A long ways from the famous onsens and ramen houses, Travis Rice set out to explore a remote zone of Japan’s backcountry with Mark Carter and Bryan Iguchi. Their adventure was so far off the beaten path, they were certain they'd encounter no other souls.
That was until they discovered a snowmobile track leading towards their hidden zone. Moments later the source of the mystery track became evident: two snowboarders were already carving turns on the face the crew was planning to hit. When one of the riders reached the bottom he approached their team and excitedly greeted them. Rice, astonished, recognized him immediately. It was Shin Biyajima, a friend and fellow big mountain snowboarder.
This wasn’t the first time Rice and Biyajima have bumped into each other in the backcountry. They once crossed paths in what felt like the middle of nowhere in Wyoming. Choosing to embrace the serendipity, Rice and his team joined forces with Biyajima. At one point they came across a daunting cliff feature. After surveying the landing, Rice decided against it, but Biyajima, on the other hand, hit it without hesitation. Following two impeccable turns, he styled the air, extending into a huge method. The less than ideal landing wasn’t even an issue for him, he stomped it flawlessly. Rice sat watching in awe. “He was our guy, it was meant to be,” Rice explained to us when he dropped by the TGR office. These kind of antics are not atypical for Biyajima, he’s always been known to follow his own path.
From that point on Rice and Biyajima cultivated a unique friendship, one that was strengthened with countless adventures spent in the land of the rising sun. When Rice wanted to include a Japan segment for The Fourth Phase, Biyajima was his point man. But the freerider's role was meant to be more than a local guide, Rice wanted to share his unique character as well. “Shin has been able to stay authentic to the type of riding he wants to pursue,” Rice said, “Through his ability to travel to Europe, North America, and the Southern Hemisphere it’s given him a unique perspective and immense gratitude for riding in Japan.”
In hindsight, Rice felt Biyajima’s character wasn’t adequately explored in The Fourth Phase. As a result, Rice has been tinkering away on a passion project known as, Ikigai: The Shin Biyajima Story. With help from director Justin Taylor Smith, the self-funded short film was produced over the course of two years in Biyajima’s backyard, the Nagano Prefecture. But the film isn’t your usual Japow flick, it also takes a personal look at what it means to be a snowboarder in Japan. "I wanted it to be about Shin and Travis’ friendship and time together. How two people from different cultures could grow together through a common love for snowboarding...I took the 'fly on the wall' approach and just let them be," Smith explained in regards to the concept. "[Shin's] got it down. Simple life. Know’s the best places to ride, deepest snow, all smiles. What a story."
Pursuing a freeride career in Japan is not the norm, especially when the industry has notoriously pushed riders towards freestyle and halfpipe. Despite that pressure, Biyajima has remained relentless. He’s supported by Nidecker Snowboards but also hustles during the summertime to support his winter ambitions. Rice told us:
A lot of Japanese snowboarders look up to Shin, and he’s a testament to the idea of ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’
The word Ikigai roughly means a reason for being, and for Biyajima that reason has always been one thing: snowboarding.
Japan as a destination is the complete package. It has everything: culture, food, terrain, and certainly no shortage of snow. While the film is centered on Biyajima’s story, Rice relished in the opportunity to form a deeper connection with Japan, particularly with the cuisine. Biyajima, who’s fond of finding bizarre things to eat, gleefully pushed Rice’s boundaries. The wildest meal they had? Fish testicles. Blindly he’d rate it a 7/10, but that rating quickly plummets to a four when you realize what you’re snacking on.
But beyond culinary oddities, Rice also loves Japan for its spectacular high alpine riding. While the terrain is remarkable, it also demands respect. “Japan is a unique beast, you don’t just go there and hike into the alpine and get a line,” Rice said. Having a game plan is imperative. For example, one of those beautiful spines that Rice hits in the film was the consummation of two years of scouting and planning. This kind of forethought is necessary for the Japanese Alps since the conditions are notorious for changing overnight. Large faces with massive terrain traps in the forests are especially dangerous and things can get deadly fast.
Add filming into that tricky equation, and it only makes things more daunting. Smith explained:
I can’t tell you how many times Travis suggested I not bring so much shit into the backcountry, but on a bluebird day with neck-deep pow, you can’t resist hauling out every toy you can muster.
Thankfully, that hard work paid off. Laborious days of shooting were often rewarded with a long soak in an onsen and some of the best draft beer you can find. In addition to the logistics, Japan is a unique beast because there's simply so much to film. Smith argued you'd need a lifetime to adequately capture it all. “Japan is one of the hardest places to shoot in the world,” Rice emphasized. “Powder in trees? All good—but trying to get sun in the alpine? Yeah, give yourself at least three weeks.”