Ski the Land of the Rising Sun
Japan has formed a legendary reputation for deep powder skiing in January and February. The saying “Don’t Leave Powder to Find Powder” is common in western Canada – why leave Canada when we have the best skiing in the world? Well, Japan is a strong contender, and when you add the incredible cultural experience to the mix it rises to the top of any serious skier’s bucket list.
One of the side-effects of the strong popularity of skiing in Japan has been the erosion of the cultural experience. Hearing complaints of “I was skiing tracks with a bunch of Australians” I decided to seek the advice of Japan-born Whistler-based Jun Yanagisawa. I met Jun heli-skiing in northern BC and immediately admired his gracious Japanese manners, sense of humour, and powerful elegant ski technique. Born and raised in Tokyo, Jun was an avid skier from childhood. In search of wilderness, Jun eventually immigrated to Whistler, British Columbia where he has worked for close to 30 years in the ski and tourism industry, moving between his native Japan and western Canada’s heli- and ski-touring.
A couple of years ago I said to Jun, “Let’s do a Japan trip together, but let’s see some weird funky Japanese culture!” Jun said, “Leave it to me Tom-san!”
video by Zev Heuer 2018
In January of 2020 I ran a trip along with Jun in the Land of the Rising Sun. With a group of 15, including my wife and two kids, and a bunch of my favourite long-time clients, we based out of the town of Echigo-Yuzawa. Yuzawa did not disappoint. The Minshuku we stayed in, Densuke, was the real deal — sleeping on futons in a room lined with grass tatami mats, with cozy Kotatsus to warm you to the bones after a chilly day on the slopes. In fact we were the very first western / Caucasian clients the Denuske has ever hosted in over 40 years of operation! The town is filled with fantastic authentic Japanese restaurants: sushi, ramen, izakay, yakatori, tempura, tonkatsu — you name it, there’s a tiny cozy restaurant that serves it. One of the highlights was walking to the train station for a visit to the “Sake Tasting Shop”. With coin-operated sake dispensers, 500 Yen (about $5 USD) will get you 5 shots of the best sake in Japan. In fact, Yuzawa is famous for its rice and sake industries.
But we came for the skiing, didn’t we? The ski hills we visited had amazing skiing and were the epitomy of quirky. Japan actually has the most ski hills by area of any other country in the world — over 350 of them! With the lull in the Japanese economy after the 80s recession, many of them have never quite recovered and consequently are relatively empty of skiers. A bad thing for the ski business, but great for skiers as lineups are short and the powder is plentiful.
One of the quirkiest has to be Tenjindaira. You get there via the local Joetsu Line local train which stops at Doai Station. Doai station has the distinction of being one of the deepest train stations in the world, the northbound line requiring you to walk down (fortunately not up) 486 steps into the bowls of Mount Tanigawanike — a surreal experience to say the least and a highlight of our trip strangely enough. Tenjindaira is famous for its steep off-piste skiing: a kilometer-long ridge of steep trees takes you 450 m down into the valley to reconnect with a gondola station that could have been a set for The Twilight Zone. Tenjindaira is also known for the mountain that looms overhead, Mt. Tanigawanike. We climbed it only to find out later on that it has the reputation for being the “Most Dangerous Mountain in the World”! Actually, the fact that it’s claimed over 800 lives has more to do with its proximity to Tokyo and the dangerously loose rock on the opposite side of the mountain. It is, in fact, a gentle, enjoyable ski peak from the top of the chairlift on the Tenjindaira side!
Jun and I have put together a great itinerary that will bring us to the deepest corners of the Japanese powder belt and Japanese culture, and it’s going to be awesome. Come and join us in 2021!
2022 Proposed itinerary (subject to change):
Day 1: Feb 18
Meet Jun at the inn (“Minshuku”) walking distance from Echigo-Yuzawa
Stay at Densuke Minshuku in Yuzawa
Day 2: Feb 19
Skiing in Naeba Ski Resort
Stay at Densuke
Day 4: Feb 21
Skiing in Kagura
Stay at Wadagoya in the resort again
Day 5: Feb 22
Skiing in Kagura till late afternoon
Transfer back to Yuzawa
Stay at Densuke
Day 6: Feb 23
Skiing in Tenjindaira
Stay at Densuke
Day 7: Feb 24
Skiing in Tenjindaira
Stay at Densuke
Day 8: Feb 25
Skiing in Naeba or some other resort depends on the snow conditions
transfer to Tokyo by the bullet train (Shinkansen) in the late afternoon
Dinner at some authentic izakaya or sushi restaurant
Stay at Densuke
Day 9: Feb 26
Optional: Skiing at a local resort (TBA) in the a.m.
