2013 Trip: JAPAN!
Would anyone be interested in meeting up to visit and shred in Japan? I have been absolutely obsessed with Japan for the culture, motorsports, and incredible terrain. Well I think it is time to make a visit for snowboarding purposes. Being stateside I always hear about the Hokkaido region. How important is being able to speak Japanese? I can speak and understand some, but not a whole lot.
Read through the threads in this section, lots of info here.
The more you speak the better but not essential for a trip here especially Niseko.
Being able to speak and read japan is essential only really when youre trying to score the best deal.
Put simply: In Japan, the population reads and speaks Japanese. The best deals are therefore in Japanese.
Consider myoko for example. You can find several decent priced things out there, but if you have a fluent mate sorting out your accommodation for example or your lift tickets, chances are theyre going to find you something WAY cheaper (like the black box deal for example).
Will it diminish your time in japan? Not really. Youll still be riding happily away, you might have to figure things out a bit more or spend a bit more time researching bus routes and the like, but theres a massive network of gaijin support out there, and usually the main resorts have some kind of central focal point for the international tourists to make the situation a little easier.
Essentially youll be fine and have very little difficulties. But come expecting ZERO english and youll not be too far off the situation. Japan isnt really like Germany or France or the like where people might have a working use of English. Its best to expect none and (over)plan accordingly rather than to expect some and try and put your half baked research and plans into action.
Case in point: Niseko (and to a slightly lesser extent Hokkaido in general - fittingly what the OP was inquiring about) is 95+% bilingual. While I dislike the trite lines about Niseko being more like Australia than Japan, there is some basis for those comments - specifically that it could not be easier to get around as a foreigner.
I speak Japanese and it makes fuck all of a difference in Niseko.
And even then its still not watertight. The best value for money in Niseko (as i found out by pure accident) is over at annupuri. I found it by accident because i foolishly got off at niseko train station the first time i turned up there around 10pm to find an empty black wasteland of nothing. I stumbled into the sento, spieled my sob story, and had the poor woman behind the counter get out her directory, phone a few places and eventually score me some super cheap accommodation (3000pn).
There i chatted with some old japanese salts (whod been riding niseko for decades) told me that only idiots buy the hirafu pass. The best value and the one they insisted anyone with a brain rode, was the annupuri season pass with a book of moiwa tickets. Anything else was a complete waste of money.
Of course you can stay at powder lodge, (i love those dudes by the way so im not saying its awful), and get super cheap accommodation next to the lifts. And you can buy the hourly tickets and sell of what you dont use (like most people seem to do who turn up for a month or so) and not do too bad. But there are options that maybe you dont get to find out about unless you have some Japanese ability or someone who can at least help you out and score that info for you. Or less offensively, there are options you might not even think to look for without knowing what sites or what engines might contain those deals.
Niseko is well catered for. Almost all restaurants have english menus, the bus drivers are a bastion of absolute patience when 40 people are trying to get off at hirafu and almost every single one of them are holding out a note and no idea how to use the change machine (and the driver is pretty much doing it for each of them in turn). Youll get by fine. In fact id dare say youll get by better than fine though in comparison to places like shiga kogen or Zao or Myoko or Yuzawa or pretty much everywhere else with the exception of hakuba. And that makes niseko obviously a very attractive option for someone without japanese. More english, more foreign investment, more deals, more packages, cheaper all round (even if the combini is odiously expensive).
You can do it all without a lick of japanese. Id even be willing to go one step further though and say that even in the most remote place you can find somewhere to kip and somewhere to ride. You can get by almost everywhere in japan without japanese. You just wont get all the choices, options, and deals your average japanese speaking person will score is all.... but youll get by.
Ill assume the 95% comment is a bit of hyperbole though since there are still plenty of japanese accommodation all over the place where no english is spoken...
how do i know this? Because of the same trip from the annupuri tale above.
The very next day i took the (looong) bus from annupuri to hirafu. As you said, i came to hirafu thinking i would be swarmed with options... it was chinese new year though, the place was heaving but i figured id score somewhere. After i turned up at that foreign info center and they told me they only had a couple of (pricey) spots available, i figured i was screwed. I got info from them about the best backpacker places and trundled off. They were all full. Doh!
