Most travelers visit Japan in spring and fall for the mild temperatures and vibrant colors, so the white season is often overlooked. Traditionally, winter in Japan conjures images of devoted mountain priests making pilgrimages over snowy passes.
Yet today the mountains are filled with passionate pilgrims of another kind who travel in ATVs and Gore-Tex rather than by foot and wrapped in wool blankets. They have discovered what many are beginning to learn – Japan is a great winter sports destination with world-class resorts. Japan actually has a long ski history and hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 in Sapporo and 1998 in Nagano. But it wasn’t until recently that foreign travelers discovered the allure of visiting the ubiquitous mountains and the relatively uncrowded ski resorts.
There are modern resorts with state-of-the-art facilities as well as local family-run hills where you can have runs all to yourself, but more so than anything, what sets Japan apart from other ski destinations is simply the Japanese ski experience.
Efficient transportation, courteous lift operators, picturesque scenery – even the J-pop or enka ballads serenading you on the slopes make it an interesting experience. And when you’ve had your fill of fun on the mountain, you can look forward to a refreshing onsen (hot spring), fantastic Japanese food and a cup of hot sake before curling up in bed at your hotel or, better yet, in your futon laid out for you on the tatami mat floor in your ryokan.
JAPAN SKI GUIDE
When people talk about skiing powder in Japan, they invariably think Hokkaido, or Niseko, to be more specific. Yet the Big Island is filled with ski resorts, including Sapporo Kokusai Ski Area, just south of Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo. “Kokusai” attracts a trendy, urban crowd, but also gets great snow.
Nearby Teine Ski Area has two sections: Olympia (for beginners) and Highland (think steep, with a fun snow park) and is 30 minutes from the entertainment district of Susukino. Yet hands down the easiest access is Mt. Moiwa, reachable from downtown via tramcar. Just southwest of Otaru, Kiroro Ski World is a great place for families.
A visit to Niseko may convince you Australia has invaded Japan, but the two countries are actually getting along famously. So much so, there are direct flights from Australia to Chitose Airport. From there it’s a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride. You can also catch shorter direct flights from Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.
The reason Niseko gets so much attention is simple; it gets some of the biggest, and most consistent, snowfalls in the world. Don’t expect too many “blue bird” days here but, if you like deep, fluffy powder, this is the place to be. Niseko is actually three ski resorts sharing a common pass with 38 lifts and 47 km. of groomed runs and access to off-piste areas you can enter at your own risk. Niseko Moiwa, just beyond the Annupuri area, offers gentle bowls and tree runs without the crowds. The village atmosphere at Niseko adds to the charm.
Nearby Rusutsu is a pleasant, well-run resort just a 45-minute drive away, and it makes an excellent diversion if you want to escape “little Sydney” for a day, especially if you enjoy playing in the trees.
Furano, in Central Hokkaido, doesn’t get as much snow as Niseko but, when the light powder is falling, it’s tough to beat. The only complaints are a lack of backcountry (for that you need to head across the valley to Tokachi-dake) and an overly vigil ski patrol.
Backcountry enthusiasts love Asahidake. Its one gondola has just two runs—two massive runs—circling a big bowl with some great tree skiing. But the real draw is the (snowshoe) hike to Hokkaido’s highest peak before dropping in and heading back toward the ropeway. Hokkaido’s best kept (powder) secret, could very well be Kamui Ski Links, the nearest resort to Asahikawa.
Have family, will travel? Head east to Club Med Sahoro near Obihiro, where you’ll find luxurious facilities you’d expect from Club Med and arguably the best resort for kids. Toward Hidaka, Mt. Tomamu is a broad mountain in the countryside serviced by four large hotels.
A major venue for the 1998 Winter Olympics, Hakuba features more than 10 resorts snaking up the valley. Hakuba 47 and Hakuba Goryu (share a common pass), Happo-one, Iwatake, Tsugaike, Cortina Kokusai and Norikura are just some of the resorts in the area. Hakuba seems next in line for growth as new accommodations, restaurants and bars are popping up every season. With a long season and arguably Japan’s most challenging terrain, it’s not surprising there’s a buzz in the air.
Shiga Kogen covers a huge area with 21 interlinked ski resorts. The region has some of the highest elevation in Japan and gets some of the finest snow. A free shuttle bus loops around the resorts if you have a lift ticket. As you head up to Shiga, you pass Yamanouchi, a quaint onsen town dotted with free public baths. It’s also the launching point to Jigokudani, the natural baths home to the infamous snow monkeys.
Kijimadaira stands out across the valley from the town of Iiyama and blazed a trail by being the first resort in Japan to allow snowboarding. Further on, Nozawa Onsen is a large ski resort that gets high marks for atmosphere and all-around great terrain. Wander the streets sipping free sake, then have a soak in one of the free public baths.
The nearest Nagano resort to Tokyo, Karuizawa is a great family ski getaway with lots of things to keep the kids occupied, and parents too, with plenty of shopping at the nearby outlet malls.
If you are looking for a quick day-trip from Tokyo, Yuzawa is the place. Since it is only 200 km. northwest of Tokyo and less than 90 minutes from the capital, city dwellers flock to resorts around Yuzawa. It’s entirely possible to head up in the morning, ski a full day and be home by dinner – although staying the night is preferable.
