It’s no secret that I’m now a bonafide Japanophile. Since 2015, my ski buddy Roly and I have been lucky enough to clock over 40 ski days in Hokkaido (north island) and Honshu (main island) spread across four incredible trips. We’ve toured inside volcanic craters, hung out with snow monkeys and skied the deepest powder of our lives. We’ve also had our fair share of difficult moments - backcountry skiing in Japan comes with lots of potential pitfalls. This article is a collection of our thoughts and advice, for those of you who might be interested in planning a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.
In no particular order:
Rule 1: Rules are not there to be broken
“Passes, give passes, NOW!!” We were only 30 minutes into our first ever day in Japan, and the Niseko patrollers were already trying to take away our (surprisingly inexpensive) ski passes. This was not a good start. 10 minutes of arguing later, and finally we had them back, albeit with an aggressive warning. But what was our crime (after all, we hadn’t even ducked a rope)? It turned out that we’d unwittingly strayed about 15 feet outside the technically permitted skiable area, even though there wasn’t actually a rope there to say so, and we weren't even skiing - we were just shooting footage of snow-covered trees! It all seemed pretty over-the-top, and nothing like we’d ever experienced in Europe or North America. All the same, it was an excellent Day One lesson - whether knowingly or otherwise, never, ever, break rules in Japan.
Japanese society is rule-heavy, and the Japanese are some of the most law-abiding citizens on earth. Many resorts in Japan (owing to various obscure explanations, sometimes supposedly because of land ownership, and other times relating to liability laws) still don’t officially permit off-piste skiing. Thankfully, however, even resorts such as Rusutsu, which used to have a rigid policy of not even permitting access to the sidecountry, are starting to come round to the realisation that there’s nothing really wrong with sidecountry or backcountry skiing, provided it’s done safely. Nevertheless, always check in advance whether or not a resort has a no off-piste policy, and abide by it. If you fail to do so and cause an avalanche, you could end up in a police cell. You have been warned!
Rule 2: Travel far and wide
Magazines and websites routinely try to sell you well-known Japanese resorts such as Niseko and Nozawaonsen. Niseko in particular in recent years has, sadly, become like the Vail of Japan. Niseko was, as it is for many people, our first taste of Japanese skiing, and it’s not a bad place to start so that you can find your feet in a (relatively) safe, if rather western, environment. For a moderately experienced backcountry skier, and provided that you have good conditions, there’s just about enough to keep you interested for a week or so (maybe with a couple of excursions to other resorts such as Rusutsu thrown in for variety). This is because Niseko is in fact about five or so different resort areas spread around the base of the 1,308m high Mt. Niseko-Annupuri peak, and then there’s further proper backcountry over the back and to the west, with the opportunity for some fairly decent touring well away from the main resort areas.
However, we’re no longer interested in Niseko at all, and never visited it again after our first trip. Why? Because there is so much more terrain to be had elsewhere, far away from the crowds. Japan truly still is the Wild Wild East of skiing, and if you know where to look, you can tour for whole days without seeing almost anyone.
“Japan is not only a society bound by rules, but also by traditional customs. Many of these will seem positively foreign to westerners but, to the greatest extent possible, we would encourage you to respect them.”
Therefore, our recommendation is that you do your homework (the internet has lots of helpful resources) and try to build yourself an itinerary which takes in as many different locations as possible. You can either base yourself in one place, hire a car/van (wheels are mandatory as far as we’re concerned) and then do day trips to a different local resort or backcountry zone every day, which can work well, although may involve quite a bit of repetitive driving up and down the same roads. For example, during our second trip, we based ourselves in the industrial central-northern Hokkaidan city of Asahikawa and did just that. With the record lowest temperature recorded in Japanese history (-41C), this is not a warm or indeed very beautiful place, but it’s a practical (and notably very cheap) base, from which you can easily access the ‘central continental’ region, which has some stellar backcountry.
Latterly, however, we’ve found that by far the best way of doing Japan is by RV. This ends up costing about the same as staying in a hotel or Airbnb and then hiring a car, but affords you complete freedom to follow the weather and to seek out the best conditions. We absolutely love RV life, but it’s not for everyone - the infernal cold, especially in Hokkaido at night (temperatures regularly hit -25C) means that you have to take the time to learn about your vehicle and know how to keep your heater running, because if it breaks down, then you can be in real trouble (yes, we’ve had to contend with this, it’s no laughing matter). Likewise, the often appalling Japanese winter weather can make driving in storms on snow covered roads particularly treacherous in such an ungainly, tall vehicle. Therefore, if you’re going to join what appears to be only a small number of people at any one time who enjoy doing their teeth alongside truckers in roadside stations (‘Michi-no-Eki’) and being woken by enormous snow-ploughs at 4am every day, be well aware of the dangers, and we’d recommend practising living in an RV in warmer climes, before you venture into remote areas of Hokkaido for the first time. When you’re ready though, a new world awaits you. Japan is better set up for RV life than anywhere else we’ve ever been - convenience stores are required by law to have bathrooms, and you can always find a local bath (‘onsen’) every evening - and we’ve quite simply had the best times of our lives on the road, chasing storms, day after day.
