Japan is a country known for being a bit different. Impeccably fast trains, a beautiful dance between tradition and innovation, and perhaps the best infrastructure anywhere in the world are just some things that make it such a fascinating place to visit. Today, I’m here to find out just how much of an impact these cultural differences have on skiing.
Perhaps the most well-known difference between skiing in Japan and the rest of the world is the amount of snow it receives each year. Nicknamed “Ja-Pow”, Japanese snow is often so deep that you wouldn’t look out of place with a snorkel attached to your head.
However, deep snow isn’t the only notable difference this country has to offer. In fact, skiing is only part of the reason you should book a holiday in Japan. Let’s find out what makes Japanese ski culture so unique.
Onsen, not hot tub
If any of you have been lucky enough to stay at an accommodation which has a hot tub, you’ll agree with me when I say it’s a solid part of your day’s itinerary. There really isn’t anything better than soaking your body in hot water after a hard day skiing. Well, perhaps that glorious moment when you take off your boots!
In Japan, no matter how fancy or well-equipped the place you are staying at is, there won’t be a hot tub in sight. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll be relegated to the shower. In fact, I would consider it a huge upgrade.
Japanese onsen are baths rich in natural properties, perfect for a post-ski dip. No cramped hot tubs, just spacious, often outdoor, baths. I won’t go into too much detail here as I’ve recently written a guide specifically for these hot springs which should tell you everything you need to know.
Head for the karaoke booth, not the nightclub
Après-ski in Japan hits incredibly different than it does in Europe. While somewhere like France might see your evening consist of taking a dip in the hot tub (if you’re lucky), sharing a fondue or raclette, and then heading out to the pub for a beer or 4. Feel free to add in a nightclub depending on your resort, and if you’re feeling a bit crazy.
Japan, though a country of long-standing traditions, doesn’t technically have après-ski as one of them. Places like Niseko are fully kitted out for you to have a similar experience, but there will of course be a few notable differences.
Your night out in Japan will start with a long soak in one of the resorts onsen, followed up by a locally sourced regional dish (Yakiniku or shabu-shabu are great sharers), and then it’s onto the izakaya for a few Asahi beers and sake. Finally, it’s over to the karaoke booth to sing your heart out.
Ramen for lunch?
Okay, food taste is subjective, I know. But having what seems like an endless bowl of Japanese ramen during your lunchtime pit stop is undeniably special. I’m not knocking the horrendously overpriced, yet extremely tasty food in Chamonix, but trust me when I tell you how perfect a bowl of ramen is on the mountain.
Cash is king
For all its technical marvels, in Japan cash is still king. Contrary to popular belief, Japan isn’t a country filled with flying cars and futuristic technology, it still lives as it used to in a variety of different ways. As I said earlier on, it’s a country where the constant dance between old and new is extremely prevalent in all four corners.
So, what does this mean for your trip? Just make sure to bring yen on the slopes with you. It might seem weird skiing around with a wad of cash when you’re used to using plastic, but it’s extremely common in Japan.
Powder skiing is a lifestyle
I’ve skied on pretty much every terrain imaginable, but nothing compares to Japanese powder. The champagne snow you’ll experience over here is nothing like any resort you’ve been to. Not only is it light and dry, but there’s also more of it than pretty much anywhere in the world. So bring the fat planks out with you, racing skis won’t be much help in 10 metres of the white stuff!
As such, it’s no surprise that the locals are some of the most knowledgeable and competent powder skiers on the planet. So if you can afford it, grab a powder skiing lesson. Even if you consider yourself a great skier, deep powder takes a few days before you feel comfortable.
Trees are your best friend
Most of Japan’s mountains are fairly low down, especially compared to their European cousins. As a result of this low altitude, you’ll likely find a ton of trees if you venture off-piste. Tree skiing is a skill in itself, and it’s a huge part of Japanese ski culture. Of course, you don’t have to ski between the trunks, but they can certainly be helpful is it’s a whiteout.
It’s not always about the steeps
Another effect of low resorts is the majority of the slopes won’t be hugely steep. Japan does have its fair share of steep runs, but they aren’t the main focus of Japanese skiing in general. Instead, perhaps you could spend a few sessions perfecting your technique in the powder or through the trees. Either way, make sure you wear a helmet!
Vending machines will be your saviour
We all know the drill. Arrive in the resort, remember food on the mountain is extortionate, grab a few bits from the local shop and attempt to craft some sort of sandwich with the limited resources your hotel room gives you. Lunch is sorted. Kind of.
Japan has a secret weapon up its sleeve that takes slope-side snacking to the next level. Enter the 4 million vending machines the country has in its arsenal. Hot drinks, cold drinks, pizza, ramen, onigiri, the list of snacks you can grab from these are honestly endless. Sure, bring up a couple of bits from the local 7-Eleven or Lawsons, but know you’re covered in a pinch.
If there’s one thing you’ll notice on your trip to Japan, it’ll be the astonishing service you’ll receive from start to finish. Of course, this is dependent on a number of factors, but it’s likely to happen more often than not.
Politeness, respect, and attentiveness, are all key aspects of Japanese culture. From the moment you step off the plane, the overwhelming majority of Japanese people you encounter will go above and beyond to make sure your holiday is as special as it can be.
One of the visual examples of how engrained respect is in Japanese culture is the act of bowing. Whether you buy something from a shop, get your skis fitted, or ride up the chairlift, you can expect a subtle yet authentic bow.
Chairlift queues work surprisingly well
I’ve skied in the French Alps for around 20 years, so as far as I’m concerned it’s not really a ski holiday at all unless the queue for the chairlift is unorganised, pushy, and stressful.
However, on a Japanese ski trip, you can rest easy in the knowledge that those new Armada skis aren’t going to get cut up in the lift queue half as bad as they would somewhere else. This works best at a more local resort, but I’ve found that in general, the lines are far more orderly across the board.
Ah, how I love the 8-man heated and screened chair lifts. Who cares what the weather is like when you have those at your disposal? Unfortunately, those ultra-modern lifts are yet to make their way to most of Japan.
Of course, this is highly specific to the resort you’re at, but you’ll tend to find more one-man chairs than you will eight-man. Oh, and did I mention most of them have no bars? Better hang on tight!
Skiiers are absolutely in the minority when it comes to snowsports in Japan. It makes complete sense when you realise that some parts of the country average 700 inches of snow every year (with 1,200 inches being rumoured). Deep snow and snowboards pair like peanut butter and Jam, it’s a match made in heaven. For sure, get yourself some fat skis and you’ll have a whale of a time, but snowboarding is still the most popular method of getting down a mountain for the locals.
So, while ski culture in Japan does have a fair few differences, a deep love for the sport is just as strong. Not only will you get to experience some of the best skiing in the world, but you’ll also get to sample incredible food, legendary kindness, and perhaps the most relaxing cultural tradition of them all – onsen.
No, it won’t be like any other ski holiday you’ve been on, and for a lot of you, learning to ski in the powder will be akin to starting from scratch. However, persevere through those first few days, and you might just find the snow really is whiter on the other side.
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