Feature: Snowboard instructing in Japan

By Ben Gibson
July 2007

As this is only my second season instructing in Japan, I am probably not the most qualified person to write about the subject. But if you are curious about working at a Japanese resort as an instructor, I can share what I do know about it.

My first season was at Karuizawa Prince, a few years ago. I was a part-time instructor, and managed to get the job though a friend who knew the head of the school. My Japanese was not stellar, and my qualifications consisted solely of my Level 1 Canadian instructors license (CASI). However, they thought it was novel to have a foreign instructor, which perhaps was my only saving grace as I sorely lacked practical experience. In the end, I was presented as any other snowboard instructor. There were one time I was asked to use English (my clients were from Hong Kong) but for the most part I taught in Japanese.

My second attempt at teaching came in the winter of 05/06, when I had applied to instruct at Mt Jeans in Tochigi. I went the more conventional route by writing a Japanese resume and having a phone interview. I was accepted, but unfortunately I was not completely healed from a previous knee surgery, and had to painfully give up the thought of snowboarding and instructing that winter. The school was understanding, and was not inconvenienced by my absence.

In the summer I left Tochigi for my favorite place in Japan, the prefecture of Nagano. However as winter approached, I decided not to return to Karuizawa, for various reasons. Although the staff were friendly, the hill itself leaves much to be desired. Unless of course, your idea of an ideal ski hill consists of icy sheets of man-made snow covering a tiny hill filled to the brim with beginner skiers and wanna-be thug snowboarders from Tokyo. They also violated a sacred tenent of the instructor-hill relationship for me; they did not give seasons passes (or any kind of passes at all, for that matter) to part-time staff. I could only ride when I was wearing the instructors uniform, and there were no other benefits.

So instead, I applied at a small hill called Yachiho. I had been there before, and was impressed with the atmosphere of the resort and attitude of the staff, despite having only about 4 lifts and 5 runs. The place exudes a feeling of fun as the lefties wear animal costumes as often as not, and sculpt large cartoon characters in the snow in their spare time (my favorite this year was the life-sized cat-bus from Totoro that was a hit with the kids). They also have dedicated a tremendous amount of energy into building a terrain park, which they maintain religiously. The staff all seem to genuinely enjoy working there, so it was hard from me not to be attracted to such a place, despite its inconvenient location and lack of powder snow.

As with Karuizawa, a friend who worked in the school gave me a good reference, and I was accepted without an interview (although by this time, I had worked at several major resorts in Canada, received my level 2, and my Japanese was passable). He came with me to introduce me to the school on my first day, and I had a very good impression of the school and staff.

The most important thing to me was that everyone seemed to enjoy what they were doing, there were smiles all around and it felt more like an extended family that the usual rigid formality of the usual Japanese workplace. But that is also the reason I chose Yachiho in the first place, it is a small local hill that reminds me of my home hill back in Canada.

And while Karuizawa pays more and has chances to work, Yachiho is the opposite. Being small and a little out of the way, it attracts less clientel, providing more opportunity for riding. Which is exactly what I wanted.

My first day was rather uneventful. Before I started I was briefed on the general procedure for lessons, and how the school operated. At Karuizawa, I was expected to give a demonstration lesson, and shadow an experienced instructor on their lesson. But here, it was much less formal. I was quizzed about Canadian teaching techniques, but was not asked to go out and observe other lessons (the other new instructor that day was).

In all other respects, the school functions like the schools I worked at in Canada. You meet the clients, and have your way with them for 2 hours, and try to bring them back alive. Perhaps the only major difference was the group warm-up at the beginning of each lesson (one in the morning, and one in the afternoon), which is usually left to the discretion of the instructor in Canada.

One of the major obstacles when I first started teaching was trying to describe various techniques in Japanese. For anyone like myself who does not speak Japanese fluently, it is a very good idea to shadow the Japanese instructors and pick up how they describe movements like ‘using your edge’ or ‘turning at the waist’. Plus, there is also the whole slew of terms like ‘up-unweighting’ and ‘upper-intermediate’ that have their own specific Japanese words (no getting away with just pronouncing them katakana-style!)

