World Travel

Ten things you have to know about skiing in Japan

Skiers at sunset on Mt Sahoro, Japan. (Photo: AAP)
"The snow is the best on earth, you're in a direct path with snow storms from Siberia, the region receives more than 14m of snow in a single season."

Craig Tansley has been snowboarding in Japan each winter for the last 10 years. Here are 10 important things he's learnt.

1. Embrace onsens

Let's face it: Australians aren't used to ditching our clothes to bathe with total strangers. In Japan, throw out any of your insecurities and go crazy naked. Every Japanese ski resort has an onsen — where hot thermal springs are pumped into huge outdoor and indoor pools.

Strip down (if you're prudish, bad luck), scrub yourself clean (every last bit) on tiny pink plastic chairs arranged in rows, then soak in near-boiling water. Reserved people should be prepared to hear many obscene noises of pleasure.

2. Don't rely on technology

The Japanese might've come up with just about every technological breakthrough, but just try getting money out of an ATM at nearly any ski resort. You will fail because they don't exist. Even at the most popular ski resorts (like Niseko) you'll have to catch a mini-bus through the snow for half-an-hour to access your money.

And your credit card? Forget it, hardly anywhere accepts them. Japan is a cash society, so stock up on yen at the airport. As for public Internet cafes, don't get me started!

3. Where should you go for the best snow?

There are more than 500 ski resorts to choose from in Japan — that's as many as the United States, in a country a fraction of its size. But when Australians talk about skiing Japan they're generally only referring to two specific regions.

The first region is in Haikkaido. Fly to Haikkaido's main city, Sapporo, from Tokyo, then take a bus for two and a half hours to Australia's most popular Japanese ski resort, Niseko.

The snow is the best on earth, you're in a direct path with snow storms from Siberia, the region receives more than 14m of snow in a single season, it's also easy to get to, with regular flights to Sapporo from Narita. There's more night-life here than other slopes and English is widely spoken. An hour from Niseko, in the centre of Haikkaido, is Furano, the other Hokkaido resort very popular with Australians.

However, there are down sides to Haikkaido; the mountains in this region aren't particularly steep, and it's been overrun by Australians (so your chances of cultural immersion have dropped dramatically if you decide on this patch of snow).

The Nagano region — 90 minutes west of Tokyo — is the other popular spot for Australians. This includes the six ski resorts around Hakuba — and the fantastic Shiga Kogen, Myoko Kogen and Nozawa Onsen.

This region is steeper and is richer in culture, but has just as much powder snow as Haikkaido. And fewer Australians (although the numbers are growing)! Access is easy: fly to Narita, then take a train to Tokyo and a 90-minute bullet train to Nagano, before taking buses or local trains to your resort.

Another region just being discovered by Aussies is the Tohuku region, home to resorts like Appi Kogen and Zao Onsen. It's just 90 minutes by bullet train from Tokyo and has very few international visitors.

4. Crime is virtually non-existent

You can leave your hotel room unlocked, snowboards unchained and your jackets by the door at a bar — try doing that on an Australian ski mountain. Unfortunately this phenomenon is changing in some of the Aussier-regions, thanks to tourism.

Petty theft is on the increase in Niseko and Hakuba, which was previously unheard of in Japan. But don't blame the Japanese; it's not part of their culture. You can attribute nearly all of the crime in the snow to overseas skiers like your fellow countrymen.

5. Japan's friendly monsters

Of all the natural features of the snow I've seen, nothing compares to the snow monsters — or Juhyo — in Zao Onsen. Catch a gondola up at sunset to see these wind-blown snow figures.

Ice catches on huge trees at the top of the resort and snow builds over the season — at night-time they look like scary creatures, and by day time you can ski powder right through them. Zao Onsen is the biggest single ski resort in Japan and you almost won't see another tourist. Get there before every other Aussie does! Check out www.zao-spa.or.jp.

6. Don't expect the après scene of Europe or North America

Unless you go to Niseko or Hakuba with all the other Aussies, you won't find much nightlife on a Japanese mountain. A ski holiday for the Japanese is about three things: skiing, onsen-ing and eating. Sure, they'll have a beer or two over the course of an evening meal, but then head straight home.

The only ski resorts with busy bars will be those with Aussie boarders, so choose what's most important to you on your ski holiday: empty runs without the overseas influence, or busy runs with active nightlife options.

7. Australian invasion, region by region

It started with Niseko, now it's Hakuba, and they're coming to other ski resort areas near you. I went to Niseko in 2001 and there were 10 Australians; it is now called "Kuta Beach on ice".

Just three years ago a Japanese film crew in Hakuba did a news story on us as they'd seen so few Australians; now Hakuba is full of Australians, with Australian pubs with VB on tap. Two years ago nearby Myoko Kogen had three Australians visit during the whole season, and this year there've already seen more than a thousand. If you discover a new ski resort in Japan, best keep it very quiet!

