If you’ve never skied or snowboarded in Japan, then you are doing yourself a serious dis-service. With some of the most consistent and best snow conditions in the world, Japan is a veritable mecca for the full range of sliders, from beginners to snow-addicted powder hounds.
However, Japan is not Perisher in Australia, nor is it Sugar Bowl in California. Japan by contrast is cold… and I mean really cold, it’s dry and chock-a-block full of culture. Here are a few pointers for Japan first timers, some you might have heard before, but perhaps a few you haven’t. Let us know how we did in the comments.
Buy a really expensive jacket
This is likely to generate some serious debate, but we stand firm on this. What we mean here is that Japan is cold and typically very dry, so the humidity is very low. It also hardly ever rains. So unless you are planning to do some serious back-country then there really is no reason to fork out the big dollars for a seriously water proof jacket. Buy a warm one, sure. But don’t worry too much about the level of water proofing. A mid-range jacket with moderate water and wind proofing (10,000 to 15,000) is more than enough for most purposes, so save your hard earned dollars and spend it on all that amazing Japanese food instead. Forget the 20,000+ ratings, they just aren’t necessary.
Fail to layer
Ok, so we’ve already said that having a top end, seriously water proof jacket is not important. But being warm certainly is. Layering is paramount. Start with a thermal under-garment consisting preferably of Australian or Kiwi merino wool, and follow that with a good quality mid-layer, consisting of a wind-proof fleece. Over this, obviously wear your outer-layer which will invariably consist of a shell (with no insulation) or a more traditional jacket, featuring built in insulation.
Layering also goes for gloves. This is super important. Cold fingers can often be avoided by simply wearing a set of ‘inners’ underneath your gloves. Good quality ‘inners’ are available from most quality local ski shops, but are surprisingly expensive for what they are. If you’re on a budget, a simple pair of tight fitting cricket glove ‘inners’, or woolen mittens will do the trick.
Get frisky with your partner (in public)
Ok, so you’re young, you’re in love, or perhaps you just cant keep your hands of each other. While that’s fine at the local blue light disco, it’s not ok in Japan (well at least in public!). Icha Icha is a Japanese term used to describe anything from light flirting to sex (pretty broad, right!). It includes everything from ‘necking’ to ‘making out’, but also holding hands or even just entwining pinky fingers. Drawing close and giving long meaningful looks is also in the realm of icha icha. Although more young Japanese people these days hold hands, kissing in public is still quite taboo, and anything beyond that, is…well..really taboo. Don’t try it. Anyway, this is a snow related blog. Best restrict these activities to your room, where at least it’s warm 🙂
Stab food with chopsticks
Chopsticks are tricky at the best of time for us fork wielding philistines. Some rules to remember when dining with chopsticks in Japan are as follows:
- Hold your chopsticks towards their end, not in the middle or the front third.
- When you are not using your chopsticks, or have finished eating, lay them down in front of you or across the bowl with the tips to left.
- Do not stick chopsticks into your food, especially not into rice. This is only done at funerals with rice that is put onto the altar.
- Do not pass food directly from your set of chopsticks to another’s. Again, this is a funeral tradition that involves the bones of a cremated body.
- Do not spear food with your chopsticks.
- Invert the chopsticks if taking food from a shared plate.
- Do not point with your chopsticks.
- Do not wave your chopsticks around in the air or play with them.
- Do not move plates or bowls around with your chopsticks.
Eat western food
The food is amazing in Japan! Why eat pizza and Mexican just because it’s available. Get out there and sample the local cuisine. This extends to not only the foods you are more familiar with, sushi, ramens, tempura etc., but the even the not so familiar: pickled veggies and savoury egg custards. Having said this, Niseko is home to an eclectic collection of restaurants and food vans. If you have to stray, the food vans provide an excellent assortment of choices from Indian curries to American style hot-dogs. They are worth it for the ‘quirky’ factor alone, just not all the time 🙂
Act like a jerk in the onsen
Onsens are sacred in Japan. Don’t be a jerk, and don’t laugh at your naked friends (ok, do laugh, but do it quietly). Enter the change room. Undress (completely) and deposit clothes in a locker. Take small modesty towel and enter the bathing area. Go to the shower and wash vigorously. Vigorously! Enter the hot tub slowly (no bombs or horsies!). Never dip your hand towel in the bath; place it on your head if necessary. Smile and nod. Don’t fart, and if you do, pretend you didn’t. If you have tattoos, best that you don’t flaunt them, cover them up (if you can), or choose a more liberal onsen where they are tolerated. Many sentō and onsen ban customers with tattoos. Tattoos are traditionally taboo, because they are linked with the Japanese mafia (yakuza). Having said that, many are now more tolerant of westerners…especially those in the big resorts of Niseko and Hakuba. Some even allow consumption of alcohol while bathing!
Underestimate the backcountry
Although not as big as the avalanches in the Rockies or the Alps, avalanches can and do occur regularly in Japan, particularly after big snowfalls. More often than not, avalanches occur due to (warning – science content) a reduction in the ‘adhesiveness’ between layers of snow; for example, a layer of fresh dry snow on top of a layer of ice has very little adhesiveness, and tends to slide without warning. The colossal amount of snowfall in Japan increases this risk substantially.
With the rise in popularity of off-piste skiing, the risks are even higher. So, although it’s very easy to get excited after a big snow fall, before you head into the back-country, or out through the gates, check the conditions (online) and/or consult with the local ski patrol. Irrespective of the conditions, always (a) tell someone where you’re going (b) never ride alone (c) and always carry beacons, shovels and probes (and know how to use them). Better still, employ a reputable guide. Sounds draconian, we know, but it may save your life. Warm fuzzies all round.
Be out of shape
This goes without saying really. The fitter you are the longer you can ride. Turn 4 hrs into 6-7 hours; simple as that. Being fit is also important from a safety point of view. Let’s face it; you don’t want to be fatiguing half way down a technical decent, especially where a fall could have serious consequences. Before you go, make sure you’ve had an adequate amount of preparation.
Buy insufficient insurance
While travel insurances are relatively straightforward for those wishing to ride exclusively on-piste (i.e. the groomers), it can be a veritable minefield for those wishing to ride the backcountry, or even off-piste with resort boundaries (yep, you heard it – EVEN within resort boundaries). So when buying insurance, it pays to read the Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) very carefully. This is important but nonetheless a very boring and time consuming task. Luckily, backcountry enthusiast, Damien Gooch, has done all the work for us by reviewing the policies of around 30 different providers. Damien’s post was originally published in Australian Backcountry, an Australian-based Facebook Group for backcountry enthusiasts. Damien very kindly granted us permission to republish it here. Most of these relate to Australian insurers, but have a read anyway. It will quickly highlight just how different the policies reaklly are. Oh, and one more tip. If your insurance requires that you ride with a guide, make sure he/she holds a Level 2 backcountry security award or equivalent.
Book too late in the year
If you want to save money, book early and avoid the Chinese New Year period…Many resorts do early bird discounts and with many low costs carriers now flying to Japan, airfares are also now more affordable. For example, we paid only $789 return for our flights by booking in March. Depending on how long you stay, accommodation amounts to either you greatest or second greatest cost. If you get in early enough, and stay away from the big commercial hotels, you can book a decent bed and breakfast from $85 to $110 a night. SRA is presently offering special deals on a range of accommodation options across Japan. Click here for more info.
We’re also running two club trips to Madarao in January 2020 at very reasonable rates for this time of year. Interested. Click on the image below for more details.