Key Points:

Deep, fluffy powder. Miles of sweeping ski trails. No lift queues. And everywhere you look, snowboarders sitting on their bottoms; texting, talking or just gazing across the endless white mountains of Japan.

The locals have the perfect description for these placid souls: todo (pronounced taw-daw, meaning "sea lions").

The stationary snowboarders don't seem remotely disturbed by the fact they're in the middle of the slope, or that skiers are whooshing past just centimetres away, or that sitting motionless on the snow for long periods numbs the backside terribly.

They're just taking the opportunity for a zen moment. Clearly, being extreme all day is hard work.

"Tired legs," says Yuki Mori, 26, a snowboard instructor at Gala Yuzawa, a stunningly pretty bowl-shaped resort north-west of Tokyo in the centre of Japan's main island, Honshu. "They need a little rest.' He smiles.

I've been skiing in Japan for two days, and already I'm accustomed to mocking the todo, as Japanese skiers do.

Tired legs? We've all got tired legs - isn't that just part of the wintersports deal?

I'm about to pay for my smugness.

"I can't get up," I call to Yuki, who has maintained his smile throughout the first hour of my career as a sea lion. My bottom is firmly wedged in that cursed deep powder and, with both feet strapped into my snowboard, I can only manage a tragic semi-squat before collapsing backwards. My legs seem to be tired.

"Hold your board with one hand and pull yourself up,' Yuki shouts from below, where he is standing waiting for me. I grip the edge of the board and try to build up some momentum by rocking back and forth, laughing aloud. It's a seriously undignified moment - all I need is a straitjacket and a padded cell and the picture would be complete.

Eventually, Yuki jogs up the hill and hauls me upright. It's a mercy for everyone involved; nobody needs to see a grown woman behaving in this way.

After that, things improve. I get the hang of standing up on the board, weaving down the slope, turning my shoulders left and right and marvelling as both feet and my damp derriere all follow in the same direction.

A little further down, my fellow snowboard learner, Chris, is having a little sit-down in the middle of the slope. Why not, indeed? I join him and we spend a few minutes contemplating life.

Now I understand why todo don't seem to feel the cold. Snowboarding is hot work; it's still snowing but I've wrenched off my hood, beanie, thermal headwrap, scarf and gloves and I'm still sweating. It's also pretty frustrating, especially if you're used to skiing. Suddenly, instead of whizzing up and down the hill, I'm barely able to propel myself along on flat ground. When I attempt to mount the chairlift, the lift operator has to grab my hands and drag me forward so I can get on the seat.

Any opportunity to recover some energy - and cool down - is welcome. When we've recovered from our exhaustion, we head into the gondola station for a warming lunch. For about 900 each ($11), we have miso soup, rice, vegetables and grilled pork or beef curry.

That's the other revelation about winter in Japan; it's not actually necessary to mortgage an organ to have a holiday here.

Now the Japanese economy is no longer bubbling, New Zealand dollars can buy a reasonably priced holiday in snow conditions we can only dream about at home in the Southern Hemisphere. Japan has about 500 resorts, ranging from quaint little village operations to big, slick resorts, dotted across Honshu and the northern island of Hokkaido.

If you're cursing yourself for missing out on this year's action, don't - it's not too late. The ski season, which began in mid-December, continues until the end of May. Indeed, these last two months might be the prettiest time to mix a bit of skiing with some sightseeing in Kyoto or Tokyo; the famous cherry-blossom season starts in April, sprinkling pink and white flowers over the country.

A week's snow holiday, if you're staying in mid-level hotels and eating with the locals at noodle shops and sushi bars, should cost around $200 per day (plus flights). A cup of tea en-piste is 100. A beer can be as cheap as 600 and, for around 4500, you can hire all gear, including clothes, snowboard or skis, boots and goggles and gloves if needed.

For around 8000 you can buy a full day at one of the scores of resorts within a couple of hours to Tokyo, including lift pass, hire of clothes and equipment and return tickets for the Shinkansen (bullet train). You can ski all day and return to the capital in time for dinner and a restoration of dignity - in the twinkling department stores of the central Hibiya and Ginza areas, shoppers are still getting manicures and buying new digital cameras at 10pm.

