Smaller and lesser known resorts in Japan pack a big powder punch if you know where to go.
Some of the most uncrowded runs, deepest powder and most enjoyable days on the mountain can be had at resorts off the well-trodden snow trail. There is a satisfaction knowing you’ve “found” a resort few others have discovered, an intimacy riding a mountain you know you can find pockets of goodness no matter what the conditions, and there aren’t many better ways to spend a snowy weekend with friends than a winter road trip to some unfamiliar corner of Japan. Here are a few resorts you may want to put on your snow bucket list.
Charmant Hiuchi Ski Resort, Niigata Prefecture
You may not have heard of Charmant because it is a local’s ski resort owned and operated by the nearby town. This hidden snow haven near the Japan Sea on Niigata. It’s also a healthy drive from Tokyo (4 hours), but it worth the trip. If you want to get to this hidden snow haven, just head past Myoko Kogen, when you hit the ocean take a left and then follow a local road up the hill until you run into this hidden snow heaven.
You should know Charmant if you like deep, easily accessible powder runs. Lots of ungroomed areas to play in, a 1,000-meter powder lane and you can ski almost the whole mountain using only one lift. Charmant is one of the few ski areas where you can actually see the sea while you are carving turns. Not surprisingly, there is some great seafood. Charmant is designed with advanced skiers in mind so not many beginners on the slopes.
Road Trip Tips: Charmant is open from Dec. 19-May 5 (Golden Week) until 5 p.m. so you can enjoy “Ski & Turf” (hit the slopes and then the golf course) from Mid-April to May. The best way to get to Charmant is by car as bus and train takes a while. Ski area closes at 5pm. Seafood lovers will be heaven at the nearby “Marine Dream Nō” seafood market, but first stop by Ōdaira Yasuragi Kanō for a refreshing onsen (hot spring). There aren’t too many accommodation near the resort but there are some nice hotels in Itoigawa or Joetsu (both within an hour drive).
Charmant Hiuchi Ski Resort
Where: Nō, Niigata
Horotachi Ski Resort, Hokkaido
You don’t know Horotachi because, well, don’t worry you aren’t alone. Horotachi is truly off the beaten track, pretty far away from the nearest big city, Asahikawa, and very small. So don’t worry, you are not the only one.
You should know Horotachi if you are looking for a resort that, geographically, is a powder heaven. Horotachi is located on the south end of the Santōzan Mountain Range so precipitation is consistent and you are guaranteed a lot of powder days. Horotachi has just one lift accessing four courses. You can buy a 1-day pass or pay per ride. Either way you’ll be enjoying fresh tracks galore.
Road Trip Tips: The nearest city is the small country town of Horokanai. At last check there wasn’t a single convenience store, so do your shopping at the supermarket on Main Street. You will know it when you see it there is only one. For a great onsen bath drive twenty minutes north on Route 275 to Moritomizumi no Sato Horokanai. This free parking area has a restaurant and hot springs attached. The Horokanai area is the largest producer of buckwheat noodles in Japan so make sure you try the soba noodles after a great powder day!
Horotachi Ski Resort
Where: Horokonai, Hokkaido
Takasu Snow Park, Gifu
You may not know Takasu if you aren’t traveling from the Chubu or Kansai regions. Unlike the other resorts “Off the Main Trail,” Takasu, and nearby Dynaland, are large resorts, but people are often surprised to find there are some good ski resorts south or west of Nagano. In fact, Gifu has a number of quality resorts and the location makes it a great diversion when visiting Kyoto, Osaka or Nagaya.
You should know Takasu if you want what’s said to be the biggest super pipe in Japan or challenge the professional boarder cross course. Takasu Snow Park is a training facility for many rising stars with Olympic hopes. The resort has hosted a number of competitions including the FIS Snowboard World Cup this past January. Aside from the amazing pipe and park, winter sports enthusiasts of all levels can enjoy the open-faced free ride terrain including a 4,800-meter trail, one of longest in Western Japan.