8. Nothing left to chance

That train you're running late for? Don't consider for a second it'll be delayed. The Japanese are the most regimented people on Earth. Writer Paul Theroux says Japan's rigidity "is the likeliest solution to survival in an overcrowded world — robotic obedience, rigidity, agreed-upon courtesies".

There are warnings for everything in Japan; in your bathroom: "we would like you to wash your hands and gargle carefully to prevent infectious diseases"; in the lift: "do not rub the buttons to avoid static electricity", and the list goes on. You'll either find it hilarious, or let it drive you nuts.

9. It's cheaper than you think

Okay, so Tokyo and any large Japanese city will blow your budget within seconds, but head out to Japan's rural regions (which includes ski resorts) and you're in for a nice surprise.

Don't expect Bali-style prices, but even at popular ski resorts like Niseko you can eat and drink wisely for less than $50 per day. The price of alcohol can vary widely — check a restaurant's prices first or you'll be sorry.

It's less expensive to ski in Japan than Australia, North America or Europe. Package deals generally work out cheaper — companies like Snowave Travel and Deep Powder Tours have been operating out of Japan for 15 years. You can book your own accommodation but check first if the owners speak English because if discrepancies occur, they can be hard to resolve.

10. Remember, English might be our first language, not everyone else's

Unless you ski or snowboard in or around the popular Haikkaido resorts or those resorts around Nagano chances are you will have trouble communicating with anyone. It's the great trade-off — the ski fields will be emptier and the cultural experience will be greater away from visiting Australians, but you will need to know basic Japanese.

However, at ski resorts popular with Australians all ski guides have at least basic English skills. Companies like Snowave Travel and Deep Powder Tours use Australian ski guides, or Japanese guides with English as good as yours or mine. It's your choice here — find the real Japan and struggle to communicate, or stick to tourist areas and have no problems.

For more information

Visit the Niseko, Nozawa Onsen, Hakuba, Furano, Myoko Kogen, Shiga Kogen websites.

Getting around

To get to the Nagano region, take the Narita Express to Tokyo Central Station, then look for the Nagano Shinkansen, 90-minute bullet train. For information on rail travel, visit www.japanrailpass.net. For Hokkaido resorts, fly to Sapporo with JAL. Regular buses leave from Sapporo's Chitose airport to Furano and Niseko.

For the best package ski holidays to Japan the most experienced companies are Snowave Travel and Deep Powder Tours.

Got any more tips for skiing in Japan? Have your say using the comments form below:

User comments
Great article! Actually though it is not Haikkaido. It is Hokkaido.
this guide is fantastic. it basically tells you everything u need to know
We spent a week in Okushiga Kogen early March. Totally agree with all the above comments. As skiers we enjoyed the ski only areas and then ventured further afield into neighbouring areas. Thank heavens we bought 20,000yen before leaving Australia. Survived on credit card in the three main hotels for food and budgeted cash to get through the week. Never found the ATM located somewhere in the middle of the Shiga Kogen Valley! The snow was great and we were cutting fresh tracks on new snow at 11.00am . Took the Aussie hot weather with us and temps rose to around 8C bringing one rainy day, but it was all in the experience! It was very quiet but as middle aged grumpies we did not mind that so much. There was enough English for us to get by but some basic Japanese is on the 'to do' list before we return again! The people were keen to help us and ask us about Australia - take a map next time! St Christophs at the bottom of the Okushiga gondola takes credit card and has a good range food.
your snorkel. its deeeeeeeeeep!
Hi I am a qualified NZSIA snowboard instructor from sydney and I am always in Hakuba for the winter season Teach. Our company is Hakuba snowsports school and we have all english speaking instructor.
The article is pretty spot on, myself and a group of mates travelled to Hakuba earlier in the year and had an awesome time, although don't break anything, it seems Japanese doctors don't think it's necessary to use painkillers... The runs were beautiful and during the week, virtually empty, weekends were a lot busier but the wait time for lifts were never longer than a couple of minutes. Hakuba is very much turning into another suburb of Australia so get in before it is overrun. The place we stayed was run by Aussies and were an excellent group of people, they enjoyed having a drink and didn't mind driving you around looking for a good price on a pair of pants. There's also private onsens for those wanting to keep their birthday suit away from prying eyes, there's plenty of resturants with good food, friendly staff and everything is priced reasonably. We've already talked about going back and I highly recommend anyone thinking about going to do so as you won't regret it
I know your writing about Australians but the over-use of the word in this piece makes it sound elementary.
Actually there is an ATM these days in Niseko. It was accepting all cards except master and maestro!

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