Riding in Costume - Snowboard Japan

Words & Pictures: David Trayner

Published: October 2008

Fancy dress is synonymous with one too many, right? Not in Goryu-Hakuba 47 resort - Japan, where every month free lift tickets are given out to those in costume! David Trayner explains...

Santas in the Snow - Looking fresh

The scene from the lift is a little unconventional. The chap grinding the rail appears to be Santa Claus. As he pulls a 180 off it, he’s passed by a crouching Father Christmas approaching a kicker. At the side, another Chris Cringle stands, sharing a joke with a couple of reindeer. In fact the whole slope is a red sea of Santas!

What’s going on? Is it another poor Disney attempt at a snowboard film? Perhaps an ill-advised seasonal experiment of on-slope drug taking? No, it’s Christmas Eve at Goryu-Hakuba 47 ski resort in Japan. Once again the phrase “only in Japan!” springs to mind.

Goryu has a simple yet genius policy: If you wear a Christmas outfit at Christmas, you can board/ski for free. Now that is Christmas spirit. Once again the Japanese have taken something – snowboarding and Christmas – and made it better (Okay, that’s two things, but who gives a chopstick? This combination certainly works better than their experimentation with pizza and seafood). I love fancy dress, I loooove snowboarding and I’m highly in favour of freedom. Having the opportunity to combine all three was like your girlfriend letting you drink beer and watch football while she gets busy.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? NO! It's Doraemon and Stitch!

The day started in our wooden mountain cottage, with my flatmate Dom and I surprising our Japanese girlfriends of the time, by coming down for breakfast in identical Santa costumes and distributing presents - Ms. Santa outfits. I’m sure I will only receive those innocent and unabashedly excited looks once I have kids. On second thoughts maybe I should prepare myself for “that’s not what I wanted”.

When we got to the hill it was my turn to feel like a child. You might think that the Japanese are a little reserved and that only a few people, mainly foreign idiots like my flatmate and I, would have been dressed up - yes, the Japanese are reserved when they’re serving green tea, but when there’s a clear and safe opportunity to go mental, they grab it by both hands and bite it manically - Have you seen Japanese television? The whole mountain was a Santa-fest!

Looks like everyone's at it...

The sheer novelty of snowboarding in a resort (technically two resorts) where everyone is in costume was amazing. I normally feel a common kinship with other snow sports enthusiasts, but with everyone being in costume, it felt like we were all part of some giant gang.

Although boarding with an entire mountain of fancy-dressed folk was unique, by no means was this a freak occurrence. The previous season I’d been a regular visitor to Goryu thanks to a handy train link and excellent accommodation provided by the Hakuba Alps Backpackers. On one such visit I was making my final run down the hill when, turning the corner, I was met by a particularly strange sight: Winnie the Pooh, Pluto, Hello Kitty and a chicken loitering on the piste.

Having been in Japan for a year at this point, I’d learnt the Zen-Japanese art of not reacting to very weird things, so rather than worry about their sanity, I approached them and enquired politely as to why the hell they were dressed like cartoon characters. They informed me that if in costume, Goryu let you ski for free on every third Sunday of the month. Bingo.

OK - the Santa costume was my idea, everyone's copying me...

A couple of months later I returned with reinforcements. With me, I had a cat, an elephant, Stich, Pikachu, that one-eyed dude from Monsters Inc., Doraemon (classic Japanese cartoon character) and Kamen Rider (classic Japanese TV character). I was dressed as an “oba-san” (old Japanese woman, literally ‘aunt’). We had a rad morning riding together, soaking up the attention and occasionally spotting other people in the know- but eventually, differing abilities separated us.

Somehow I ended up with the only two of the group not in costume – my usual riding buddies Billy and Gerry. Though not brought together by a common love of looking like a tit, we were all powder hounds. We were heading back from Hakuba 47 to Goryu via the Adventure Course – a rarely-opened, un-pisted run that ran between them.

Hey Santa, aren't you a bit young to have a beard that long - and that white? Nice goggles though Rudolph.

Unfortunately it had turned into a mogul field and ended up being about as much fun as going to the dentist and having root canal. About halfway down we stopped to express how much fun we weren’t having and it was then our eyes drifted into the forest that separated the two resorts. I select my riding buds based on how rarely they answer “No” to “Do you think we should…?”, so we set off through the trees after a mutual wave to caution.

Although 47 has a more liberal backcountry policy (i.e. I’ve never got caught), Goryu, like many Japanese resorts, frown on it (i.e. I’ve nearly been caught on several occasions). For this reason, it probably wasn’t a great idea to rejoin the piste next to a lift station, but in our defence we had no idea where we were going. The lift queue must have been surprised to see an old Japanese woman bursting out of the trees!

I wonder if they went to the pub looking like this...

Meanwhile, ‘Doraemon’, had a very unlucky day. As a beginner he got separated from the group early on and for some reason he’d decided to wear only his glasses - despite it being a total whiteout blizzard. Needless to say, they smashed as a result of him going over a jump he hadn’t seen and so he spent the rest of the day riding around alone, virtually blind and dressed as a cartoon character. To make matters worse, he accidentally stole someone’s board at lunch - but amazingly ended up finding them later on! It must have been a strange experience for that person receiving their board back from a blind foreigner, dressed as Doraemon?

Regretfully, my day as Santa on the slopes had to be cut short, needing to take an early train back home, ready to get up early for work the next day –  Christmas Day! And I wasn’t even handing out presents.

Riding in costume, isn’t only confined to the land of the rising sun however.

An excellent day in Switzerland springs to mind when nine of us did a pub-crawl down the mountain. That day, my costume - thrown together in an extremely hung-over state, consisted of leggings, one of my girlfriend-of-the-time’s tops, a bandana and a beard drawn on with permanent marker (bad idea). But, only in Japan have I been actively encouraged to ride around in costume with the (unnecessary) incentive of a free lift ticket!


The Japan Diaries 1: Snowboarding Hokkaido's White Heaven

The Japan Diaries 2: A Season in Hokkaido

The Fukui Fellowship