There are more than 600 ski resorts dotted around Japan – by comparison, there are less than 500 in the entirety of the USA. But that’s not the only reason the island nation has become a favourite on the skiing and snowboarding circuits. But that’s not the only reason. The snow doesn’t need to be manufactured like it does at many of Australia’s fields: annual falls at the most popular Japanese resorts average more than 10 metres, which means kilometres of fresh, dry powder ready for slicing through. The sheer number of slopes also means you’ll need a comprehensive guide to find your way around – here’s everything you need to know about skiing in Japan.
When to go
The entire snow season runs from late December to mid April, but those in the know refer to January as “Japanuary”, since it’s this particular month that boasts the best powder. It follows, then, that this is the when the slopes get busiest so they’re not always as fresh and track-free as you’d like.
It is possible to avoid the surge in visitors, though, as each field has its own “inner peak” season. Niseko, for example, is still a stellar place to ski between mid-February and March so being flexible with dates can pay off.
Where to go
Ah, the eternal question. Consider this first: are you focused on snow activites alone or would you like to loop in sightseeing? If you’re in the former category, head to the resorts of Hokkaido, the country’s northern island; if you’re in the latter, spend your time on Japan’s main island of Honshu. It’s a delicate balance –while travel to the snowfields of the north takes additional time and is further removed from main cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, it generally delivers the best quality powder.
A three-and-a-half hour drive from Hokkaido’s New Chitose International Airport, Niseko isn’t the easiest Japanese snowfield to reach but that doesn’t stop the powder-hunting crowds. The eastern side of Niseko Annupuri is blanketed with 800 hectares of trails, generally dusted with more than 15 metres of snow, making the fields of Niseko as one of the country’s premier ski spots.
Four resorts, An’nupuri, Grand Hirafu, Hanazono and Niseko Village, connect to the fields here, but experienced thrillseekers can go further still: trail skiing through Niseko backcountry is a glorious way to explore the scenery, with skiing on nearby Mount Yotei also possible (just make sure you organise a guide). Book into the sleek AYA Niseko – it’s less than a kilometre from the slopes and boasts an on-site spa – or Ki Niseko, where you can ski in and ski out and penthouses are crowned with frost-covered balcony Jacuzzis.
Every year, the city of Sapporo transforms into a veritable winter wonderland. For a week at the start of February, everything from intricately carved snow sculptures and fondue warm the snow-shrouded town. Bookend your trip with the festival, particularly if you’re travelling as a family, but when it comes to the slopes, you’ll need to head a little further out of town. Sapporo Teine (where the best choice for accommodation is Sapporo Teine Ski Center) and Sapporo Kokusai represent Sapporo’s best, the latter usually buried under a beautiful blanket of more than 18 metres of snow and both are less than 60 minutes drive from the city. Those aiming for Sapporo Kokusai should slide into The Kiroro, where a complimentary shuttle takes you to and from the slopes.
The Siberian storm systems that track over the Sea of Japan are said to leave their lightest and driest powder in Furano, two hours drive east of Chitose International Airport. The two connected peaks that comprise the area’s runs have been used for international competitions in the past but beginners can find gentler paths and there are also halfpipes for snowboarders. Furano is a great choice for families; kids ski free up until age 13. For experienced skiiers, off piste is highly recommended (again, with a guide) as the rules are slightly more relaxed here, although you’ll have to sign out at a ticket desk. For easy run access, New Furano Prince Hotel has both ski-in, ski-out access and is alongside a ropeway, for sweeping views over the ski fields.
Three mountains are laced with trails and tree runs at Rusutsu, a two-hour drive from Chitose International Airport. Rusutsu receives an average of 10 metres of snow during the ski season and the views are similarly impressive; from atop Mount Isola, the view extends over the spectaculare volcanic caldera of Lake Toya. Experienced skiers will be keen to try Rusutsu’s famed tree run, suitably named Heaven, a natural fall-line powder flecked run, easily accessible from chair lifts. There are two solid ski-in, ski-out options here: Rusutsu Resort Hotel, which feautres a public bath and hot springs overlooking the mountains and the Westin Rusutsu, where plush beds laid with pillow-top mattresses ensure a restful sleep.
SEE ALSO: Read Before You Leave: Japan
Zao is a place of more traditional tastes. The spartan yet cosy ryokan dominates accommodation options, with most including their own onsen for post-slope relaxation. Five hours north of Tokyo by car, the ski fields garner attention for their armies of juhyo, the folkloric “ice monsters” that emerge following a dump – in reality, they’re twisted, frozen forests of conifer firs – with the troops concentrated at the summit of the Zao Ski Resort, especially towards the end of February.
Fame is also owed to the slopes that vary from kind beginner runs to steeper routes from the summit of Mount Zao – the longest of which stretches for over 10 kilometres. Keen to make long-standing friends with the aforementioned ice monsters? The ryokan Miyamaso Takamiya is an atmospheric choice, with paper shutters, luminescent lanterns and regional cuisine. Alternately, Zao Shiki No Hotel, a property with both Western and Japanese-style rooms of beds or tatami mats, offers a sauna, steam room and an onsen with mountain views.
It’s a case of one pass to rule them all when it comes to Shiga Kogan, a collection of 19 ski resorts in Nagano Prefecture’s highlands. There are more than 800 kilometres to slice through here, serviced by 52 lifts and gondolas, all of which can be accessed with one pass. It’s the largest combined ski area in Japan and is less than four hours north of Tokyo. The stunning Jigokudani Monkey Park, a fabulous day trip, is just 17 kilometres from the slopes. Spot the swarm of Japanese Macaque monkeys as they bliss out amid the steaming hot springs, their fur combed wild from the water and their faces turned crimson from the heat. The area’s best accommodation is Shiga Kogen Prince Hotel, where the East Building has picture windows in every room overlooking the alpine surrounds, with ski-in, ski-out access and the requisite bathhouse.
Accessibility is Yuzawa’s greatest asset (the hot springs are a close second, of course) and travelling from the heart of Tokyo to the sifted-sugar mountains of Yuzawa takes less than two hours. Off-piste skiing is banned here and most slopes are suitable for the beginner to intermediate range but the season is also notably longer, running from November to late May. The stunning Hatago Isen is a traditional ryokan with splendid Japanese meals and tatami mat flooring and beds, in the centre of Yuzawa town, only 100 metres from bus stops up the mountain.
While it is possible to find venues that deliver that raucous après-ski culture America, Australia and Europe are known for (Hirafu’s Niseko Taproom serves local craft brews and the sleek Mùsu does a mean yuzu negroni), the Japanese have a different idea of the best way to relax after sliding down the slopes. Unsurprisingly, onsens are the relaxation mode of choice, with many towns including Yuzawa and Zao building their very foundations around access to tennen onsen, or natural hot springs. Don’t ignore local customs when it comes to taking a dip: you’ll need to wash before soaking, those with tattoos are often not permitted and yes, you’ll have to be naked.
Rentals begin with necessities such as skis and helmets and extend to snow-friendly clothing – with some providers, such as Larry Adler, allowing you to try on the goods at an Australian counterpart before departure. Most allow you to book online and pick up at the resort of your choice, with some also providing the option to deliver direct to your hotel so there’s no language barrier upon pick up.