A beginners guide to skiing Japan

fun with go snow ski school
Snow fun with GoSnow ski school, Hirafu

At a Hong Kong charity rugby ball in the summer I was lucky enough to win a week in a ski chalet in Niseko, Japan.

My last brush with the white stuff had been back in the ‘90s in France and the rest of the family had never so much as touched a ski before, so we were pretty firmly in the beginner basket.

The whole ski holiday scenario has been too daunting to consider before – there was the gear, the lessons, the packing, would the kids enjoy it? But with accommodation already in hand, we just had to go for it.

First challenge was the gear. Japan is seriously cold – no swanning around the al fresco apres-ski bars in a pair of sunnies as I had done in France. The snow is relentless and we didn’t see the sun until day four. I don’t think the temperatures rose as high as zero the whole time we were there.

So, not really having a clue, we headed for Carl’s Ski Shop at 189 Fa Yuen Street in Mong Kok and he did a fabulous job kitting out the whole family. We ended up with two sets of thermals each; one set of gloves or mittens (mittens are advised as your fingers stay warmer bunched together); two snoods (one can be used to keep your neck warm, the other can be converted into a beanie); two pairs of socks (make sure they’re knee length to give you some ‘rub’ protection from the rock hard ski boots); one pair of goggles; one pair of snow boots; one ski jacket and one pair of ski pants. We also topped up with socks from Decathlon – their cheapest, own-brand version was awesome – and a few packets of Aptonia Hand and Feet Warmers (tiny little heat pads that slide into your mittens or boots and stay warm for up to six hours when activated, also from Decathlon).

If you’re still struggling, Stanley Market is a great source of ski clothing and Uniqlo, being Japanese, does a fine line in thermals.

So the packing turned out to be much easier than I had anticipated – we wore our ski jackets and snow boots on the plane, and also packed a couple of ‘normal’ leggings and jumpers in case we wanted to change in the evening (we didn’t – we actually felt perfectly comfortable sitting around in Niseko’s finest dining emporiums in our ski thermals).

We hired all the ski gear – poles, skis, boots, helmets – from Grand Hirafu Mountain Center which sits right next to the gondola at the bottom of the slopes and was nice and handy. Ski passes can also be bought here.

We opted for a 9am flight which had us into Sapporo by 3pm. I would advise booking an earlier rather than a later arrival as the drive up to Hirafu is more three hours than the two we had been advised. We opted to take a bus up as it’s a tough drive in the snow if you don’t know the area. Self-drive is an option with car hire available at the airport. Beware of snow storms – friends on a later flight were unable to land due to deteriorating weather conditions and ended up hitting the tarmac two hours later than scheduled. They reached their accommodation at 2am.

With this in mind, it’s worth thinking about leaving the first day clear, especially if you’re self-catering as there’s a certain amount of ‘finding your feet’ and stocking up on essentials to do. There are a number of small supermarkets in Hirafu. A grocery basket costs about the same here as in Hong Kong.

We booked ski lessons through Go Snow, who were excellent. They start you on the nursery slopes in a group of five or six and you gradually work your way up to the ‘real’ slopes. The nursery slopes were fine to tackle as a group, but by day three I was ready for something a little more challenging but not quite as challenging as the main Boyo run, which the group instructors tend to be used for beginners. The first time I tried it I lost all my confidence – part of the run is ‘red’ and fairly steep and it’s a long way up. My top tip would be to hire a private instructor at this point – expensive but worth it. I also used the nearby Family Slope to learn on which was a lot gentler.

mount yotai
Early morning views of Mount Yotei from the Hirafu Family slope

While I heroically battled my way down the ‘easy’ green runs, the kids were soon zipping up and down the mountain like ninjas with their instructor. Nothing makes you feel more middle-aged than watching young children learn to ski. They left at 10am and were dropped back to the gondola at 4pm, tired but elated.

In terms of dining, don’t reserve a table too late in the evening. We were exhausted at the end of every day, so a 6/6.30pm sitting suited us just fine. Many of the top restaurants get booked up weeks in advance, so bear this in mind. Our favourites were Niseko Pizza, The Alpinist and Rin – and Ginger at the bottom of the Family Slope served a fine line in lunchtime katsu curries. The coffee kiosk opposite Ginger also served coffee with a shot; a perfect mid-afternoon pick-me-up when you’ve been zipping up and down the slopes all day.

While the kids wanted to ski, ski and ski again, myself and my husband found five days were enough and on the last day treated ourselves to lunch a deux and an onsen. The warm waters were perfect for tired muscles.

 

Out and about

With more powder than a Johnson’s factory and barely a soul around, Moiwa Ski Resort (a short, twenty minute drive from Hirafu) is gorgeous. It offers some great runs – black, red, slalom and easy-going forest trails – and it’s definitely a resort I’d like to return to. Rafael’s restaurant in the main hotel complex served up one of the nicest meals I’ve ever had – BBQ soya lamb and miso soup followed by deliciously warm coconut bread with Hokkaido honey.

moiwa ski resort
The quieter slopes of Moiwa Ski Resort

Next door is the slightly busier Annupuri family resort with yet more easily accessible slopes for beginners. But it was still quieter than Hirafu and also looks like a strong contender for our hard-earned Yen next year.

 

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beyondthehighrise

I'm a freelance writer and editor living in Hong Kong.

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