Shogonai: A Ski Guide's Lessons From Japan


Anywhere there are snow covered mountains, cultures have figured out how to slide down them.  Exploring the world not just for the exclusive passion of making ski turns, but to truly immerse in how a certain culture approaches their own topographical landscape has become a life long adventure for me.  For the past two seasons, I have been blessed with the opportunity to ski guide for Whiteroom Tours out of Furano, Hokkaido. 


During my first season, I was overwhelmed on the daily with the bliss of skiing inside of a fairytale.  Every movie, instagram post and myth about the epic nature of Japanese powder was proved to be verifiably true.  But what I wasn’t prepared for was the intimacy the Japanese hold within their true reverence of nature.  It became a spiritual journey as I began to pause more and notice the truly alive spirits in the trees and the volcanoes, the thermal waters and the sparkling snow. 


This year, my  journey is taking me deeper into the cultural aspects and how they so beautifully intertwine with guiding people in this mystical landscape.  There are three Japanese sayings that have shaped my time here and have changed my guiding philosophy moving forward. 


The first: “Wabi Sabi.”  Wabi Sabi is the art of appreciating that things change over time and that imperfection has its own beauty.  It is a Buddhist teaching centered on an aesthetic of transience and the absence of self-nature.  For myself and my clients, perhaps this is a maturing into self acceptance that we aren’t the rockstar skiers we once imagined ourselves to be.  I have welcomed the grace of slowing my mountain pace down in order that I might enjoy the entire journey and not just the objective summits or particular run count for the day.  Instead, I try to breathe in the beauty of the walk up hill, pausing to take photos of the particular way the surreal light is dancing with the shadows or the way the wind feels as it gently kisses my breathe away.  After 25 years guiding and carrying a heavy pack, my approach to the mountains has shifted, allowing with it the imperfections of my own body in loving my knees for continuing another day to walk me up and ski me down hills despite their aching complaints.  I find and appreciate the imperfections in each client, each ski run, each change in the weather and the snow consistency…all offering new lessons for growth and evolution for those willing to awaken to them. 

wabi sabi.jpg

Wabi Sabi

A Japanese tea-house which reflects the wabi sarbi aesthetic in Kenroku-en (Photo by Chris Spackman)

The next Japanese phrase central to all ways of peaceful acceptance here is “Hara hachi bu”.  This was an ancient Confucian philosophy instructing people to eat only until they are 80% full.  Any more is greedy and unnecessary.  It also lends to the philosophy of being actively in the now, full of gratitude and appreciation for each bite and every powder turn, rather than wasting your present satisfaction by already craving more, more, more in the truly American approach to life.  I have been applying this to ski guiding with the idea of quitting while we’re ahead and keeping some left in reserve.  While this is not entirely a new concept to me, I love the Japanese approach to applying it to all things in life.  What I’ve learned from the PJ’s responsible for wilderness rescues across Alaska is that these highly trained Pararescue men operate always at 70% of their capacity, allowing that reserve in the case that something does not go according to plan.  The majority of their rescues have often been when people have been operating beyond the 100% mark, leaving no margin for accident, injury or weather mishaps.  As one can imagine, this concept doesn’t always fly well with clients hungry for more powder on their one ski vacation a year, but I think by the end of their 10th day, their tired legs and aching bodies are grateful to me for my conservative methodology and embracing of the Japanese ethic of Hara Hachi Bu.  And I think Theo Meiners, a Valdez Heli skiing legend and icon would have agreed as he coined the phrase: “Tomorrow, we ride”.  In other words, live to ski another day and have the wherewithal to quit while you are ahead. 

Hara Hachi Bu

Enjoy sushi until you are 80% full

And last but not least, is the Japanese word: “Shogonai”.  After guiding in Alaska for 25 years, I am grateful to finally have a word that expresses what it’s like to operate in a world where nature makes the plans and continually finds new and interesting ways to alter your well orchestrated plans.  Over the years, I have learned very well how to be creative, think on the fly, laugh when there’s nothing else you can do and sometimes just good naturedly “embrace the suck”.  The term Shogonai translates roughly to : It will be what it will be.  Also a very Buddhist approach to being at peace with the impermanence of things such as well laid plans. 



It will be what it will be…

Arrigato Japan, for these philosophic gifts that have truly shifted my perspective on life, slowed down my appreciation for beauty in all things and increased my acceptance of that which I cannot change.  I am rich with gratitude and overflowing with appreciation for the opportunity to immerse myself in the folds of your volcanic rock, the steaming mineral waters from deep within your earth and the crystalline sparkles of the magic you call snow.  Japan, you have inserted yourself in my heart and for this I am eternally grateful. 

Gratitude for the skiing/laughing/living shots of me and my girls by:  Stephen Shelesky

Gratitude for the skiing/laughing/living shots of me and my girls by: Stephen Shelesky