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Skiing Japan Pt. II: Know Before You Go

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Our odyssey to see and ski Japan was undoubtedly a success. We skied the pants of Hokkaido, and we were able to take in one of the most extraordinary cities anywhere in the world.


It was not without its hiccoughs, though, including things we wish we know before we went and things we only discovered when we were there. So here are my thoughts on things we wish we knew before we went.

 

Language

The Japanese language is as beautiful as it is confusing. Written, it is a mish-mash of three different alphabets and character systems, meaning for even the earnest learner it is difficult to pick up.

Hidden alleys leading to cute izakayas - the language barrier can be overcome with a few phrases and ritual bowing.


And, like most of us feel at least once in our lives, I wish I had spent more time studying the basics to make a better stab of it when I was there.


This does, however, cut both ways. It is easy to feel incredibly nervous and apprehensive about dropping into a c


ountry where you do not speak their language or even read their alphabet. I had suffered a steep learning curve before when in Russia, where their Cyrillic alphabet and general lack of Latin alternatives had


made for an interesting time. It also didn't help that, much to my horror, I blended in across much of European Russia!


With Japan, westerners stick out like sore thumbs, so there is not the automatic assumption t


hat you will understand the language or necessarily have the best grasp of customs. Furthermore, many important things have pictures, such as restaurant menus, or are displayed in English too. Between this, a basic understanding of "yes", "no", "please" and "thank you", and Japan's ubiquitous bowing, you can get along just fine.


It may seem daunting, but absolutely do not be put off by the language.

 
Time

You will always need more time than you think in Japan, whether its for sightseeing or skiing.



Limited as I was by my work schedule, I flew out in the middle of the week and spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in Tokyo with my friends, before we flew up and spent Saturday-Saturday on Hokkaido. My friend flew out earlier,

Tokyo Tower, one of an infinite number of tourist sites worth a visit

and spent the earlier few days in Kyoto and Osaka, before joining us in Tokyo on Wednesday.


Japan's amazing Shinkansen network means it is so incredibly easy to get anywhere up and down the country. This means you should spend time in as many places as you can - both because you can and because they are special, special places in their own right.


Once you are in Toyko, there is enough to see to fill two weeks. There is a museum to everything, from art and "the future" to Pokemon and Studio Ghibli, the animiation team behind My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away. There are also enough restaurants and eateries to feast on something different every night!


Up on Hokkaido, there is so much more to ski than just Niseko and Rusutsu. Aomori, on the tip of Honshu, is a small resort but with a beefy off piste pedigree, and Asahidake, the "La Grave" of Japan with one lift, two marked pistes, but endless off piste options. We could have spent the entire season here and not run out of places to go or lines to ski.


 
Fitness & Ability

I mentioned in the main article that you do not ski on piste in Japan and you especially don't learn to ski in Japan; the sheer variance in conditions that stems from the constant snowfall renders on piste skiing tricky at best, and the quality of the off piste terrain is unparalleled.


Quite simply, I was not fit enough or with enough experience under my belt to make the most of this trip. Don't get me wrong, I had the most incredibly amazing time and Japan will forever be at the top of my list of "best skiing destinations". But i struggled to keep up with my friends who were fitter, and skied more recently, and had more off piste skiing experience under their belt.


Every time we have skied since - which is at least annually global pandemics not withstanding - I go out of my way to make sure I go into the trip with a good level of fitness and with some experience that season under my belt, even if it is just a few hours in a snowdome, to get my ski legs back. I wish I wish I had known this before Japan.


 
Kit

Obviously good off piste skis are a must. Don't think you can get away with your 90mm underfoot all-mountain skis. Japanese powder is a different piste and 105+mm underfoot is essential to stay on top of the silly soft stuff.


Nearly waist deep after a big powder dump!

I reckon this is a really good reason why I struggled with the above too, so whilst changing my skis wouldn't have magically made me win the Freeride World Tour they would have at least made things slightly better!


 
Money

This may well have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic hastened the move to a cashless society, but when were there a lot of things were still cash only. This includes forking out a hundred or so quid for my Shinkansen ticket at the JR booking office at the airport, to, with deepest sense of irony, paying for the Museum of the Future.


Take a good chunk of Yen with you, too, as a bank ATMs will only serve their own customers. You will have to use ATMs in convenience stores, or "Combinis" instead.


 
Take a Global Pandemic Seriously

Yeah.


Fun one this one.


When you are booked on a trip of a lifetime at the end of February and beginning of March 2020, there is very little that can stop you going.


When we landed on 9 March 2020, we were asked to work from home the next day. Little did we know we wouldn't be back in the office for more than a year ...

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