Japanese people are often smaller and more polite than the anglo-western visitors that describes the majority of tourists in Japan who are there to ski and snowboard. This makes travel through Japan interesting. To compound this problem, the trend of powder skis getting fatter and longer and more specialized, means that myself and my ski luggage do not fit into the Japanese transportation system.

Charlie towers over Japanese women while asking for directions

For 5 years I have been skiing in Japan at some point during the winter, and the most difficult part of the experience is cramming myself and my skis, and my friends, and their camera gear, and my other bag, and another friend, and then my brother, and his stuff, into various human transportation devices. Whether I am scheming to get an overweight and oversized bag past the airline check-in counter, squeezing onto a subway car in Tokyo rush hour, or wedging myself between a web of ptex and metal edges to fit in a gondola cabin, I can bet that the transportation I am on in Japan will be undersized. 

The solution to this is NOT to bring smaller skis, less spare lenses and fewer ski socks. Nor is it to find smaller friends. No, the secret to dealing with this conundrum is all in technique.

four people and all our gear in a tiny rental car in Sapporo

Imagine yourself standing between a bear and a train car; a train car that the bear wants to be on. You don't stand much of a chance stopping that bear from getting where it wants to go I would imagine. Now, to bring things into perspective, your technique in Japan should be that of the bear; get to the train car. Otherwise, a sea of people and an incredibly efficient transportation system will move past you and on its way, leaving you behind. 

If you are having trouble wrapping your head around this advice, don't jump to any dangerous conclusions. I'm not suggesting you maul and then eat the people obstructing your path to the Tokyo subway car, but rather, be determined in your movements to get there. And it never hurts to have a plan. Such plans might include:

Subway Entrance/Exit

Japanese men sleeping on subway

Before you even make your way underground to any sort of subway car/mass Japanese napping unit, you will have to purchase a ticket. Then, using geometry, trigonometry, and a little luck, fit yourself and your gear through the automatic ticket gates.

This is not the honor system like in many countries where you can ride public transportation for free but risk getting caught only if you encounter a ticket checker. Japan is perhaps the country that invented and certainly most adheres to the honor system in every other aspect of life, but when it comes to public transportation, they went above and beyond to eliminate freebies.

My personal technique to negotiate the ticket gates involves pushing the rolling duffel bag in front, lawn mower style, with my left hand. Then hold the very small ticket in my right hand and drag the rolling ski bag behind, also with the right hand. 

Make sure you don't lead with the ski bag, because this long bag will run into the little plastic or rubber gates before your hands get to the machine to feed it your ticket. Bashing through these flimsy little gates will result in  a red "X" from the machine and then a very confusing charade where the monitoring employee ultimately sends you back upstream to try again.

Japanese subway ticket gate
Subway ticket in Japan

The real trick here is in your ticket handling. The little magnetized pice of paper is about the size of a slightly shorter and bulkier fortune-cookie fortune. Pinch this ticket with the right hand and when the rolling duffel is in the gate and you can reach the ticket-eater then quickly contort your little fingers to insert your ticket. Hold on to your ski bag, but most importantly, don't forget to retrieve your ticket that is spit out on top of the machine. This doesn't have to, but usually involves dropping the ski bag and angering the impatient machine anyway. 

You'll get it with practice.

The good news is that you are in, step one is complete. Now tuck away your miniature ticket and don't loose it because you will need it to exit the station at your destination. Finding your correct train/line is easier than you might expect. Once you locate the correct track and platform then position yourself for the best chance of success while boarding. 

I recommend directly in front of where a door will open. If you join the normal line that trails away parallel to the tracks and leaves each door area open for exiting passengers then you will run into what I like to call the "ski bags don't turn well" situation. This is self-explanatory, ski bags, in fact, don't turn well, and if you try to bend with the line and enter the door from the side like everyone else then you will see that your ski bag doesn't easily bend or make the necessary turn into the door. This is wrong.

Instead remember the bear analogy and get in there first so you can occupy a corner with your bag pile. Try the duffel in front, ski bag behind trick, that allows you to lift the duffel in first and push it to the corner and then pull the ski bag towards you while simultaneously standing it upright. 

At the end of your ride, just spill out of the doors and then remember where you put that little ticket that you need to feed to another machine before you can leave. This time the machine keeps your ticket.

Gondola Cabins

It's not that the Gondola cabins themselves are smaller in Japan, but today's powder skis have outgrown the ski racks that Johnny Moseley used in '98 and snowboards in Japan have always been carried inside the gondolas. This makes for a potentially awkward and certainly cramped gondola ride amongst a tangle of skis, boards, poles, backpacks, and sweaty humans. 

Skinny skis will fit on the racks outside of the cabin,  but so many powder skis and snowboards have been jammed into gondolas in Japan over the seasons then the windows are all a hazy mosaic of scratches and the paint inside is all but gone. I don't know if there is a best way to fit skis and poles and boards and people into a gondola car, but whatever you end up doing, make it quick and expect that once you have made it all happen, a lone Japanese man will tuck his skinny skis onto the racks of your crowded cabin and hop right in; guaranteed. 

Gondola cabins lined up in the station at Rusutsu



There is room for skis in the aisle of a bus

Buses in Japan can come in all shapes and sizes. Some are city busses, others are large vans, and still others have ears and are painted like a dog. The one thing you can be sure of when waiting for a bus in Japan is that it will be exactly on time. Otherwise, what the bus will look like or how they plan to carry you and your gear might vary tremendously. Most of the time your stuff will fit nicely in the belly luggage compartments, but if that is not the case, then it's all coming inside with you.

Furthermore, All technique goes out the window when you have to stuff yourselves and your gear into a Japanese taxi. My advice to you is get creative and remember that whenever you are traveling in Japan:

 your skis probably don't fit.