Snowboarding in Japan was as unreal as I expected it to be. Let me start this by saying that I hate snow. I really don’t like snow or cold or winter. But almost 7 years ago I moved to Colorado and I received some great advice from a friend during my first winter.
T: You need to learn to snowboard.
Me: I hate snow.
T: I know. That’s why you need to learn. You’re too much of an outdoors/activity person to be kept inside all winter. If you learn to snowboard, at least your first instinct when it snows won’t be about hating it, but about getting up the hill.
Me: :/ [the damn it, he’s right face]
The logic followed and besides, all of my friends ride, so if I didn’t learn, I wouldn’t see any of them all winter. Several seasons later I still hate snow, but absolutely love snowboarding. And T was right – it changed my gut reaction to snowstorms.
The more time I spent in this side of the world, the more I heard about the snow in Japan. And the more I wanted to see it. By the time I arrived in the country, I was pretty well convinced by my friends and the internet that there is nowhere better to ride than Japan.
Where to go – is there snow culture?
I started to look up where to go and was quickly overwhelmed. There are SO many mountains. In fact, there are more in little ol’ Japan than in the entirety of the United States. This was a good sign. I did some research and found that Niseko was the mountain for me. Located on the island of Hokkaido, it was furthest North and gets its snow from the storms coming out of Russia (presumably before they hit Sarah Palin’s house).
A flight, a bus and a shuttle later, I was in the mountain town of Niseko, arriving to my home for a few nights, Ramat Niseko. If it weren’t for the language difference, I would have a hard time initially telling the difference between Niseko and the bases of Keystone or Vail; standard ski town. I scarfed down some pasta and got ready for bed – I wanted my energy for the mountain in the morning. But first, I chatted up the “locals” (some Aussies in town working the lodge) over a glass of Japanese whiskey (had to try it again, just to be sure it was as good as I thought the first time). I asked about the terrain and the draw of Japanese snowboarding.
They shared stories of the dredges of Aussies who trip up for a few weeks each season. The insane amount of powder that would assure I wouldn’t have a dry face all day. The rumors about Vail Resorts buying all three mountains in the area (and condos and parking lots and plants and trash bins – seems like something they would do).
What are the facilities like?
Top notch. My day started in the rental shop getting geared up. I let the locals help pick a snowboard and set up for my bindings based on my experience and their knowledge of the snow. We decided to try the shortest board I’ve ever been on. I worried I would need to be traveling with more gear, or that they might not have helmets, but they have everything you need to stay warm, dry and safe. From entering the shop to heading out into the snow buttoned up like A Christmas Story was less than 30 minutes.
There are a mix of gondolas and lifts, like most anywhere. BUT! Their lifts have amazing screens that drop down to block the wind (praise be!) and the dismount is most often in an enclosed hut with little slope (not the double-black diamonds to get off of most CO lifts). There are restaurants, snack bars and restrooms sprinkled throughout the mountain, so you’re never too far from the facilities you need and there’s free Wi-Fi in most parts of the mountain.
Ok quit teasing, what are the terrain and snow like?
Well, you tell me…
I was really worried leading up to it that it was going to be too hard. After all, I wouldn’t say I’d been taking my last time up totally seriously (my last closing day involved rainbow tutus). And by the end of January, I should already be months into the season.
The first day was pretty regular. Decent powder on pretty cruisey terrain. The shorter board was great and a perfect choice. Easy mountain to explore and about halfway through the day I was feeling pretty good that I hadn’t fallen yet. Which is when I realized it wasn’t something to be proud of – it meant I wasn’t pushing myself. So I headed to the park. I posted up to watch other riders and skiers take jumps and worked up the courage to try it. I fell. Then I tried again. I fell. Then I tried again. I almost fell, but I recovered. That’s where I spent the rest of the afternoon.
I needed a quick rest, so I grabbed the shuttle back to the hostel, kicked off my boots and warmed up. But I wasn’t about to let hours on the mountain pass me by and asked around to see if anyone wanted to night ride. Boots back on, back to the mountain.
The night riding was great. Unlike Keystone where I’m used to, a large amount of runs were available. And no icy hill of death to finish the night with. After getting in enough night runs, we walked right off the base and into the village for some dinner.
A few mulled wines later and the alarm was going off to grab first tracks. About 6 of us from the lodge were up and at it, and we joined what turned into the massive line to do the same. The top of the mountain was opening for the first time in 5 days after it being too windy to run the lifts.
It. Was. Ridiculous. Bluebird day combined with unquestionably the best snow I’ve ever been in. I was smiling ear-to-ear whether it was taking in and trying to Snapchat the incredible view of Mt. Yotei or laughing as I stumbled in the waist-deep powder. This part of the mountain is so steep that I was a bit scared, but dropping down into that kind of snow, there’s nothing to worry about.
Terrain: Wide variety, approachable (recommend getting lift passes to the full mountain, not just one resort, so you can explore)
Difficulty: Beginner to advanced
Park: Beginner to advanced
Night riding: Yes
Facilities: Above average
Prices: Better than most CO mountains
Town: Standard ski town; shuttles, pizza and bars
Obviously if you’re planning a trip to another country, the earlier the better. But this area is quite popular, so you should get started while there’s still lodging (I only snuck in and got a bed because I was traveling alone – EVERYthing was booked and I met many who were staying all the way in Sapporo and commuting to ride). Bookings are open for the upcoming season and if I were you, I’d set a price alert for cheap flights and take the leap. You’ll land in light, fluffy powder.
Heading to Japan? You’ll probably go through Tokyo. If so here are some great options for accommodation.
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Note: A big thank you to Grand Hirafu for sponsoring my pass and gear so I could enjoy your amazing mountain and to Ramat Niseko for your hospitality.