Being born to sun loving parents my childhood holidays did not involve groomers, goggles or gondolas. A university ski trip to Jindy in the early 80’s changed all that.
Finally, at the age of 19, I had found a sport I could love and pursue at my own pace. A sport that I seemed to be good at. And I’ve loved it ever since.
It’s easy to rib skiing in Australia, and I’m guilty of doing it myself. I’m proud to say my kids ended up being Milo kids, but once you’ve skied overseas it’s hard not to compare. For half a decade the comparison was against the best of North America.
It wasn’t until chance took me to Niseko in January 2005, where, I found a whole new level of love.
OO-yuki, chi-chi pow pow, JaPow. Call it what you like. I’ve never seen it so plentiful, so light and literally straight out of the front door.
Go out for a few drinks at night, sleep in, get up at 10am and all the pow in the world will still be there all day for anyone who wants it. Why go heli-skiing when you can access waist deep pow from a non-existent lift line anytime day and (even better still) at night.
The food, the people, the culture, the politeness. Onsens, tatami mat floors, toilets that do more than just flush, taxis with self-opening doors. Heck, even Hibiki 17 whiskey was a mere $60 a bottle. I was hooked. And that drug? The one that keeps us coming back year in year out? They call it Japow-der.
The late Doug Coombs said that skiing powder was ‘like flying’. For me it’s the synergy of multiple factors such as risk, adventure and that feeling of floating that literally cannot be mirrored anywhere.
Japan itself is a huge ski industry success story. No ‘shrimp on the barbie’ campaign needed here. According to JNTO there were 7.33 million visitors to its shores in the first year I visited, 2005. And that is set to rise to 40 million next year.
All across Japan the major ski areas are flourishing, which in reality is great news. With birth rates falling and populations ageing, the decline of rural Japan is very real. Japan’s tourist numbers may be burgeoning, but their own population is shrinking.
Despite being the world’s third-biggest economy, some rural communities are veritable ghost towns. A walk through the barren streets of Naeba (home to an uncrowded powder resort) paints this picture with ease.
However, the major ski resorts are bucking this trend and bucking it in a big way. Now if you sleep in until 9am then you’ve almost certainly lost fresh tracks.
Walk the streets of Hakuba at 7pm mid January with eight people looking for dinner and you’re going to end up eating at the 7-11. Go see the Dosojin fire festival in Nozawa on January 15 to witness a schoolies-esque exhibition of western drunkedness.
Don’t even bother trying to learn Japanese in Niseko or Hakuba because the guy behind the bar serving you will probably be an Aussie.
Finding the snow soul
So, what does this mean for the powder hounds seeking the solace of an authentic Japan ski experience?
If you want a ski in/ski out Japan experience in a western style ‘XYZ-Tracks’ condo with three other families all in the same building then you are beholden to the big resorts and the constraints/conditions that go with that choice. And sure, many of them are desirable with supermarkets, ski instructors, bars and night clubs and a ton of your like-minded countrymen.
But if it’s all about the powder and not much else, then a little bit of internet savviness will reward you in leaps and bounds.
If the lure of ski in ski out is still a necessity but you don’t need the ritz and glitz then a trip to the Tōhoku region, namely Zao Onsen will not disappoint. Naeba is also an interesting choice, particularly with the awesome gondola access to Kagura.
But if you’ve come this far, why not go all out and be a really independent soul? Renting a car is quite easy in Japan. Snow tyres are safe as long as you drive to the conditions and just take it easy. Use your phone as the GPS (everyone has international data these days).
You’ll even find the steering wheel on the same side as your Mazda 3 parked back home in the Aussie sun. Just don’t drink and drive or disrespect the order. And please, unless essential, do not use your horn.
Renting a car opens up an entirety of Japan that is virtually untouched by grubby western fingers. Go stop at a random supermarket and grab some weird foods, or a DCM Homec, have an onsen away from the crowds where you will be the only westerner in there. Go have dinner at an Izakaya where no-one speaks English.
And best of all ski untouched powder pretty much all day, every day and at crazy prices.
In Hokkaido, start with the bigger towns namely Otaru and Asahikawa, even Sapporo and explore the region around. In Honshu try the ski areas in the lesser known prefectures of Aomori and Iwate where you’ll find gems such as Shizukuishi. The Aizu region and also Gunma closer to Tokyo are also worth checking out.
Take a sense of adventure and just road trip from powder haven to powder haven. Japan has around 500 ski resorts and if you’ve come this far, you’ll figure the rest out, it’s not rocket science, it’s the internet and Google is your friend.
Editors note: Bypass Google and head to SnowsBest.com Japan section for a ton of Japan skiing and boarding content.