By now you will be familiar with the photos and video footage from Japan where skiers momentarily disappear behind a huge powder cloud. Turn after turn they glide gracefully between birches that look like a wintry jungle with their twisting branches covered in snow.
You’ve probably heard these dreamlike stories about Japow too many times to stomach them again. Each winter more and more skiers you know venture to the land of the rising sun to sample the ultimate powder diet, consisting of new snowfall almost every day, near-empty resorts and a relatively stable snowpack.The question is, what is holding you back from making this ultimate powder pilgrimage yourself?
Skiing in Japan is so much more than just world-class powder. It is a completely unfamiliar world, a country of idiosyncrasies including vending machines selling beer accessible to anyone and located in every imaginable location. It is a society that values personal responsibility and hard work, as well as modesty and a sense of solidarity within a community. This paradoxical and fascinating culture combined with amazing food, beautiful nature and Japanese hospitality are the reasons for us to come back most winters.
Japlanning – practical information
The Japanese ski season runs from mid-December to the end of March, with the most snow falling in January. Depending on the length of your stay, you can choose to visit both Hokkaido, the North Island and Honshu, the main island. Hokkaido tends to get slightly more snow, the terrain in Honshu is steeper and the lines are longer. Depending on the length of your stay, you can choose to visit Hokkaido, the North Island and Honshu, the biggest island. Our guide Dave Enright explains us the differences between both islands: “Hakuba does get a bit less snow than Niseko, but it is all relative. I would give Hakuba an 8 for snow and Niseko a 10. For terrain I would rate Niseko a 4 and Hakuba a 9.5. It is lift-accessed heli-skiing, but I guess I am biased having lived here for years.”
Honshu (the biggest island, home to Tokyo)
Our favourite Japanese resort is Hakuba, where some of the 1998 Olympics events were held. Unlike other resorts in Japan, the terrain here is very steep, think Alaskan spine lines. Hakuba consists of 9 different resorts and it is located in the heart of the Japanese Alps. During our trips, we have mostly skied at Tsugaike (good for tree skiing & touring), Happo One (alpine spine lines) & Cortina (tree skiing). Happo One is the resort where you can access the true alpine terrain of Hakuba with it stunning spine lines and rugged peaks. Cortina is known for it’s tree skiing, and the back bowl is a forest with perfectly spaced trees. Nowadays it is a bit more crowded at Cortina, however there is still enough powder to be found, especially if book have the guides from Evergreen Outdoor Centre in a group of 2-6 people. Everyday Evergreen decides where to ski, depending on the snow conditions. You can choose between a backcountry tour (ski touring/ split boarding) for 75 euro per person or an off-piste tour (lift accessed powder) for 80 euro, which happens in a group of 2-6 people.
The options of where to stay in Hakuba are endless, no matter your budget. We recommend the Aria Hotel: a simple but comfortable hotel or the more luxurious Hotel Mominoki. For an overview of accommodation resorts and more information about the resorts, make sure to check the website of Ski Japan Holidays.
The best place to spot snow monkeys is the Jigokudani valley, just outside Nagano. The valley is home to around 160 Japanese macaques, which descend from the mountains every day to soak in the onsens, the volcanic hot springs. The monkeys are almost human-like as they lazily enjoy their wonderful hot bath before returning to the forest in the evening.
Myoko gets even more snow than other resorts around Nagano. Stay in the cozy Morino Lodge in Myoko and socialize with other riders in their bar. Located just a 30-minute ride away from Myoko are the Madarao/Tangram Ski Circus. The tree skiing is especially good in Tangram, but strictly forbidden so be careful not to ski directly underneath the ski lift! Or just go on a backcountry tour with a guide from Nagano Outdoorsports
Nozawa Onsen is famous for its many public onsens and the authentic and spectacular Dosojin Matsuri fire festival on January 15th, starring the village’s 25- and 42-year-old men.
The Japanese Shinto religion regards these ages as yakudoshi, meaning unlucky. During this festival, the men display their courage by defending a gigantic wooden shrine from the other villagers who try to set it on fire. By doing this, they hope to be able to avoid a year of misfortune. It is a fierce battle, with the ‘unlucky’ men fending off blows from blazing torches to prevent the fire from setting the structure alight. This spectacle goes on until the attackers run out of ammunition. The yakudoshi men have displayed sufficient strength and courage and, after the entire structure is set on fire, peace slowly returns to this charming village. As the festival becomes more and more popular each year, it is impossible to find last minute accommodation in Nozawa around January 15th. This is the only thing you really need to take care of in advance. Their backcountry alone is a good enough reason to visit as the lines are long and steep and you’ll have them to yourself!
