Association” — small in numbers but enthusiastic. As I remember Mr. Yamamoto was one of those skiers and we stayed at his lodge in Niseko.

Yvon and I went back to Japan a couple of times, visiting Hokkaido again as well as Nagano, which was very interesting for a variety of reasons. I also went back on a Garmont trip in the 90s and experienced one of the most epic storms that I’ve seen at Yamagata Zao on the main island. I had what were then very fat skis (prototype Tua Sumo), while most everyone else was stacked up on some kind of racing ski as that’s what people skied in those days. It was a total blast, about a meter a day for four days.

The first edition of “Free-Heel Skiing” has a bunch of pictures from that first trip to Hokkaido. We had a photographer (Yaraicho Skinjuko-ku) who traveled with us and chronicled the adventure, in part because there simply were not many gaijin who skied there and we had a bit of notoriety in various camps, and a bunch of journalists wanted to write about it.

In those days, Japanese were very hungry for American skiing culture. There were several articles in various mountain magazines, one called Outdoor which I probably have buried somewhere. I guess it was a bit of a ground-breaking trip to see Americans over there, particularly on telemark skis.

I have many nice memories of skiing in Japan. It’s fun to think about it again — a lucky boy to be hanging out with those guys; a wonderful opportunity at many levels.

From the book, Parker skiing ';Japow' 1984.

From the book, Parker skiing ‘Japow’ 1984. He’s on 60mm waist skis.


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21 Responses to “Who Discovered Japow? — Paul Parker, Yvon Chouinard and the Early Days of Japanese Powder Skiing”

  1. Doug Hutchinson April 17th, 2015 11:26 am

    No doubt. My data point: when I first read Paul’s tele book in the early 90s, Yvon’s intro about making tele turns in tres of Japan really planted the seed. Ten years later (just before Japow started to appear in every movie and mag), I made my first trip.

  2. Edge April 17th, 2015 2:52 pm

    The Woodpecker lodge is still there (at Moiwa) and is awesome. Shinya San is the man!

  3. GeorgeT April 17th, 2015 6:26 pm

    Wildsnow giving proper credits where credits are due!

  4. Quasimoto April 17th, 2015 6:35 pm

    Isn’t the title of this post rather western-centric? Lou, you mention this in the post, but the Japanese discovered Japanese skiing long before some westerners with the connections to publish photos ever showed up in Niseko.

  5. Lou Dawson 2 April 17th, 2015 7:05 pm

    Quasi, sure… a matter of perspective. But I think it’s true that the fanatical pow quest was brought there by westerners. From what I understand, the Japanese in terms of overall ski culture were content with just building ski lifts and skiing their resort slopes. The whole powder skiing ethos is a Western thing… Also, the concept of “Japow” is for sure a Western construct… Lou

  6. VT skier April 17th, 2015 9:07 pm

    Tua Sumos… brings back memories. My first “powder” ski, with Superloops.

  7. Mason April 17th, 2015 11:13 pm

    Whatever Lou, I’m pretty sure the Japanese skied powder, and liked it, before these so called westerners got there.

  8. apingaut April 18th, 2015 6:40 am

    For sure there were power pioneers everywhere but from my experience, I blame north america for the powder frenzy. I have no Japan experience but years of skiing in both north american and Europe. The Euro’s used to (generally) kept between the poles when it’s always seemed to been a melee once off the lift in NA. But i’ll prolly get hate for saying that.

  9. Lou Dawson 2 April 18th, 2015 6:46 am

    Mason and all, sure, nobody is saying that folks from North America or even Europe introduced powder skiing to the Japanese. That would be ridiculous.

    On the other hand, the exaltation of powder skiing has not always been part of ski culture, so the timing of when “powder skiing” became important in Japan definitely has a history, and probably follows a similar timeline to the rest of the world.

    I think my article makes it clear I’m talking about how the existence of such good skiing was promulgated to the west, in other words “discovered” for our North American ski culture. Far be it for me to be implying that any one person or group were the Christopher Columbus of powder (grin)!

    If you guys are uncomfortable with me using the word “discovered” then apologies. But I think any astute reader gets the point here, it’s just a history tidbit regarding what led to the current craze.

    BTW, thanks to you guys I noticed the article could use one small edit to be sure it’s clear we’re talking about North Americans discovering how good the skiing is. I took care of that.


  10. butakun April 18th, 2015 7:47 am

    when Japanese themselves discovered japow might be confusing because perhaps the two demographics (the piste crowd and the off-piste crowd) were largely non-overlapping. Japanese has been enjoying ski mountaineering since 70s at least, as books on what is now called backcountry skiing have been published since 70s in Japanese, one I discovered in a local library in my town is by Keizo Miura (wikipedia has an english article on him) published in 1976, and I have another published in 1974. Were they pow hunters back then? I don’t know I wasn’t there. 😉 I also frequent local backcountry with a guy who foundead the Japan Telemarking Ski Association and settled in my neighborhood for retirement, perhaps I’ll ask him when he started pow hunting. 🙂 By the way, japow is not just Hokkaido and Nagano. The area that I frequent is said to have the lighter pow than in Hokkaido, and has not been discovered (yet) by you guys. 🙂

  11. Jason April 18th, 2015 10:01 pm


    As apingaut and Lou alluded to, powder skiing hasn’t always been the sought after type of snow. I recall from Dolores LaChappelle’s book, Deep Powder Snow, she mentions an old film of Alta where the “perfect Alta powder” is going to waste because skiers kept to the packed snow. Pretty sure she was actually one of the first to bring powder skiing technique (as we know it today) to Europe too.