Apart from an abundance of ski resorts, the prefecture is also home to some of the best sake brewed in Japan. Echigo Yuzawa Station even has a sake museum (and tasting room) as well as a “sakeburo” – natural hot spring bath with a small amount of sake added to aid metabolism and circulation. But the best bath in town is the rooftop rotenburo (outdoor bath) at the Sporea Hotel with a view of the Northern Alps.
The three-resort complex of Mitsumata-Kagura-Tashiro is a large resort offering fantastic snow and a relaxed attitude to backcountry enthusiasts. The resort also links up to trendy Naeba ski resort via the “Dragondola.” Outside of the Yuzawa area, Myoko Kogen has some great skiing in a more relaxed, natural atmosphere.
Stretching from Nagano City all the way to the Sea of Japan, it features excellent ski areas such as Myoko Suginohara, Akakura, Ikenotaira Onsen, Seki Onsen and others. It’s also a favorite area for telemarkers.
While neighboring Niigata gets most of the attention, Gunma quietly has some great snow resorts of its own. Located on the border with Niigata in northeast Gunma, Minakami is just 90 minutes from Tokyo. There are nine ski resorts in the Minakami area. Houdaigi is the biggest, with 16 courses from which to choose, and it’s a great resort for families and beginners.
If rails, pipes and parks are your thing, head to Okutone; their night sessions have long runs and don’t close until midnight on weekends. Powder hounds go to Tenjindaira. The elevation and location provides lots of powder snow, and the fast ropeway takes you to some of the best terrain in Japan. Just don’t forget your beacon and avalanche gear!
Ozu-Katashina is another quality area that flies under the radar. Katashina town lies in the shadows of mighty Mt. Hotaka and Mt. Shirane. Oze Iwakura is the largest of the Katashina resorts. This pretty resort, sometimes breaks the “Top Ten” and was one of the longest holdouts to allow snowboarders.
Hotaka Bokujo, on the other hand, is a snowboarder playground with a 90/10 ratio of boarders to skiers. Nearby Oguna Hotaka is another nice mid-sized resort. Manza, to the east of Katashina, is a popular ski and onsen resort area.
In the ski world, the general rule is the farther you get off the beaten track, the better the tracks. The lucky few who venture to the Tohoku Region (northern Honshu) are rewarded with some of the most enjoyable, and least crowded, skiing in Japan. Aomori’s Hakkoda, Iwate’s Appi Kogen, Akita’s Tazawa-ko, Yamagata’s Zao Onsen and Fukushima’s Alts Bandai and Inawashiro are just a few of the excellent resorts up north. The ski areas tend to be far less crowded, and the snow quality is excellent.
Zao is home to the infamous “snow monsters” (juhyo), evergreens transformed by powerful winter storms into twisted, icy shapes on the upper reaches of Zao’s exposed slopes. Photographers flock to the winter scene, others come to Zao for the many great onsen in the area, but the ski resort itself is better suited for skiers than boarders.
Also in Yamagata, Gassan has the latest season in Japan. In good years you can ski until August, and the resort won’t usually open until April because of accessibility.
Surprisingly, you can ski in Japan from Kyushu all the way to the tip of Hokkaido. Granted, seasons get considerably shorter the farther south you travel (and global warming is not making things easier), but what’s important is—you can ski! If you are truly addicted and just can’t wait for winter, there are even indoor ski resorts where you can get your fix.
THE SHORT OF IT
Rentals? If you are 6’6’’ and wear size 13 shoes, you might want to bring some gear with you. Otherwise, they probably have something that will fit. A rental “set” will set you back about ¥3,000.
Snow quality? Snow in Japan is generally wetter than European or Rocky Mountain snowfalls, since there isn’t as much elevation and ski resorts are relatively close to the ocean. Yet what it lacks in quality, it more than makes up for in sheer quantity. Central Hokkaido and Northern Nagano boast some of Japan’s finest.
Shorts, No Service? Unless posted otherwise, all onsen and sento (bathhouse without natural onsen water) are au natural, so leave the briefs in the basket and go native.
Good eats? The wonderful food is one of the things that makes Japan such a great place to visit, but if you are longing for something less adventurous, there are plenty of safe alternatives. I’ve yet to find a resort that does not serve ramen or curry rice. Hakuba Goryu resort in Nagano features a Subway and a gaijin-size hamburger at the 360 café, Niseko Hirafu has a KFC in the gondola, and Naeba features the Whistler Café.
White Season? December to early May (many ski resorts close during Golden Week), depending on conditions. However, Gassan Ski Resort in Yamagata doesn’t even open until late March (no access) and often stays open through July
Fees & Queues? Lift lines in Japan tend to be fairly short, since most resorts have (too) many lifts. Some of the more popular resorts can get crowded on weekends and national holidays. A day on the mountain in Japan is much less expensive than what you’d pay in the USA or Europe. A day ticket usually costs between ¥3,000-4,000 (compare that to USD $60 at resorts in the U.S.).
Gearing up? Need to do some last-minute shopping and have some time to kill in Tokyo? Head to the Jimbocho area where outdoor shops and discount stores line the streets. (Hanzomon Line).
The Naked Truth. Hands down (and the rest of your body, for that matter), there is nothing better after a day on the mountain than an onsen. It’s not only relaxing sitting outside in a hot bath with snow falling from the sky, but also soaking away sore muscles makes the next day on the mountain so much better. Most ski resorts have several hot springs in the area, so ask around where you are staying for recommendations. See the Onsen Section on Outdoor Japan Online for some tips.