Japanuary: A First Timer's Guide to Snowboarding in Japan

Japanuary: A First Timer's Guide to Snowboarding in Japan

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

*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.

It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to snowboard in Japan. Growing up riding "Cascade Concrete" in the Pacific Northwest, I longed to ride perfectly spaced trees and endless, light, fluffy Japow. And though the era of 100+ day years are long behind me (I’m hyped if I log 10 nowadays) the dream has yet to fade. So on a whim, and thanks to a surprise connection, I figured it was now or never, shit or get off the pot, and booked a ticket a few weeks back.

One week from today myself and photojournalist/TF Contributor David Ryder will head East and link 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. I’ll spare you the details of our respective flight schedules (pray for me) and instead try to drop some knowledge in case you too dream of partaking in the legendary ritual of Japanuary.

Pro Tips from Stealth Backcountry Tours Founder Chandler Kane:

  • 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 more often than not. 
  • 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 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 the tuesday after Thanksgiving to get best deals. My RT trip from NYC to Sapporo came out at just under $900 USD (Editor's Note)

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.

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

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

keep an eye on @fieldmag Instagram and Twitter for live updates from our trip through Hokkaido and stay tuned for more coverage after the fact.

In the meantime, check out Japanuary 2017 coverage from TF Contributor Kellan Mohr

The Field's benevolent overlord, formerly of the PNW and now residing in New York City. He apologizes in advance for his many mispellings.
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