Japan is a country known for being a bit different. Impeccably fast trains, a beautiful dance between tradition and innovation, and possibly the best infrastructure in the world are just some of the things that make it such a fascinating place to visit. Today, I’m here to find out how these cultural differences impact 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”, the Japanese snow is often so deep you wouldn’t look out of place with a snorkel strapped to your head.
However, deep snow is not the only noticeable difference this country has to offer. In fact, skiing is only part of the reason you should book a Japan vacation. Let’s find out what makes Japanese skiing culture so unique.
Onsen, not hot tub
If any of you have been lucky enough to stay in accommodation that has a hot tub, you’ll agree with me that it’s an integral part of your day’s itinerary. There really is nothing better than soaking your body in warm water after a hard day’s skiing. Well, maybe that glorious moment when you take off your boots!
In Japan, no matter how fancy or well-equipped the place you stay, there won’t be a hot tub in sight. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll be relegated to showering. In fact, I would consider this a huge upgrade.
Japanese onsen are baths rich in natural properties, perfect for a dip after skiing. No cramped hot tubs, just spacious, often outdoor baths. I won’t go into too much detail here as I recently wrote a guide specifically for these hot springs which should tell you everything you need to know.
Head to the karaoke booth, not the disco
The après-ski in Japan is incredibly different from what it is in Europe. Whereas 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, then heading to the pub for a beer or 4. N feel free to add a nightclub depending on your resort, and if you’re feeling a bit crazy.
Japan, although a country with a long tradition, technically does not have après-ski among them. Places like Niseko are fully equipped for you to have a similar experience, but there will of course be some notable differences.
Your evening in Japan will begin with a long soak in one of the hotel’s onsen, followed by a locally sourced regional dish (Yakiniku or shabu-shabu are great sharers), then it’s on to the izakaya for a few Asahi beers and sake. Finally, it’s up to the karaoke stand to sing loudly.
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 horribly expensive but extremely tasty food in Chamonix, but believe me when I tell you how perfect a bowl of ramen is on the mountain.
cash is king
Despite all its technical marvels, in Japan, cash is still king. Contrary to popular belief, Japan is not a country full of flying cars and futuristic technologies, it still lives like before in different ways. As I said earlier, this is a country where the constant dance between old and new is extremely prevalent in every corner.
So what does this mean for your trip? Just be sure to bring yen to the slopes with you. It may seem weird to ski with a wad of cash when you’re used to using plastic, but it’s extremely common in Japan.
Powder skiing is a way of life
I’ve skied just about every terrain imaginable, but nothing compares to Japanese powder. The Champagne snow that you will discover here has nothing to do with any resort you have been to. Not only is it light and dry, but there is also more of it than almost anywhere in the world. So bring the big boards with you, racing skis won’t be much help in 10 meters of white!
As such, it’s no surprise that the locals are some of the best and most skilled powder skiers on the planet. So if you can afford it, take a powder skiing lesson. Even if you consider yourself a big skier, deep powder takes a few days to feel comfortable.
Trees are your best friend
Most of Japan’s mountains are quite low, especially compared to their European cousins. Because of this low elevation, you’ll likely find a ton of trees if you venture off-road. Tree skiing is a skill in itself and an integral part of Japanese skiing culture. Of course, you don’t have to ski between the trunks, but they can definitely come in handy if it’s a whiteout.
It’s not always about the slopes
Another effect of low stations is that the majority of slopes will not be extremely steep. Japan has its fair share of steep slopes, but they are not the main focus of Japanese skiing in general. Instead, maybe you could spend a few sessions perfecting your technique in powder or through trees. In any case, remember to wear a helmet!
Vending machines will be your savior
We all know the drill. Arrive at the resort, remember that food in the mountains is exorbitant, grab a few pieces from the local store and try to make some sort of sandwich with the limited resources your hotel room provides. Lunch is sorted. Type of.
Japan has a secret weapon up its sleeve that takes slopeside snacking to the next level. Enter the 4 million vending machines the country has in its arsenal. Hot drinks, cold drinks, pizzas, ramen, onigiri, the list of snacks you can get here is honestly endless. Sure, bring a few items 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 amazing service you’ll receive from start to finish. Of course, this depends on a number of factors, but it’s likely to happen more often than not.
Politeness, respect and care are all key aspects of Japanese culture. From the moment you step off the plane, the overwhelming majority of Japanese people you meet will go above and beyond to make sure your vacation is as special as possible.
One of the visual examples of how respect is ingrained in Japanese culture is the act of bowing. Whether you’re buying something from a store, getting your skis on, or riding a chairlift, you can expect a subtle yet authentic arc.
Chairlift queues work surprisingly well
I’ve been skiing in the French Alps for about 20 years so for me it’s not really a ski holiday unless the queue for the chairlift is disorganized, arrogant and stressful.
However, on a ski trip to Japan, you can rest easy knowing that these new Armada skis won’t cut through the lift queue half as badly as they would elsewhere. This works best at a more local station, but I’ve found that in general the lines are much neater across the board.
Ah, how I love heated and armored chairlifts for 8 people. Who cares about the weather when you have it available? Unfortunately, these state-of-the-art elevators have yet to reach most of Japan.
Of course, this is very specific to the station you’re in, but you’ll tend to find more chairs for one person than for eight people. Oh and did I mention most of them don’t have bars? Better hang on!
The snowboard rule!
Skiers are absolutely the minority when it comes to winter sports in Japan. It all makes sense when you realize that some parts of the country get an average of 700 inches of snow every year (with 1,200 inches rumored). Deep snow and snowboards go together like peanut butter and jelly, it’s a heavenly marriage. Sure, get some big skis and you’ll have a great time, but snowboarding is still the most popular method of descending a mountain for locals.
So while Japan’s ski culture has some differences, a deep love for the sport is just as strong. Not only will you experience some of the best skiing in the world, but you’ll also be able to sample incredible cuisine, legendary friendliness and perhaps the most relaxing cultural tradition of all: the onsen.
No, it won’t be like any other ski vacation you’ve had, and for many of you, learning to ski powder will be like starting from scratch. However, persevere for those first few days and you may find that the snow is actually whiter on the other side.
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