Rule 3: Eat local, eat different
In terms of both price and quality to taste ratio, Japanese cuisine is almost unbeatable. Our advice is simple: pretty much any restaurant with a Google/Tripadvisor rating of 3.5 stars and above is going to offer food which will knock the socks off any Japanese fare which you may have had back home, and Japan also has very high levels of food hygiene, so food poisoning isn’t something to be worried about.
We’ve had some extraordinary meals, often in the most unexpected spots, and rarely do they cost much at all in relative terms. I remember one particular Sunday evening where the coastal town in which we’d found ourselves seemed almost completely dead. Then, just when we were about to give up, we were ushered in by an old lady in a backstreet, who cooked up a remarkable 14 or so mini-plates each of some of the most delicious food we’d ever tasted.
Therefore, don’t be afraid to try small local restaurants (some of which may only have a few seats), never eat at the same place, and try all the different types of restaurants on offer (there are just so many), from pubs (‘izakayas’) to ramen restaurants, and everything in between.
Rule 4: Learn (a bit of) the language
Being able to speak even just a few words of Japanese (‘Nihongo’) goes an incredibly long way. Not only do people suddenly open up when you explain where you’re from or that the food you just ate was supremely tasty, but it also acts as a mark of respect, which can help in occasionally difficult situations, where to a Japanese person you’re just another annoying foreigner. You also don’t need to be able to read Japanese characters (you can quite easily learn basic Japanese phrases using Romanised Japanese characters, known as ‘Romaji’), nor do you even really need to understand what people are saying back to you (although this does help)! The mere fact that you’re trying to express yourself in Japanese is enough.
Importantly, generally speaking, older Japanese people also speak either very little or no English at all. Therefore, if you find yourself in an izakaya in a remote village, chances are that without any Japanese language ability, you’re going to struggle to communicate. One handy tip is to use the real-time camera translation function in the Google Translate app on your phone - this can at least allow you to read even hand-written Japanese characters on a menu in a rudimentary (if not very accurate) way, which can often be enough to just about work out what’s on offer.
“Hokkaido, especially, can be extremely cold. By extremely cold, I mean cold enough to shatter brittle old touring bindings...”
Rule 5: Respect Japanese customs
Japan is not only a society bound by rules, but also by traditional customs. Many of these will seem positively foreign to westerners but, to the greatest extent possible, we would encourage you to respect them.
Different environments call for different etiquette that needs to be observed. For example, in public baths, you wash your body before and after you bathe, you always bathe naked, and you never take your towel for drying yourself into the bathing area, nor (heaven forbid) do you let it touch the water (a major faux pas).
In restaurants, you’ll find that the staff can be almost unctuously professional and courteous, and this is just the way that they’ve been trained - do them the courtesy of thanking them gratefully and politely for your food in return. However, don’t ever tip them! Tipping doesn’t exist as a concept in Japan, and you’ll come across as rude or even insulting, should you leave money on the table.
General day-to-day interactions can also seem somewhat bizarre. Staff in shops, rental offices, and even just people passing in a doorway, will all bow to you on a regular basis, when greeting you, apologising or showing gratitude. You should do the same in return, but don’t over-do it. For example, you don’t need to bow from the waist to your taxi driver, and instead a small dip of the head as a thank you for your journey will do just fine. In short, the deeper the bow, the greater the respect that you’re intending to show, so bow appropriately depending on the situation. Also, never do prayer hands as you bow (a common mistake), and unless you’re just quickly nodding, keep your eyes down, which is more respectful.
Rule 6: Night skiing is cool, but not that cool
Eric Pollard and the Nimbus crew regularly featured segments of night skiing in their many edits shot in Japan over the years (invariably at Niseko, because the night skiing there is probably the best that we’ve seen), and some of the shots that they got were unquestionably awesome. However, I can assure you that after a few evenings on the hill, the sheen will quickly wear off skiing after dark!
There are many reasons for this, but here are some of the most obvious ones: You’ve presumably already spent a day on the hill, so by 4:30pm, you should be knackered (in Japan you ski for most of the day, and don’t stop for a two hour lunch, like many seem to do in Europe). So by 6pm when the lights come on and the lifts start again, the prospect of another two or three hours skiing seems like quite an effort. Add to that that the temperature has dropped a further 10 degrees, and already it’s becoming obvious that this night skiing thing might not be quite as fun as it looks in the films. And then there’s the skiable area itself - they rarely light the whole mountain unless it’s tiny, so you’ve probably only got access to a few lifts in the lower half of the hill, which quickly become samey. And lastly, there’s the danger aspect. If you go even 20yds into the sidecountry, it’s likely not very well lit at all. Sure, you’re wearing a head torch to light the way (or at least you should be), but it’s easy to miss a tree stump or fall off a 10ft vertical drop and concuss yourself (done that, check) when you can’t actually see it in the first place.
