I’m talking about Japan of course! Japan has some of the snowiest winters on the planet. It’s true! This is due to icy blasts of cold air converging over the Sea of Japan. So, while I love to refer to it as the mystical land of incredible powder – it’s actually not so mystical after all. What it is though, is an amazing country, AND ski destination for everyone!
Japan has been calling your name and you’re finally ready to give it a go! Off you go to Japan this season. Great choice! You really will love it. Whether you’re an avid skier or a first time snowboarder – the ski resorts in Japan have something for everyone. Both on and off the slopes.
What You’ll Find on Snow
Powder. Lot’s of it. If you’re lucky, you’ll be up to your neck in it! In Face Shot city. Alright, alright – you get the picture. Most people ski in or have heard of skiing in Japan for the amazing powder. It’s unbeatable. I’ve said this before. I’m repeating myself – but I just need you to understand the depth of it’s amazing-ness.
During January and February, you can expect consistent snow fall during your trip. I’m talking about DAILY top ups. In some areas, especially in Hokkaido – you can expect 30 + cm’s daily. Sometimes, it will even be snowing so much that by the time you come out from your lunch break – your tracks are filled in. I’m not even kidding.
Hot Tip: Riding in powder is tricky, and there’s definitely a knack involved. First of all, set your bindings back, and leannn back. If you do try and ski normally, you will end up flat on your face, eep! Leaning forward will have your tips digging in and see you somersaulting through the snow. Luckily for you, it’s soft 😉 !
Don’t be discouraged though. You’ll pick it up in a few runs, and your life will be changed forever.
Fun Tree Runs
In Japan, you can expect an abundance of amazingly fun tree runs. If you have experience riding, you’d know that these are the best types of runs. Just be careful before you dive in to any old tree’s. Some become very dense and narrow very quickly. Always suss out the map, and other peoples trails in and out of the tree sections, before following.
Some resorts in Japan also don’t allow tree skiing. It has only been in the last 5 or so years that the Japanese Ski Patrol have started to open up to people skiing in the trees, and out of bounds. This is largely thanks to some Western influence on these guys, through education and avalanche awareness. But not every resort is on board. My advice is to check with your hotel staff – someone in there is bound to be a powder hunter and know the local rules. All rules can be bent, it’s a matter of how far you can bend them, before you lose your lift pass.
For example, in Furano you’re technically not allowed in the tree’s at all (I say technically because literally nobody obeys this rule). In Myoko, you’re allowed into the trees, although it’s frowned upon. However, do not get caught riding directly under the lift. The difference? Who bloody knows. That’s just the rules.
Very Accessible Side / Back Country
Side and backcountry skiing is huge in Japan. You’ll see droves of Americans, Europeans and Australians, all with their fancy ski’s and split boards, backpacks full of gear and most probably a GoPro somewhere on their body – heading off under the boundary rope. Do not follow them. Unless of course you have avalanche training, and have checked all the varying conditions for the day, studied a map, have all your gear on, and told ski patrol where you’re going.
Don’t get me wrong. The backcountry is ah-mazing. There is nothing quite like looking down into an untracked bowl of waist deep powder. Or looking around and seeing not a single person, other than your group. But the reality is the Japanese backcountry is super unpredictable and unfortunately, deaths in Japan are not uncommon – even in bounds!
If you’re interested in gaining some backcountry experience – hire a guide! We have done many backcountry tours now with Whiteroom Tours. You can read about our experiences in my blog post Backcountry Touring in Japan. You can choose to do your entire trip with a guide, or just dip your toes in the back country for a few days.
Mellow Terrain for the Newbies
All this talk of incredible snow, tree skiing and backcountry skiing might be freaking you out if it’s your first time skiing in Japan, or skiing in general for that matter. Don’t freak out! Japan has something for everyone! There are plenty of suitable runs for beginners that are green (beginner) or blue (intermediate) in experience level. There are even some really mellow tree runs! I always spend a few hours cruising the groomers, on the first day of my trip, to get my bearings in an unfamiliar resort.
Hot tip: Check the groomer report every morning. (The groomer is the cat machine that drives around the slopes at night, smoothing out all the bumps and uneven snow left from the day). Some resorts don’t groom all of the beginner runs, as they still want you to experience that Japanese pow! Sometimes, this means it may be a little bumpy underneath. So stick to the ‘groomed daily’ runs for a few days, get your confidence up, and you’ll be skiing the blue runs in no time!
A Mixture of New & Very, Very Old Lifts
Japanese lifts are interesting ones. In some bigger, more popular resorts, like Hakuba and Niseko, you’ll find some high speed even hooded chairs. (Great for warming up on a bitterly cold day!). All of the newer, high speed lifts, have safety bars, and sometimes even foot rests. However, these types of high speed lifts, are few and far between when we get to smaller, less developed resorts.
The most common type of chairlift you’ll find yourself on, is a very old one. They’re perfectly safe (at least I hope so), and they have a lot of character. Some are quads, some are doubles. Some are even singles that we fondly name ‘The Pizza Box’. These are literally a plank of wood, attached to a pole, attached to the lift line. Character. Just hold on to the pole – you’ll be okay.
What You’ll Find in the Villages
Plenty of Hospitality
From fine dining, to pubs, to Western cuisine – you can find a range of hospitality options in most ski villages. Particularly in Hakuba and Niseko. My favourite restaurants though, are the teeny, tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants you find down secret alleyways or back streets. These establishment are usually marked with a red lantern (right) at the door, and serve amazing Japanese food. Some might not have English menu’s – but it’s all apart of the experience.
