Bec Brown

 

Us Australians love our snow sports and will chase great powder across the globe.

Thanks to the world-famous ‘Japow’, we're everywhere on Japan's snowfields, particularly Niseko (which, if you've been to Indonesia and seen the Australian invasion, you'll understand why Niseko’s sometimes known as 'Bali on ice'), but other towns like Hakuba and Nozawa are becoming just as popular. 

 

If the Western takeover of Niseko is a 9/10, Hakuba probably sits at about a six or seven.

The upside when visiting is that it's not such a culture shock – you’ll be easily understood speaking English, you can still eat foods you may be used to at home - it's simply not so difficult a trip.

But there's a risk of having a really Western experience and not fully appreciating the incredibly unique Japanese culture that's right in front of you.

Here are a few tips to make sure you get to savour this amazing country, without feeling like an alien.

Learn some phrases before you go

A simple ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘good morning’, ‘I'm sorry’, ‘I don't understand’ goes a very long way.

You're in someone else's country, have the respect to learn some of the language and you'll have that respect returned (or at least appreciation as they laugh in good humour at your clumsy pronunciation.)

‘Hai’ means yes. You say it a lot, not only to say ‘yes’, but also as a general acknowledgment to express anything from ‘I understand’, ‘I agree’, ‘right’, or ‘got it’.

Being such a food lover, 'oishii, arigato!' ended up being my most used phrase because it means ‘delicious, thank you!’.

Eating out 

Restaurants are generally tiny so you must book for dinner.

If you're too nervous about not being understood on the phone, either drop in during the day and do it in person or ask your hotel to make the booking for you. 

Though be wary - some restaurants are only opened for the ski season and are 100% designed for foreigners. They’re great if you’re after a fun night with a buffet of standard Japanese food you’ll recognise, or the typical Teppanyaki egg-caught-in-your-mouth-off-the-grill thing, but you can get that at any decent Japanese restaurant back home. We preferred going where the locals actually go to eat, so make that clear to whoever is making the booking for you.

 

Be warned when going where the locals go though, you will need to understand some of the greeting/ordering phrases and you may not totally know what you’re eating until it arrives (although many menus have pictures.) We had Double Black Hotel’s incredible concierge Keiko write down a list of her favourite dishes that wouldn’t be found in the more Western places – some were amazing (like smoked Japanese pickles with mascarpone cheese) - others awful, but trying new things - that’s the idea!

Onsen etiquette

Soaking in a traditional onsen – an indoor or outdoor hot spring - is one of the very best parts of Japanese culture.

In an outdoor onsen, the volcanic water sits around 43 degrees while all around you is well below freezing.

And because it would be incredibly bad form to film or photograph, here's the view, taken from the balcony above, that you’d get while in one.

 

Nudity isn't optional, it's gear off or no entry.

There are separate change rooms for each sex and the more conservative ones have a fence down the middle of the onsen to separate the ladies from the lads. 

You strip off and leave your belongings in a locker and only take a small towel if you want it for modesty.

Inside are communal showers, most have soap provided so use it, but make sure you wash off all the suds. Basically you should be sparkling clean before you go anywhere near the water of the onsen itself.

Get in and enjoy. It will be hot!

It goes without saying – there are no phones, no selfies, no splashing, no loud talking – it’s a quiet, relaxing time. Imagine you’re in a Day Spa.

Coffee

The coffee isn’t what you’re used to in Australia, but depending on where you go, it’s actually pretty tasty.

If you can, stick to the green tea. The roasted green tea is particularly flavoursome and full-bodied.

In most cafés you can order a latte but if you want it even half as strong as home, ask for a double shot. 

Just please don't be that person who bangs on loudly about how the flat whites aren't as good as Richmond, Bondi, North Adelaide, Fortitude Valley or Mount Lawley.

Otherwise I found the filter coffee pretty good – better than the U.S. and always piping hot.

I wouldn’t recommend buying the bottles of coffee that come out of vending machines, no matter how novel it is to get a hot drink from one. In my opinion, it tasted like the smell of sewer water, undrinkable, and I threw it out after one (awful) sip.

And if you’re in the area (or really can’t live without your espresso), go to the Aussie Cafes like Hakuba’s Rabbit Hole where they have proper machines and use beans from Allpress or Double Black Hotel who have Illy.

 

Things you should know:

  • Tipping isn’t customary in Japan so no need to do it (unless you absolutely loved the service, then I’m sure it’s appreciated).
  • Get plenty of cash out at ATMs in Tokyo before you arrive – lift-ticket offices and hotels will accept plastic but almost everywhere else is cash only.
  • Shoes off inside at most places.
  • If staying at a Japanese owned hotel, request a non-smoking room.
  • Correct way to tie your Kimono or Yukata - Left over right. The opposite way of right over left? Only used at funerals, reserved for corpses in coffins. Younger Japanese probably won’t care, but the older generations may find it disrespectful.
  • Bullet trains are an amazing way to get anywhere in Japan– the Shinkansen train takes you straight from Tokyo to Nagano station and then it’s only an hour bus ride to the Hakuba slopes. Comfortable, clean and power outlets to charge your phone and laptop (Aussies, you need a U.S. style adapter by the way.) Snowboards and skis can also fit in the overhead luggage compartment. These trains run meticulously on time so don’t be late.

 

  • There are overhead powerlines EVERY WHERE in Japan and Hakuba is no exception. They’re pretty ugly and don’t make for a very scenic photo. Either visually embrace them as part of the Japanese experience, or head out to the countryside where you won’t see so many.
  • Catch the sunrise from the bridge over the Matsukawa River. It was a 5am start and -10, so the coldest photoshoot of my life, but an experience (and photos) of a lifetime. And not a powerline in sight.

 

Bec Brown is an Australian PR Director obsessed with all things travel, food and fitness.

Instagram: @becbrowncommunications Twitter: @becbrowncomms

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.