Transfer to the airport
Leave Haneda (or Narita)
8 nights of accommodations with two meals (except stay in Tokyo)
All necessary transportations from Day 2 to Day 8 except Shinkansen
8 days of Lift tickets
8 days of guiding fee
Taxes on above items
What not included:
Getting to Japan
We recommend flying to Haneda airport since it’s more conveniently located to downtown Tokyo and access to the bullet train (Shinkansen), etc. But if there are no direct flights from your home city to Haneda but you can get a direct flight to Narita (e.g. San Diego) that is likely your best bet.
We will be meeting on the evening of Day 1 a short walking distance from Echigoyuzawa Station which is reached in about 80 minutes by Shinkansen from Tokyo Station.
- day trips, hotel-based
- 1100-1400 m ski touring per day (more with lift-accessed ski touring)
- non-glaciated terrain
- steep tree skiing
- deep powder skiing
You need to bring all of the following personal equipment. Please don’t bring extra equipment. If you have any questions at all about gear please do not hesitate to contact us.
- Wool or synthetic socks and liner socks
- Long underwear top – synthetic or wool
- Light fleece or wool sweater
- Wind shell – nylon or ‘Schoeller’ type jacket
- Waterproof breathable jacket
- Warm insulated jacket – down or synthetic
- Long underwear bottoms – synthetic or wool
- Multipurpose stretch nylon or ‘Schoeller’ type pants
- Waterproof breathable pants
- Warm hat – wool or synthetic
- Brimmed cap for sun protection
- Face warmer – scarf, neck tube or balaclava (optional)
- Light gloves – wool, synthetic or leather
- Insulated gloves or mitts with waterproof outer shell
- Spare gloves or mitts
- Handkerchief for blocking the sun (optional)
Snow Safety Equipment
- Avalanche beacon with good batteries (and spares)
- Probe (2.8 m or longer preferred)
- Skis (100 to 125 mm in the waist recommended) or split board (a powder board of course!)
- Ski strap
- Ski or snowboard boots
- Climbing skins
- Skin wax (or a candle)
- Binding repair kit to fix your personal travel setup
- Ski helmet (optional)
- Pack (25-30 litres will work fine, but you’ll want something larger for getting to the Wada Goya mountain hut)
- Sunglasses (both orange and dark lenses help a lot for travel in all conditions)
- Goggles (orange lenses)
- Sunscreen and lip cream (SPF 30+)
- Head lamp with good batteries
- Insulated water bottle or thermos (1-2 L)
- Lunch bag or container
- Personal blister kit (i.e: Leukotape-P and Compeed/Second Skin blister pads)
- Pocket knife (optional)
- Camera (optional)
- Binoculars (optional)
- Prussik cord – 5m x 6mm (optional, for contributing to emergency toboggan construction)
Apres ski, Hotel/Ryokan, etc.
- Duffle bag to contain your clothes in your room
- A larger backpack to get to the Wada Goya mountain hut (e.g. 40-45 L)
- Comfortable clothing for travel as well as some nice clothes to wear to the restaurants
- Personal medications and toiletries
- Ear plugs
- Reading material
- Chargers & adapters for electronic devices (Japan AC power is 100V and should work to power your device chargers, see this page for details)
- You should have some Japanese yen in cash in advance or exchange maybe 20,000 yen or so at the airport as there are still many places that a credit cards are not accepted in Japan.
Note the following are provided:
- Pillows, duvets, bed linen and towels supplied at the Ryokans and hotels
- Slippers at the Ryokans are available
Group Gear (supplied by the guides)
- Map and compass
- Snow study kit
- Snow and/or bush saw
- First aid kit
- Emergency tarp
- Emergency toboggan
- Group repair kit
- Radio & satellite phone
Snowpack and Climate
Expect a LOT of snow and mild temperatures in the negative single digits Celsius.
Photos of our staff can be found on our Guides and Partners page.
Tom Wolfe (Mountain Guide ACMG/IFMGA) has been guiding since moving to Canmore in 1995, the place he calls home with wife, son and daughter. He guides year around, with winters being a mix of ski guiding at lodges, heli-ski operations, and remote backcountry destinations throughout western Canada.
Jun Yanagisawa (Ski Guide ACMG) was born and raised in Japan where he learned to ski at a young age. He moved to Whistler, BC in search of wilderness about 30 years ago, but still returns to the land of the rising sun where the powder tree skiing, quite simply, is the best in the world. When he is not ski guiding, Jun operates a tourist agency bringing Japanese tourists to the Whistler area with his wife.
Dates: February 18-26, 2022 (JP-22), Jan 27-Feb 4, 2023 (JP-23)
Price: $4500 CAD/person (Currently $3,325 USD / €3,079 / £2,699).
Deposit: $1500 CAD due upon booking, balance due Sept 1, 2021