Hot tip: During high season, it’s essential to book ahead for dinner reservations. Especially if you’re a large group (anything over 6 people). My advice is to grab a village dining guide at the start of your stay, and make reservations for the whole week at the places that look the best, or are highly recommended. Bookings can always be changed. This way, you won’t be waiting an hour for a table or going hungry.
You can also find a good Barista made coffee in places like Hakuba and Niseko – there may only be one or two places, and it’s pretty pricey, but the Japanese have come a long way in 5 years to be offering any sort of half decent coffee.
As for night life, interestingly, even in the smallest of ski towns, you’ll find at least three bars! Japanese people LOVE to party. Definitely in a different way to Australians. But if you’re having a rest day the next day, and you’re looking to blow off some steam, you’ll have no problem finding somewhere to sink some beers, play some pool or belt out some karaoke (highly recommended).
Plenty of Ski Shops
Andddd not much else in the way of retail. It seems crazy, but bear in mind, in the summer time, most of these towns are quiet little villages on the outskirts of the farming areas. Many of them pretty much close down during the summer season. You’ll find that the pricing of things in these ski shops are quite ridiculous compared to the US or Australia. But, they are handy if you forget to pack something, or are having gear issues during your trip.
Village Shuttle Bus
In the well known resorts like Niseko and Hakuba, sometimes the most affordable accommodation is definitely not within walking distance of the ski lift, or the villages restaurants and night life. In the smaller towns, you’ll find everything is focused round one main street, and it’s super easy to walk everywhere.
While there are definitely taxi’s in those bigger towns, most ski resorts have a village shuttle bus that potters around the village route from around 7am until 11pm. So fear not – your poor little tired ski legs will get a rest, for this part of your trip at least.
Places to Get a Massage
I don’t know what it is about Japanese ski towns, but in every one of them, there are always a few places to get a massage. Some of these are run by Westerner’s who are capitalising on the amount of people who injure themselves on the slopes and come by for physio. And some are small little Japanese places that are half the price of those Western ones. So go on. Treat yourself! Your muscles will thank you.
I’ve saved the best til’ last on this occasion. Boy oh boy are the Onsens amazing, and such a traditional experience for your trip. If you’re not comfortable getting naked in front of other people – you’re about to learn how to be. Really quickly.
An onsen is a Japanese hot spring, which has been created by volcanic activity. The onsen water is geothermally heated below the ground, and rises to the surface, piping hot and full of magical minerals. You can find them in nature, like the one to the right, or you can find a bunch of man-made baths around town.
Many traditional Japanese Ryokans (B&B’s) have their own man-made onsen baths, which are filled with the natural water through pipes running directly from the source. Don’t be put off if you smell a little sulphur as you’re heading in to one. The benefits are amazing, and well worth it!
There are a few rules and etiquettes to visiting an onsen, and it’s really important that you understand and adhere to them.
The Gist of Onsen Etiquette:
- Wash yourself thoroughly and carefully before entering the baths.
When you walk into the onsen, you will see an area to undress, with lots of little baskets. Put all your clothes in here, as well as your big towel. Then, you’ll go into the shower room. You will sit on little stools, and scrub yourself clean under the shower. You are, after all, about to share a bath with who knows how many people!
- Use your modesty towel.
You’ll be given two towels upon entering the onsen. One is for drying yourself when you’re done (the bigger one). And the other, is for you to put over your private parts when you’re wandering around the onsen (the smaller one). Even though no one is really looking at you, it does save them from having to avert their eyes deliberately. And I found, it helped me to be a lot more comfortable those first few times.
- Entering the water quietly and gently.
This ones a big one! Many people go to the onsen for relaxation and mediation. The last thing they want is for you to splash on in. So use the stairs, and ease gently into the water. As you enter, make sure you keep your modesty towel out of the water. Popular places to put them are either to the side, in the snow for cooling later (you’ll need it!) or on your head (seriously! 🙂 ).
- Don’t talk too loudly.
If you do want to chat with your friend, do so very quietly. Just be respectful for others quiet time. I think you’ll find very quickly that you will also want to just sit quietly and absorb the tranquility after a while.
- Tattoos are unwelcome.
Now, I actually have a few tattoos and I have never once been denied entry or asked to leave. However, mine are all small and hidden by clothing. I have always felt a bit nervous that I could be asked to leave. If you have large, blatantly obvious tattoo’s, you’ll most likely be denied entry. The reason for this is that Japanese link tattoo’s to the Yakuza or gangster ties, and they’re seen as disrespectful.
If you are covered in tattoos, don’t fret! You can still enjoy the amazing onsen experience in a private onsen. Ask your hotel to point you in the right direction of the closest one.
- You’re allowed to stay as long as you like…
However, the recommended time to stay in an onsen is between 20 to 40 minutes. Think of it like a sauna. If you do start to feel dizzy, just sit up on the side for a moment to reduce your body heat a little. Make sure you drink lot’s of water pre and post onsen.
You might think I’m crazy and just a little bit weird for loving the Onsens. But trust me. These things are amazing, and once you get past that first feeling of awkwardness when bathing naked with strangers – you’ll love it!
That pretty much sums it up. What do you think!? Japan sounds amazing right?!
Obviously, each ski resort and village that you visit will have their differences. In the posts to come, I will talk specifically about some of the resorts I have been to individually, and go into much more detail of these particular areas including how to get there, where to eat and which runs are my favourite! Some areas I will talk about will be Hakuba, Myoko, Niseko, and Furano – touching on all their hidden gems!
Have you been skiing in Japan? I would love to hear your experiences below!