It’s a powder day somewhere, and that somewhere is Japan.
Simply take a look at Instagram and surely you’ve already been exposed to, or even had FOMO about, skiing pow in Japan. No? Just type in the hashtag #Japow and take a dive down the worm hole.
Each year more brands and more skiers and boarders are making the trip to the tiny nation of islands, about a 12 hour flight from Los Angeles, to find the pow promised land — something that isn’t always guaranteed in the lower 48 these days.
From Icelantic to Nordica and many more in between, brands and athletes are immersing themselves, quite literally, in the Japow culture, and it’s helping to grow a sport that has been beleaguered by bad winters for years here in the States. Japan’s ultra-friendly culture, reliable snowfalls, and moderate terrain (think Steamboat, not Jackson) has skyrocketed in popularity and accessibility, first opened up by the Aussies just a decade ago.
And while Australian tourists still dominate the major resorts in Japan, gringos from America have certainly carved out their own niche, often with the help of guides from the U.S. and Europe to help them navigate steep language and cultural barriers. There’s also a new breed of quasi tour operators helping people have the best Japow experience possible, including SnowLocals, who have made it their sole mission over the last half-dozen years to drown themselves in Japanese skiing culture and become experts on how to maximize a trip there.
Telluride locals Jake and Charlie Cohn both grew up skiing competitively, with Jake eventually going pro and working with Unofficial Networks up in Whistler, BC. The two went to Japan in 2011 to make some promotional videos for a few Japanese ski resorts, shortly after the Tsunami had wreaked havoc on the country — and the tourism industry — and Japan was looking for any international help it could get, finding a friend in the laid back Cohn brothers. They returned in 2012 and every season since, visiting new resorts every year, producing marketing videos and building up an enviable cache of knowledge about Japan’s skiing destinations. Three years ago they turned this knowledge into a business.
In addition to helping regular skiers book trips to experience Japow, SnowLocals has produced content for brands including Marmot, Armada, Osprey, Never Summer, Spyder, Scott, and Buff; and worked with a small list of pro skiers and snowboarders in Japan over the past years such as Todd Ligare, Amie Engerbretson, Nick Larson and Kolby Ward.
“Japan’s exotic culture, unique landscape and practically guaranteed powder makes it the perfect place to collect content, which inspires others to get out and enjoy the mountains,” said Sam Beck, Director of Marketing and Communications for Nordica.
And even though most tourists are currently only going to about three major resort areas in Japan, there are actually more than 500 resorts across the two main islands. One of the goals of SnowLocals is to get people to experience some of these smaller resorts.
“Contrary to popular belief, a lot of businesses in Japan are a bit behind when it comes to digital marketing, online bookings, and general website construction and presentation, and the domestic marketing strategies in Japan are incredibly different than the types of ads a Westerner might respond to. Both of these factors contribute to a very confusing experience for someone trying to book their own trip,” said Charlie Cohn. “There are a few popular destinations in Japan like Niseko where people can fairly easily make an online accommodation booking, search for nearby restaurant reviews, and make a ski vacation from scratch. However, if you want a trip tailored to your skiing/riding style, your budget, and if you want to explore other areas of Japan or multiple destinations, then you will be hard-pressed to find the necessary info on your own.”
“I wanted to go to Japan since the Poor Boyz Productions movie Reasons came out, which opens with Chris Benchetler describing all the things that make skiing in Japan special. What I remember most is his description of the snow: It just has this amazing consistency and quality during the months of January and February that are quintessentially perfect for skiing. It’s so good, Chris even describes how, for the first time ever, he had to instinctively hoot and holler, which is something he had never felt like doing before, and this was after he established himself as a post-park backcountry kicker pioneer and had skied all over the world in great conditions,” said Jon Jay, an editor at Ski Magazine. “And, even though that movie came out 10 years ago, that part really stuck with me as I made my first powder turns in Japan. Sure, the terrain wasn’t the biggest and baddest, but the snow was just. So. Damn. Good. It was hero snow times 100, the type of snow that comes maybe once a year to everywhere I’ve been in North America and Central Asia, but it was like that every day we were there. Every day at Rusutsu was the best powder day of the year anywhere else, but in Japan it was just another day. That really blew my mind more than anything.”
“We don’t send anyone to a place we have not been to personally and we don’t just book clients into the first hotel with availability. We talk to each client and genuinely try to build a trip that best suites their style. So, making these connections and relationships with a lot of different ski areas and hotels in Japan has proven to be a unique challenge to encounter,” Cohn continued. “A lot of larger travel agents will only know what hotels have availability and they probably know what that room looks like from a photo on their computer. They likely have never skied at that exact ski area and certainly won’t turn an ill-informed customer away who might want to book a trip to ski neck-deep powder in November or April (months with slim chances for deep snow). But we do want to impress upon clients that Japan is an amazing place to simply travel because it is safe and incredibly unique from a Western perspective.”
“You never know what will happen during a travel day in any country, but in Japan you are guaranteed to be safe, assured that your planned transportation will be on time, and you can be fairly certain something will be hilarious along the way. Just getting from the airport to the train station and on to the ski area with ski gear is a unique challenge that can’t be avoided by travelers, save for those few on an ultra luxury trip. These are small challenges that we will give the client the tools to overcome (with schedules, directions, and itineraries), but in the end these are still the little experiences that make traveling in Japan more memorable. Once you arrive at your destination and put on your skis, the only challenge becomes surfacing for air between pow turns,” Cohn said.
The Cohn brothers and others now emotionally invested in Japan want to see the snowsports industry grow sustainably, with the benefits of growth shared throughout the varied destinations, and even drawing more Japanese skiers and riders into the sport. One of the greatest benefits of the #Japow phenomenon has been opening up more extreme terrain and tree skiing in and surrounding Japanese resorts, areas that had previously been off limits.
“An industry with visitors from an increasing variety of countries choosing from a broader list of Japanese ski resort destinations means large resorts like Rusutsu and small ones like Yubari both see the benefit of tourism to the region, and this is one aspect of our relationships with Japanese resorts that does not get lost in translation,” said Cohn. “There is plenty of room for growth in the Japanese snowsports industry, and everyone we work with at all of our favorite destinations in Japan seems to agree that this growth can be directed responsibly.”
–Author Aaron Bible is SIA’s content manager and a regular contributor covering the ski, outdoor and bike industry for publications including Elevation Outdoors, Men’s Health, Backpacker, Outdoor Insights and many more. Follow his adventures in Colorado and around the world on Instagram @ahbible.