My children (Sophie 7 and Ethan 5) and I recently went to Japan for a skiing holiday. It was the first time in Japan and our first time skiing. Because it was our first time in Japan and our first time skiing, I booked our holiday so that if the kids didn't like one part of it, we wouldn't be stuck there for too long. I decided that we would stay the first 2 nights in Tokyo, 5 nights in Hakuba and then our last 5 nights seeing the sights in Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto. As always, hindsight is a great thing.... These are the things we learned:
Stay the first night in Tokyo
After a 9 hour flight, arriving at night, with kids, another 3 hours of traveling to get to Hakuba is too much. Staying the first night in Tokyo is a great way for the kids and parents to unwind, get their bearings and have a good nights sleep. The reason for staying only 1 night will be apparent soon.
Skiing is awesome
Many people say that they love skiing, we loved skiing, I think the kids loved it more than I did.
Skiing is like being on a 5km long slippery slide and when you get to the bottom, you sit on a seat for a few minutes and the slippery slide starts again. 4 days of that isn't enough.
Some days the lifts are not operating or someone is a bit sick or tired. If someone gets hurt, they need a few days to recuperate - if you only have a few days of skiing, you tend to ski even if you are injured (I know this from experience) making it much worse.
I would have booked for us to stay 9 nights. In the end we extended our ski stay for 7 nights.
Hakuba is a great place to ski and a great town full of great people. It has yet to go full western which is awesome, though they cater to westerners really well. We stayed at Hakuba Hotel Ouigiya which is in a really great location, 3 minutes walk from the free ski shuttle and 7 minutes walk from a ski lift. If you really wanted to you could walk the 7 minutes to the lift, ski all over the mountain (using the many other lifts) and then ski back to the lift you started at in the morning and walk back to the hotel.
I initially booked the hotel because I thought it would be good for the kids to be able to socialise with other kids in the hotel, weirdly the opposite occurred. They socialised and skied with other kids on the ski slopes 8 hours a day, so by the end of the day all they wanted to do was sleep.
Skiing is a fantastic family holiday
We have been on plenty of family holidays, both overseas and in Australia. Skiing is the best family holiday by far. You all have breakfast together, talking about where you are going to ski for the day, go out skiing both together and on your own, meet for lunch and talk about skiing and the great things you have done, then ski until late afternoon. By the time the day is over, everyone is exhausted but at the same time exhilarated. Dinner conversation is as animated as it was at breakfast and lunch and then you all fall into bed excited for the next day of family fun.
Try self contained apartments
If I was to come again, we would stay in a self contained apartment, mostly because it would be easier and cheaper and we could cook our meals ourselves (some nights we struggled to walk the 5 minutes to a restaurant). Hakuba has a number of good sized supermarkets not far from the ski slopes, so buying food at decent prices is very easy.
In saying the above, staying at Hakuba Hotel Ouigiya made things really easy. The manager is also the owner of the hotel, you can see the passion in every part of the hotel. When we arrived at Hakuba bus terminal, the people there called him and he came and picked us up in 10 minutes. He also organised a discount on our ski gear hire and lift passes. Every time I went past the front desk, he was there - I am not sure he sleeps :-). The breakfasts were really good, especially if you want to skip lunch and ski all day.
You need about half the luggage you expect
Most days will be spent in your ski gear, so you only need clothes for after skiing and in the morning for breakfast. Your only wearing these clothes for a few hours a day and because its so cold, you don't sweat, so your clothes don't get dirty. You will need a jacket any time you are outside, you could just wear your ski jacket all the time but if it gets wet then your in trouble. I recommend you bring another warm jacket for night times. Don't bother bringing jumpers, they are useless against real cold.
I bought two pairs of shoes but I only wore my joggers the whole time. I thought my feet would get cold but they didn't. My joggers got saturated when I stepped in a puddle but dried (the hotel has a drying room for ski gear and other wet clothes) within an hour. Luckily I was wearing wool socks (which I highly recommend), so even when they were wet, my feet were OK.
You could only take one set of thermals to reduce luggage but I wouldn't recommend it. They get a bit smelly but not as bad as I thought. Smelly thermals is nothing compared to putting on wet thermals and going out in the snow.
Stay as close to the ski slopes as possible
Staying away from the ski slopes makes things much more difficult. Walking in your ski gear is laborious, so staying close to the free shuttle or a ski lift is very important. If you didn't have access to the shuttle, I couldn't imagine how painful it would be getting to the slopes every morning.
Many hotels sell discount lift passes
They are about 20% cheaper, which makes a big difference.
Ethan got free lift passes on Sakka Slope
I think if kids are under 6 they get free lift passes to the beginner slopes.
Buy heaps of snacks at the supermarkets
Snacks come in very handy when the kids get hungry. Buying 3 meals a day, every day can get expensive. In Japan snacks in decent sizes and nutritional quality can be hard to come by in a short time frame.
Fruit is hard to come by
We eat huge amounts of fruit at home. In Japan fruit isn't something that is easy to buy, I didn't see a single fruit store. You can sometimes buy apples/bananas singularly for a couple of dollars each from corner stores. The large supermarkets have more fruit options (though it is still expensive and limited) so if you want to eat fruit regularly, get it there.
Bring some movies
Skiing all the time gets exhausting. We found that after the 4th day of skiing we needed a rest. We considered going to the Snow Monkeys but the kids just wanted to have a relaxing day. Luckily I bought a USB stick with some movies on it, just in case I got sick and I needed to entertain the kids. Having some movies is a good insurance plan for a day inside.
