Tips for Japan…

Written by Adam Bramley, BASI Member

Hokkaido isn’t a secret any more, but that doesn’t stop it from being an excellent choice for instructors looking to work a season.  The rapid development of its biggest resorts has vastly increased demand for lessons in this northern powder mecca, and there are now several resorts with a large English speaking clientele.  I spent the 15/16 winter season teaching based out of Niseko, and hopefully this article will provide some hints and tips for anyone interested in doing likewise.

Niseko United is a collection of four pre-existing resorts, linked together via some precarious single-seater ‘pizza-box’ lifts to form something around the size of one of the 3 Valleys.  The height ranges from around 100m → 1308m, with lift accessed terrain up to around 1200m.  While it is possible to buy individual valley passes, realistically, you want the full mountain pass.

It’s fair to say that Niseko is not the most Japanese of resorts; its alternate moniker of ‘Little Australia’ is well deserved.  Language proficiency beyond ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is strictly optional in town and Australian rather than Oriental culture dominates the nightlife.  However, the town is not entirely devoid of Japanese influence.  While there are certainly some intriguing eastern bars and restaurants, for me this was best reflected in the beautiful and unique (and seriously high level!) Japanese snowboarding crews you’ll see all over the mountain.  Look out for a copy of the Gentemstick sponsored ‘Snowsurf’ DVD; the tuck-kneed, open-stanced, wide-board surf style shown is both effective and distinctively Japanese.  Outside the resort boundaries the Australian influence ends very quickly, anyone living down the hill in Kutchan, taking a trip to Sapporo or Hakodate, or riding other resorts such as Rusutsu, Teine or Kiroro will quickly find themselves immersed in an authentic experience.

Moving away from resort-life, Niseko has the normal selection of green/red/black pistes, with a few unpisted itinerary routes thrown in too.  Off-piste is allowed anywhere within the resort boundary, similar to the American system. Combined with the frankly ridiculous snowfall received every January and February, this can be excellent!  However, the real blower powder is accessed via manned gates which are controlled by the pisteurs.  Runs off the shoulder of the peak towards Hanazono and through the back bowls to Annapuri, as well as back-country touring on Mt Yotei, have easily entered my all-time top days riding.  Exiting the resort, other than via a gate, involves ducking a rope and getting caught doing this will result in your pass being confiscated – effectively ending your season.

Life in town is fairly quiet by European standards. The apres scene isn’t going to excite anyone familiar with Val d’Isere or St. Anton.  Instead, try heading home and showering and then going out for an izakaya all-you-can-eat-and-drink restaurant, followed by one of the Japanese or Western bars.  On the whole, the on-mountain canteens tend to be a lot more rudimental than European offerings, although there are a couple of Michelin starred options for those with clients who prefer to end their skiing day around lunch time!  

Nowadays, Niseko has a wide choice of ski schools.  There is a large school in each of the 4 mini-resorts (Niseko Village, Go-Snow, NISS, Niseko-Annapuri Snow-sports School), who tend to be busy throughout the season.  While hourly rates in these mass-market offerings are not the highest, this can be mitigated by the number of hours taught.  Amongst the smaller, ’boutique’ ski schools there seemed to be a lot of variation amongst the packages on offer – living standards, wages and employment levels all varied greatly.  I’d recommend doing your research thoroughly and if possible speaking to previous employees.  As around 80% of Niseko’s instructors have to be replaced each year due to being ineligible for sponsored visas, anyone applying well and early should end up with a good selection of offers to compare.  Finally, anyone with higher level qualifications can find themselves highly ranked in the allocation at the larger schools and doing very well financially!

I really, really enjoyed my time in Hokkaido, and will take away many fond memories of epic powder days; the frequency and volume of snowfall being matched only by the incessant announcements from the on-mountain speakers.  I’m already missing the ever-handy vending machines and convenience stores, the ridiculous amount of packaging that was then thoroughly sorted away and dispersed amongst 7 or 8 different recycling bins, the must-experience onsens, the food and my colleagues who all seemed to be having just as good a time as I was.  Getting back to Japan is going to be hard – sponsored visas require 36 months of experience, which is a good 7-8 years when you consider that most instructors work only 5 months a season, which is definitely something to consider when voting in the upcoming EU referendum.  However, I’m really happy to have made the most of my Hokkaido experience. I’m sure that this amazing island will feature again in my not-too-distant future.

Top Tips for prospective powder hounds:

  • Niseko is the coldest resort I’ve ever worked at – much colder than Europe.  Bring some thick layers!
  • The teaching terrain is not ideal and is frequently very busy – get advice as to where to take each level student in your training period.
  • Pay attention to where you live.  Hirafu is the main resort, but is fairly spread out, with a lot of staff accommodation on the outskirts of town.  Kutchan is the nearest large town, located down the mountain.  Anyone living here will generally be provided with a van, but watch out for the quality of housing.  Anyone offered accommodation between resorts should check very carefully that it is in a suitable location as the bus network is limited.
  • The only supermarkets are in Kutchan, a few miles down the mountain.  Anyone living in Hirafu will need good access to cheap food – my school provided a weekly shopping trip.
  • Consider learning the two Japanese alphabets Hiragana and Katakana before you come out for a real head start towards your language skills.  Kanji is not for the faint hearted though!
  • Take care with your equipment choice.  In Europe I ride a cambered park board, which is fine on and off-piste.  In Japan I often found myself wishing for something much floatier!
  • The season follows a similar pattern to Europe, with high periods over Christmas / New Year – Chinese New Year and then Easter.  With a late Easter in 16/17 your serious earning potential could be over by the start of March.
  • The vast majority of lessons are delivered in English to Australians/Hong Kongese/Singaporean/South East Asians and Western expats living in those areas.  Languages in demand are Mandarin and Cantonese.
  • When flying out, consider your luggage allowances carefully – it’s worth paying a bit extra for extra capacity.  Flights tend not to be included in your contract.
  • There’s great opportunities to travel at the end of season, but watch out for Golden Week which increases the air-fares and the crowds. 
  • Take advantage of the ultra-cheap and reliable Black Cat (Takubin) service to send your winter luggage ahead of you. This avoids lugging too much around on domestic airlines during post-season travelling.
  • Many of the ski school heads and senior instructors occupy high-up positions in Australian and New Zealand schools.  With a bit of networking, Niseko can be a great choice for anyone looking to get into southern hemisphere winters.