For another $25 or so, you could follow the Japanese custom and have all your luggage and gear couriered to the resort to be waiting for you.

They don't muck around, these Japanese. Convenience is an art form here; every service is readily available and any conceivable gadget has been invented and wrapped in easy-open plastic. The local equivalent of the $2 shop sells microscopic scissors, about the size of a fingernail, for 100. Don't put up with twisted earphones on your iPod, buy yourself an earphone detangler. Coffee shop closed? Buy a can of steaming hot Nescafe from a vending machine.

The Japanese train system works like, well, a first-world train system, putting the West to shame. Within 10 minutes' walk of Tokyo Station are hundreds of hotels, ranging from the slick (Metropolitan Marunouchi, right outside the station) to the insanely hip REMM Tokyo in Hibiya, where a room and breakfast starts around $170.

Gala Yuzawa, like most of Honshu's vast variety of resorts, is a one- or two-hour ride on the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station, depending upon whether you catch the express service. The early morning flyer deposits us into the warmth of the ski centre, where we don our rental gear and - still snug inside the building - step into a gondola and ride up into the whirling snow.

Most of Gala Yuzawa's runs are beginner or intermediate level, although there's one black diamond run for the experts, and it's just a short chairlift ride to access two neighbouring resorts; Yuzawa Kogen and Ishiuchi Maruyama, with trails to suit all levels.

To warm up my nether regions after the snowboard lesson, I decide to investigate the canned coffee.

It's impressively hot. Sadly, it tastes like wet Vegemite. Never mind; it was handy and that's the main thing.

So if the resorts are so good, and so readily accessible, why aren't they crammed with Japanese skiers?

It's a matter of fashion. The snowsports trend has dwindled a little among Japanese in recent years, thanks in part to their highly developed taste for European handbags and electronic knick knacks, which suck up a lot of income.

A couple of decades ago, the resorts were packed with locals, but today they are blissfully uncrowded, which means there's plenty of room for us foreigners.

Major resorts such Niseko, on Hokkaido, are already booming with Australian, American, Korean and Chinese skiers, but the Honshu resorts are still to be discovered by gaijin with their large feet and long legs. That means the rental gear tends to be designed for compact Japanese bodies - if you're big and tall, you might like to bring your own skisuit or risk suffering cold ankles and wrists.

Hakuba is a pretty hot-springs village on Honshu, surrounded by skifields, each offering five to 10 lifts and the allure of a relaxing spa at the end of the day. There's a special New Zealand connection at one of the resorts, Hakuba47, which has a sister-resort relationship with Cardrona near Queenstown.

It's snowing gently on the day we arrive, although there's really no need for more snow at this stage of winter; the drifts are already at least 3m. The sun comes out and my friend, Chieko, and I spend the afternoon swooshing along winding trails. Each run is signposted in Japanese with big coloured symbols (green for beginners, red for intermediate and black for daredevils) but we are careful to examine the signs closely. More than one arrow seems to point in the same direction towards gentle runs and black-diamond precipices, and it would take only a moment of misjudgment to go the wrong way.

But there's no reason to rush into error: if it all gets too confusing, make like a sea lion and sit down to think about it for a while. There's plenty of time.

SKI SEASON
Japan's ski season runs from mid-December to the end of May.

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies to Tokyo every day and to Osaka five days a week. Return tickets from $1600.

RESORTS
About 8000 yen ($98) buys you bullet-train tickets, lift passes and rental gear at many resorts near Tokyo. Gala Yuzawa is a 77-minute trip from Tokyo (about 3700 one way). To reach the alpine village of Hakuba, take the bullet train to Nagano (about 3600 one way), then a free shuttle bus.

MORE INFORMATION
welovesnow.com, www.snowjapan.com, galaresort.jp, hakuba47.co.jp.

*Claire Harvey travelled to Japan as a guest of Air New Zealand.