The most enduring images of Japan feature its stunning countryside, populated with spring cherry blossoms or spectacular autumn foliage.
But Japan isn’t short on breathtaking winter scenery either, and an increasing number of people are visiting the country just to lay down fresh tracks in the pristine snow.
“A Japanese ski holiday is about three things: skiing, eating and onsen-ing.”
Japan is home to hundreds and hundreds of ski resorts – as many as the United States, in a country a fraction of its size. In fact, it’s said that almost all of Japan’s inhabitants live within a couple of hours of a ski resort.
From world-class deep powder, to quaint traditional villages, to a former Olympic Village, the breadth of choice open to adventurous travellers in Japan is unmatched. Powderhounds, add this one to your bucket list.
What To Pack
Countless enthusiasts consider Japanese snow the best on Earth. The country can get as much as 18m in a single season, and despite that impressive quantity, it doesn’t slack on quality. Richard Ross of Aussieskier.com offers the following advice on making the most of it:
“The weather that makes Japan’s snow so special is blowing straight off Siberia, so you need super toasty gear. Merino is always the best option for base layers and face protection, and you can even go for gloves and boots with rechargeable heat packs to keep those extremities warm if your circulation isn’t great. Definitely go for goggles with low light lenses as you may not be seeing the sun!
Japan’s unique snow conditions dictate great equipment to maximise enjoyment. Fat powder skis will let you ski more hours in the day, and more days in your week. Look for something over about 110mm in waist width, with rockered tips and tails and relatively soft flex to make the most of the deep snow. Old-school purists will scoff, but you will have the last laugh as you blow past them down the powder lines.”
When To Make The Trip
The ski season in Japan generally starts around mid to late December and continues until late March or early April. Some resorts open as early as late October, often aided by snow-making machines.
Travelling in December can mean an anxious wait for the snow, but the pay-off can be excellent. At the other end of the season, resorts open after the end of March usually go into a ‘spring skiing’ mode, and many offer lower lift ticket prices.
The peak of the Japan season is from mid January until late February. Snow quality then is at its highest, but so is popularity. Expect the slopes to be crowded and plan ahead (possibly even now).
Weekends and national holidays are also busy. The New Year holiday, the 3-day weekend in mid January, the 3-day weekend in mid February, and Chinese New Year are particularly popular with skiiers. Weekdays, on the other hand, can be unexpectedly empty. At less well-known resorts, you may even find yourself wishing there were more people.
Where The Best Snow Falls
With more than 500 resorts to choose from, deciding where to ski in Japan is a daunting task. Many fly under the radar of international skiers, but a handful have become known around the world. The best resorts and snow conditions are found in northern Japan (Hokkaido and Tohoku) and in the mountains along the coast of the Sea of Japan (especially Niigata and Nagano).
Hokkaido is the coldest and most northern Japanese island, and arguably gets the best powder snow. Popular destinations in the area include Furano, Rusutsu and, most famously, Niseko. Many consider Niseko to be the best resort in the country.
Nagano is home to the spectacular Northern Japan Alps and several world-class winter sports resorts (a number of which were used during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics). The main skiing regions are Hakuba and Otari, Shiga Kogen, and the Nozawa Onsen area – all of which hosted Olympic events.
For convenience, Yuzawa Town in Niigata Prefecture is hard to beat. Over 20 nearby resorts in the town and neighbouring Minamiuonuma area are accessible from Yuzawa. These include well-known resorts such as Naeba, Kagura, GALA Yuzawa and Iwappara.
Tohoku is the northern part of the main island of Honshu. Multiple snow regions can be found in the area, but the most famous is Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture. Zao Onsen is one of the oldest resorts in the country and home to its famous ‘Ice Monsters.’
You may have trouble finding a resort that ticks all the boxes, so focus on ticking the most important ones. Consider terrain for different abilities, the powder, lift infrastructure, local culture, family-friendliness, resort size, cost, language skills, snow volumes, nightlife, opportunities to ski off-piste, and the likelihood of finding “freshies.”
What To Do When You’re Not Skiing
After a long day on the slopes you may want nothing more than a hot shower and a comfortable bed, but with Japan out there waiting for you, sleep would be a waste.
For food, sample native fare at the local sushi-ya (sushi bars) and restaurants. Instead of the fondue you’ll find in the Alps, Japanese ski cuisine means marbled Wagyu beef, katsu curry, yakisoba or something simmered in ramen broth. For drinks, head into town to experience the bustling izakaya scene and other cosy, often bare-bones, bars.
As serious as the Japanese are about skiing, they’re also serious about relaxation. Follow a day of alpine athleticism with a dip in an onsen – a traditional hot springs bath found at or near many resorts.
You’ll be expected to strip down (leave your insecurities at home) and scrub yourself clean before entering the steaming waters. Prepare for pleasure sounds that range from unsettling to obscene.
Four Things You Need To Know
Before you pack up your Winter coats and jet off to the powder, there are a few things you need to know about skiing in Japan.
It’s cheaper than you think. Japan’s larger cities have an international reputation for blowing budgets, but the rural regions (where you’ll find the ski resorts) are surprisingly economical. The larger the resort, the more you’ll spend, but even the biggest can be navigated without dipping into your life savings. It’s less expensive to ski in Japan than Australia, North America or Europe.
Come with cash. The Japanese are famous for their technological advancements, but don’t expect to see many when it comes to currency. ATMs are notoriously difficult to find at Japanese ski resorts. Getting to the nearest could require a lengthy bus ride through the snow. Don’t expect your credit card to be accepted, either. Japan is a cash society. Come prepared.
Explore the small resorts. Japan has hundreds of ski resorts and the top sites are now well known to an international clientèle, but the country is also dotted with many micro ski areas. The slopes aren’t always steep, but runs are cheap and crowds are nonexistent. You may even find your own personal powder hill.
Don’t expect an après scene. Unless you visit one of the major resorts, you won’t find much nightlife on a Japanese mountain. A Japanese ski holiday is about three things: skiing, eating and onsen-ing. Only places with a heavy population of foreign visitors have busy bars. Decide if you prefer empty runs and minimal overseas influence, or busy runs with a lively nightlife scene.