You might go for the skiing (and you won’t be disappointed) but these three regions deliver on much more than pristine powder.
Thanks to its varied mountainous terrain and reliable snow, Japan is a skiier’s paradise that boasts nearly 600 resorts. Here are four of the best spots to enjoy the country’s slopes.
Niseko: for families
Some call Niseko “the Bali of the ski world” for its large influx of Aussie skiers but there’s a good reason we’re all going there: more than 15m of snow falls on average every season. Niseko is the world’s “snowiest” ski resort; no resort on Earth gives you anywhere near the chance of riding waist-deep powder. As a bonus, Hirafu Town is known for having one of the most vibrant après ski scenes in Japan.
With a yearly average of about 15 metres of snow, four interconnected ski areas – Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and An’nupuri – and terrain to suit beginners and powder-hounds alike, this is one of Japan’s most popular ski spots. It’s a two-hour flight from Tokyo to the northern island of Hokkaido, where, after a couple of hours winding through forests and snowy landscapes by car, convenience awaits: easy access to lessons, food, transport and accommodation ensure the resort is a favourite of snowbirds looking for tree skiing and whisky, and toddlers demanding noodles and naps.
Depending on which room you choose at Alpen Ridge, you can watch the changing light on Mount Yotei or keep an eye on the kids’ progress at ski school. The 31 apartments (from studio to four-bedroom penthouse) are well-equipped with kitchen and laundry facilities, a gas fireplace and balcony. They’re also versatile: the sixth-floor suites can be connected into a sprawling seven-bedroom pad for multigenerational getaways. The property is minutes from the slopes and has on-site ski hire – great if you’re wrangling littlies.
Eat and drink
The name of Tomo restaurant and café comes from the Japanese kanji for “together” and its crowd- and child-pleasing menu (from Hokkaido scallop risotto to prawn and bacon tacos), space and patient staff take the stress out of family meals. In the evening, there’s a fire outside to make use of the restaurant’s leaving gift: marshmallows for toasting.
Once the kids are in bed, Gyu+ Bar beckons. Beloved for its music, inventive drinks list and unassuming entrance – hidden behind the door of an old vending machine – it’s a Niseko institution.
Keep warm and burn off extra energy at NAC Adventure Park, which has a play centre and 11-metre climbing wall that reaches up to the all-important café. The outdoor adventure course (children aged under 13 need an adult with them) is made of ropes spread like webs in the trees beside a busy ski run, with six levels of climbing difficulty, zip wires and other high-level pursuits.
Galaxy of Kidz at Hanazono has climbing walls, ball pits, an adventure course and more. The centre also has childcare for those too little for ski school, with the services available free to parents taking ski lessons or to anyone else staying at the resort for a fee. Hit the neighbouring slopes for more free-spirited fun: ski-tubing, snowshoeing, snow rafting and snowmobiling.
Nozawa Onsen: for culture
When you’re not hitting the powder at this beloved onsen town, wander its winding narrow streets lined with wooden buildings made even prettier by a dusting of snow. Against a backdrop of icy forest, the maze of lanes hides bars, restaurants and 13 public onsen to soothe sore muscles. Located within a national park, the resort is relatively compact, with 50 kilometres of runs for all abilities. There’s little on-snow accommodation but a moving walkway and lift take visitors to the ski hub’s gondolas, chair lifts, equipment rentals and lessons. Nozawa Onsen is about 300 kilometres north west of Tokyo in the Nagano Prefecture. Driving from the capital’s airport takes about six hours, while trains to nearby Iiyama are quicker.
A blend of traditional details and contemporary comforts is found throughout Residence Yasushi from the art and furnishings to patterned yakatas laid out on the thick futons for guests to wear to the hotel’s onsen. Complimentary breakfasts include Japanese rice, fish and pickles alongside Western options such as eggs and toast.
Eat and drink
In a region that claims to be the birthplace of soba noodles, Daimon Soba (9509 Toyosato; +81 269 85 2033) boasts three generations of noodle-makers and champion ski-jumpers. Whether you have udon or cold soba, remember to slurp – it’s considered good manners.
Tucked away behind the main street, Sakai (7932-2 Toyosato Oyu; +81 269 85 2177) is a family-run izakaya (a bar that serves food). Sip sake with the locals and ask for the chef’s selection, such as edamame, deep-fried tofu, rice balls and grilled mackerel.
On-slope dining doesn’t come any better than Japanese curry and udon at Panorama House Buna (8376-136 Toyosato; +81 269 85 3894), with its stunning views over the ski fields. Aprés ski, step off the moving walkway and follow the road to the Libushi craft beer taproom, where brews range from the unusual – passionfruit, rhubarb and plum – to classic IPA and stout. Down a pint at the bar or with your feet in the public foot bath nearby.
