I can’t believe the season is almost over - it’s one of those weird feelings where so much has happened that it feels like I’ve been here for years, but it’s gone so quickly that it could have also been only a few weeks.
I can definitely say that never having skied before did not hinder me at all. If anything, it earned me some respect from the other seasonal staff for coming most of the way around the world to try something out that I’d never done. Luckily I knew myself and I was right, I love skiing, and as it turns out, boarding too.
Having been chucked into a house of 40, it was extremely easy to meet people. I have never met a group of people as friendly and chilled as I did here, making a house of 40 welcoming rather than overwhelming. It’s a slightly older crowd in Niseko (mid-late twenties) rather than an influx of fresh outta school 18-year-olds like a lot of other ski seasons.
As Japan is seen as the pinnacle for powder, it seems to attract people that have already done two or three ski seasons and are pretty hardcore skiers/boarders. So as someone who doesn’t drink much, it was refreshing to have less of a party atmosphere (people are too keen to catch first lifts to get those fresh tracks). But don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of places to drink and plenty of people who want to party if that’s what you’re after (shout out to Half Note for their weekly trivia and bingo nights).
It also attracted an international crowd with people coming together from all over the globe. I loved learning about and getting involved in their celebrations and traditions; eating heaps of blin (pancakes) on Russian Christmas on 7 January; playing card games for Lunar New Year’s Eve on 22 January (with some friendly betting of course); and listening to the Hottest 100 with the Aussies on 26 January.
Niseko is a pretty Western resort with high prices to match due to the tourists that flood the resort every winter, mostly from Australia and Malaysia. There are, however, pockets of Japanese culture if you head into Kutchan (the nearby town), or if you find the Japanese izakayas (Japanese pubs that serve tapas-style food and sake).
Getting to Kutchan can be a bit of a mission as the public transport is kinda shocking, but it’s worth it. There are so many tasty restaurants and cafés around, too many to explore in one season, though I tried my best to sample as many ramens as possible. Definitely take up the opportunity of a karaoke session - unlimited food, unlimited drinks, and unlimited songs all for 3000 JPY (AUD $33). Belting out tunes together definitely takes your friendship to a new level.
One of the best things I tried while being here was going to an onsen. Not only did the hot natural spring water feel awesome for the body after a day on the slopes, but it was a super empowering and refreshing experience to be naked around strangers or friends and for it to feel so normal. There was absolutely no judgement or focus on the bodies. It was great for the old confidence.
The work definitely felt like more of a focus here than the work that my friends have done during European ski seasons. Let’s just say it’s pretty hard to turn up hungover (but not impossible). Peak season (mid December to late February) was very busy which I predict was due to visitors finally being allowed back into Japan after three years of waiting for borders to open up again. But now it’s a lot less busy and I’ve become a part-timer to spend more time on the slopes, working only three or four days a week.
So what did I actually do? I was on the Front Desk for a property management company dealing with owners and guests on the daily, manning the phones, emails, walk-ins, complaints, and any weird and wonderful requests. There were some tough and stressful times, like when our Supervisor up and left in the middle of the peak season, cutting our small team of three to two. Me and my colleague stepped up to take on co-supervisor roles, training interns, negotiating a pay rise and taking on the guests together. I also loved the teams in the other departments who became some of my closest friends here.
Because of the role, my shifts were more like office hours (07.30-16.15 or 11.45-20.30). I know this wouldn’t suit a lot of seasonals as it doesn’t leave much room for the slopes either side of the shift. But as the ski season lifestyle can be quite intense, I appreciated how it forced me to slow down, carve out some time for myself, and instill some routine. I used the mornings before my 11.45am shifts to take myself on dates, journal and do yoga, all the self-care that grounds me and keeps me present - and then went night skiing after my 16:15 shifts.
“I now have mates from Australia, Germany, Poland, Malaysia, New Zealand and Russia. You better believe I will be making the most of visiting them after the season is over.”
You definitely have to ride the emotions when learning extreme sports like skiing and snowboarding (pun intended). Being surrounded by skilled boarders and skiers, I had to fully embrace being the Jerry of the group. Although, because I had to keep up with everyone, I progressed quickly and got to explore cool parts of the mountain that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, like half pipes, gates, tree runs, and black runs.
My first day was a baptism by fire - I skipped the magic carpet and went straight on a lift. I was told that was the best way to learn, and it seemed to work pretty well. Although I can say that going down a red run within a couple hours was probably a bit too much… I slid down on my bum most of the way. What also helped was taking full advantage of the group lessons I could get with my employment contract for free. It was a great way to meet new people and improve my technique quickly while feeling smug about not having to pay the AUD $180 fee. One of the only hiccups I had was accidentally locking all my stuff (helmet, goggles, gloves, balaclava) in a staff locker as I lost the key. And there was no master key. I couldn’t get access to it for a month or two but luckily I had some good mates to lend me stuff in the meantime.
I found it interesting how big of a mental component there is to skiing and boarding; the fear of falling can get to you when you’re looking down that big drop. Confidence and mindset is just as important as technique and skill in these extreme sports with real risk. But at the end of the day, the only way down is down and you’ve got to point your board or skis down that slope at some point. You feel so unstoppable once you get to the bottom.
Towards the end of the season I decided to borrow a mate's board and try snowboarding. Not to pick sides but I have to say, it had me questioning why I chose to ski for most of the season!! Everyone says how boarding is harder to learn than skiing, and there is for sure a lot of falling at first - butt and knee pads were a lifesaver. But at some point, something clicks and suddenly you’re linking heel and toe turns down the slope and nothing feels better.
In my free time, I ventured out of the resort on some day and weekend trips nearby too. I explored Otaru, a port town known for its fish and glassblowing. Which meant sushi was a must followed by a glass-blowing workshop - where I made a pretty good-looking vase if I do say so myself. I spent some days in Sapporo for the Snow and Ice festival, which I’d totally recommend, and rented an Airbnb with my housemates. Like a lot of things in Japan, this trip involved lots of delish food as well as walking to see the intricate ice sculptures and huge snow sculptures (up to 15m tall!). I also hopped across to Rusutsu to ski at another resort, which had some sick groomers and tree runs.
I am now seriously considering doing another season, maybe in Canada (after travelling around Japan for a bit of course!) to do more boarding. The Japow is no joke though, I’ve been spoiled the first time I’ve skied and now the only way is down.
If you are thinking of doing a ski season, even if you’ve never skied/boarded, do it. I have no regrets and I’ve never met someone that has ever regretted doing one. If anything, once you start doing them, you won’t be able to stop.
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