HOKKAIDO PERSPECTIVES

John Montesi

PHOTOS: Max Houtzager

LOCATION: Hokkaido, Japan

Whether it’s the ability to stand tall upon a mountain or float on the ocean, perspective fuels our desire to head into the mountains as a winter storm bears down upon them and our innate drive to paddle towards tumultuous offshore swells.

Perspective is understood as a viewpoint or outlook, often with a metaphorical bent. We set out to change our perspective or perhaps gain a new one. In this heady hunt for an intangible shift, we often forget the literal meaning of the word. That perspective is simply the view from where you stand—a photo or a painting is presented from its creator’s perspective, where they stood on a hillside or in their mind’s eye. And high above the Pacific, surrounded by a blanket of fresh powder, the view is disorienting.

It’s easy to forget that Hokkaido is situated on an island, thousands of miles from any continental continuity. Standing atop one of the region’s famed peaks, the focus is singular. Returning to the base of the mountain requires skill and flow, a careful collaboration with the snow and the mountain beneath it, and at least semi-friendly negotiations with gravity. It can be more granular—the literal snowflakes that pile on top of each other until their billions of unique shapes conspire to create powder or spring slush or groomed runs, or it can be more abstract, like the perspective-altering experience of dining in a mountainside whiskey lounge and chasing it with a dip in a hot spring surrounded by snow.

Japan’s mountains do not gradually rise from expanses of land by starting as hills and slowly gaining elevation—instead they rise proudly and rapidly from sea level, suggesting that they’d be even taller if only the ocean weren’t there. They enforce this perception by pulling the snow down with them. On the biggest powder days, the sand is covered by snow and the sea meets its frozen counterpart in stunning contrast.

There are a million reasons to paddle out or hike to the top, but there is one thing that’s guaranteed when you get there. A different perspective—a viewpoint subtly or radically altered from where you started. Whether it’s the ability to stand tall upon a mountain or float on the ocean, perspective fuels our desire to head into the mountains as a winter storm bears down upon them and our innate drive to paddle towards tumultuous offshore swells. We seek new angles and different views, an understanding of objects’ relationships to one another and the relativity of shapes and sizes.

On a clear day, the peaks of Hokkaido are visible from the beach. And on a stormy day, visibility drops so dramatically that from the coast the mountains are invisible and from the summit it’s impossible to see that just beyond the neighboring peaks are spring swells and the deep blue of the Pacific. This forces us to understand what’s directly in front of us, to focus intently on the contours of fresh snowdrifts amid blowing powder, to don a thicker wetsuit and crunch bare feet through fresh snow on our way to frigid, empty waves.

And this reality is invaluable to us. It’s all too easy to believe that we can see the whole picture, or that we’ll never be able to. From the base, the summit seems impossibly far. And from the top, big things can seem deceivingly small. But as long as we seek the high and the low with equal alacrity, our sense of perspective will remain alive and well.