Multi day lift passes might not be a good idea
If you are a beginner, your style is probably a little bad. This means you might hurt yourself (like I did). If you buy a multi day pass and cannot ski, you forfeit the sequential days you do not ski, there are no refunds.
Sakka Slope is fantastic for families
It has a children's ski area with a magic carpet lift. Sophie and Ethan spent a number of days practicing in the play area and it only costs 500 yen a day. The staff at the play area were fantastic and helped them learn to ski.
It has a massive dining hall with good food, free water, good coffee, toilets and other shops at good prices.
It has 3 lifts, two of which service the beginner slopes and one which services the top of the mountain.
You can get a Sakka Debut lift pass which gives you access to the two Sakka beginner slopes and only costs 2500 yen per day for adults and 1500 yen for kids over 6.
The free shuttle picks up from Sakka Slope every 30 minutes.
They have a ski school there that caters to international tourists.
Kids pick up skiing quickly
Because it was our first time skiing, Sophie and Ethan spent a few days on in the kids park. They worked really hard (6 hours a day) learning skiing to ski and I didn't have to ask them once :-). Once they were well and truly good enough, I took them on the beginner slope. Within 3 rides on the lift, they left me in their dust because, and I quote "Daddy is too slow". The next time I saw them was them riding the lift together waving at me with massive smiles on their faces. The next time I saw them was them going full speed down the slope. The only issue with them picking it up so quickly is having to watch them go down the slope faster than anyone else.
Get Yen in Australia
We didn't see many foreign exchange places in Japan. Weirdly its much easier paying with cash than it is using a card all the time this is doubly true if your bank charges big fees on foreign transactions. When you get to Hakuba, you can get Yen by withdrawing $400 max from the ATM (no idea what the margin is) or exchanging AUD cash for Yen at a 15% margin. Most restaurants in Hakuba take cash over card.
Budget per day
Our hotel cost us approx $300 per day (including breakfast).
Skis, boots, poles (only for me) and helmet hire cost us $100 per day (for the 3 of us) from Spicy Rentals Hakuba. There may be cheaper places to rent if you shop around. I rented from a place next to Sakka slope one day and it only cost me $30 for the day instead of the usual $40 from Spicy Rentals.
Lessons are about $100 per hour for 3 of you if you get 4 hour lessons. I would recommend that you get lessons for at least 2 hours, twice.
Our base cost per day in Hakuba was approx $500 AUD before meals, snacks and other costs.
One of the reasons I hurt myself is because my technique wasn't very good. I got lessons but probably should have gotten a couple hours more.
I would recommend that you get lessons for at least 2 hours, twice. Once you have the basics, practice them (this is what my instructor told me). This gives you time to turn what you have learned into more of a reflex and your muscles have gotten used to skiing. Once you are good with that, get a lesson to tidy up your technique.
Bring a multivitamin
Going from Australia to Japan was a bit of a shock to our systems. We left Brisbane when it was 36 degrees and 80% humidity, arriving in Japan where it was 1 degree. Because its so cold, you are walking between the cold outside and heated inside all day. Add to this that fruits and vegetables do not feature as prominently as noodles and rice on the Japanese menu and you quickly get a deficiency of vitamins. Both Sophie and Ethan got a cold, I purchased us all a "vitamin jelly" drink (I think it was called Vitamin 11) from the local convenience store and in 2 nights they were back to normal, I felt much better as well.
Don't bother buying duty free
Alcohol in Japan is very cheap in comparison to Australia. A 750ml bottle of Jim Beam is $17 AUD and 4L of decent Japanese scotch is $42 AUD, everything else is just as cheap. I noticed that cigarettes (if you are that way inclined) are $5 AUD for a packet of 20. Prices of alcohol and cigarettes seem to be almost exactly the same (within a few yen) everywhere we went.
It's colder and hotter than you think
I tried to think of a heading that didn't contradict itself but couldn't, sorry. I thought that 1 degrees would be really cold but weirdly it wasn't, I could happily walk around in normal Australian winter clothes... until the wind came up and then I was absolutely freezing. After skiing, you will need gloves, beanie and a really warm jacket - jumpers for the Australian climate are useless (I know from experience).
Bring moisturiser and lip balm
The cold and lower humidity make it feel very dry for your skin. I bought moisturiser and lip balm but ran out of moisturiser within a week. I went to a number of chemists but wasn't 100% sure of what I was buying. I got scared off completely when I tried one, it smelt horrible then checked the label which said "horse oil"....
Get a sim card at the airport
When we came through the airport at Narita, I was a little frazzled from being on the plane for 9 hours plus getting 2 kids and our luggage through the airport. I saw the SIM card place but figured I would get one somewhere else in Tokyo, I didn't see another place... Having a sim card would have allowed me to message the kids and our family, use Google Maps when we got lost and check out things as we traveled - it would have saved me from having to ask about Free WiFi at every establishment we ate at, slept in or walked past.
Bring clothes you can put in a dryer
Even though I bought more clothes than we ever needed, we still needed to wash some clothes. When its a couple of degrees outside and land is worth $100,000 AUD a square meter (in Tokyo), clothes lines are non existent. The only option is a dryer and in most places we visited, you could not control the drying temperature. In the end I just had to throw our clothes in and let the strongest survive... Some didn't and some (which said do not dry clean) did. The ones that didn't survive are going to be used as dolls clothes when we get home.