Road Trip Tips: Just a two-hour drive north of Takasu, on a beautiful winding country road, is the Edo-style town of Takayama, known as “Little Kyoto.” Takayama’s master carpenters built some beautiful shrines and temples here at the base of the Japan Alps. Also in the region, along the border of Gifu and Toyama prefectures are the World Heritage villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokoyama, known the thatched roof houses built in “Gassho-zukuri” (praying hands) style . These A-frame farmhouses are constructed to withstand the heavy snowfall that blankets the region each year.
Takasu Snow Park
Where: Takasu, Gifu
Seki Onsen Ski Resort, Niigata
You don’t know Seki Onsen if you haven’t explored the Myoko Kogen area beyond the main resorts such as Suginohara and Akakura. It’s not an easy ski resort to get to from Tokyo or Kansai unless you have your own vehicle. This is small, true local mountain, so leisure skiers or snowboarders pass it over in favor of the bigger resorts in the area. Those seeking powder know better.
You should know Seki Onsen if you simply like riding powder. Seki is the highest ski area in the Myoko area and even though there are just two lifts, there is access to a lot of powder runs, but make sure you know where you are going. Don’t expect groomers, this is natural terrain and free riding at its finest: tree runs, natural pipes and some good hits. The locals check the weather, and when a big storm hits, there can be 1-2 meters of new snow in one night. They also know where to go, but if you get to the mountain early, you will get some amazing first tracks.
Road Trip Tips: The old, little town of Seki Onsen has some relaxed, comfortable lodges with red hot spring water piping into the baths, unlike nearby Tsubame Onsen, known for milky white water. The ski resort has some great handmade food; a favorite of hungry riders is Kanoya an Italian restaurant on the hill with large portions. There is no convenience store or ATM, so get what you need before you arrive. Make sure you have chains or 4WD, as the road up to the ski resort is steep and can get slippery when there is a lot of snow – which is often.
Seki Onsen Ski Resort
Where: Seki Onsen, Niigata
Norikura Kogen Onsen Ski Resort, Nagano
You many not know Norikura Kogen if you haven’t ventured beyond the Hakuba Resorts, to this resort nestled deep in the Northern Alps. You may have even mistaken Norikura Kogen for Hakuba Norikura a different resort entirely. With the base of Norikura Kogen starting at 1,500 meters, the resort boasts powder rivaling Hokkaido. You’ll spend more time riding than waiting in the lift line at this little resort that rocks.
You should know Norikura Kogen because it gets some of the best snow in Japan both in and out-of-bounds due to its high elevation and the fact it isn’t near the sea. Add some great backcountry riding, which is accessible and reasonably safe, and you’ve got a riders’ paradise. The local terrain park is run by enthusiasts who truly understand “parksters” who want to be seriously challenged as well as those just learning to fly or grind the rails. Norikura Kogen has a nice, hard-to-find, mix of challenging terrain and facilities for beginner skiers or snowboarders.
Road Trip Tips: After charging hard on the mountain don’t miss the great rotenburo (outdoor bath) at Yukemurikan or the onsen at one of the local lodges that use natural white sulfur (PH3.14) water. Enjoy the great scenery on your drive up, but be sure to pack chains or have 4WD as Norikura Kogen is located high in the mountains. You are truly in the Japan countryside so note the ski resort does not take credit cards nor is there an ATM, so be sure to bring cash.
Norikura Kogen Onsen Ski Resort
Where: Azumi Village, Nagano
Road Trip Warriors: Car Danchi 4 Rent
a film by Neil Hartmann
The best way to reach most of Japan’s “off the main trail” resorts is by car, which is also the best way to get the countries best backcountry riding. No one knows this (or lives it) better than the Car Danchi crew. Check out the new Car Danchi 4 Rent DVD from Neil Hartmann and friends who are truly (and literally) home on the road each winter.