The word is out about “JaPow.” The skiing—and the après—in Japan is every bit as good as you see in photos. But before you pack your bags, there are a few things you should know. We talked with OR athlete Norie Kizaki—an Aspirant IFMGA guide originally from Japan who has guided there for 20 years—to get the best beta on where to stay, what to pack and how not to be a jackass.
(By the way, if you’re looking for a guide, Norie is fluent in both Japanese and English and has the deep skiing and cultural knowledge to create a once-in-a-lifetime trip for you. Find her at www.noriekizaki.com.)
Four fun facts from Norie:
- Skiing was introduced to Japan in 1910 by an Austrian army general.
- Most current ski resorts were developed during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s when the Japanese economy was booming. Consequently, many of the resorts look rather dated.
- There are nearly as many ski areas in Japan as there are in the US, even though Japan is only the size of California.
- Over the past few decades, Japan was “discovered” by Australian powder hounds. As word spread through social media and ski movies, Japan has more recently been “discovered” by North Americans and Europeans. JaPow is no longer a secret!
Pack light for maximum JaPow
“If you’re taking a train/bullet train, pack as lightly as possible,” Norie says. “You can also ship your ski equipment from most airports to your ski destination, which makes your train travel much easier. There are many rental ski shops in major resorts, including backcountry skis and avalanche safety equipment. So, if you want to travel light, you can bring your ski boots and rent other gear.”
Don’t let your guard down
“Off-piste and lift-accessed backcountry skiing has exploded in popularity,” Norie says. “Be aware of people above you. Don’t stand around in the valley or in any terrain traps. Many times, after an off-piste run, you end up in a valley to get out. Try not to spend any more time than necessary traversing in the valley. Avalanches, and avalanche deaths, do occur in Japan—so don’t let your guard down. Lastly, please follow the rules of each resort regarding backcountry access or lack thereof, the “rules” are there for your (and everyone’s) safety!’
Schedule in some time in non-ski towns
If you want a true Japanese experience, Norie suggests including a few days to travel and see things beyond ski towns and ski resorts. “A ryokan-style lodge or inn provides a more authentic Japanese experience, but if you want a true ryokan experience, you’ll need to visit non-ski towns,” she says. “Even though Japanese people in general do not speak English, they are helpful and friendly if you ask for help.
“If your sightseeing time is too limited, visit a local village near the ski town, where you can usually find an authentic Japanese restaurant. If you find yourself not understanding the menu, you found the right place!”
Follow these etiquette tips for North Americans
Learning a few Japanese words and phrases is helpful, Norie says. “Saying Arigato, Sayonara and Sumimasen go a long way. You can look them up.
“On the skiing front, when ski resorts restrict backcountry access, it’s usually because western visitors didn’t follow their rules. So please know the rules before you venture into backcountry from a ski resort. Niseko, for example, has an English website about their rules and regulations. When they say ‘no ducking a rope,’ they mean it.”
Behave like a local at the onsen
- First make sure which room is for men and for women.
- Enter the correct room and get naked—no swimming trunks!
- Sit on the washing stool and wash yourself thoroughly using the bathing towel. (In the men’s room, I’m told men walk around with a small bathing towel “casually” hiding their private parts.)
- Then soak. No towels in the bath. No sake in the bath, either (I know it sounds good but they usually have a sign saying no alcohol).
Relax and enjoy
Japan is like everywhere else on Earth, Norie reminds us, with no guarantee for perfect weather. “There is low pressure and high pressure,” she says. “Most likely you have a powder day and it will be a magical experience … but whatever the weather brings, enjoy what Japan has to offer!”
Photo courtesy of Chris Davenport.