A Guide to Japanuary, the Annual Ski & Snowboard Powder Pilgrimage

Expert tips on travel, preparation, and gear selection for Hokkaido bound powder hounds

A Guide to Japanuary, the Annual Ski & Snowboard Powder Pilgrimage

Author

Graham Hiemstra

Photographer

Pascal Shirley

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Field Mag's benevolent overlord, formerly of the PNW and now residing in NYC. We apologize in advance for his many mispellings.

Every new year like clockwork, Japan goes off. Storms whip down from the North, carrying cold Siberian winds down past North Korea and across the Sea of Japan, picking up moisture along the way and dumping it down on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido in the form of legendarily perfect snow. Almost without failure it delivers. This is Japanuary.

If you long to ride waist deep, light, fluffy powder in perfectly spaced trees, then you're going to need to visit Japan. And you're going to need to plan ahead.

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The most important step in partaking in the legendary ritual of Japanuary is researching to find the right guide service (or doing A LOT of research on your own). Our last trip we linked up with Stealth Backcountry, a new tour operator run by area and industry vets operating out of Central Hokkaido—a conscious decision to shirk the Niseko trend in favor of a more authentic experience. But there are others out there—it's important to ask around and not just trust Google.

To drop some knowledge and set you up with the best chances of having an all-time trip yourself, we've outlined some top tips and key gear selects from our experience. Just remember, even if the snow gods don't deliver every day, Japanese 7-Eleven is worth the flight anyway.

14 Pro Tips for Japanuary First Timers:

  • SIM cards can be purchased in all major airports. Keeping your phone on airplane mode and making the most of free WiFi, which is common throughout Hokkaido, is another inexpensive option.
  • Seico Mart and 7-11 are in every town. While convenience stores may seem lame, these two are a great place to eat and use WiFi. The sushi and crab will exceed your expectations. And the selection of drinks, snacks, and intersting magazines will entertain for hours.
  • Bring house slippers, as wearing shoes inside is not permitted in most homes, hostels, onsens, and hotels.
  • Pack a pair of board shorts if you’d like to onsen/hot spring in coed pools. For gender-specific onsens you’ll likely only need your birthday suit.
  • Many onsen are strick on no-tattoo policies, though the more lowkey, municpical hot springs seemed more lienent—we were asked to leave one hotel onsen though, which was both hilairous and embarassing, as you never want to be disrepectful.
  • Download offline google translate before departing. It’ll come in handy daily, of course.
  • Be respectful of the people and culture. Remember to slow down as not everyone moves at a Western pace. 
  • Bring an extra pair of goggles lenses for flat light, which you will find.
  • Cleats for your walking shoes come in handy as walking around can get slippery. You can buy them at any convenient store. 
  • Debit and credit cards are widely accepted. Just be sure to notify your bank prior to leaving. 
  • Buy flights in late November to get best deals. If you try hard enough you should be able to find RT flights from most of North America for under $900 USD. Crazy cheap tickets can also be scored via flight deal newseltters like Scott's if you're will ing to book up to 6 months out.
  • Expect to spend a good portion of your budget on meals. Don't be cheap—pony up for the good ramen, sushi, and curry. These meals will make memories almost as vivid as the riding.
  • Ignore the Aussies. They're everywhere. That's life. Powder is for everyone.
  • Skip the mega resorts and make the trek to some more rural ski hills. The terrain may not be super steep, but believe us, you'll have the whole mountain to yourself.

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What to Pack for Skiing & Snowboarding in Japan, and Why:

Powder-Specific Snowboard and Skiis

If you’re going all the way to Japan, plan ahead and get your hands on a powder-specific snowboard. No, your park board won’t do the experience justice. And neither will your buddy’s Fat Bob. For a legendary time, try to track down an authentic Japanese snowsurf brand like Gentemstick or Moss Snowstick. Each brand makes a wide range of swallow tails, fish, and other innovative shapes designed and crafted specifically with Japow in mind.

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Gore-Tex Outerwear

It’s called Japanuary for a reason—it never seems to stop snowing all month long. No blue bird days, no sunshine, just grey snowy day after grey snowy day. Because of this, it’s best to be prepared for long, wet days full of face shots and deep turns, and inevitable tomahawk, which is why we’re opting for bibs and a onesie for the two of us lucky ducks. No better way to keep the snow from settling in your long johns than protection to your armpits, or neck for that matter.

Our kits may be ugly as heck, but should pop nicely when photographed against Hokkaido’s monochromatic winter landscape.

Dakine Stoker 3L Gore-Tex Bib, $420

Dakine Sawtoooth 3L Gore-Tex Jacket, $450

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Lightweight Backpack + Avalanche Kit

All that snow means avalanche conditions will surely be variable, so everyone in our party will be riding fully equipped with beacon, probe, and shovel. No exceptions. But since we won’t likely be venturing too far into the backcountry—snow shoes and bootpack will be our main mode of transport out of bounds—we won’t need to pack too much extra gear. So we’re opting for a super slim, bare essentials pack. Less weight means more control, and more control means a safer day.

The North Face Slackpack Pro 20L, $119 $80

Black Diamond Guide BT Avy Kit with Beacon, Probe, Shovel, $550

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Goggles for Low Light + Gore-Tex Mitts

With the likelihood of snow shoeing, skinning, or simply hiking bootpack in the back and sidecountry high, we’ll be bringing some sport specific sunglasses. Googles fog quickly when hiking in cold, wet weather, so don’t ruin your descent because you were too lazy to pack shades for the ascent.

As for goggles, bring an extra lens or two, something specifically meant for low light—clear too, if available, as night riding is most definitely a thing in Hokkaido. We’ll be testing out the new frame-less Dragon NFXs frames with Lumalens technology—color optimizing tech that reacts to shifting light conditions AKA transition lenses for goggles that actually work.

Dragon NFXs goggles with LumaLens Tech, $149

For the same reason we’re going all the way with our outerwear, we want our hands to be fully protected too. Rock the liners alone when traversing on foot, then toss the Gore cover back on for the ascent. Our lobster mitt setup features an over-the-cuff design for even more protection and dexterity—perfect for digging yourself out of nipple deep snow after a nice biff.

Hestra Army Leather Heli Mittens, $150

Published 01-12-2018

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