Postcard from Japan: Chasing Demons on the Slopes of Niseko

Niseko Japan

He was just laying there, prostrate in the fluffy white snow, this helpless, frustrated little boy stuck in a tricky lip of the bottom-most family run at Niseko Annupuri. A man whom I assumed was his father stared at him from the bottom of the hill — just stared at him — as the kid, not more than five or six years old, I think, laid there, struggling in vain to get back on his skis after a mild, non-violent wipeout. “Dad” wasn’t about to sidestep his way up the hill to help the kid up, and none of the other skiiers and snowboarders who whizzed by him, each of them lost in themselves and the rhythms of the descent on this gorgeous day at Japan’s premier ski resort, considered him any more than they were the surrounding tree trunks necessitating avoidance.

It was my first day on skis since I was around the same age as that poor kid — my first day on a ski slope of any kind in at least 30 years — and seeing him laying there, alone, nobody stopping to help, flashed me back to the last and only time I’d ever given skiing a go.

I was four or five — maybe younger, you’ll have to ask my parents — and my family was on a skiing holiday… somewhere for the weekend. Upstate Michigan, I think? Somewhere else? You’ll have to ask my parents or grandma; anyway, it doesn’t matter where it happened. It was at a ski resort, and it didn’t go well. I don’t remember anything else about the trip — the ski lodge, the drive up there and back home, nothing — beyond this:

First, my grandmother, at the time in her early forties, screaming down the side of a mountain on skis, clutching me in between her legs, probably thinking that my screams were screams of joy when in fact they were screams of absolute terror. I didn’t like it, not one bit, and I remember feeling powerless. I couldn’t make it stop, and I knew it wasn’t going to end anytime soon because the mountain looked like it had no end.

Mom, Dad, Grandma: that was not the best way to introduce me to skiing.

Second, my parents dumping me at a ski school for kids (“It’ll be good for him,” they may have said). At the bottom of the bunny hill, following lessons that didn’t resonate one bit, after barely making it to the bottom, I wiped out and couldn’t get back up. I tried, and I tried, but it just wasn’t happening. Nobody helped me for a long, long time — in actuality, I’m sure it was like two minutes — before some guy finally pulled me up. Traumatized, not wanting any part of this, I skulked over to the tow rope, grabbed it with one limp hand, and was pulled forward onto the rope.

I split my lip open on the rope. Medics put me in the back of an ambulance. Some doctor stitched me up. Fuck skiing, forever — never again, at least until I’m a 36-year-old man on a two-day break in Niseko, Japan, with my wife.

A former high school ski-teamer herself, she understood my (honestly irrational) reluctance to try again. She promised I’d enjoy it, however, and that I could do it if i just tried. She promised to teach me how to ski down Annapuri’s intermediate-beginner slopes in no time, and promised that I wouldn’t break my legs or ankles, as I insisted was bound to happen.

Niseko Japan

Turns out she’s a great teacher. I almost gave up 15 minutes into the lesson, after I fell, again, and couldn’t get back up on my skis, again, and when I felt like a four or five year old all over again, but I stuck with it. I learned how to snow plow with confidence, how to stop dragging my right leg when trying to turn, how to balance, how to stop, how to get on and off a ski lift; I learned how to like skiing, and by the fourth or fifth run down the slope, I learned to love skiing and stop being so afraid of it. I fell a few times, sure, but I learned how to get up without (too) much stress.

When I saw that kid laying there, nobody helping him up, I saw myself. I snow-plowed over to him, asked him if he needed help, and pulled him up, one, two, THREE. “Thanks,” he said, as he went down the hill smoothly for a rendezvous with waiting “dad.”

Sorry to cheese you out, but it was a full-circle moment for me… and then as I made my way further down the lip, I fell, and after two unsuccessful attempts to stand back up, “dad” skiied over to me to help.

“Thanks… it’s actually my first day skiing in forever,” I said. “Is that your son?”

“No, it’s just my student,” said the ski instructor. “He’s just too lazy to get back up when he falls. Anyway, your poles are too long and you need to dig your skis in sideways, like this, before trying to get back up. Good luck.”

At the bottom of the tricky lip, when the run turns into a nice, long, comfortable final descent, I looked to my right and saw the instructor and the kid slicing their way with ease through the tree-laden “black” run, black being the most difficult designation at Niseko.

Just like that my grand “full-circle moment” melted away, and as I slowly s-curved my way down the run in a snow plow, all I could think was that I should have just let that lazy little prick lay there in the snow.

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