A nice traditional place to stay is the Furosato Lodge, a cute Japanese ryokan, where you can poor yourself a hot sake from their wooden stove at any time.
The all-you-can-ski buffet of unlimited powder is accompanied by some of the best food in the world! Whet your appetite with bowls of the most delicious, steaming hot udon noodles, fresh fish, green tea ice cream and sushi.
Every meal is a true feast and looks as good as it tastes. No matter what your budget is, you will eat well as the Japanese hospitality is truly unique. It is embodied by the Japanese word ‘omotenashi’ meaning hospitality from the heart or the spirit of selfless hospitality.
This spirit of service embodies everything from ensuring that the guests feel relaxed and happy, to the hosts’ polite attitude, genuine smiles and attention to detail. It is for example quite normal for a Japanese to practice his/her bow each morning to make sure it is exactly in a thirty-degree angle. And don’t be surprised when you go to the toilet. You will need to wear special bright colored toilet slippers, the seat will be heated and music will automatically start to play once you sit down.
Food for thought
Contrary to many people’s beliefs, Japan is not expensive, especially with the currently favorable exchange rate. To give you an idea; a day pass will cost you between 20-35 euro and a bowl of steamy ramen with tempura on the slopes will only cost you around 7-8 euro. If you prefer to bring your own lunch you can buy cheap (and very good) snacks at the 7 Eleven. Our favorite was a hot o’nigiri: a rice triangle wrapped in seaweed filled with for example salmon, which costs less than 1 euro. Make sure to carry enough cash as ATMs are hard to come by in Japan, Hakuba has only two. But don’t worry; Japan is also one of the safest countries in the world. You can decide yourself how much you want to spend on accommodation. We highly recommend spending a night in a ‘Ryokan’, a traditional Japanese inn where you sleep on futons and can enjoy delicious Japanese cuisine consisting of miso soup, rice and raw fish. The mattress might be a bit harder than what you are used too and most of the times there no showers. However they’ll have an onsen where you can soak your tired muscles and wash up.
Japanese après-ski: the naked truth
Life in Japan is simple: eat, ski powder, onsen, eat, sleep and repeat! After a long day on the mountain there is no better way to relax than laying in an onsen, a natural hot spring filled with thermal water. It is a Japanese custom to thoroughly wash yourself before entering the onsen. The Japanese also believe that onsens have healing powers because of the minerals they contain. Either way it is physically and mentally cleansing and relaxing.
Skiing off piste
Until a few years ago, skiing off-piste was still prohibited in some ski areas. Tom, a boarder from Hakuba, who we met in the lift, moved to Japan to work as an English teacher and was amazed that nobody skied off-piste yet at the time: “Before 1998 there were no foreigners in Japan and when I first came to Hakuba ten years ago, it was just me and six other snowboarders riding powder.” So Westerners rather than the Japanese themselves discovered the Japanese powder. Until a few years ago, skiing off-piste was still strictly prohibited in some ski areas. Apparently, the ski patrol would even chase you. Nowadays, each ski area has its own specific measures to try to regulate backcountry skiing. These include signing in and out with ski patrol by means of a special form, having a so-called ‘powder pass’ with you and wearing a colored bib. Whether these measures actually help improve safety remains to be seen..? In practice, these measures don’t get in the way of skiers like us. We had no trouble skiing powder both within and outside the largely empty runs!
Lost in translation
Wherever we go we spot spelling mistakes, such as ‘calefur snow falling flom loof’, ‘fast aid kit’ and ‘experts onry’, which make us giggle every time.
You will hardly find any ATM’s in Japan. Hakuba only has two. So make sure you carry lots of cash. But don’t worry; Japan is one of the safest countries in the world.
Take the train! Tickets are affordable and the trains are always on time and extremely fast (the Shinkansen goes 300 kilometers per hour!). Buying the actual ticket can be a challenge as very few people speak English, but it is the most comfortable way to travel. A good alternative is the Nagano Snowshuttle that runs 1-2 twice a day between Narita, Hakuba, Myoko and other ski resorts.