It's the best pun we've heard in a while: book a flight on Japan Airlines and you'll receive your own "boarding pass" to experience Japan's fabled ski fields.
Japan Airlines and snowboarding brand Burton have hooked up to create a special ticket for Aussie snowboarders.
If you book a business class flight from Melbourne to Tokyo, they'll throw in your own personalised boarding pass – a snowboard, get it? – with your flight details emblazoned ON the snowboard.
Seminyak in the snow
There's no better place to hit the slopes in the Australian summer than Japan, with its blasts of fine powder snow, and irresistible Japanese X factor. In Japan, everything makes perfect sense until it doesn't, plus there's the legendary apres ski scene with sensational food, from yakitori to katsu curry, sushi to ramen. And great beer and whisky. Oh, and those convenience stores that sell a baffling array of weird and wonderful snacks.
Arguably the top destination to experience Japanese ski fields is Niseko, a three hour drive from the northern city of Sapporo. It's a hedonistic party town, dubbed "Seminyak in the Snow", with pumping nightlife and killer terrain, with four different zones accessible on the same lift ticket: Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono.
"Niseko is like Little Australia," says my instructor, a Canadian, as we ride a chairlift to the top of Hirafu. You can hear the accent everywhere from the summit to the quirky village at the bottom of the slopes, behind bars and hotel counters and sitting next to you on the gondola.
The most Aussies per square meter can probably be found at Boyo-So, a tiny rest stop restaurant halfway up Hirafu. Allegedly serving the same menu of miso soups and curry rice for over 40 years, it's a retro, cash-only cafeteria steaming with sweaty skiers and boarders smashing handheld glasses of frosty Sapporo lager. It's a must visit on a mountain full of charming moments, and you'll likely feel right at home despite the traditional Japanese surrounds.
Mission to ski
One thing to note: the JAL/Burton deal only gets Boarding Passers to Narita International Airport outside Tokyo – Niseko is a considerable journey from there. After the flight from Melbourne (10 hours), you must get to inner-city Haneda Airport (90 minutes), to take another flight to Sapporo (90 minutes), followed by a bus to Niseko (three hours). But it's totally worth the 22 hour journey once you arrive in the remote mountain town with your giant Boarding Pass.
The JAL business class service will have you in the right mood from take-off, with delightful and authentic Japanese service, food and entertainment for the duration, and a nifty seating arrangement that means everyone has direct aisle access despite a 2-2-2 seat layout.
Only on JAL can you smash an authentic ramen noodle soup or delicate salmon bento breakfast while watching a hectic Japanese program about becoming an onsen master at 40,000 feet. This particularly Japanese video about shared bathing inspired me to visit one of the traditional baths when I arrived in town. If there's a must do cultural experience in Japan, the onsen is it.
In a hotel lobby on the main drag of Niseko, I hand over 1000 ¥ ($13.50), with an extra 300 ¥ for a large towel (which isn't very large), and stroll into the segregated baths – they're pretty much like gym change rooms, but with steaming spas and saunas.
Yes, all bathers must get completely stark naked for the experience, and scrub themselves down at one of the low-rise shower stations before plunging clean as a whistle into a toasty hot spring pool with a bunch of strangers gazing politely into the middle distance. After a day on the slopes using muscles you never knew existed, a steaming soak is just glorious.
Communal bathing is a tradition in Japan, and it's best to leave your inhibition at the door while maintaining proper onsen etiquette – no sudden movements or smartphones please. For an Aussie it's somewhat confronting, ultimately liberating and, most importantly, supremely relaxing.
If you're using your Boarding Pass to snowboard for the first time, be prepared for some thrills and spills. After learning how to ski as a kid, my transition to snowboarding is harder than anticipated. If skiing is like riding a bike, snowboarding is being strapped onto a unicycle, backwards.
I'm lucky enough to get some pointers from Aussie snowboarder, Jess Rich, who went to the 2018 Olympics and happens to be in Niseko using her own Boarding Pass. "Just relax and be fearless," she says. "If you second guess yourself you will spend the day on your back."
Rich picked up snowboarding as a teenager while doing a gap year in Canada and is now retired from completion after "burning out" following her Olympic campaign. Yet Rich still carves up the black runs with impressive skill, going off piste in search of perfect "pow" (powder snow).
When asked to name her favourite mountain, Rich says she can't pick one – different snowfields have different appeal for different reasons – but Japan is an obvious standout for its one-of-a-kind vibe and killer snow. "It's got everything," she says. "Great terrain, brilliant food and an excellent vibe."
Ticket to ride
Just 27 of the Japan Airlines/Burton flight/snowboard combos are available for those who book a business class flight at least one way from Melbourne to Tokyo (return for $3499 or one way from $2089).
You'll then receive your Boarding Pass snowboard from Burton's 2020 Family Tree range which retails for over $900, ready to hit the mountain in style.
Want more details? Head to www.japanairlinesboardingpass.com.au.
The writer travelled to Japan with assistance from Japan Airlines and Burton.