Feature: International Snow Season Workers in Japan

2005

Ever wanted to come to Japan and get some of the powder you have been hearing so much about? Done a great deal of skiing/boarding overseas and perhaps met some Japanese folk doing the same? Have a significant other that also wants to come to Japan but worried you may not be able to find work/accommodation together? If you answered yes to any of the above, you are not alone.

Come with me in this volume of the setting journals as we meet a couple that has now “been there, done that” and survived to tell the story…

Opening Note

Snow resorts all over the world, including Japan, have been welcoming foreigners as seasonal workers for several generations now. To provide a historical perspective for the main part of the article that follows, a snow industry magazine was consulted and related copy posted immediately below. A brief update for the resort will then follow, which includes an introduction concerning the process of hiring seasonal foreign workers. This volume of the setting journals will then be completed with
an interview of the international couple mentioned at the beginning of the volume.

The following fictional conversation takes place in a bar at a snow resort town in America. It is between a veteran of the snow industry known as “Slats”, and the author of the fictional conversation, Seth Masia:

“I think everyone has moments when you could sell ‘em on wintersports.
Hell, skiers have been roping in foreigners since the beginning.”

“What do you mean?”

“The first skiers were Norwegians, and the ‘foreigners’ were Anglos. Didn’t matter if you could speak the language. Hell, the right language wasn’t even English, it was Scandihoovian. Back East, the Anglos caught on so fast that the ski clubs had to quit talking Norwegian in their meetings so their Yankee and Acadian neighbors could participate. And this when you couldn’t get on a golf course or tennis court unless you had Puritan grandparents. The thing is, skiing started as a sport for working people: miners and farmers.”

“That so?”

“Yeah. So skiers have been welcoming strangers into our midst right from the start.”

“Well, not always. If you’d wanted to get into a snooty New England ski club in, say, 1932, what would have happened?”

“Well, right. Those guys at the Lake Placid Club and Hochgeberg and New York Amateur Ski Club - they weren’t mountain town folks, they were visiting dilettantes from Nob Hill. Their big deal was to turn the sport into an exclusive club. But after the war - that would be World War II - you had immigrants and their kids building lifts and starting ski shops all over the country. The Ivies might not want you in their Lodge, but it was okay to ski on their hill.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. In this sport there’s a lot more prejudice against using the wrong binding than having the wrong grandparents. Think about it. If a guy skis the fall line and buys a drink once in awhile, he fits in. But if he looks weird - like he uses funny-looking skis or makes a different kind of turn - you sort of edge away. Until something even stranger comes along, and then he’s okay. Like we were suspicious of telemarkers in the ‘70S, and then snowboarders came along and made the free heel guys look pretty kosher. We sort of wondered about African Americans when they hit town, but they figured out how to ski and liked hanging out in bars, so now they are part of the scene, at least during school holidays.”

“Well, okay, but why don’t we see more brown faces around here?”

“The business, more than the sport, is an old boys’ club. It’s easy to join the sport. You just have to forsake all others and resolve to spend the rest of your life above 6,000 feet. But every time one of these guys starts a new business, he hires old friends. Most places, it’s self-perpetuating. You ever been to New Mexico?”

“Yeah.”

“Here’s Ernie Blake, a Jewish refugee. He arrives, sets up some lifts, and instead of sending to Dartmouth and Middlebury for help, he hires locals. That means Indians and Hispanics. Same all over the state. You get it at Tahoe, too - the resorts hired local kids, so they got children of Italian and Japanese farmers, Basque shepherds, Anglos from ranching and mining families, along with the usual carloads of socialites. Big happy family, right away.”

