"HOKKAIDO HOBO"

by Steve Ogle

All indications point to a wayward hobo; a mother's worst nightmare; someone to whom you intentionally give the wrong address when exchanging information. After a brief conversation about the day's turns, a sterilizing scrub-down follows your parting handshake.
We all know the cliché: Skiing can be so consuming to certain individuals that they lose the capacity to integrate with society at slope's end. Hygiene falls by the wayside and soon the term ski bum becomes so entrenched in their psyche that they begin to live the role in every sense-especially olfactory-of the word.
Fear not, because within each garden there grows a rose among the garlic; someone who returns from days in the mountains wearing potpourri-scented polypro and socks you could use for coffee filters. I found this person last winter, in no less a place than Japan-the most manicured country on earth. It was in the back of a sparkling clean Seicomart (Hokkaido's answer to the one-stop shop) when I came across my old friend Takahiro Nakanishi reading, but not buying, all the ski magazines. It turns out that Taka, a dirtbag I had met in Argentina who had later crashed on my couch one winter, was spending his season in Hokkaido. His turn as host forthcoming, he invited me into his home: a seven-foot-long polished black Mitsubishi hatchback that seemed to contour to our bodies. My backpack fit snugly on top of some alphabetized plastic tubs, between the color-coded in a streamlined roof box, and our boots were brushed and removed in the manner of entering a Shinto temple.
During our road trip, Taka taught me the ways of the Japanese dirtbag: how you cruise the supermarket in the evening for 70-percent-off microwaveable sushi; how to set your laptop so it beeps when you drive by a free wireless signal; and how you take the five-hour scenic detour instead of driving the one-hour toll route. Being the only option, skiing for free was a matter of working a trapline of ski patrol acquaintances, asking politely and sporadically if you could use their family pass. At the end of a great powder day, of which there are many at the hands of a veteran ski bum, Japan is the perfect place to be. For at the base of every mountain lies a cleansing hot spring-a free ones, those that were less odiferous, and all the co-ed pools among other criteria. Like bathing, accommodation was also a no-brainer for the Master, since in his society it is considered impolite to disturb people, and therefore a restful night becomes no harder than finding the flattest parking spot. The low-emission Mitsubishi, like its owner, fit stealthily into the tightest corners of society.
Our training session complete and many powder days behind us, Taka and I toasted to an endless winter with Nalgene bottles full of cheep sake and some individually wrapped chocolate donuts. I was ready for graduation and a 20-hour economy-class flight to my next destination, an arsenal of foot powder and wet-naps at my side. During our tearful farewell, he passed me his handkerchief and sent me off with a firm handshake, a gleaming white smile and these parting words, which I shall never forget: "Remember to ask for extra peanuts!"


Steve Ogle is a photographer and writer from Canada who takes pride in being something of a dirtbag himself.

( published in "POWDER-the skier's magazine, November 2006 Vol.35 No.3" )