THE EXPAT ADVANTAGE
By Kevin Hjertaas
Long before Ja-Pow was an annual pilgrimage for Canadians, Japanese skiers and riders were moving to the Bow Valley. They’ve stayed, raised families and thrived in business, including guiding clients throughout the Rockies. Meet two such ACMG-accredited ski guides: Yuji Akiyama and Katsu Goto.
Photo by Yuji Akiyama.
Beneath blurred helicopter blades, spindrift buffets the typical pile of gear for a backcountry ski trip. But alongside duffels and skis are massive bags of rice and boxes of treats labelled in Japanese. Some friends and I are helping Yuji Akiyama and Katsuhiko (Katsu) Goto load it all into the chopper. But, unfortunately, our group will be flying separately to a different hut. We’ll be jealous all week. They’ve brought a Japanese chef with them and will be enjoying fresh-made sushi, udon and dishes we haven’t even heard of while we eat pasta and more pasta.
“Ahhh… hello.” In the evening, Katsu’s accented voice comes over the radio for the standard check-in. “We’re all back. Good day. Lots of powder. We’re going to the sauna for saké before dinner. Good night.”
The expatriate advantage is the ability to pull from two cultures, and these guys have perfected it. Katsu was the first Japanese-born ski guide in the Bow Valley when, in 2013, he earned his accreditation with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG). Yuji was right behind him in 2014.
Traditional Japanese meal. Photo by Yuji Akiyama.
Neither man knew much about Canada before flying across the ocean, and like so many Banff arrival stories, neither planned on staying for more than a visit.
Katsu was the oldest son on a rice farm in Hataki, on the island of Shikoku. A humble man with a gentle demeanour, Katsu speaks English with long pauses, often drawing out the last syllable of a word as he finds the next. It gives him a thoughtful and laid back aura. The traditional path for Katsu would have been to find a job close to home and spend his time off planting, harvesting, and working the farm.
“As a family, we didn’t have many weekends or holidays,” he says. “Every weekend, ‘Oh my gosh… I have to go to work!’”
Katsu hadn’t even heard of the Canadian Rockies when, in 1994, he came to North America for a summer of backpacking and language immersion. It was a hostel owner in Portland, Oregon, who suggested (actually insisted) that he visit Banff because, “He was so close already!”
A thousand-kilometre bus ride later, Katsu found himself sitting in the boulders along Moraine Lake in awe of the turquoise water and snow-capped peaks. Upon graduating from university, with an English Communications degree, those views pulled him back.
Katsuhiko (Katsu) Goto. Photo courtesy Katsu Goto.
Yuji, on the other hand, was climbing the corporate ladder in Tokyo and after just a handful of years, already disliked the view. Working as a sales rep for a computer company meant hour-long commutes on over-crowded trains. Workdays could start at 6 a.m. and run late into the night. The corporate culture was intense, competitive, and stifling.
You can tell Yuji has the focus and drive needed for that world. But his broad smile hints at a playful side, and his perpetually tanned face gives away a love of nature. “That’s not a life,” he’ll tell you when asked about Tokyo. He craved a move to the outdoor industry and recognized a need to improve his English and his outdoor skills. The Canadian Rockies checked both boxes.
School served as the original excuse for both men. Yuji enrolled in a semester with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures in Canmore, then used a one-year visa to get a job at Camp Chief Hector. Katsu entered a Mountain Adventure Skills Training program with College of the Rockies, in Fernie, and used his one-year visa to work as a tour guide for the Banff Guide Service.
Before either visas were up, the men were plotting ways to bring their significant others over.
Yuji Akiyama. Photo courtesy Yuji Akiyama.
Mitsuru, Katsu’s now-wife, then-girlfriend, had been watching from Japan as he repeatedly extended his stay. She eventually applied for a visa herself to come investigate. Canada was never her idea, but according to Katsu, “there were a lot of Japanese people in Banff, so she felt comfortable. She got welcomed. She liked life here.”