Out of bounds column titled “Emerging Markets”
P. 22-24
Ski area management magazine
January 2006

Update as of 12 May 2006

Family has been on my mind a great deal lately, as I find myself “sandwiched” between the generations. Further understanding of families came to light for me last month when I was working on the mountain as a substitute lift attendant. That day permitted me a chance to get to know a lift engineer better than the usual greetings in passing that we have exchanged for several years now…

The co-worker above is presently 33-years-old. A popular good-looking guy, an observer might be surprised to find out that he has yet to marry.  His story unfortunately is only too common in the rice-farming parts of Japan however. He is the oldest son in his family, so must assume the duty of looking after the family farm and produce an heir to assume the same role. Problem is, few want to marry into such a life these days, so he has spent his adult life to date working the fields each summer and manning the lifts at the resort each winter. Turns out most of the young lift attendants fit into this role, so the resort is blessed with a tight group of friends that return year after year…

During our conversation that day, the co-worker starts speaking about English communication & how it has become important, both for performing his duties given all the International guests as well as communicating with seasonal foreign workers. He spoke in particular about one snowboarder from New Zealand that worked at the resort this season, and how it was very enjoyable to communicate about boarding and the like with him.

With the family theme from the Sam magazine article above, it was at this point that everything fell into place. Here were two guys from very separate upbringings brought together into one big happy family, despite their lack of a common language. A scene repeated winter after winter at snow resorts all over the world. How did this come about?

To find out, lets meet both him and his lovely Canadian partner…

International Seasonal Workers, A Couple’s Perspective

Arai has just finished the fourth consecutive white season of employing seasonal foreign workers via the working holiday visa program. Although the first such employee via this channel had a tough time of things, gradually a system within the resort has fallen into place to enable additional hiring of such staff. For white season 2005-’06, six such staff members were hired to work in the ski school at the resort. While there is always room for more of such potential employees during the winter, the ones that make it through and actually work here end up making a real contribution to smooth operations (and most often enjoying themselves in the process).

So how does one go about getting a job at a resort like ARAI? Persistence pays is the short and the thick of it. In the case of this couple, e-mails and the like flew back and forth over a period of three months as follows:

22 October

Initial E-mail enquiring about work arrived at the resort

24 October

Reply forwarded requesting further details

26 October

Resume arrives & is circulated internally

29 October

Further details requested from the candidate

04 November

Further details arrive along with job request for partner

13 November

Work offered and intended arrival at resort set

07 December

Arrival postponed due to red tape related to travel documents

10 January

Red tape dealt with and follow-up enquiry for work forwarded

14 January

Work offered and intended arrival at resort set

25 January

Arrived at resort

With similar employees the above process has taken only one month, but for others it stretched out to almost half a year. Regardless, it requires time and resources from all parties involved. So is it worth it? Read on and see for yourself.

Can tell us a bit about your background?
His
My name is Mike & I’m from New Zealand. I grew up in a small town called Fielding, and it is where I began to skateboard and surf. From there I moved to Greymouth on the South Island, where I began to Snowboard. My studies there were successful, & I graduated from an Adventure Guiding course in 1998. Soon after I moved to Colorado in the United States for my first White Season in the Northern Hemisphere…
Hers
My name is Natalie & I’m from Canada. I was born in Montreal but raised and schooled in Toronto. As a child my weekends in winter were filled with ski lessons, cross-country skiing & playing in the snow. I studied to be an Early Childhood Educator at university, & since graduating have been following winters. It has given me great pleasure to experience snow on three different continents…

What position do you have at Arai? How did you get to that position?
His
I work in the Arai Guide Center where I teach kids how to ski. My research on Snow Japan led me to a few ski resorts with English web sites, and I applied for positions with them. Arai was one of the resorts that I got in touch with…
Hers
I am one of the many ski guides at the resort. I was able to match my skills of teaching children in English to this position thanks to Snow Japan. The English web site for the resort also impressed us, & came highly recommended from our Japanese friends…

 

Did you have any responses from other resorts in Japan?
Both of us applied to Tour Operators based in Niseko, Hokkaido that offered English-speaking tours. The responses we got were that although positions were already filled, if we made it up there both of us should pop in to the local offices.

