All throughout high school I studied Japanese language. Each year my class got smaller but I really enjoyed it, and by the time I was in my senior year, I was the only person left in the class. I stuck at it for five years, but when I began university, I just stopped. What a waste!
Then one day, while sitting in the library in between lectures, an old friend from high school bumped into me. He asked if I would be interested in a job at a ski resort hotel in Japan over the New Zealand summer, as his cousin was one of the managers there. I’m super into snowboarding and thought this would be a great opportunity to continue my study of Japanese. About three months later, I was on a flight direct from Christchurch International to Narita Airport where I would spend 4 nights in Tokyo before moving to Hakuba in Nagano for the next two and half months.
My First Impressions
Japan is clean. Flying into Tokyo – a city of 13 million people – I expected a lot of litter and graffiti, but there was none. Between giant high rise buildings, a massive subway system and countless poorly lit alleyways, I didn’t see any graffiti the whole time. For a country with such a complicated litter system (rubbish must be separated into burnables and non-burnables, and non-burnables need to be organised into glass, cans, and plastic bottles with the labels and caps removed, plus only certain types of cardboard are accepted for recycling) there was no litter. When trains stopped in at stations, workers would even jump in with a backpack vacuum cleaner and give the carriages a once over.
Japanese people are so nice. They are so trusting and honest. People will be sitting in a packed café in a train station and they’ll just stand up and leave their laptop/bag/wallet unattended at a table as they walk up to order. They are so patient, they’ll wait as you stumble through a sentence in Japanese and let you practice, even if they speak English.
For example, during my time in Tokyo, I was trying to go to an aquarium but got off at the wrong station and had to ask for directions. I found a man sitting out on the riverbed I was walking around having his lunch break, and asked “魚の動物園は どこですか”, which translates to “Where is the fish zoo?” He didn’t know, but he googled it for me and showed me how to get there on his phone, then taught me the word for aquarium.
Japan is efficient. The subway system and bus system run to the minute. If the timetable says a bus will leave Shinjuku at 8:15am and arrives in Hakuba at 1:16pm, it will hit those times perfectly. Once I wrapped my head around the rail system, it was so easy. Originally I was trying to work out where I was going, how much it costs, and buying a paper ticket every time I wanted to train somewhere (which was multiple times a day), but once I bought a suica card, everything was so much easier. I would just top it up, scan as I entered a station, and scan as I exited the next station where it would deduct the fair automatically.
Where I Stayed in Tokyo
In Tokyo, I stayed in an art gallery/youth hostel called ArtnShelter. It was super cheap and a really cool atmosphere. I slept in a box about 130cm tall and wide and 220cm deep. It was right beside a train station which made life super easy, and downstairs they had a bar, which was completely angled towards getting people talking to strangers and meeting new people. One of the ways they did this was by making shots 50% off if you bought one for a stranger.
What I Did in Tokyo
I was painfully aware of how little time I had in Tokyo so I had to get straight into my touristy sightseeing.
I arrived on the 29th of November at about 4:45pm, but because I had to get a residency card to be able to work here, I didn’t get through customs and out of the airport until around 6pm. I went straight to my hotel in Narita (about 1.5 hours by train north of Tokyo central) to drop my bags and then went out for dinner. After 15 hours of travelling, I wasn’t up to much else!
On the 30th, I made my way from Narita down to Shinagawa, where I would be staying for the rest of my time. Instead of going direct, I caught my first train underneath the airport to Ueno, where I was able to walk around the famous Ueno Park and visit Ueno Zoo.
On the 1st, I caught a train up to Jimbocho, a full district in Tokyo purely dedicated to ski and snowboard shops. Literally hundreds of snow sport shops all right next to each other, including department stores of up to 8 stories tall selling goggles, clothes, boards, skis, bindings, boots and everything else you could possibly need.
On the 2nd was my trip to the Shinagawa Aquarium, where I discovered that Japan goes crazy for Christmas. All of the fish tanks were fully decorated, inside and out, where scuba divers conducting shows and feeding the fish were dressed up as Santa Claus.
