Living in Tokyo, I’m never too far from a snow-laden mountain. Options abound for powder hounds in the archipelago, ranging from day trips from the capital to more remote areas that have enough to explore over a long weekend or more.
Japan's borders were closed to most visitors for more than two years, so many people haven't had a chance to check out updates to the country's snow scene. While lift ticket prices are going up slightly, Japan is still a bargain with the reasonable prices and current weak yen. From Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu towards the south, here are my top recommendations for skiers and snowboarders alike.
Japan’s northernmost island is a must-visit for powder hounds looking to explore untracked terrain. The powder is amazing, the terrain is vast and the food is some of the most delicious you’ll find in Japan. The season starts in early December and runs through March, with the best weather from January to March.
For first-timers, the Niseko area is a good bet. It’s home to four ski resorts that are connected by lifts, making a really fun place to spend an entire day skiing without taking the same trail twice using the Niseko United Pass, featuring 30mi (48km) of groomed slopes, 29 lifts, 70 runs and about 12mi (19km) of backcountry skiing. The town has an international vibe, with good services in English and plenty of bars and restaurants that cater to international tastes. In December 2020, the Higashiyama Niseko Village, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve hotel, opened at the base of Mt. Niseko Annupuri, offering boutique-sized luxury accommodation, a ski concierge, and fine dining options. Also look out for Setsu Niseko, a new luxury property opened in December 2022, whose concierge can arrange backcountry and heli-skiing excursions.
About 90 minutes south of Sapporo is Rusutsu. This is the place to go for quiet runs and empty slopes, though the exclusive atmosphere has a matching price tag, with one of the country's highest lift ticket prices (and similarly priced accommodation). Powder lovers will say it's worth it, for the combination of super dry snow (an average of 43ft/13m a season) and plenty of space to play, including permitted off-piste runs. Opened in 2020, The Vale Rusutsu is a ski-in ski-out accommodation with one- to four-bedroom apartments, all equipped with full kitchenettes or kitchens, which come in handy as the night life is much more subdued than at Niseko.
About three hours from Sapporo by bus or train, Furano is more centrally located on Hokkaido, and while that means a bit less snowfall, it also means a high number of blue-sky days and drier snow that often lasts until April or even May! The terrain is a good mix of beginner, intermediate, and advanced, with 10 lifts and 23 runs. Off-piste skiing is permitted, and there are a range of other resorts and backcountry options within an easy day trip. Downtown Furano has a decent number of restaurants and bars offering cozy dishes like curry, hotpot, and robatayaki (food cooked over hot charcoal) along with warmed sake. The Fenix Furano, opened in December 2020, is a ski-in ski-out hotel featuring rooms ranging from standard rooms to three-bedroom apartments.
The Japanese Alps in central Honshu have the deepest snow in the world, and the region is thick with ski resorts. While Hokkaido has fluffier powder, Honshu tends to have more snow and steeper terrain.
Hakuba is another big destination with a great mix of terrain and culture. The town has the vibe of a Swiss village, with steep streets and a walkable downtown area. There's plenty of shopping, restaurants, hot springs, and bars serving locally made sake and beer.
Hakuba was the main venue for the 1998 Winter Olympics, and I love the range of terrain to explore, with more than a hundred lifts and 200 runs across the valley's resorts. Hakuba47 is a network of trails that crosses between local resorts, a great way to explore the area on its own if you don’t have time to check out each individual resort. The area is also close to Tsugaike Kogen, which has some nice lift-accessible tree skiing.
Nozawa Onsen is the perfect place to combine a great day on the mountain with a lovely cultural experience. Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort is a place for powder-seekers, with deep snow and over 31mi (50 km) of trails and 20 lifts, including the Nagasaka gondola which got an upgrade in 2021. The maximum vertical here is 3,560ft (1,850m), so a nice long drop for you thrill-seekers!
The town, which has over 100 years of history as a ski resort, exudes local charm, with narrow streets full of traditional ryokans (guesthouses with tatami rooms) and lots of friendly people. The food is a special highlight, with an exquisite selection of beautifully presented fresh veggies and local delicacies (you must try the oyaki – steamed dumplings filled with sauteed vegetables such as greens, daikon, mushrooms, and more). And of course, the onsen – hot springs – in the town's name are a major draw after a day's exertion on the slopes.
Kyushu doesn’t have much in the way of skiable snow, but that doesn't deter the southern islanders. There are a couple of resorts on Kyushu with artificial snow supplementation where you can spend the day honing your skills and carving some tracks. Newly opened in December 2021 is Kujyu Forest Park Skiing Ground, located in the town of Kokonoe in Oita Prefecture, clocking in at 4,265ft (1,300m) and with panoramic views of Mt. Aso and the Kuju mountain range. The largest ski resort in Kyushu, it offers three lifts, five runs (the longest clocking in at almost a mile / 1,500m) with a maximum pitch of 25 degrees. This is a great place for families, with a dedicated children’s area where they can play, sled, and practice bunny skills.
Before strapping on your skis or board, review some essential ski safety tips that are applicable not only in Japan, but wherever you may hit the slopes.
Bill Fink shares his tips on the best sights and experiences in Japan's busy capital city, Tokyo, and its historic ancient capital, Kyoto.
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