Natalie applied to a few hotel resorts in and around Niseko that offered childcare, which were also found on Snow Japan. When we went to the related site link for these places and forwarded an e-mail asking about work for foreigners, their response was, “Can you speak Japanese?” Given that our level of the language was minimal at the time, employment with these places was out of the question.

We turned back to Snow Japan & wound up doing searches for resorts by prefectures, & that was when we stumbled across Arai. This time however the associated link led us to an English site for the resort that our browser could handle & voila, we had found our winter destination. Compared with our initial experiences above, it was relatively easy to get in touch with Arai to arrange employment.

What kind of qualifications do you bring to the job?
His
Seven years in the ski/tourism industry working at many international resorts as a qualified snowboard instructor, outdoor event coordinator & terrain park manager.
Hers
Three seasons within on-mountain childcare environments, backed by qualifications both as a qualified primary school teacher and early childhood educator.

 

What does your job involve (the whole wide picture)? And on a day-to-day basis?
His
My job involves looking after children aged 3 to 12 out on the slopes. The kids programs are not restricted to just skiing and snowboarding. The kids have the opportunity to take part in a number of fun activities involving snow. These include riding on a snow mobile and even being dragged by a snow mobile while sitting atop a large banana boat. Lessons are conducted in small groups of 2 - 3 kids (sometimes lessons are even one-to-one).  The program is composed of five steps. Characteristics of ability at each step include:

Step 1

First time on skis/board
Can ski/board straight but can’t stop by oneself

Step 2

Can stop by oneself
Practice turning
Can ski down easy slopes

Step 3

Can make turns on easy slopes
Challenge intermediate slopes

Step 4

Can ski down intermediate slopes while both turning well and controlling speed
Challenge steeper slopes
Conquer steeper slopes
Challenge various slopes

Step 5

Can ski down everywhere

 

My job involves teaching mainly English-speaking children up to and including level 3.
Hers
My main role is working as a guide in the Kids Adventure Program, where children learn to or continue learning mainly skiing in a group environment. The design of the lessons is such that skiing and having fun in the snow is strongly emphasized. That is, kids have wonderful enthusiasm and simply want to ski and then ski some more. The goal is that each child should finish the program and feel good about what they have accomplished, regardless of what step they eventually reached.

I start my day in the salon of the Guide Center at 8:30 greeting and registering guests. The full day program includes a "kids lunch" which the kids eat together with their coach. The kids are fully attended to until 3:30 pm when the course finishes. At the end of the day following ski time I once again greet parents and we discuss their child’s progress. As you can see, although the generic job description is ski guide, we’re actually responsible for quite a bit more.

Are you a skier/snowboarder? And for how long? Do you get to ski much now?
His
I’m a Snowboarder and have been riding since ‘98. Fortunately I get to ride Mt. Ohgenashi at Arai quite a bit! Given that my work falls on school holidays/weekends, I’m free to board with my complimentary seasons pass during the weekdays when the slopes are empty!
Hers
Skiing for me began at the age of four - I would ski in-between my Dad’s legs and then zoom off down the piste! Skiing dominated until my mid teens when I wasn’t able to get to the slopes so much. As an adult I developed an interest in snowboarding and have been participating in this sport for about 3 seasons now. Do I get to ride now? You betcha! When the resort is not busy I can’t get enough of the Japanese powder - perhaps one of the best kept secrets amongst riders in the know. I have had many epic turns this season, a lot to report home to family & friends about.

Have you managed to visit any other snow resorts during your stay in Japan?
Got a chance to check out a few resorts in the Myoko-Kogen area as well as Yuzawa & Iiyama. The terrain parks and half pipes were well developed, but the on mountain terrain was less enjoyable than Arai. We were stoked to be able to travel and experience other resorts in Japan, even if it was mostly just Niigata Prefecture. If we stick around for next winter, Hokkaido and Nagano will be on the list. With the sheer amount of snow that falls, we think Arai is the best because of the conditional zones and general steepness of the resort. We did not partake in any off-piste riding, so no comment on that area.