So take it from us - night skiing can be fun, and a number of resorts across Japan do offer it, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
“For advanced backcountry skiers, Japan offers a treasure trove of riches. Ignore the fools who tell you that Japan is flat and easy - both in the Japanese Alps on Honshu and the continental centre of Hokkaido, comparable terrain steepness to the Alps, the Rockies and the Andes, can easily be found.”
Rule 7: Be prepared, in every respect
If you’re expecting to ski in the Japanese backcountry, first of all you should already have considerable backcountry skiing experience. You need to be well versed in snow safety and avalanche theory, an outdoor first aid course really is a must too, you should carry the necessary equipment at all times (transceiver, shovel, probe, mobile phone, head-torch, duct tape, knife, water, food, extra layers, first aid kit, survival blanket), and you should be fully aware of the weather forecast, because it can change from a sunny day to the most horrendous storm in a matter of minutes. It should also go without saying that you should never venture into terrain which you haven’t already researched (more on that shortly), and you should always travel with at least one buddy.
Hokkaido, especially, can be extremely cold. By extremely cold, I mean cold enough to shatter brittle old touring bindings, and you wouldn’t want to be two-thirds of the way to summiting a volcano when your bindings fail you now, would you (this was a bad one)? Ensure that your kit is in full working order, and remember that the tube from water bladders will quickly freeze, so leave your beloved Camelbak at home and carry bottled water instead. Lastly, forget about using walkie-talkies. These are technically banned in Japan owing to radio wave spectrum rules, so don’t carry them, or you risk getting fined (or worse - see Rule 1). As such you’ll need to learn to communicate using traditional means, i.e. via your mouth and ears, only.
Many of the more remote backcountry locations are also just that, remote. And I mean really remote - possibly 50 miles from the nearest rescue station. These are just mountains and volcanoes in the middle of nowhere, and not ski resorts at all. So you absolutely have to have the skillset to get yourself out of trouble should you encounter any issues. The Japanese backcountry is not to be taken for granted.
Rule 8: Don’t expect it to always look a ski movie
One of the greatest misconceptions of all is that every single day in Japan will be a bluebird day with bottomless powder - wrong, very wrong. In fact, you can go an entire fortnight without seeing the sun once! This doesn’t mean that the snow won’t be good (you could quite easily ski bottomless powder every single day of your trip), but you’re going to have to learn to do so whatever the weather conditions, which are invariably poor.
During January (the best month to visit for powder, but also the most inhospitable), storm after storm rolls in from Siberia, and it quite simply snows the whole time. This can make for mind-blowingly good conditions, but the light will often be very flat, so ensure that you have a separate yellow lens in advance to swap in when you need it, which will also come in handy at night too, should you want to try night skiing (you can’t night ski in regular sun goggles, duh!).
“Avalanche conditions are caused by many things, but two of the most common causes are rapid changes in temperature and wind. For some reason, there seems to be a common myth that avalanches don’t really happen in Japan. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.”
Rule 9: Practise using Google Earth to scope terrain in advance
For advanced backcountry skiers, Japan offers a treasure trove of riches. Ignore the fools who tell you that Japan is flat and easy - both in the Japanese Alps on Honshu and the continental centre of Hokkaido, comparable terrain steepness to the Alps, the Rockies and the Andes can easily be found. With the right conditions, for us at least, this is the best skiing on earth, as the Japanese backcountry offers the perfect combination of accessible on the way up, uncrowded (often empty), and extraordinary on the way down.
However, to get the most out of it, we’d highly encourage you to spend at least a few weeks in advance of your trip researching the best backcountry and sidecountry locations to ski, and then scoping possible ascents using Google Earth, which has become a mainstay in our arsenal in recent years. Not only is Google Earth remarkably accurate in terms of terrain steepness, but it also allows you to visualise the lie of the land before you arrive, which is invaluable, as it’s often very difficult to tell which way you should approach the mountain, when the whole thing just looks the same from the bottom on a cloudy morning at 7am. You can then use Google Earth on your phone while on the hill, so that you can nail that perfect route to the summit. Remember, however, to carry a back-up battery pack, because I can guarantee that the extreme cold will kill your phone much faster than usual.
Rule 10: Avalanches do happen (whatever people may say)
Avalanche conditions are caused by many things, but two of the most common causes are rapid changes in temperature and wind. For some reason, there seems to be a common myth that avalanches don’t really happen in Japan. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
While it’s true that temperatures can be consistently low in Hokkaido, meaning that at least this part of the usual avalanche equation isn’t as much of an issue as it’s become in recent years in Europe and North America, it’s also true that high winds regularly manifest themselves across the whole of Japan during the winter months, so avalanches resulting from wind affected snow are a very real problem, everywhere. Furthermore, Honshu experiences temperature fluctuations which, depending on the year, can at times be comparable to those experienced in Europe or North America, and the steepness of the terrain in the Japanese Alps on Honshu combined with copious quantities of snow, lends itself perfectly to sizeable slides.
The good news is that, as ever, with experience, a good grasp of avalanche safety, and by keeping a close eye on the weather at all times, it’s possible to mitigate avalanche danger in Japan like you would anywhere else. However, as always, if something seems off, don’t hesitate to turn back - far better an ascent or a pitch left for another day, rather than a life lost.