The land of powder and fun

Take the plunge ... Niseko is a skier's delight.
Take the plunge ... Niseko is a skier's delight. Photo: Alamy

Craig Tansley reveals what you should know about skiing in Japan, from the dangers of deep snow to getting in shape before you go.

Skiing and snowboarding in Japan is nothing like skiing and snowboarding in Australia, nor is it much like skiing in North America or Europe.

While each year more and more Australians visit Japanese ski resorts, many go with little idea of what's in store.

Your Japanese ski experience can be enhanced many times over by careful preparation.

It can start in the gym before you go. The deep powder you'll ride in Japan will test your leg muscles more than Thredbo ever could, and it's worth considering the risks deep snow presents to inexperienced skiers and boarders.

Should you bring your own gear? Do you still want to visit particular resorts if they don't allow off-piste riding (many don't in Japan)? Do you mind that outside the main resorts frequented by Australian skiers, Japan offers little in the way of apres-ski experiences and little English is spoken? Should you book a package deal or organise your own holiday? We look at what you should know, and what you should consider, before you go to Japan.

1. Consider multiple mountain passes

Japan has more than 300 ski resorts, so sample as many as you can on one pass. The best value is at Hakuba - ski nine resorts on one pass - and Shiga Kogen, Japan's biggest ski area, where 21 fields are interlinked on one pass. Hakuba's All Mountain Pass allows you to ski some of Japan's best resorts, including Happo-one and Hakuba 47 - a two-day pass costs 8700 yen ($91) (4900 yen for children). hakubahotels.com/tick.aspx. At Shiga Kogen, you'll have access to 70 lifts for just 4800 yen a day (2400 yen for children). shigakogen.jp/heights/english.

2. Try a package deal

Organising a ski holiday in Japan can be confusing, particularly if you're planning to go beyond Niseko and the Hakuba region. Consider using a seasoned ski operator, such as Ski Japan (skijapan.com) or Deep Powder Tours (deeppowdertours.com). These operators organise everything from accommodation to airport transfers and skiing lessons. They can also get you into lesser-known regions, such as Tohoku (150 kilometres north-east of Tokyo), and allow you to visit multiple resorts with ease.

3. Pack bright lenses for your goggles

Many ski resorts in Japan receive more than 12 metres of snow in a season, so there's a good chance you'll be there while snow is falling. Japan doesn't have the endless days of sunshine you'll find in Colorado, California or British Columbia. More often than not, you'll be skiing in low-light conditions as snow falls or as low cloud impairs visibility. Don't wear sunglasses but, instead, buy bright-yellow lenses for your goggles - you can swap them on sunny days.

4. Bring your own gear if you're bigger

Rental gear used to be terrible throughout Japanese ski resorts but now ski and snowboard hire gear is world-class at many and the costs are much lower than what you'd pay in Australia or Europe. However, if you're exceptionally large, it pays to bring your own gear, especially boots (except perhaps in Niseko). Japanese people are much smaller and won't have the sizes for you - your ski holiday could be a very painful one.

5. Be careful in deep snow

Japan is home to the world's deepest, driest snow - but beware, powder snow can kill, and it requires a different skiing technique. Take baby steps - if you haven't ridden powder snow before, start slowly on days with less snowfall and stick to the groomed slopes. If you do ski the trees, stay away from tree wells - the heat from the tree creates a hollow in the snow at a tree's base and this can suffocate skiers. And always ski with a buddy in deep snow.

6. Consider what kind of ski holiday you're chasing

Japanese ski resorts aren't like their European or North American counterparts. If you're not really that interested in skiing or snowboarding, Japan may not be the place for you. You will not have the shopping options of Vail or St Moritz or the apres scene of Austria or British Columbia. Japanese ski holidays are best suited to those who spend most of their ski holiday on the slopes.

7. Run or cycle before you go

You will get so much more out of a Japanese skiing holiday if you're in better shape. Make sure you're fit and do plenty of work on those thigh muscles. Riding powder requires far more stamina and stronger thigh muscles than harder-packed snow. Without training in the gym or running or cycling pre-trip, your leg muscles will spasm in deep snow ... guaranteed. You'll also be constantly out of breath if you're not fit.

8. You'll save

While daily lift tickets cost more than $100 in Australia, expect to pay as much as half that in Japan. Lift tickets range from about $40 a day to $75 a day. Prices in regional Japan for food and drinks are also much lower than in Australia - a dinner in a traditional restaurant will cost about $15 on average (without alcohol). You can also stay in simple, traditional-style accommodation for less than $80 a night.

9. Consider what experience you really want

All Australian ski resorts offer a similar ski experience, but Japanese ski resorts don't. Many resorts there aren't suitable for English-speaking beginners. If you're a family of beginner skiers, choose a resort such as Niseko or the resorts of Hakuba, which offer many beginners' slopes, English-speaking instructors and plenty of off-piste activities for non-ski days. However, if you're an expert skier travelling without children, consider resorts such as Zao Onsen (in Tohoku) or Chisenupuri (in Hokkaido), which offer challenging terrain with few other Australians but with almost no off-piste activities or English speakers.

10. Know which resorts allow off-piste skiing

Do some research before you go. Many Japanese ski resorts don't allow any off-piste skiing and will confiscate your lift ticket if you're caught. With the influx of Aussie skiers, resorts such as Niseko, Myoko Kogen and Shiga Kogen have relaxed the rules, but not everywhere: off-piste skiing is forbidden in Australian favourites Hakuba 47, Happo-one and Furano.

 

Trip notes

Getting there Qantas and Japan Airlines (JAL) fly daily to Tokyo and Osaka from $1199 (Qantas codeshares with JAL), with onward JAL connections to Sapporo. 131 313, qantas.com.au; 1800 802 228, jal.com/en.

Ski resorts Niseko is Japan's most famous ski resort and is on Hokkaido. niseko.ne.jp/en. The resorts of Hakuba are 200 kilometres north-west of Tokyo. hakuba.com.au; hakubatourism.jp. For something more traditional, check out Nozawa Onsen (nozawa-onsen.com) or Myoko Kogen (myokokogen.net).

More information jnto.org.au.

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