The next weekend I had my first lesson, with a pair of kids who had taken lessons before. They seemed a little nervous about having a western barbarian teach them snowboarding, but after they saw that I was not going to teach them English, they became very friendly, had a fun time sliding, and even signed up for afternoon lessons as well! (Which is not always the case. In Karuizawa I once had a pair of girls flat-out ask for another instructor right after they saw me the first time)

The main body of clientel are from Shizuoka and the neighboring prefecture of Yamanashi, rather than from Nagano. And there are very few foreigners who come to such and out-of-the-way resort, when Nagano offers places like Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen.

However, despite the fact that I was not a native Japanese speaker, the school seemed confident in my ability and had no problem assigning me lessons. Of course, some of the kids get a little shocked when they find out their instructor looks like a reject from the peanut gallery of "Nihon, Kore Wa Hen Da Yo!", but invariably they get over it and are chatty by the end of the lesson. I have not had a single unpleasant experience at the hill this season, and in fact had been requested by name to give a freestyle lesson in the park (where I spend most of my free time).

The average day might go something like this:

Get to the hill at about 9:30, after waking yourself up on the drive with some convenience-store coffee and some ska in the MD deck. As the ski school room is stuffed with instructors getting ready and smoking like it’s a law, I go to the lodge and stretch a little, and put on my boots. We should be ready with our uniforms on ten minutes before the lessons start. Actually, the snowboard instructors have no real uniform per se, we can wear our normal gear, with a jersey over top that marks us as school staff.

The head instructor then comes around and notifies everyone of who is teaching what. At about 10:00, we stretch with the students in front of the school, group them into their lessons, and then try to force them have fun for the next 2 hours.

We bring them back to the starting area by 12, and have lunch. Most of the instructors are heavy smokers, and unfortunately I have to sacrifice important socializing time with them to save my lungs for riding. I eat lunch alone, and choke back the tears.

We meet again at ten to 1:00, and go through the procedure all over again. If there be no students, we are required to wait for 15 minutes (in case of late-comers), and then we are released to ride as much as we wish. Some of the instructors go out on sessions, and practice their carving with each other. I’ve occasionally attended these sessions, but they seem to focus specifically on carving, which personally only amuses me for about 4 turns before I want to try something different.

Afterwards, we mark down if we taught or not, and sign out. Some schools also pay bi-weekly or monthly. Yachiho pays out at the end of the season, so it may not be ideal for someone looking to survive by working.

As someone new to the hill, I start off with a base salary of around 2000 per two-hour lesson (I am actually not certain of the correct amount, my motivation for working was the free seasons pass, not the money). The wage can go as high as 4000 yen per lesson, depending on qualifications and seniority at the hill. The seasons pass can also be used for discounts at some neighboring hills like Re-ex, but that is as far as the benefits extend.

At this point in the season, the majority of my students have been beginners, the majority of them being children. As with most schools, you sometimes get classes of mixed abilities and ages, which is unavoidable, but I have not yet had an unpleasant lesson yet. Of course, there are many small technical and philosophical differences in how snowboarding is taught in Japan, that might seem a little strange to someone who was brought up in North America.

The emphasis on fun is sometimes lost in the quest for technical ability, and while the perfect turn is the goal for many students, it is not a way of riding I particularly like to endorse. Of course improving one’s riding is important, for it allows one to enjoy a wider range of conditions. But here this obsession with technical progression is reinforced by such establishments as the badge-test system, where students can take tests and ‘rank’ themselves on a scale of 1 to 6, six being the lowest level. After passing level one, students can then apply to become instructors. It seems to be a system much like the belt grades found in the martial arts, which I find a little strange applied to a sport which has its roots in surf culture. The martial arts are very rigid, and (at the lower levels at least) require strict discipline to form. The surf-influenced sports like skateboarding instead very consciously de-emphasize form in exchange for self-expression (style) and enjoyment. For someone who has been snowboarding for a long time, this is immediately recognizable in the comparatively rigid and flowing riding styles of Japanese and North American kids.

However, when it comes down to it, there is very little reason to snowboard if not for some kind of personal fulfillment. After all, we spend a bunch of our disposable income gear, drive up to the mountains to spend time in the freezing cold wiping the snot off our noses, all for what? What is it that makes snowboarding and skiing so damn fun?

Whatever it is, I’m happy that I get to help people discover it for themselves.