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Article: Exploring Japan's Winter wonderland

Exploring Japan's Winter wonderland - Nobody's Princess

Exploring Japan's Winter wonderland

It’s the beginning of peak snow season in Japan, and if you’ve been watching social media or the snow reports, you’ll see that the Japanese resorts have had big snow falling. For some, heading to Japan to experience ‘Japow’ is second nature, but for others, making the commitment to travel to a non-English speaking person can be daunting, especially when trying to navigate the snow, what to bring, where to go, and how to get around.

To celebrate Nobody’s Princess’ first Japanese retailer – Central Snowsports, we spoke to their store buyer, and Freeride athlete, Josie Wruck, to get some more intel about planning and visiting Hakuba, one of the best resorts in Japan within just a few short hours of travel from Tokyo. Together, we’re here to provide some tips and insight to how to be comfortable in your visit!

Quick facts about the Hakuba snow area

  • There are 10 resorts to explore in this region.
  • It only takes just under 4 hours to get to Hakuba via Shinkansen from Tokyo
  • Your Epic Pass includes free passes to some resorts in Hakuba – check here!
  • Hakuba’s average winter snowfall is around 11 metres!

What are some of the misconceptions about Winter sports in Japan?

  1. You have to ski or board to visit a resort.
    Japan offers various activities for non-skiers too, such as snowshoeing, hot spring soaking (onsen), snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and more. Don't feel pressured to hit the slopes if you're not comfortable – there are plenty of ways to enjoy the winter wonderland and be knee-deep in some of the world’s best snow, without strapping into a board or skis.

    Outside of the lifts and runs, there is a lot to do within Hakuba itself and locally in other areas. We’ll get into that a little bit later on.
  1. You can only ski or board if you’re a good rider.
    Japan's snow is for everyone! You don't need to be an expert to enjoy the pristine, soft snow there. There's a perfect slope for every skill level, ensuring that everyone has a memorable experience.

    There is a term that is often used in Japan when there has been heavy snowfall… ‘Hero Snow’, and it alludes to the idea that you can ride or ski like a “hero” (aka, like you are invincible) without getting hurt. Now, while we all this is absolutely not true (after all, Skiing and Snowboarding is an extreme sport, and we absolutely do not advocate irresponsible riding and skiing), what it does mean that in comparison to icy Australian slopes, the snow you experience may be softer and more forgiving, meaning that if your skill level is only beginner, or you’re wanting to push yourself a little more, then Japan is a great location to be in to advance your self.

    While you’re there, it’s also a great chance to get some world-class instruction from the resort, as many instructors from all over the world call Japan home for Winter and bring a wealth of knowledge with them – there isn’t a better place to learn how to handle ‘Japow’!
  1. Japanese resorts don’t cater to Western visitors.
    Whilst there are still many small local ski areas within Japan that don’t offer services in English or Western cuisine, most resorts in Japan do! Especially when visiting Hakuba, there are many food outlets that provide English menus - and alterations to meals for dietary needs are OK in most places too. Japan is big on visual menus too, so you’ll be able to see what you’re ordering with no surprises.

    Most lift offices, websites, and accommodation options have some English-speaking staff and translated notes posted, so it’s easy to get around and work out what you need to do. The resorts are geared to look after English speaking guests with ease, all whilst keeping the traditional and cultural feel of Japan intact.

    What else is there to do in Hakuba if I don’t Ski or Snowboard?

    It can be intimidating when you’re looking to visit Japan and you’re not a skier or snowboarder. It could be that you just love to visit Wintery places, or you’re a part of a larger group or family who are keen on the slopes, but you are not. This certainly should not stop you from visit or enjoying the snow as much as them. Here are a few things to do around and near Hakuba that don’t involve strapping something to your feet.

    1. Matsumoto Ice Sculpture Festival
      This awe-inspiring event takes place from January 26 - 28, 2024. The festival features ice sculptors from around Japan and the world, who showcase their skills at Matsumoto Castle grounds. It's a great opportunity to witness the art of ice sculpting, alongside other activities, food stalls, and live music performances. Matsumoto is just a short 2 hour train ride from Hakuba – so easily do-able in a day.

    2.  Matsumoto Winter Illumination
      This event runs from December 16, 2023, to February 14, 2024. The highlight is the projection mapping and streetlight shows around Matsumoto Castle. The castle is adorned with laser mapping, displaying various themes, making it a unique spectacle during the winter evenings. Add it onto your Ice Sculpture visit and make it an overnight stay.

    3.  Happo Fire Festival
      One of the highlights of the area, the Happo Fire Festival is held every February. Combining tradition with fun snow, and fire activities. Every year flames are lit at nearby Hosono Shrine, which is then transported by torches carried on skis by instructors. Once the main fire is lit, its time to celebrate! There are several stalls serving delicious local foods and beverages. It’s certainly one to book your snow trip around, as the best fireworks display in Hakuba happens on this night.

