In many ways, Japan resembles its most beloved dish: ramen. It’s seemingly simple on the surface, just noodles and broth, right? Wrong. Miso, shio, shoyu, tonkatsu, tsukemen, eggs, kimchi, butter, corn, you name it—there is something for everyone. It’s complex, diverse, and seriously nuanced. Much like ramen, it’s easy to reduce the country of Japan to a few key bullet points: big cities, lots of people, and a whole mess of electronics. Great, so why should anyone go there? You go for the contrast. It’s about expanding your frame of reference and understanding the Japanese culture.
The majority of inbound flights from the United States land in the afternoon at Narita and Haneda International Airport. For those of us from the states, the time difference can be a real drag. In order to combat the pangs of jetlag, it’s best to stay up and head into Tokyo, which is a short train or bus ride away. Take advantage of the luggage forwarding service provided at most airports and send your gear to your final destination. It’s simple, inexpensive, and saves you the pain of lugging your bags around. Storage lockers are an alternative option. Either way, liberate yourself and head on in.
Upon entering Tokyo all of your senses will be assaulted. It is an endless sea of skyscrapers, food aromas, fluorescent signage, and people. At first glance, it’s pure madness. However, when you dig a little deeper, there is a high level of structure within the soup of chaos. The skyscrapers loom over the city like giant obelisks, yet seem to fit together and complement the area they inhabit. The people move with purpose, flowing in and out of traffic as if following the path of least resistance, holding steadfast to a set of unspoken rules of pedestrianism. There are many districts within Tokyo that provide satisfaction for various personalities. Video game centers, bars, food, and so much more blend together seamlessly throughout various boroughs of Tokyo, all of which are connected by a hyper-efficient underground train system so large that it’s difficult to comprehend the scale.
Roughly 36 million of the 127 million people of Japan reside in the greater Tokyo area. That’s close to the entire population of California concentrated in one city. The rest of the population of Japan fits into an area that is roughly the size of California. That’s a lot of people in a small space. It’s like butter in ramen. On the surface, it seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does and it’s amazing. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the multitude of ingredients that make up Tokyo. It’s overwhelmingly balanced.
So, you might be wondering if quiet refuge is attainable within Japan at all. Despite the improbability, it’s possible. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the winter, hop on a short flight to Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo. It’s the gateway to some of the deepest and greatest snow on earth.
After a brief train ride from New Chitose Airport to Sapporo, you’ll notice a glaring contrast from the dense city of Tokyo. Pedestrians move slower, the buildings are shorter, and the lights don’t seem as bright. There’s a tangible shift in mentality in the North. However, it is clear that the core values of Japanese culture remain the same. Dedication to work, immense kindness, and social contracts like no phone calls on public transport are vehemently observed.
The train still reigns as king of public transport on the island, but buses are prolific. Either option will deliver you to the Niseko/Grand Hirafu area for a reasonable rate. However, if you choose to take the morning train from Sapporo there’s a transformation that is astonishing to behold. As the train pulls out of the station, you’ll experience the classic Japanese train scene. It’s close and uncomfortable, but after a brief transfer in Otaru, the train begins to thin out. The scenery changes from metropolitan city to country farmland. The buildings are older and more spaced out, weathered by time. Eventually, what’s left is a weary group of travelers meandering through the countryside. The stillness of it all is quite serene.
Disembark at Kutchan station. It’s quaint compared to the larger stations of Japan, which makes navigation simple. Head towards the front and catch a bus or taxi. If you time it properly, the bus is cheaper than a taxi and quite easy. However, after many hours of travel, the convenience of a taxi is a favorable choice. Many of the taxi drivers speak a little English, but it is best to have the name and address of your destination pulled up on your phone. The drivers are swift and precise, so hold on and enjoy the ride.
Niseko Village is a small town near the base of Mount Yotei, an unavoidable and stunning volcano that fills the horizon. The majority of travelers will end up here. Ski resorts, restaurants, and hotels are concentrated just off of the main street and are easily accessible. However, things can get fairly busy in this area. If you are able to rent a passenger van, it will open up the island of Hokkaido. Vans allow you to slow down and free yourself of a time table. Ultimately, renting a van will allow you to savor the island.
Ski resorts like Rusutsu, Moiwa, and Kiroro are only a short drive away. The areas are much smaller than Niseko United, but they each have valuable traits that make it worth the drive. Rusutsu combines the quirky themes of an amusement park with a ski resort. The animatronic creatures serenade the resort center and its patrons. An outdoor amusement park, equipped with a Ferris wheel, remains dormant as it collects snow. It’s truly a strange and unique experience. The terrain is extremely playful and full of deep glades, and the resort has even created a natural terrain park for skiers and snowboarders. Kiroro focuses heavily on side country access, which requires filling out additional forms with the resort. Located on the second floor of the main lodge, the Mountain Club offers riders access to areas that would otherwise be off limits. Be sure to bring your beacon, shovel, and probe if you want to access this terrain. Moiwa, the closest resort to Niseko Village, is truly a gem. Of the three lifts, there is only one quad. This quad provides access to some of the most fun terrain in Hokkaido. Trees, fun pillows, and endless pow all day. Skiers and snowboarders seeking solitude can tour out of bounds, though these three resorts are seldom crowded and offer a lot of fantastic and accessible terrain. It’s hard to beat.
After a full day of skiing, you’ll be tired and hungry. The best way to relax is an onsen, preferably open air. Natural hot springs are littered throughout the landscape. Take a load off and soak your aches away. Expect to leave the onsen euphoric but incredibly hungry. So what do you do? Follow your nose. Japan’s food culture is incredibly rich and complex. There’s something for everyone. From convenience store snacks and food truck pizza rolls to ultra-seasonal Kaiseki restaurants, food is taken very seriously. Establishments generally concentrate on a few simple but delicious dishes. No matter the echelon of dining, chefs are highly practiced and dedicate themselves to improving their craft. There are no shortcuts. Sit back, bring your best chopstick skills to the table, and be adventurous. You will not be disappointed.
Travel, to me, is about the frame of reference—experiencing the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s not always glamorous, it’s not always comfortable, but the more you travel the more that frame of reference expands, leading to a more patient, resilient, and understanding self. I can think of no other place that broadens the mind more than Japan. Much like ramen, as soon as you’ve had some, you’ll be left craving more.
Suun Kim was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Upon moving to Utah, his parents devoted their free time to exposing their children to national parks, monuments, and forest lands. Packing in to the car and watching scenery zip by from the backseat seemed like a burden to Suun at the time but these trips would ultimately shape his interests. He discovered a passion for photography and videography that kindled a deep seeded desire to travel and document his journey. When not working for Backcountry.com, he can be found on his bike, on his skis, or on the road with camera in hand. You can follow him on Instagram @suun.kim.