You may have heard that Japan has some of the best off-piste skiing and snowboarding in the world. You may also have heard that skiing off-piste in Japan isn’t allowed. This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, so let us help clear it up!
Skiing in Japan was a huge phenomenon a long time before it got discovered by tourists. In fact The 2017 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism reports that skier numbers in the 1980s, which comprised almost entirely Japanese skiers and snowboarders, were over double what they are today. The ski industry grew at that time without the influence of Western ski and snowboard culture, and it grew in a very different direction from that which it grows in today.
At the time of the Japanese ski boom, skiing was almost exclusively on-piste. Reasons can be attributed in part to Shinto beliefs that spirits are found in nature and that riding through trees in the mountains is disrespectful to spirit dwellers. But the main reason is probably safety. Safety consciousness is deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche, and it is not unique to ski resorts that keeping safe is linked to an absence of autonomous decision making. With no roundabouts, hardly any need to change lanes and plentiful road signs, driving a car in Japan can often feel like there are no decisions to be made, and it isn’t difficult to draw an analogy with skiing. Once you combine the fact that on-piste is always the safer option, with the turn by turn judgement calls that have to be made off-piste, it is not difficult to see why spotting a fresh line and darting off between the trees is inherently un-Japanese.
In this environment Japanese ski towns taught children skiing through the school system with emphasis on achieving technical excellence. This turned many into passionate piste skiers, while at the same time it put many off and gave them reason to find a new way to express themselves. Japanese snowboarders, always in the latest ski wear, and riding the best, brand new equipment were different from their North American counterparts not only in their polished appearance, but in their unquestioning adherence to the rules. Rebellion spilled not into trees but into parks, and those technically awesome carves learned in school were put to good use in half pipes.
The ski industry in Japan proceeded to decline rapidly in the nineties and some resorts, most notably Niseko, sought the bold solution of welcoming skiers and snowboarders from abroad. Perhaps the reason Niseko did this so successfully was that it’s greatest commodity – powder – was what foreign skiers and snowboarders most desired, and because its relatively gentle slopes and consistently cold conditions made it less avalanche prone than most ski resorts. An increasingly flexible approach developed over the years, with excellent signage for in resort off-piste and backcountry gates providing up to date information on snow conditions and avalanche dangers.
Other resorts are now following in Niseko’s footsteps, some with a relaxed attitude to skiing off piste at your own risk, and some opening up certain areas which are checked for snow stability. Every year in Japan things take a step in this direction, but many resorts, particularly those which have not yet caught on among international visitors remain strictly opposed. These resorts typically have little in the way of avalanche control and ski patrol who have not trained for out of bounds rescue, making it wise to adhere to the rules out of safety as much as respect.
All this makes it important to choose where to ski wisely, depending on what you are looking for. Powderhounds will be disappointed to turn up in Furano, a wonderfully snowy resort situated on the powder mecca that is Hokkaido, only to find that piste skiing is strictly enforced. If you are planning to ski in Japan it is worth consulting a local company such as Japan Ski Experience which understands these local differences and can advise visitors which resort will be best for them.