Spend the afternoon at an onsen – in Nozawa, choices abound. Furusato no Yu (8706 Toyosato; +81 269 85 3700) is modern with an outdoor bath that lets you soak while watching snow fall; O-yu (9328 Toyosato; +81 269 33 2921) is the largest and grandest of the public baths; and Kumanoteara (8969 Toyosato; +81 269 85 2242) offers a quirky snack option: pop an egg in the cooking box outside (BYO supplies).
Between skiing and soaking, admire the streetscapes and visit the intricately carved Buddhist Kenmei-ji Temple and neighbouring Shinto Yuzawa Shrine. Book a day tour of Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park to see the region’s most famous bathers at their private onsen, with lunch and a visit to the Zenko-Ji Temple.
Hakuba Valley: for luxury
If you’re looking for a variety of terrain, there’s simply nowhere better to ski or snowboard in Japan. Located near Honshu’s west coast, the Hakuba region is less than a four-hour drive from Tokyo. There are 10 resorts here, all on the one lift pass, offering more than 200 runs and free buses running between resorts. Buses also travel along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route carved out between Tateyama and Omachi – the towering snow walls attract thousands of tourists who are also able to walk the route. Hakuba has something for every level of skier and snowboarder – challenging-terrain parks, Japan’s best wide-open beginner slopes, and the nation’s steepest mountains. Even though it has the best après ski scene in the country outside Niseko, it still manages to maintain a traditional Japanese feel.
Spread out along a valley of rice fields and framed by Japan’s Northern Alps, Hakuba’s 10 resorts are linked by a lift pass and shuttle bus service. Each has its own appeal: the tree skiing of Cortina; Tsugaike Kogan’s beginners’ fields; the big, steep slopes of Happo One; and Hakuba 47’s range of terrain. This diversity is both a strength and a challenge – there’s always a mountain that suits the snow conditions, the weather and the group but it’s not always on your doorstep. Hakuba Valley is in the same prefecture as Nozawa Onsen. A private taxi transfer with Chuo Taxi makes the five-hour drive from the airport in Tokyo simple.
The Grand Phenix Hakuba is minutes from the fields of Happo One – and just as close to the village bars, for those who ski to justify aprés. In addition to spacious gear rooms, a ground-floor cocktail bar and Japanese restaurant, the property’s five huge apartments (four with three bedrooms and a five-bedroom penthouse) have underfloor heating, a gas fireplace and all the everyday conveniences of (a very well-appointed) home. Plus, the concierge service can organise ski rental.
Eat and drink
Halfway up a Happo One mountain, chairs surround a firepit in the snow and waiters serve mulled wine as the sun sets. Arriving by private chairlift makes Field Suite memorable, even before you move inside the snug cabin for the five-course dégustation dinner. The feast showcases Japanese produce in Italianinspired dishes, including puffer fish served in brown butter and yuzu sauce – the potentially poisonous delicacy can only be prepared by a specially licensed chef. Dishes are paired with local wines, most from within a 100-kilometre radius, such as a merlot cabernet from Northern Alps Vineyards or rich Kogyoku dessert cider. While on-site glamping isn’t offered in winter, the snowcat ride down the mountain after dinner erases any let-down.
For fine dining in an elegant setting – think candlelight, mirrors and dark wood – Mimi’s specialises in signature Japanese proteins: beef, wild boar, duck and deer. There are four set courses, each with a different focus – Wagyu beef, chargrilled meat, seafood or vegetarian – as well as a la carte offerings, like Hokkaido sea scallops and chestnut ravioli. The 40-seat restaurant (plus private dining for 20) is known for impeccable service and the husband-andwife team run a tight ship.
Restaurant Pilar is the only upscale on-slope restaurant in Hakuba. The three-course European lunch menu – think marinated trout, foie gras with mushroom risotto and grilled lobster – comes with panoramic views over Happo One and the valley below. The eatery is small and popular so book ahead.
Whatever your ideal day looks like – skiing at three resorts, an onsen with snow-dusted mountain views at the Hakuba Highland Hotel or off-piste adventures and a snow picnic – the team at Hakuba Ski Concierge can make it happen. The staff have skied and guided around the world and their skills and inside knowledge will smooth and improve your visit.
Shiga Kogen: for variety
Shiga Kogen is like Disneyland for skiers. It’s the biggest ski area in Japan with 21 interlinked resorts all on the lift ticket – if you hit the same run twice, you only have yourself to blame. But the ski slopes are just a small part of why you’ll want to visit. Stay in the centrally located village of Ichinose and you’ll be close to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where wild monkeys live (and bathe) in hot spring waters. Located close to Hakuba, Shiga Kogen is accessible by shuttle or, from Tokyo, by Shinkansen bullet train, which takes four hours.
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Image credits: Andrew Faulk