OUR HAIKU FOR JAPAN
Bare trees iced with snow
Powder like icing sugar
how to plan a ski trip to japan
Without a doubt, Japan is our new favourite destination in the world.
We were fortunate to spend two weeks in Japan during the winter to discover Tokyo and the Hokkaido region. The skiing and snowboarding in Hokkaido was unlike anything we had experienced in New Zealand.
We had four consecutive powder days on arrival, the first decent snowfall in Niseko for some months. Perfect timing!
But the journey was hardly straight forward.
We realised a few tricks of what to do and what not to do when trying to plan a ski trip to Japan.
Here’s what we learnt – and the advice we have for others.
AVOID BREAKING BONES BEFORE YOUR TRIP
Sometimes you can’t plan what’s going to happen.
Like how John would end up suffering a terrible accident in Fiji, two months out from Japan, requiring an emergency flight to NZ, two surgeries on his leg and his broken wrist to be still in a cast ONE WEEK before our flight to Tokyo.
Honestly, you can’t even make that stuff up.
So much for pre-season training and getting snow-fit.
While I had retained a reasonable fitness level, John spent the last week before departure running everyday, squatting and lunging like he’d never lunged before.
Lesson: you’re not invincible. Take it easy before your ski trip.
KNOW THY CAMERA GEAR
Tree skiing and powder.
That pretty much sums up our trip. Skiing in fresh powder is like gliding across a velvet blanket.
We were fortunate to have big fluffy piles of snow each morning, lining the trees and their branches with inches of the good stuff. Freshies everywhere!
From the top of the ski field, on our final day, we had a perfect view out to Mt Yotei.
I had just purchased a new DSLR in Tokyo and was still trying to figure it out for most of the time in Niseko.
I also had purchased a new zoom, and on our one bluebird day, I didn’t have my standard zoom on the mountain.
It meant I could only capture a close-up view of Mt Yotei and had to rely on my iPhone SE to capture the total picture.
I had ordered a fantastic Dakine ski camera backpack set to arrive before our departure, which would have made carrying gear up the mountain 100 times easier with padded sections for the camera body, lenses and straps for my tripod as well as any backcountry gear required.
Unfortunately, it arrived two days AFTER we had already left so I was left with limited space to carry my usual camera set-up on the mountain. Sigh.
Lesson: don’t leave gear purchases to the last minute.
AVOID SIGNIFICANT TEMPERATURE CHANGES
Some people would say we were mad going from a tropical island to the depths of a northern Japan winter.
In fact, we also thought we were mad, enduring a 45ºC DROP in temperature, going from 30ºC to -15ºC in Niseko.
Both of us suffered a few sniffles in Tokyo due to the sudden change in climate, although the fresh mountain air in Hokkaido helped.
We also didn’t have any winter clothing in Fiji, so we needed to fly back to NZ to pick up our thermals & skiing and snowboarding gear, adding extra travel time (and expenses).
Lesson: try a more gentle introduction to the cold.
LEARN JAPANESE IF POSSIBLE
Boasting over 500 ski fields, how do you choose a ski resort in Japan?
Because neither of us speak much Japanese, (none whatsoever) we felt it was best to head to a resort where there would be lots of English speakers for our first ski trip to Japan.
Niseko is basically full of Australians, New Zealanders and Brits.
Now, as much as I love all you Aussies, Kiwis and Poms, when on holiday in a foreign country, I usually prefer not to hang out with you because I can see you anytime back home.
However, on this occasion, we were more than happy to go where the mass tourists were, purely based on our lack of Japanese.
If you’re going to plan a ski trip to Japan, you don’t need to be fluent in Japanese, but a few words will help. Our one regret was not learning the language as it would have assisted us greatly rather than mostly relying on wild hand gestures and lots of random bowing.
We would have also chosen a less-touristy ski resort.
Fortunately we had one day skiing and snowboarding at a gorgeous little ski field called Kiroro about an hour from Niseko – possibly the highlight of our 7 days on the slopes as there were hardly any other skiers or boarders around.
Lesson: learn some basic Japanese.
CHOOSE THE TIME OF YEAR WISELY
Winter is obviously high season for ski areas, and within winter there are naturally some peak times.
We had considered Christmas and New Year and decided against it due to it probably being waaaay busier and more expensive than other times in the winter season.
So we ended up looking at the end of January/start of February. We found some great flight deals and booked without considering what else might have been going on at that time.
As we struggled to find any affordable accommodation, we soon learnt that we had booked over Chinese New Year and thousands of skiers and snowboarders from places such as Singapore had descended on Niseko that week – leaving very few accommodation options for us.
Lesson: avoid peak travel times.
SHORTCUTS MAY END UP BEING MORE EXPENSIVE
We tried to be smart – or so we thought – by booking flights separately and attempting to book accommodation directly ourselves, rather than through a ski travel company.
Had we gone directly through a ski travel company, we probably would have saved some moolah. They would have been able to advise us to delay our trip or go earlier due to Chinese New Year.
We ended up booking through Mint Tours – an Australian based company that was absolutely fantastic to deal with – but we should have gone through with them first.
It would have saved us a lot of stress and they probably would have got us a better package deal.
Lesson: ski travel companies are your friend, not your enemy.
BE FLEXIBLE WITH DATES & TRAVEL TIME
Speaking of package deals, there are ALWAYS deals available. But you need to be flexible with your dates and be prepared to either book in advance to get an early bird special, or leave it until closer to winter when another round of deals come through.
Unfortunately for us, we booked our trip at neither of these times so were locked in on our flight dates for Chinese New Year. Our accommodation at Always Niseko was absolutely gorgeous, but it was more expensive than what we had initially budgeted for.
But we did get to wake up this lovely snow fort outside our window which got progressively higher each morning…
Lesson: book early for the best deals.
ASK THE LOCALS
Our best day skiing was at Kiroro Ski Resort, on the recommendation of a local Japanese guide.
It was the prettiest winter scenery we had ever seen and there were NO queues. None whatsoever. We’d rock up to the gondola and walk straight in and have it to ourselves every time.
Lesson: locals know best.
DON’T LOSE YOUR MOUNTAIN PASS…ESPECIALLY NOT TWICE…
It’s one thing to drop your ski pass on your first day snowboarding; it’s quite ridiculous to lose it a second time in as many days.
Any guesses who that was? Hint – I’m a skier, not a snowboarder.
As if getting two replacement cards wasn’t enough, when I went to use my pass one morning, it had been CANCELLED thanks to a miscommunication by the people in charge wrongly believing MY pass was one of the lost ones.
Yep, John managed to lose two ski passes and in the process accidentally get mine cancelled.
Lesson: guard your ski pass with your life! I always keep mine in a completely separate pocket in my jacket sleeve so there’s no risk of it falling out while taking anything else out of my pocket.
Despite all these hiccups along the way, we had the time of our lives in Niseko. Sure, it cost us a bit more than we had initially budgeted for, and we definitely could have done without the hospital visit 6 weeks prior to departure, but we have some awesome memories and some great new skills and experience on the slopes.
We can’t wait to share more of our Japan experience with you from both on and off the slopes!
MORE ON JAPAN
- Tips For First-Time Travel To Japan
- 4-Day Tokyo Winter Itinerary
- A Guide To Visiting The Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
- A Guide To Tokyo DisneySea For Adults
- Day Trip To Kiroro Ski Resort
- Essential Japanese Ski Phrases
DISCUSS: What lessons have you learnt – the hard way – from planning an overseas trip?
Life in Wanderlust