On the 3rd I did my final site seeing, visiting Zojo-ji (a massive Buddhist temple built at its site in Tokyo in 1598) and taking the elevator up Tokyo tower where I could see out over the whole city and more, as far as Mount Fuji. Later, I went to Shinjuku to catch the 6:15pm bus to Hakuba, where I would live for the next two months.
I arrived in Hakuba expecting layers of snow, but it was just cold with no snow in site. On the 4th, I walked around the town and settled in to my new home. I share a room with 3 other guys; it is split into an upstairs bit and a downstairs bit, with two beds in each. There was very little space and no storage at all. The only heater in the room was downstairs, and the window in the upstairs bit had no curtains, so me and my roomie set out to make some renovations; covering the window in bubble wrap and making a spider web of wire between the walls and roof to hang stuff from.
We started work on the 5th of December, and for the first 10 days I wasn’t enjoying life. The hotel I work at closes for 6 months over summer and is just locked and left on the last day of the ski season, so it requires a lot of TLC when it needs to open up again. I spent 10 days shovelling snow, chopping firewood, changing lights bulbs, moving furniture, dusting, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, removing bee hives, and other fun stuff like that.
But then I got to start my proper job as a concierge. A standard work day for me is waking up at 6am to negative double digit temperatures, walking downstairs to sit in front of a heater and eat breakfast before layering up and walking 10 minutes to work at 7am. The first hour I spend shovelling snow out of the driveway and clearing it off the vans, filling up the kerosene heater in the hotel drying room, filling up the firewood in the hotel restaurant and sweeping the entrance way. From 8am to around 10:30am I load skis and people in and out of the vans and drive them to the various resorts in the valley. From 10:30ish to 1pm, I take the hotel and staff accommodation rubbish to the dump, shovel the carpark, driveway, pathways and roof, shop at the supermarket for the kitchen and answer phone calls in the office. I get a break from 1-3pm which if I’m quick is enough time to run up to the nearest chairlift and get some runs in. Then from 3-5pm I’m picking guests up from the ski resorts. 5-6pm is spent filling the vans, shovelling more snow and closing up the shuttle service for the night.
My Days Off
I get two days off per week (usually) which I normally spend up at Hakuba Goryu ski field where I have a season pass. I wish I could get out to other resorts in the valley too, but because pay is monthly, I have to be pretty strict with my budgeting.
If I’m not out snowboarding on my day off, I’m trying to explore various places. One week I switched my days off around to get 3 in a row, and was able to visit a mate in Tokyo. We spent a few days site-seeing, including a full day hiking around various temples in Kamakura. This week, another friend of mine came to Hakuba for two days and we trekked out to see the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Hot Springs. We went up for his first day snowboarding the next. Some nights, I am able to head up the mountain after work for night skiing, but as only one slope is open, I usually head home to shower, eat and sleep after my 11 hour work day.
The Best Parts
This working holiday has been great for my Japanese language skills. With constant exposure to Japanese writing, I’ve become a much faster reader and have learnt so many more kanji characters. Hearing the language daily has made me a much better listener, but working at an English speaking hotel where all the other staff are Australian has meant I haven’t had as much conversation practice as I would like. However, my trips to the supermarket and interacting with locals has given me a lot of opportunities to speak anyway. I am now much more enthusiastic and motivated to continue my Japanese study when I return home.
The Worst Parts
Working 7am to 6pm, 5 days a week has been really tough. This was especially the case during big dumps of snow, as all of the shovelling can make me completely exhausted and super moody. The amount of time I have to commit to work means I don’t get as many opportunities to snowboard and explore Japan as I would like, and it means I have to prioritise what I want to do with my time off.
My Final Thoughts
Overall, I have really enjoyed this experience. For someone who has no summer job and really wants to study the culture and language, I think it is an amazing opportunity!
However, would I do it again? No. I will definitely come back to Japan, but I think my plan for next time will be to work in New Zealand, then travel here for 4 weeks on a budget backpacking holiday. While I won’t have the constant exposure to the language that I have had for the last 2 months, I will be able to do much more travelling, and hopefully backpack from the southern tip all the way up to the north.
About the Author
Tom Maslin is a second-year Mechatronics Engineering and German Language student, at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
He is an avid snowboarder, track and field athlete, and works as a private tutor for NCEA high school students in Mathematics and Science.