Two snowboarders in a rusty Kei truck camper, on the hunt for the best lines in the midst of a Hokkaido winter. You can probably guess how it went. But then, not every adventure is meant to be perfect, right? Or as they say in Japan, ‘wabi-sabi’...
25th June 2021 | Words and photos by Elliott Waring
When I decided to spend the winter of 2020 in Japan, I knew it was going to be a completely unique experience, far from the winter seasons I had grown up on in Europe, or even those I had most recently enjoyed in New Zealand. Japan had always been on my radar – you can’t ignore the fact that Japan is one of the world’s most revered ski destinations – but I’d never made it happen. A six-month gap between visas provided the perfect time slot to shoehorn a Japanese season into what was already looking like an incredible year of travel. Little did we know at the time that it would all come to a bizarre end, but I digress.
Aside from the normal quirks that are associated with a Japanese winter, I was lucky enough to meet (and live with) two creative minds who had hatched a crazy plan to build a beautifully unique campervan on the back of a Kei truck. For the uninitiated, a Kei truck is a tiny pickup truck used extensively throughout Japan for transport and farming. These tiny trucks boast a whopping 600cc engine and as much power as half a donkey.
In between work, chasing fresh tracks and propping up one of the many bars in town, Henry and Charlie stole time to work on this miniature rolling home in Henry’s garage. In the lead up to winter, the boys had sourced materials from all over Hokkaido, making use of unwanted timber, sheets of corrugated tin, old windows and doors, whatever they could get their hands on. The ethos of recycling, repurposing and reusing was at the heart of the build. Wabi Sabi is the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in irregularity and imperfection, and the build celebrates imperfection, holding this idea at its core.
With the kerosene heater pumping and hot coffee on the stove, the timber skeleton for the build went up quite quickly. Henry, a ‘hack of all trades’, knows a thing or two about construction so the basic framing was no problem. It was at this point that the overall shape of the camper was established, with its steep A frame roof, wide hips and stubby walls – a cabin porn work of art. The next challenge was to get the roof on and fit as much insulation into the studs as possible to protect them from the harsh Hokkaido winter.
Pressure was on to get the build finished. The whole reason behind the project was to chase storms around Hokkaido – one of the snowiest places on earth – in search of new terrain away from the busy tourist centres. Late February soon crept up on us and a busy work schedule had left little time to work on the project. It was around this time when Henry’s girlfriend, Miho, did some research into the legalities of their creation and discovered that the extra width of the cabin on the truck bed rendered the truck illegal. Disaster. With almost all the exterior cladding on and the window and door fitted, this was more than just a spanner in the works. Try the whole tool bag!
After a lot of head scratching a solution was found – unbolt the cabin from the truck, slide it over until one side is flush and cut the overhang on the opposite side off. Mad I know but that was the only way to comply with Japanese road laws without dismantling the whole frame, which would mean missing a window of opportunity only a week away. Henry and our good friend Ewan spent a day shimmying the heavy cabin over and then chopping the excess off. Once patched back together the shingles were refitted and some basic comforts were added to the interior.
On February 22nd Charlie and Henry left Niseko in the newly named Sabi Chan (sabi means rust in Japanese), and began their quest north into the wilds of Hokkaido. Only a couple of days later, the storm of the season was due to arrive in the Daisetsuzan range of Central Hokkaido and I wasn’t going to miss it. Our friend Angus and I managed to get out of work, packed the car with all our gear and started the long drive towards Asahidake.
Almost as soon as we arrived in the region, a blizzard like I’ve never seen enveloped us with snowflakes as big as your hand. It was relentless. As we began climbing towards our hotel for the night, conditions became considerably worse with over half a metre of snow on the roads, no snow clearing in sight and the darkness of night all around. I messaged Henry to warn them of the deteriorating roads as I was worried they wouldn’t make it up the hill.
A couple of hours passed with no sign. Angus and I tucked into a big bowl of ramen and a couple of Kirins while we anxiously awaited the boys’ arrival. Phone signal was sparse on the mountain road and we weren’t sure whether Sabi Chan had ground to a halt halfway up the pass. And then out of nowhere, the little A-frame roof appeared from behind the snowbank. Elated and obviously still gripped from the death-ride up the hill, Henry and Charlie bounded out the front cab and quickly came inside to recount the wildest drive of their lives. Snow kept falling as we retired for the night, Angus and I in a nice warm bed whilst Charlie and Henry slept in the car park outside – I wasn’t jealous at this point, but I couldn’t sleep in anticipation of the following day’s riding.
Sure enough, the next morning was everything we had hoped for; over a metre of cold, dry powder and crisp blue skies. The inside of Sabi Chan had frozen overnight and the boys looked like they hadn’t slept a wink, but we downed a quick coffee and drove up to the carpark of Asahidake Ropeway well before it opened to join the ticket queue. The single gondola serves the whole mountain as an uplift access to backcountry terrain – few pisted runs, no marked trails as such; an open playground if you will.
I can honestly say that I had some of the deepest turns of my life on that morning. Pockets of neck-deep snow had formed in the gullies and we lapped it up. Once all the lines off the lifts were tracked we put our skins on and ventured off in search of fresh pastures. Easier said than done when the snowpack is as deep as your hips!
Later in the day Angus and I rode down to the bottom for a coffee and to wait for the lift, leaving Charlie and Henry on the mountain to get a few more shots. As we were waiting in the lift line, Charlie rushed through the crowd of people holding his shoulder in distress, “does anyone know how to relocate a shoulder?” he cried. We still don’t know exactly how it happened but Charlie took a fall, popped his already dodgy shoulder out and couldn’t get it back in. We tried everything but to no avail. The only thing left to do was pack up and drive over an hour to the closest hospital.
Despite the fact Charlie was out of action the boys continued on their quest as Angus and I made the long drive back to Niseko. For the rest of the trip Henry scoped lines from the roadside while Charlie filmed from the comfort of a camping chair. It wasn’t exactly how the trip was meant to play out but it worked all the same – as Henry often says, “it’s Wabi Sabi, baby!”