So i cast my net wider and started wandering into random backpaky looking places. Almost everywhere i checked out didnt have anyone who could speak english. I know this because i could speak only a little japanese at the time. Eventually found a mega cheap place above a yakitori place (which got turned into an art gallery in 2011), but i had plenty of conversations with staff who didnt speak a word of english. It was the norm rather than the exception to be honest.
And this wasnt 20 years ago. This was 2010. As i say, the place i ended up staying was a backpacker place for a lot of the seasonal (japanese) staff, and only a couple of those cats spoke english enough to have a stilted conversation. Cheap as hell though.
As a japanese speaker, ironically you might never see this. But when youre lost in hirafu and giving yourself only a couple of hours to find a place within budget before you have to get the train back down south (or get stuck somewhere in the middle of the ride), you might not realise just how little english alternatives there are once you go through the obvious set ups.
So yeah, ive been there. Ive underplanned. Spontaneously decided to go to niseko, assumed id have no problems, and was within about an hour of riding all the way back to shizuoka by train without spending a minute on the slopes.
Of course my situation was absurd. It was completely spontaneous. But the important thing is that i HAD to go off the beaten track and into the non australian side of hirafu in order to do all this, which means i got to see it. Fortunately i could speak just enough at the time to get by. But it was damn close to be honest. And man that would have sucked. So yeah, i dont really buy the 95% even in hirafu alone. I wouldnt even buy 30% to be honest, but then i might be guilty of over emphasising my own situation at the time. :P
What is the mecca of snowboarding in Japan? what area?
- If its your first time, youre staying for a week or two, money aint too big a deal, and its all about the snow, id just go to niseko sometime in mid-late January.
- If you want a more varied trip then you cant really beat nagano. You can hit up most of hakuba, then pop to nozawa, spend a few days on shiga kogen, hell you could even hit up myoko, ryuoo, and the new takaifuji multi-resort pass (im determined next year to check it out).
- Finally, if you want to hit up somewhere that keeps you pretty close to tokyo then Yuzawa is awesome. Kagura/naeba are fantastic and on top of that you have the south area of gala and ishiuchi. Loads of great places.
A fourth option might be zao and yamagata in general but honestly i know little about tohoku riding.
So Niseko, Hakuba, Zao and Yuzawa id say are your best bets. But first time, id just hit up niseko if you get the chance. I mean its tracked out, but you wont give a crap because theres probably another dump on the way. Plus loads of little places like kiroro chisenupuri and moiwa nearby. Finally theres rusutsu just down the road.
Oh, and theres also asahidake/furano in hokkaido. This gives you access to the awesome little gem that is kamui ski links (but the powder in furano is way less frequent - 9 days in late january 2011 there, got about 10cms tops, and lost about 30 from melting).
Not quite as simple as 1 spot.
For powder Hokkaido (Niseko being the most popular resort).
In general the terrain tends to be a little less steep and the mountains smaller than Honshu, the main island.
Still some amazing terrain to be had though.
For steeper terrain and bigger mountains there are a number of places in honshu that are very popular.
Nagano, Niigata, Yamagata (Zao) and in Aomori (Hakkoda) .
Nagano tends to be the most popular (Hakuba).
They all get hit by great powder, but Hokkaido has the best and the most powder, no doubt.
As for Japanese language as I said its a huge bonus if you can speak some, but not essential.
I have been here with 0 Japanese and got by OK.
I now speak, read and write fluently and do professional translation work.
It makes things much more fun and opens more options up but its not essential IMO.
Just a side note, if you are coming from Aus I just found this:
Return Economy airfares to Tokyo (Narita)(baggage extra)
- Meet and greet at Tokyo (Narita) Airport
- Return transfers from Tokyo (Narita) to Hakuba
- 7 nights accommodation (3 1/2 star)
- Hot breakfast each morning
- Daily transfer to ski resorts including a chartered bus to Cortina 3 times weekly
- 5 day multi- resort lift passes
- 2 hours mountain guiding for experienced skiers/boarders every Monday 9am at Happo One.
$1650, yeah thats a sweet deal if you ask me.
I will be in hokkaido from jan 21 to march 3 travelling solo, if you want someone to ride with you are more than welcome to tag along.
Turbo motorsport nut here too ;)
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