On Banff Avenue, some shops and restaurants have secondary signs in Japanese. Inside, Japanese-Canadian business owners and employees are happy to talk in either language. A highlight of the Canada Day parade is the Bow Valley Japanese Community marching in costume, waving at spectators and handing out candy.
Megumi and Yuji, who were already married in Tokyo, chose to settle in Canmore instead of Banff. They enjoyed the way Canmore felt like a hippy town in the early 2000s, and was quieter than Banff. “People make stress,” Yuji states plainly.
The expatriate advantage is
the ability to pull from two cultures,
and these guys have perfected it.
BUILDING A LIFE
Katsu and Yuji’s early mountain careers were similar. They began as tour guides or camp counsellors, then gained hiking guide certification and started working in the backcountry during summers. But, by the time they became ACMG-certified ski guides, they were on separate trajectories.
Katsu’s path is distinguished by loyalty. He still makes time each summer to work for the Banff Guide Service (the long-running, Japanese-speaking tour company who gave him his first job) even though he has a full-time job as the Lead Guide on Mount Norquay’s via ferrata. Norquay, another long-time employer, is where he got his winter career started as a ski patroller. He continues to patrol there when he can, even though his winters have filled up with more glamorous heli-ski guiding with CMH Adamants.
(Top) Skiing in Japan. Photo courtesy Yuji Akiyama. (Bottom) Katsu guiding back in the Rockies. Photo courtesy Katsu Goto.
Yuji, meanwhile, developed an entrepreneurial streak and has built a thriving business straddling the Pacific. In the summer, his guiding company, ONSIGHT CANADA, brings Japanese clients to the Rockies for hiking. In the winter, he takes groups of North American skiers to ski powder in Japan. Firmly anchored in both cultures, Yuji has become the go-to resource for all the Canadian guides organizing Ja-Pow trips.
Both couples had children as the men forged careers. Katsu and Mitsuru have a son, Shune, 9, who’s engrossed by hockey and a daughter, Lynn, who enjoys time out in the mountains. Mitsuru has worked part-time whenever Japanese-Canadian friends and business owners needed a hand while also taking care of the kids.
Megumi and Yuji are raising two mountain kids as well. Their daughters Len, 11, and Liz, 9, climb, mountain bike, and hike all summer, then ski in the winter. Megumi has worked casually over the years but stays busy running the kids to swim lessons, play dates or taking them on adventures. Like so many Canmore families, the Akiyama’s are raising serious little mountain chargers.
(L) Yuji, Megumi and their children, Len and Liz. Photo courtesy Yuji Akiyama. (R) Katsu and son, Shune. Photo courtesy Katsu Goto.
In the multicultural Bow Valley, where most people have come from somewhere else, “home” can be a complicated concept. A few thousand people show up every year to work and live in these mountains. The same number leave. In the case of young families, there’s often a pull back to extended family; somewhere with more support and a more affordable life.
Katsu’s feelings echo that of an Alberta farm boy living in the mountains. “I feel guilty being here as the oldest son. Mitsuru is always ready to go back too. She has lots of friends and family in Japan.”
She and Katsu sometimes weigh the benefits of living in Banff versus returning to Japan. So far the scale has always tipped towards Canada, but it’s being recalibrated constantly.
In Canmore, and again in contrast, Yuji and Megumi don’t feel that pull across the Pacific. They’ve grown accustomed to Canadian culture and small-town life.
On one of the first nice days in June, Yuji chases his family around a 16-kilometre mountain bike trail in Kananaskis, jogging behind so he can push young Liz up the hills. Megumi leads the family descent on her mountain bike while Yuji takes pictures and cheers on the team.
Sixty kilometres west, Katsu is taking advantage of the day by rock climbing with the kids and showing a couple of Japanese-Canadian friends the ropes. He is content watching Shune belay his young friend on the wall.
Later, when the sun is low behind Bourgeau, he coils the rope and gathers the crew. It’s time to go home, and Banff is home, for now.
An ex-stone mason turned avalanche technician, Kevin Hjertaas balances his time in the Bow Valley between parenting and squeezing in any ski adventure he can.
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