Professional adventurer, John Morrell, talks to Socrates about how he came to the Japanese wonderland of Hokkaido for a flying visit… and never left! He explains how he and has family made a life leading hardy and adventurous souls on the experience of their lives in this land of snow, mountains, volcanos and bears!
Have you ever dreamed of living a life of adventure? Of buggering off to an unknown culture and country and never coming back? Of exploring unexplored places and living by whole new sets of rules and communicating in a brand-new language? None of these things were on John Morrell’s mind when he first arrived in Hokkaido but that is the way it worked out. Decades later he is still there and still loving it! Hokkaido, the most northernly island of Japan, was not quite what he expected. Its character challenges most people’s expectations. Mountainous, relatively thinly populated, generously endowed with national parks, dotted with active volcanoes, inhabited by extraordinary wildlife and located just a stone throw away from Siberia (and thus being subject to wild Siberian winter storms) Hokkaido is one of the most beautiful, interesting and at times harsh and challenging places anywhere on the planet.
Here is the story about how John Morrell came to Hokkaido. John talks to Socrates about how he came and why he, his wife and their daughter are still there.
Why did you first come to Hokkaido?
I finished my degree at New England University in 1981. My first job was with the adventure tour company, Wilderness Expeditions. After leaving uni I got my cross-country skiing certificate and worked with them in the Australian Alps as a back-country ski guide and instructor. At the end of the ski season I had a plan to visit my girl friend who had moved to Hokkaido after university, then travel on to Canada where I would ski. Back in those days, Canada was the place you went to ski. No one went to Japan to ski. Much to my surprise, when I got to Hokkaido, it was incredible! It took me another ten years to get to Canada.
Prior to coming over, Steve Coleman, who ran Wilderness Expeditions (this was an age when adventure tourism was starting to take off… visiting the Himalayas was becoming the big thing to do), said to me, ‘if you are going to Japan, keep your eyes open for a possible tour’. I didn’t know what I was doing but after a couple of years exploring Japan and keeping in touch with Steve, we ran our first back country ski tour in Hokkaido in March of 1984. It was probably the first tour of its kind ever run in Japan.
What were your expectations of Hokkaido?
I did a little bit of research on Japan before I came. Because I never intended to stay, I was excited about visiting an Asian country and had the expectations that most people did – that it was hot, crowded and expensive – and it was none of those things! I didn’t have any interest in the culture until I got here… but then I was blown away. Absolutely blown away by every aspect of the place. The honesty, the openness, the skiing (of course) was incredible and the hundreds of things that are Japanese. Restaurants that are hidden away down dark dingy corners. It was a combination of the culture and the amazing skiing. But its not just the skiing – it’s the locations. The areas up here are just indescribably beautiful. I mean you are skiing through the most magnificent pine or silver birch forest then you ski down into hot springs baths. It was a bit of a fairy tale.
Some of my customers back in the mid to late eighties when I started running tours…. well, one bloke in particular… just couldn’t stop crying after the tour was over… the impact of the beauty was so strong. We used to catch an over-snow vehicle to this mountain hut that had hot springs baths and then, later on, we would go to the city and stay in a lovely hotel. It was an amazing mix of culture and adventure for the people who came with us. The fact that there were so few other foreigners here also made the place attractive to us and other visitors. It hasn’t been sullied by what tourism can do in any country like you might see in Bali or Nepal where it tries to offer a “product” that would satisfy a foreigner. That is not what adventure travel is about!
It was untouched, frontier, adventure back then. All of that combined to keep me here.
Describe your first back-country experience.
I got to know a guy in an outdoor shop in Asahikawa (one of Hokkaido’s few cities… a small city just to the North of the centre of the island) that my girlfriend had met, and I asked him where I should go for an explore. He said you have to go and ski the “aspirin” snow. That’s what they called it. The snow came down in huge white flakes… so that they looked like an aspirin pill. He said that there was a mountaineering lodge up there with shared accommodation that you could reach by bus and that you could use that as a base for exploring. That’s what I did. Now the Tokachi Mountains (where I first explored) rates as one of the top back country ski destinations anywhere in the world because of the quality and consistency of the snow. (Note from Socrates – the one time I went to Tokachidake there was around fifteen meters of the stuff). Just the beauty of it blew me away. So, it was the Tokachi Mountains and Asahidake which is at the base of the largest mountain on the island (all these locations are in the centrally located Daisetsuzan National Park) that got me in. I wasn’t interested in the ski resorts. It was only the wild back country!
