Après Ski? Teaching Skiing in Japan

Rebecca Speare-Cole shares her experience teaching skiing in Niseko, Japan. She has since taught in Thredbo, Australia – next stop Whistler, Canada.

After waving my friends goodbye at a brunch in Fulham, I arrive many hours later at an old green hostel building. It’s buried in metres of snow and looks worrisomely feeble, a bit like a toy house built out of flimsy cardboard. I know no one, it’s late at night, and I am in the middle of western Hokkaido, Japan.

Inside my new home, I find 40 people crammed into dorms, sharing four toilets and three showers. There’s a bunch of noisy Aussie boys sitting round and chatting. I can’t understand a word of what they are saying:

Them: “Yeah nah, she like fucking shreds man.”

Me (thinking): “Shred? Shreds what? Paper?”

So enter tiny-little-posh-English-lit-grad me into the international ski season scene. I wasn’t supposed to be such an alien. I had done a season in Switzerland four years ago. But a bunch of gap year kids getting drunk at après was nothing to these hard core snow people, completely invested in the life.

Rewind a few months. I was fresh out of finals at UCL and facing the inevitable, ‘what the fuck do I do with myself now’ moment. I thought I’d had it all mapped out. In twenty years, I would be killing it. Perhaps running a corporate law firm, editing a global magazine or maybe producing the crème-de-la-crème of tv/cinema. Just had to pick one, right?

Wrong. The reality hit that I knew nothing about anything (except maybe for Shakespeare sonnets). Life path options were too overwhelming. So was the greasy ladder which so many millennials are cowering under. Mine was your average crisis of ‘tying oneself to a desk, staring down the barrel of the gun, this being it’ and all that. My rather ropey reaction to this dilemma was a ski instructing job in Niseko.

To fill in the gaps, Niseko is a rapidly expanding resort in Hokkaido. The terrain is a powder playground for at least three months. Pistes are lined with bamboo forests that offer untrodden lines and drops. Whilst days spent in the Japanese backcountry, with no infrastructure for miles, is nothing short of pure adventure. As a European it’s odd to think of eating sushi for lunch instead of raclette or fondu. On the other hand most Europeans don’t even know you can ski in Australia. For the Southern Hemisphere, Thredbo is special in its communal energy. It’s totally devoid of the sterile, chichi atmospheres found in so many European resorts. The list gets longer with my next stop- Whistler.

It sounds idyllic and carefree, doesn’t it? Following the winter around the world. Skiing Fuji-esque volcanoes to night-time flare runs and lakeside festivals in Australia. This is what I can wake up to, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re feeling jealous right now.

However (and it’s a big however), most of our days are actually filled with screaming Asian toddlers. They refuse to make pizza slice shapes, and poo their pants on purpose so their parents will pick them up. On the other end of the spectrum, you’re battling to convince a middle-aged man that you do know what you’re talking about- with all due respect- more than he does. Somehow your irritatingly expensive layers do nothing against mean wind and needle pricking snow. Then, at some point, you inevitably lose your gloves to unprepared, underdressed clients. The words to describe this particular experience with a brutal hangover on board are beyond profane. So I won’t even go there.

You jealous now?

It’s not a holiday. It is hard work. And everything you earn or save just about covers the few months, then goes back into getting yourself to the next place. Sometimes it really does beg the question of why we all keep going back for more.

Yet, trading in life staring at a laptop for that view of Mt. Yotei is the smartest choice I’ve made so far. When it’s a good day, it is quite simply unbeatable. I’m not just talking about the occasional euphoric moment but the education of the whole experience. Every season- every day in fact- offers an abundance of new situations and challenges to cope with.

So the long haul life plan is out for now. It’s not for everyone and not everyone gets it. On returning from Japan, one of the first questions a friend asked me was, “are you just going to be a ski bum then?” I don’t blame her. It’s a mere lack of understanding and I was definitely guilty of the same mentality pre-Japan.

What I do know is how we work outdoors for hours on end. We build incredible levels of fitness. We teach. We also learn. We understand how the body moves and what it really means to have stamina. But most importantly, we work with all manners of people, adapting our teaching methods to the different individuals we encounter on a daily basis. Age, nationality, gender, they are all irrelevant constructs in ski land. Within our microcosmic world, all our friends are worlds apart. Aussie teenage surf boys become best buds with ex-banking Argentinian women- or recent English literature graduates like me.

So far, working in the snow has been the really indelible education (and not just one that teaches you what ‘shred’ or ‘send it’ really means).

Rebecca is a BASI Alpine Level 2, going onto CSIA Level 3 Ski Instructor. She has just finished a season teaching skiing in Thredbo, Australia and is next heading to Whistler, Canada.