Japanuary: A First Timer's Guide to Skiing & Snowboarding Japan

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

Japanuary: A First Timer's Guide to Skiing & Snowboarding Japan

Author

Graham Hiemstra

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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.

*riding images by Pascal Shirley, courtesy Stealth Backcountry

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.

Like us, if you long to ride perfectly spaced trees and endless, light, fluffy Japow, then you're going to need to plan ahead. 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). Last January 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.

To drop some knowledge and set you up with the best chances of having an all-time trip yourself, we've outlines 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.

Pro Tips for Japanuary First Timers:

  • SIM cards can be rented in any of the major airports. Or just keep your phone on airplane mode and make the most of free WiFi, which is common throughout Hokkaido.
  • Seico Mart and 7-11’s 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. 
  • Bring house slippers as wearing shoes inside is not permitted in most places. 
  • Bring 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.
  • Download offline google translate before departing. It’ll come in handy daily.
  • 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.
  • 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 shoudl be able to find RT flights from most of North America for under $900 USD.
  • 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 gear we’re bringing, and why:

Powder-Specific Snowboard

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. Lucky for us, our Stealth is close with legendary Japanese snow surf brand Gentemstick, so we’ll be testing 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 Vapor 2L Gore-Tex Jacket, $380

Helly Hansen Ullr Powder Suit, $850

Gore-Tex Mittens

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, $140

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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

Pieps Avy Kit with Beacon, Probe, Shovel, $399

Proper Eyewear For Varying Light and Weather Conditions

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

Published 01-12-2018

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