Do you still explore?
Unfortunately, I am not exploring enough. Adventure has become my business and when your business is your passion it is not quite so easy to keep the passion. That sounds disappointing but it’s the challenge I take on. Its not the situation. It is the challenge of a career doing the thing that you love. I am still exploring mountain ranges that I have never skied on. Last winter I skied in three new places and just loved it. So that is what I am trying to do. I am trying to ensure that I still ski in new destinations.
When I say ski, I mean find a mountain, climb it, then ski down it. I don’t mean go to a new ski resort. I am absolutely still doing it, but it is a problem for anyone working in the adventure industry. One of my idols is Tim McCartney-Snape. He is still climbing as hard a grade of rock as you would see and he is 64, I think. He hasn’t lost passion for that. He is a bit of an example. I am not up to his standard, but I try to make sure that when I am cycling in summer I go to new locations and when I am skiing, I am exploring different mountains. I’ve actually got a few in mind for this winter.
Daisetsuzan National Park is very popular these days. I guess I was one of the ones who helped to popularize it. There are many mountain ranges in national parks or on government land that you can get access to in Hokkaido that are off the radar, so they are the places that I am seeking out these days.
Is adventure important?
Adventure is critical. Adventure is like scientific research – pushing human boundaries of knowledge and skills. A lot of people sitting in the comfort of their arm chairs grumble about the costs of rescuing crazy adventurers when they get into trouble but those crazy adventurers, at the same time, inspire thousands and thousands of others to do better in their daily lives. I worked in outdoor education for a while and one of the important things we worked to instil in school children was the sense of challenge and adventure and that it’s okay to push yourself! It’s okay to explore boundaries. Think of someone like McCartney- Snape. Anyone who had any common sense would not have done the things that he has done… but because he did, thousands of people have read his books and acquired a sense of that part of the world and it’s inspired other people to explore and to follow their hearts into places where they might not have gone. I think that society is a better place for it.
I relate that to scientific research as well. Scientists often don’t know what they are going to find when they do research. Sometimes governments take their research money away because they think that it is a waste or is not affordable. I think the opposite. The very fact of research creates avenues that we never thought would have evolved.
Adventurers are still doing enough to inspire armchair people that there is more out there than going to work every day. We need it. We absolutely need it. We need to know that there is a boundary out there beyond which is the wilderness. Once that’s gone, life becomes sterile.
Culture and adventuring are key aspects of what you do. What else is important?
We do a lot of cycle tours in summer and it can be quite difficult for the riders. There are some quite big climbs. We deliberately set these challenges for the customers. Some of them find it very hard. They get very tired! At the end of the day they sit around in the hotel and share that experience. They share that challenge. They share the hardships. They joke about it. We have people asking us to provide them with e-bikes, but I am resisting that. We are a bicycling business in summer. I am resisting because with e-bikes that camaraderie is gone. The shared experience is not the same. The sense of achievement is not something you can bottle. (One of the most important things is) the way the group sit around together at the end of a hard day. It’s the same when we take a group up into the Tokachi for a day. The group may not have done much back-country skiing. We teach them how to use skins. We teach them about the avalanche risks. We teach them the sort of equipment they need and how to use it. There might be a few spills and there might be a few people finding it a bit hard and they might end up with a few blisters but, at the end of the day, when they have a beer in the car on the way back, everyone is best mates! These are people who don’t know each other. Often people from different places. They have had an amazing shared experience. We are reducing international barriers between countries. The camaraderie is critical… but it has to do with the adventure! Just going to a resort and skiing up and down with a lift…. that’s fine. That’s fun. I have no problem with people doing that. But it doesn’t produce the same result. It’s not what we do. You have to see it to know why we do it.
I did some mountaineering in Alaska and one of my abiding memories is coming down from one of the high camps late, at sunset. Nothing more beautiful have I seen in the whole world and I take that memory with me. The memory that I have left behind is the pain, not being able to breath, the six-hour headaches at night. These are the things that add to the totality of the experience.
