03 November 2016

How to do a ski season in Japan

As I am now working my second ski season in Japan, I thought I would write a post giving some pointers for anyone who would like to do the same. Whether you've just finished university or are looking to take a career break, working a ski season in Japan is a great opportunity to allow you to spend time in this incredible country. Maybe you're not even a skier or snowboarder, but want to find a way to spend time in Japan. If teaching English isn't up your street, then working in a ski resort is the second-best option for those who don't speak Japanese.

There are many reasons why I think working a ski season in Japan is a better option than going for the obvious locations, like the Alps. Firstly, if you really love riding powder (who doesn't?), then Hokkaido in northern Japan is guaranteed to satisfy your needs year after year. As snowfall becomes less reliable in the Alps (and indeed elsewhere internationally), Hokkaido is a great place to come if you want to make the most of your season. Secondly, coming to Japan gives you the opportunity to have an incredible experience in a very different culture, if like me you come from a western background. Admittedly, some of the resorts are not authentically Japanese due to all the foreign seasonal staff, but you can nonetheless have lots of Japanese experiences (onsen, karaoke, traditional food), and of course you are perfectly placed to travel around the rest of the country (or indeed do a more extensive trip around parts of Asia) once the snow melts.

On a blue sky day you get an amazing view of Mount Yohtei from the slopes in Niseko

Working Holiday Visa
The key to an extended stay in Japan is to obtain a Working Holiday Visa. If you have a UK passport (or a passport from one of these countries) and are aged 30 or under, you can apply for a Working Holiday Visa from the Japanese embassy. This visa is aimed to give young people the chance to go to Japan, primarily to travel and sight-see, but with permission to work in order to fund your extended holiday. 

I believe there are only two places you can apply for the visa in the UK: at the Japanese Embassy in London or the one in Edinburgh, so if you are not located in one of those cities then unfortunately it can be a costly and time-consuming effort to make these applications, as you have to do it in person. To take to the embassy to make your application, you must have:

  • Valid UK passport
  • A completed visa application (available here)
  • A passport photo
  • Your CV
  • Outline of intended activities
  • Written reason for applying for Working Holiday Visa

Your outline of intended activities is essentially just your travel itinerary for the duration of your Working Holiday Visa. Looking back at the one I wrote, I mentioned the fact that I already had a job secured in Japan. In hindsight it would have been better not to reveal this (as I mentioned earlier, the primary purpose of the visa is for a holiday). Luckily they still offered me the visa.

Your reason for applying is just a personal statement explaining your desire to spend time in Japan. My statement focused on my long-standing interest in the country, my engagement in it so far (reading books, meeting Japanese friends, studying Japanese art, short trips to the country) and why I wanted to spend more time there (explore the beautiful landscape, eat amazing food).

After submitting your documents they will ask you to return to the embassy at a later date (usually around a week later). They will also tell you how much money to bring to pay for the visa should your application have been successful. 

Hokkaido is famous for its hot springs

Finding a Job
I knew that I wanted to work at the Niseko United resort in Hokkaido, so my job-hunting was specific to this. Lots of the companies in the area (hotels, accommodation providers, shops, restaurants) have English websites (and Facebook pages / other social media channels) where they will advertise seasonal positions. Researching the kinds of companies located in the area and approaching them directly is a good way of finding a job.

I would recommend the Kutchannel and Experience Niseko websites, both of which list local jobs. Each year there is also a Facebook group for Niseko Winter Jobs, which you can join and either advertise that you're looking for work and/or look at employers' job postings.

For jobs elsewhere in Japan, the Gaijinpot website is a great resource. They also have a section called 'No Nihongo' which shows jobs that don't require Japanese language skills.

The good thing about applying for a job at a ski resort is that employers generally don't require that you have previous experience in the same field. I'd never worked in hospitality before I came to Japan, nor had many of my seasonal colleagues. As long as you can show that you have transferable skills that are relevant (think customer service, being able to prioritise a heavy workload, working well under pressure) you stand a good chance of finding a job. Showing that you are hard-working, reliable, and will have good team spirit helps too!

A ski season in Niseko also allows you to experience Australian 'culture'

Once you've got your visa and your job offer, it's time to make all those final preparations.

Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is a must, particularly when you're working a ski season. If you're skiing and snowboarding, unfortunately there is always the chance that you may get injured. I know a handful of people who broke something or other last year. Touch wood it won't happen to you, but if it does you need to be covered. There are plenty of options for travel insurance, even those specific for working holidays. Make sure you choose a policy with winter sports cover. I went with Outbacker Insurance.

Purchasing a long haul flight ticket at the last minute can be pricey, and if you're buying a one-way ticket it can be just as expensive as a return. Skyscanner is a great place to find the cheapest option. The Secret Flying website also offers cheap flight deals. If you don't mind stopping over at one or two locations, the flight is often cheaper. You could even decide to stop off at a couple of places on the way and make a holiday of it. Or if you're really adventurous you could travel the whole way by land and sea like this guy.

Hokkaido has lots of day-trip worthy places to visit, such as Otaru

Another thing you have to consider when booking flights is how much baggage you are taking with you. It's hard to travel light when doing a ski season, particularly if you have all your own gear and equipment. Swiss Air are one of the few airlines that offer free ski carriage. If you are doing some travelling along the way, you may wish to ship your gear to the ski resort in advance. Luggage Forward is one of the sevices that offer this. You can also ship your luggage upon arrival in Japan. Use the Takkyubin service to ship your bags to the ski resort while you enjoy some time travelling in Japan.

When it comes to winter apparel, you may wish to buy some of this upon arrival in Japan so that you don't have to travel with as much luggage. Although it is certainly possible to buy clothes in the ski resort, be advised that this comes at resort prices. Even though you may get a discount because you work at the resort, it still is at a higher cost than normal. It would be a better idea to buy winter gear in a major city where you can get a better price.

If you are taller, larger or have big feet, you may struggle to find what you need in Japan, as sizes are much smaller here. In which case, you may wish to bring any essential items with you. Particularly if you are living in rural Japan, the size (and indeed style) selection is not so great. I struggled to find a new pair of sandals this summer for my UK size 7 feet!

In terms of your ski/snowboard, if you arrive early enough in the season, you can often buy last season's ex-rental gear for a good price. Last year I bought a pair of ex-rental skis, and this year I'll probably buy an ex-rental snowboard. Buying at the resort saves you the expense of paying for oversized luggage on the flight, and of course schlepping it from the airport to the resort.

One Last Thing
Come with an open mind, willingness to try new things and immerse yourself in the culture and you are guaranteed to have an amazing experience.

Snow has already started falling in Niseko, but there are still plenty of seasonal vacancies available - so live the dream and get down here! See you on the slopes!

Follow me on Instagram for photos from around Japan.

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