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Australians love a skiing holiday. Maybe it’s our relative lack of snow that drives us to seek it out, or that it fits in nicely with our active lifestyles. Regardless of the reasoning, it’s safe to say that Australians can’t get enough of skiing. And with Japan a little closer than, say, the Swiss Alps, the country’s ski fields have become a hotspot for Aussies hoping to discover the perfect, powder-topped run.
But as with planning any overseas holiday, a ski trip to Japan requires a bit of careful coordination. From choosing which region to park your skis to deciding whether or not to invest in a guide, the preparation can all be a little daunting. Below, we spoke with Ross McSwiney, Japan operations manager at Whiteroom Tours on how to go about planning, and pulling off, the perfect Japanese ski trip.
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When planning a ski trip to Japan, what would be the first thing to book or plan?
Where exactly you wish to go and what you wish to see and do. Japan has such a variety of regional, cultural and climatic conditions to experience. Best to do your research and determine with the time frame you have what you wish to realistically achieve in that period.
Where are the main skiing areas in Japan and what makes them unique?
If travelling from Australia or New Zealand, Japan is an easy ski destination. With only a two hour time difference to Australian Eastern Standard Time, you can expect no jet lag and no altitude sickness, as the mountains are at lower levels than Europe or North America. Plus, the travel is shorter and less onerous.
Japan has numerous areas to ski but the most commonly know and visited are on the northern island of Hokkaido, particularly the areas around Niseko, Otaru and Central Hokkaido.
Niseko has developed into an international destination with all the facilities one would expect from a major resort including five-star hotels and apartments, world-class restaurants, shopping facilities and a wide variety of activities besides skiing.
Hokkaido receives the most consistent powder snow in Japan, varying across the island from nine to 18-plus metres per season. Central Hokkaido is a little colder as it’s further north, but home to some of the lightest snow Japan receives. This area is less developed than the Niseko area, unless you base yourself in Asahikawa city, but is becoming more popular each year. The area has a more traditional feel overall but does lack the extent of facilities that areas such as Niseko have. Direct flights to Sapporo from Australia are available as of this coming Japan winter season.
Otaru is a seaside port with a traditional Japanese feel, access to a number of resorts in easy reach by car and plenty of restaurants, bars and nightlife.
On the main island of Honshu, there are many areas in easy access from Tokyo by train, bus, shuttle or car. The most popular being the prefectures of Nagano and Niigata including areas in and around Hakuba, Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen, Myoko Kogen, Naeba and Myoko Suginahara. Many people like the fact that there is only one flight into Tokyo and within a few hours they can be at their destination. These areas are also favourable if you’re looking to tag on a few days of not skiing in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima. Facilities vary depending on the area but many have a traditional feel and cultural experiences within easy reach.
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What’s the best part about a skiing holiday in Japan?
In a word, Japow! You can possibly experience bigger mountains, longer runs or maybe more sunshine in Europe or North America but if you want to experience consistent powder snow, a complete cultural experience and less travel time, Japan is the destination.
Are agents or group bookings the way to go when planning a trip to Japan?
Of course, you can go and book by yourself over the internet, but using an experienced Japan specialist agent such as Whiteroom Tours will usually work out the same. Booking service commissions are paid by the ground operators and hotels, same as how online booking services make their commissions. Our agents have a decade or more experience on the ground in Japan, can answer all your questions and provide excellent recommendations to suit your individual requirements. We can offer a variety of pre-packaged ski tours such as tours of Central Hokkaido, Yuki Yama backcountry and Tohoku powder. Booking via an agent can wrap your cultural non-skiing experiences into the holiday package, book your flights and all the other incidentals such a ski hire, lift passes, ski rental and ancillary activities.
Image credit: Instagram.com/visitjapanau
What is backcountry skiing and should someone consider it in Japan?
Backcountry skiing is really any skiing or snowboarding done past the resort boundaries. Venturing outside of the resort boundary offers a whole new experience and area of discovery, particularly to ski or ride untracked powder lines without the competition of numbers within the resorts. Japan is so good for this, and many of the resorts have relaxed their policies to backcountry and off-piste (off the runs) skiing.
The ability to use the lift access to the top, ski into the backcountry and make your way back to the bottom of the lifts or, if full backcountry with the right equipment, tour back to the resort areas. Complete backcountry areas are also fantastic where leg power is the order of the day — if that’s your thing. However, with this extra freedom there are dangers such as getting lost, avalanche risk and terrain traps, so booking a ski guide is your best bet.
What is ski guiding and why should someone consider booking a ski guide?
Ski guiding is where you hire a professional guide to show you the best an area has to offer on any particular day. If conditions are appropriate, you can with confidence challenge new off-piste areas it would be otherwise dangerous to venture into by yourself. As ski guiding to this point is uncontrolled in Japan, many companies claim to be ski guiding operations but are really just ski instructional companies masquerading as such. Most of the professional ski guiding operations in Japan such as ours focus only on guiding, not ski instructing. Experienced guides will carry accreditation according with their experience in the field and a skill set which includes a combination of mountain guiding, avalanche mitigation, ski patrolling, rescue and first aid.
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What are your top tips to planning the perfect skiing holiday to Japan?
Don’t try and pack too much into a limited period, use the time you have to focus on the main things you wish to achieve. As they say in Japan, hurry slowly. Book your trip through a professional and experienced operator. This will guarantee you bang for your buck and make the whole process so much easier and stress-free. Be prepared for further trips as the initial ones will just whet the appetite!