What about wildlife?
Ah yes! On my bike! Bears!
I came very close to a big brown bear (Note: the Hokkaido Brown Bear is nothing like the smaller black bears common in other parts of Asia. It is huge. And very dangerous. It is closely related to the Polar Bear and the North American Grizzly. A critter not to be messed with.) on the Shiretoko Peninsular one morning that freaked us all out. I was going down hill at five o’clock in the morning on a little training ride. I came around a corner and there in front of me was a very big brown bear crossing the road. To escape I had to turn around and go uphill as quickly and as carefully as I could. I had my heart in my mouth for a few minutes. They do kill people. Every year or two someone dies from a bear attack in Hokkaido.
How has Hokkaido changed you?
My personality suited living in Japan quite well… maybe because of my upbringing with a strict father where politeness was ingrained into the family. I have a theory that Japan is a socialist country with a democratic overcoat. Partly to do with the sense of community. I was bought up in a left-wing, socialist, family. My father was a very avid follower of politics and involved in politics from a very young age in Sydney and we grew up with a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. I think that that fits in really well with Japan. To some extent there is a lack of freedom here and I have come to accept that. I have come to accept that if you want to be part of the community you gotta accept that the local postman will just walk in the front door. Some of the interesting things… the grandma who lives down the street is called grandma… she is everyone’s grandma! That is her position in life. I had a little bit of trouble coming to terms with those things early on, but I have become more accepting of that lack of social freedom. It’s not that obvious but it is definitely there.
I have a nine-year-old daughter who goes to school here. We are told things by the school… we are told certain things like ‘take her for a check-up’…. so, they get involved with your family life. It is different in Australia. We have come to accept these things because there are a lot of plusses. They have gone out of their way to look after our daughter so when they insist that we do certain things. One time a teacher sent a note that Gracie’s socks were not thick enough. These kids do walk to school in blizzards. Another time we were told that her gloves were not attached to her jacket and we were asked if we could attach them. They get involved! In Australia I don’t think that that would happen, but you just accept it. It is part of the big picture here.
What are some of the little things that you find captivating about Hokkaido?
Japanese culture is communal. There is an Elementary School subject called ‘Moral Education’ which sounds kinda onerous but is, in fact, just a recipe for living well in a community. It helps one to understand their role in a community… and the associated responsibilities and opportunities.
These attitudes permeate life in Japan and make it a safe and caring community to live in. Even outsiders (like me) experience high levels of personal safety and security and are subjected to honest dealings in nearly every aspect of life.
Then there is great food, hot spring baths, extraordinary natural beauty, great skiing and great cycling. And on top of that there is no road rage! The roads are great everywhere and drivers slow down and overtake cyclists very carefully. It is so safe!
What does your future hold in Hokkaido?
We will stay here in Hokkaido until our daughter finishes Elementary School. She was thrown in at the deep end when she started school in a no-English, small rural town school. Now… her Japanese is great, but her English needs work so she will go to an Australian high school. We will keep the business going but we will travel to Japan for work. Eventually, when we throw in the towel, we will go fishing.
Best and worst experiences?
Best? On top of the extraordinary skiing, being able to provide other people with the best skiing and adventurous experiences that they will have in their lives is hard to beat. Also introducing people to the Japanese culture and seeing the joy that they get out of that. The helpfulness and friendliness of the locals, the inexpensive lifestyle and the sense of security gained from being part the community also stand out.
Worst? The feeling of being an outsider in the early days was a downer. That changed over time as my knowledge of the place grew. Language has been tough. While I can speak and can write pretty well in the various alphabets, I still struggle with the paperwork foisted on people living in the Japanese community.
Unfortunately, my conversation with John had to end there. As a blizzard raged outside of his Furano shop, he explained that it was time to venture out into the weather to collect his daughter, Grace, from school. Before he left, he turned the video camera on his lap top around so that I could see what was going on outside the shop’s front window. Bastard! The street was blanketed in meters of beautiful “aspirin” snow. I wished I could have been there to join him on his next adventure into the Tokachi Mountains! Discover more about his adventures and his work at his web site.