What do you think of the quality and quantity of Snow in Japan?
Japan excels in both quality and quantity of snow when compared to New Zealand. The past couple of winters in NZ have definitely been a MISS, with less snow falling each year. NZ has epic steeps and favorable terrain, but it is no fun sliding on ice and rocks!

There are so many resorts in Japan. How does ARAI try to set itself apart from other resorts? Is it difficult to do that?
His
Arai caters to the higher end of the International market, and so offers many exclusive activities such as esthetic treatments and snowmobile night tours. Although I don’t know for sure, my guess is that there are not many other resorts that offer such services in English.
Hers
I think Arai provides guests with a well-rounded vacation. Not only does it have great snow, but guests can also relax at a beautiful spa, or hibernate in their rooms. Parents know their kids will be well looked after (you should see the indoor kids playground!), so it is essentially a hassle free holiday.

Does Arai see itself primarily as a ski resort, or a hotel resort… and how does it go about marketing the resort?
His
Although it is a relatively new resort, I understand that the first of the three resort hotels opened in 1993 (the same year as the first of the slopes on the mountain), so in that respect it is still early times as far as defining itself.
Hers
I think Arai is both a ski and hotel resort - for some the main feature is the mountain but for others it is the resort hotels and their amenities. It has been designed so that the guest can choose how they primarily see the resort. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the International community has been drawn to the place?

 

What was your lifestyle like as a foreign couple working and living at a Japanese resort?
We lived in the Arai staff dormitory, Sanbongi, & were given a private room to share that included a bathroom. The kitchen is communal which worked well as it gave us a chance to mingle with Japanese co-workers.  Everyone was easy going and very helpful at all times, which made the initial transition quite smooth for us (important given our arrival from overseas just days earlier).  The Japanese staff with English skills did approach us more, that is understandable as they are more confident to be able to get their point across. But we had good times with all staff, and it definitely made it an enjoyable winter.

How do you see the Japanese winter sports industry going in the next 5 or 10 years and beyond?
His
The amount of snow here is next to unbelievable. Given that snow dictates everything, the future can only be good as more and more international powder hounds sniff this place out…
Hers
Japan has a lot to offer the skiers and snowboarders of the world! The snow here needs to be seen to be believed, and the world is not yet aware of this fact. Perhaps the next 5 years will see a travel boost to the region, but at the same time it is such a nicely hidden secret! Freestyle is something that can be expanded here as many skiers/boarders are looking precisely for that.

Do you have anything else that you wish to share with Snow Japan readers?
His
Niigata Prefecture needs to be visited at least once in your boarding life! Arai I understand is one of the more advanced mountains in the area, & is a great place to get both freshies as well as a true Japanese experience. I’ve ridden many other ski resorts in several countries but have never seen sooo much snow fall from the sky as I have here in Japan. 5-meter base, need I say more?
Hers
If you make it to Arai the Italian restaurant is a must! I’ve been riding in New Zealand (4 resorts), the US (California & Vermont), Western Canada (BC Interior) but have found new thrills in Japan! If you want to make some meaningful memories, be sure to check it out? I am still smiling just thinking about all the powder I have shredded…


Summary

It is obviously not for everyone, but definitely an experience for those that are up for it. Somebody famous once said “ You are the sum of your life’s experiences”. If you like powder, Japan should be one such experience of your life at some point.

Arai would like to take this opportunity to thank Michael & Natalie for coming to work at the resort, and all the other seasonal foreign workers that have preceded them. The resort has become a better place because of their efforts, and future seasonal foreign workers will benefit from the tracks that they have made…

This volume of the setting journals is dedicated to both seasonal foreign workers & guests (who made their employment possible) that have graced the resort to date.  Together, everyone has done their bit to keep Arai one big happy family.