The thought of skiing in Japan conjures up many idyllic images. You know the ones; people skiing through waist-deep powder, snow-capped volcanoes in the background and steaming bowls of ramen for lunch. These are the images we see on the front of the brochure or the home page of the website. But there’s got to be more to this exotic culture than that, right?
What is it that makes a winter visit to Japan so different from any other ski destination in the world? And how is a first-time visitor transported experientially through the environment, tradition and culture to discover the real heartbeat of the place?
Travel is a journey for the senses, which makes Japan an experience that goes way beyond the cover of any marketing collateral.
So, here are a few things you might be lucky enough to feel, sense and have a first-hand perspective on during your next trip to the land of the rising sun.
Tradition: The old-school resort skiing rules have relaxed.
Historically, many skiers were wary of Japanese resorts because of the rumoured prohibition around off-piste skiing. Like all rules, there were good reasons to have them; Japanese people by nature are quite risk averse. They do not enjoy exposure to situations where injury might prevail (this is even at the core of the Japanese ski instruction methodology). So, the decision was made that skiing in the trees was forbidden. Naturally the Japanese complied.
As Westerners began flooding into the resorts all those years ago the Japanese were perplexed as to why people would want to go into the ‘dangerous trees’, in fact, powder skiing wasn’t all that popular either for the same reasons. Well, it’s time to spread some new rumours because Japanese resorts have moved with the times, especially in the last 5-10 years. Many resorts now have dedicated tree skiing areas, professionally gladed and patrolled for safety. There is convenient access for those who want to do some hiking or touring to ski in the backcountry, though if you prefer to stay on the lifts, there are off-piste gates that give you access to powdery pillows and the steeper slopes of the side-country.
Consider this, when you ski the trees alongside the Japanese you are experiencing the result of an evolution where Japanese values have melded with Western influence to provide a world-class skiing experience. It’s unique, safe and crazy exciting all at once, and therefore very Japanese. So, if you are a hard-core lifelong skier who’s avoided Japan for whatever reason, it's time to come and see what all the fuss is about.
Culture: Japanese food, in Japan, is an experience that will surprise you.
It’s an undeniable fact: there’s Western Japanese food… and there is provincial Japanese food. They cannot be compared. While there might be mind-blowing Japanese restaurants in many locations around the world, they will never live up to the experience of eating out in Japan, especially around the ski resort areas, which are quintessentially rural villages that serve locally specific delicacies.
If you have to duck to get through the front door of a local Japanese restaurant, you know you’ve struck gold. And if that restaurant maxes out at eight seats and only takes two sittings each night, then get ready for something special. Chances are you’ve had a tip-off from a local on where to find this place and how to book, because they are famously hard to locate, usually have no online presence and the person taking bookings will certainly not be speaking English. Get ready!
Once you are seated you will notice that you are surrounded by a myriad of cartoonish figurines, decorated cats rhythmically waving their paw at you and dust encrusted Japanese Anime, all standing proud on a shelf watching over the tiny room as an intensely focused chef weaves minor miracles in the kitchen. Sometimes there will be a menu, and some of the dishes may sound completely foreign, even when written in English (Chicken skin gyoza? Nabe hot pots?) ... But those in the know will simply order the Chef’s recommendation - they know what’s best.
Environment: Skiing through Birch trees and down volcanoes with monkeys and Kamoshika is an otherworldly experience for every skier
Bare white trunks without a leaf or pine needle in sight go whizzing by as you glide down perfectly gladed runs through the lightest powder snow in the world. The thin narrow trunks give way to well-spaced pathways through the powder and the snow falls so lightly, like it’s in no particular rush to arrive on the ground. For those of us who have spent many years skiing through the Evergreen varieties, with their tree wells and low boughs positioned perfectly to snag us on the way past, skiing through Birch trees is a unique experience that every skier needs to try. And when the sun comes out, make sure you look up to see the Birch trees ‘pop’ in front of an intense blue-sky background as flakes of snow blow around carelessly in the clearing air.
Like most things in Japan, the environment is subtle, intricate and unconventional. Everyone has seen a picture of a snow-covered volcano, but until you witness one emerge through the clouds painted pink on a clearing afternoon, or better yet, take a helicopter ride to stand at the lip of the dormant crater, only then will you understand their silent command over the villages and lands below.
And while you might have heard that you can visit snow monkeys that bathe luxuriously in the onsen (natural hot springs), did you know you can ski with them too? Especially if you are exploring the backcountry and off-piste areas, you may be lucky enough to see them monkeying around, so to speak, at the bottom of the valleys near gently bubbling mountain streams.
The Kamoshika is the most sacred of all the animals found in the Hakuba Valley.
Many locals will describe it as a type of bear, pig or goat… but the Kamoshika is in fact a Japanese serow; a ‘goat-antelope’ found in the dense woodland of central Honshu. After being nearly hunted to extinction, the Japanese government passed a law in 1955 designating it as a “Special National Monument”, thereby saving the species so everyone can enjoy an encounter with these curious animals... before they bolt away up the hill through the snow.
It’s impossible to capture experiences like these in a photo, which is why we say come over and
immerse yourself in the tiny moments that make skiing in Japan so special.