  12. Lou Dawson 2 April 19th, 2015 6:18 am

    Mason, exactly. If I knew more about European and Japanese skiing history I’m sure I could figure out the time periods when powder skiing began to become popular. Dolores nails it for the U.S. in terms of timing. She was an astute observer and a good writer — that’s gold for recorded history.

    Powder skiing as the end-all for recreational skiing was definitely not always the culture. Those of you who have some years under the belt probably recall that the skis of the 1960s on into the 1980s were not conducive to easy and fun powder skiing. The difference between those days and the present is remarkable. In the early days, there was much discussion and angst over exactly how one made a turn in deep powder snow. On the skis of the day, doing so required quite a bit of practice, technique, and athletic skill. Less skilled folks who tried it tended to fall quite a bit, and without the protection of modern safety bindings, falling tended to cause pesky things like spiral leg fractures. Again, the difference between then and today is remarkable, and has much to do with gear.

    Early experiments with wide skis portended things to come. Example being the super fats developed for CMH heli skiing.

    Good turn in this discussion, but remember the point of my blog post is to conjecture when “westerners” were compelled to seek the japow. In mine and many other’s cases, the photos Yvon and Parker published were our first introduction to the possibilities.


  13. DavidB April 19th, 2015 4:34 pm

    In actual fact it was a Scandinavian army officer who bought skiing to Japan in the early late 1800’s or 1900’s.
    I can’t remember his name or all the detail but I have read about the story in Japan.

    The modern resurgence started primarily in Niseko early 2000’s and was lead by Australians. This was obviously due to the snow but also the ease of travel to Japan from Australia, the exchange rate, time zones, food & culture etc.

    Yes, there were others there prior and it’s a good story but I have friends who were skiing there earlier than Paul & Yvon, not that that matters. It’s a wonderful skiing destination.

    Good story Lou, a bit US centric but then again who cares, I’m sure you weren’t seriously claiming it as fact.

  14. Lou Dawson 2 April 19th, 2015 5:09 pm

    Hi David, if you read what I wrote you’ll see that no claims were made, just conjecture as well as fact that Yvon and Paul were over there pretty early and published well known photos. The photos and two guys were were U.S., so I guess it’s U.S. centric… but then, a lot of what Paul wrote is about the Japanese guys they were with, so perhaps it’s actually Japanese centric… Lou

  15. butakun April 19th, 2015 9:59 pm

    David, it was an Austrian-Hungarian Army officer, Theodor Edler von Lerch who in 1911 first trained a Japanese infantry division on skiing, and this is regarded as the introduction of skiing to Japan. He was posted in Japan since 1910, and his expertise in skiing was noticed by the Japanese Army that experienced in 1902 one of the most serious disasters where they lost 199 out of 210 infantry soldiers in a training in Mt Hakkoda in Aomori, the northern tip of the mainland.

  16. Mitch April 20th, 2015 2:18 am

    I especially enjoyed the comments by Paul Parker and butakun above, both right on. Been skiing for 30+ years in Japan. First 20 or so telemark and now more AT. It has changed over the years with now more awareness of yamaski (backcountry) but it is certainly not new and all japow is not in Hokkaido. I agree with butakun that there are many ‘undiscovered’ fields of powder in the back and side country of Japan. You just have to pick the weather, as anywhere.

  17. DavidB April 20th, 2015 8:50 pm

    butakun, that’s it. Von Lerch was the gent. Thanks for the refresh. My memory is shizen.

    I’ve skied Hakkoda and am familiar with it’s history. I’ve even read the english translation of the book Death March on Mount Hakkoda on the 1902 disaster. It’s worth a read.

    I agree with both yourself and Mitch, there’s plenty of great skiing in Japan and my preference now is as far away from the hordes as possible.

  18. Wookie April 21st, 2015 1:47 am

    Since there are so many knowledgeable Japan-locals or near-locals here: I’ve got burning questions that I brought with me from my last (and first) trip to Japan a few years back.

    1) I heard that most of the resorts were built in the 80s – and promptly thereafter, the broad Japanese public stopped skiing. I’ve heard several explanations – what would you guys say? I think its interesting because I wonder if we may see some of that here in Europe one day.

    2) I was there in February. Pretty much prime ski-time. Nieseko was thronged with Australians – but when we went to other places (I will keep their names secret – but it was ALL of them) the resorts were absolutely deserted! In three days at one resort we saw two other skiers, and they were turning the lifts on and off as we loaded and unloaded! With pow – every day! Moreover – most of the hotels seemed to be in a deep sleep, and finding a restaurant that was open was not easy! WHY? We never did figure it out!

  19. Lou Dawson 2 April 21st, 2015 6:12 am

    Wookie, this is probably part of your answer:


  20. Jim April 26th, 2015 6:39 pm

    My dad was part of the US Army Occupation force in Japan in 1946. He was stationed in Hokkaido as part of the Counter Intelligence Corps as Hokkaido as Russia had aspirations in Hokkaido. He describes going skiing by walking up the hill for several hours with skins on the bottom of his skis and skiing down through deep power. He made many lifelong friends in Hokkaido by helping them with medicines and food when they were starving after the war. That experience was what got him, and me into skiing later in the 60’s.

  21. Lisa Dawson April 26th, 2015 8:01 pm

    Jim, lovely story. Thanks for sharing it.

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