    4.  Snow Machine Festival
      This major winter music festival runs from February 26 to March 2, featuring artists from around the globe, offering a unique blend of music and Winter. The festival has multiple stages throughout the Hakuba Valley, and late-night stages at various locations​​​​. If you’re into spending your days dancing and enjoying the atmosphere, then this could be for you.

    Should I bring my own gear when I visit the snow at Japan?

    If you’ve visited any forum or online group to ask for advice on bringing gear to Japan, there is always one repeated answer - renting equipment is the best option! It's not only convenient but also allows you to choose gear suited for Japan's unique snow conditions. Central Snowsports have been renting gear for years in Hakuba and have several stores, so no matter which part of the town you’re in, you’ll be able to access them.

    And remember, while renting skis and snowboards is recommended, bringing your own boots can add to your comfort which is super important on a holiday! Most airlines will allow you to bring your ski or snowboard boots in a bag as hand luggage, so you don’t need to fear them being lost.

    Will I need different/specific snow clothing in Japan?

    While the snow gear you use locally might suffice (think wamer in Australia, extremelt cold in Northern America), the right clothing makes a huge difference in Japan. With variable conditions from blizzards to bluebirds, think thin socks, effective natural fibre thermals, and plenty of layers.

    You won’t always want to heaviest of clothing – a day of powder runs is likely to get you running hotter than normal despite the cold temps.

    Of course, well-fitting pants are a must – something we at Nobody's Princess deeply understand!  Japan, being a society of people who are typically smaller-built than most Western folk, do not provide a lot of local brands that fit larger frames.

    This is why we’re particularly excited that Central Snowsports is stocking Nobody’s Princess this winter. Take it from us, being stuck on a snow trip and needing a new pair of pants for whatever reason (like constantly splitting them…. *rolls eyes*) absolutely sucks, so knowing that you can find well fitting pants when you’re in need (or just in need of a little holiday retail therapy), is truly life-changing.

    Another hot tip is to invest in a clear goggle lens. We know most goggle brands supply a pink or amber tinted low-light lens, but on an amazing whiteout day in Japan, a clear lens is a must!

    What kind of snow can I expect in Japan?

    Japan's snow is famously light and soft. It offers a delightful experience of easy to navigate, joy-inducing, easy-on-the-knees snow, especially compared to the conditions we can experience in other parts of the world (hello icy Australian runs!). If you're venturing into backcountry areas, safety is paramount – carry an avalanche kit, and hire a guide to take you into well-known powder stashes.

    But that’s not to say that off-piste is the only way to experience the goodness that Japan has to offer  - there's plenty of fantastic snow within the resort bounds for those who prefer to stay on marked trails, with groomed runs being covered knee deep during a good pow day. It’s not uncommon to have days with constant fall of soft, powdery snow flakes, which makes a green run feel like heaven, even for an experienced skier or rider.

    The weather can be variable, so be prepared for up to 100cm to fall overnight if you’re lucky.

    What’s the most stress free way of bringing my own snow gear, or renting at the resort?

    One of the best things about travelling to Japan is the endless transport options available. You can choose to travel fast (shinkansen) or slow (local bus/trains), and also choose to lighten your load when travelling with gear.
    One of the most utilised luggage transport options is the famous Yamato or as you may have heard of it, “Black Cat”.  With this service which has counters in the arrival areas of airports, train stations, and even sometimes at a Kombini (convenience store), you can leave your luggage and get it transported to your resort accommodation ahead of time for a small fee. Great if you want to spend a few days in Tokyo before you make your way to the snow.

    If you’ve decided to leave your gear at home, once you’ve arrived at Hakuba you can organise to rent some amazing equipment through Central Snowsports. They can go above and beyond by providing stress-free pick-up services from your arrival point, equipping and fitting you at one of their stores, and even collect equipment from your accommodation after your stay. This saves the hassle of trudging through the deep snow after a day on the runs, or while you’re busy trying to pack up at the end of your trip – and certainly helps keep your stress levels down!

    What else do you want to know about visiting Japan in Winter?

    Let us know by leaving a comment on the blog, and we can help answer your questions! And if you're heading to Japan any time soon, let us know, we love seeing your adventures!

    Happy skiing, snowboarding, and festival-hopping in Japan!


    1 comment

    I’ve been thinking of doing a Japan snow trip for years, but have never quite gotten around to it. I have two main questions, and I’m not sure if you know the answers, but here goes!

    1. Is it possible to hire Step On snowboard bindings in Japan? I have Step On boots and bindings, and it would be great to just pack my boots and be able to hire appropriate bindings.

    2. Do you know of anywhere in Japan that has adaptive ski/snowboard instructors? I’ve tried looking for information online in the past, but it seems to be rather sparse and confusing. I have two children with autism, and they really cope much better with the learning experience in a private adaptive lesson rather than in group lessons.


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