Japan, carrying the title “The Land of the Rising Sun”, is often not the first thing that pops into the minds of travelers looking for winter sports destinations. Ski enthusiasts, however, know the country to be among the best places to experience powder snow and have dubbed it as “The Land of the Rising Snow”.
Every year from November to May, a wonderful spectacle of nature occurs courtesy of the cold winds blowing from Siberia to Japan. This artic air builds up a lot of moisture from the Sea of Japan and collides with the surrounding mountains, showering the country with fine snow.
Each city experiences a different level of precipitation. Hokkaido, given its location at the northernmost part of Japan, is one of the most buried areas with an average snow depth of 7 - 20 m. Cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, on the other hand, only have little snowfall but are just as stunning during the winter season.
Things to Expect at Japan’s Ski Resorts
Tourists looking to ski, snowboard, or just relax by the fireplace will be glad to know that Japan has a ton of wonderful resorts that provide such services and more. There are over five hundred options available which range from large resorts consisting of many trails to small ones with only one lift going through the slopes. Most of the recommended destinations to go to are located up north in Hokkaido and Tohoku, or in the mountains bordering the Coast of the Japan Sea, specifically in Nagano and Niigata.
Japan’s ski resorts offer a lot of activities for sports enthusiasts, families, and small children. Usually, there is no admission fee charged for visitors who just want to see the snow. Activities such as skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and sledding do have corresponding charges, though.
Tourist should know that the winter sports experience in Japan is quite different as compared to that in other countries. The trails are not as steep and offer rather gentle runs among skinny birch trees. The selling point of the ski resorts is the wonderful powder snow, which visitors should prepare for by bringing their wide skis. For travelers who want to pack light, standard winter equipment and gear are available for rent at the resorts.
In comparison with the resorts in Europe and North America, Japan’s resorts are slightly at a level lower in terms of technology and amenities. In spite of Japan’s growing popularity as a snow destination, the government sees no urgency to develop on-snow facilities to compete with that of the other countries. Nonetheless, tourists can expect a wonderful time floating through the bottomless expanse of white powder. A lot of the resorts’ ski runs are perfect for beginners and intermediates but they also have plenty of mogul fields for the more daring ones.
The Japan Ski Season: Costs and Tips
The cost of taking a trip to Japan during the winter season, be it for skiing or sightseeing, can range from relatively cheap to highly expensive measures, depending on availability and peak periods. Typically, a day tour to one of Japan’s ski resorts starts at the price of 5,000 yen while an overnight stay ranges from 4,000 to 25,000 yen.
Christmas is a busy time for many of Japan’s resorts which are often already fully-booked by July. The week Chinese New Year lies on is also another peak period that visitors should be mindful of if they want to avoid long lift lines, higher accommodation costs, and plenty of crowds.
Tourists are recommended to visit during the 2nd half of February as this is the non-peak and non-holiday period where the best package deals and tours are available. However, the snow in Japan begins to get somewhat harsh as early as January so visitors should bring a ton of layers. Tourists looking for warmer conditions and cheaper accommodation are advised to visit during the start of December or March.
Other notable tips for foreign guests planning to take a ski trip to Japan include the following matters:
- Internet Connection
Although resorts have common areas for guests to get connected to the internet, it is recommended that tourists rent a WiFi device for their convenience. This will greatly help tourists report back in detail to their loved ones at home within the privacy of their own rooms. A WiFi device will also allow tourists to do a quick research about anything they may be unsure of. WiFi devices can be rented at the airport upon arrival.
- Language Barrier
With the exception of those that cater to Westerners, a lot of Japan’s resorts do not have a team of staff fluent in English. Tourists should try to learn basic Japanese phrases beforehand, just in case.
- Courier Service
For tourists who will be bringing their own winter gear and equipment, it is advised that they get a courier service to avoid the stress of lugging them from the airport to the resort. It is relatively cheap and is worth every cent. Most resorts will gladly arrange the service themselves to assure a stress-free experience for their guests.
- Cash on Hand
Tourists should have more than enough cash on hand for the whole duration of their stay. Not a lot of establishments in Japan accept credit cards and majority of its resorts only have a single ATM that cannot be used after 5:00 PM.
- Basic Etiquette
It goes without saying that the basic etiquette should be understood by tourists prior to their visit. Although Japan’s ski resorts are not as strict as traditional guesthouses or establishments in terms of their guests’ behavior or conduct, it is always best to be respectful and mindful of the community’s culture and practices. Some simple manners tourists should know include:
- The sitting technique in casual settings differs for men and women. Men should sit with their legs crossed while women should sit with their legs to one side. In a formal setting, the sitting technique comes in a form of kneeling which applies to both genders. Foreigners are not expected to be comfortable with this custom and will not be criticized if they choose to sit any other way.
- Leaving a tip is not customary. Tourists who leave tips are often chased by the staff and given back their money. The Japanese community, instead, prefers a polite thank you.
- Bowing is a common form of greeting in Japan. A deep and sustained bow is formal and respectful while a small nod of the head is more casual. Tourists can also use a bow to apologize, thank, or request a favor from the locals.
Hokkaido - The Ski Capital of Japan
Hokkaido is the go-to place for winter sports. It is known by many to have the best quality of snow in the world. Its zone makes up roughly 22% of the country’s total area and is home to some of the best ski resorts to experience powder snow. Tourists should note that since Hokkaido has a large area, the climate differs from point to point. A summary of the island’s yearly climate is as follows:
- Spring (April to June)
Spring in Hokkaido is a bit chilly, with urban areas still experiencing light snowfalls throughout the season. Likewise, the mountains remain buried in a blanket of fine snow.
- Summer (June to August)
Summer in Hokkaido is pleasantly cool during mornings and evenings. The temperature rarely goes beyond 30 deg. Celsius.
- Autumn (September to November)
Autumn in Hokkaido provides a taste of the approaching winter season. Mornings and nights are considerably cold. Towards the end of November, snowfall can be expected.
- Winter (December to March)
Winter in Hokkaido is the perfect season for ski and snowboard trips, with the whole island being covered in snow. The cold starts to become a bit harsh come January and February.
Ski Resorts in Hokkaido
Tourists planning to have their winter trip in Hokkaido will not regret choosing any resort on the island. Some of the best include:
- Sapporo Teine (Open from November to May)
Sapporo Teine is a 40-minute drive away from Sapporo. It consists of 15 courses (30% beginner, 40% intermediate, 30% advanced) of which 60% is ideal for skiing while the other 40% for snowboarding. Its longest run stretches for 5,700 m.
- Sapporo Bankei (Open from December to April)
Sapporo Bankei can be reached by car from Sapporo in a span of 20 minutes. It caters to families and has a Snow Kids Park for children to go sledding or snow tubing. The complex has 14 courses (30% beginner, 40% intermediate, 30% advanced) and a long run of 1,250 m. 70% of the slopes is meant for skiing while the rest for snowboarding.
- Sapporo Kokusai (Open from November to May)
Sapporo Kokusai is a 90-minute bus ride away from Sapporo. It has a total of 7 courses (30% beginner, 50% intermediate, 20% advanced) with a 60-40 ratio for skiing and snowboarding use, respectively. Its longest slope runs for 3,600 m.
- Rusutsu Resort (Open from November to April)
Rusutsu Resort is located at the base of Mt. Yotei and is one of the biggest resorts in Hokkaido. It has a total of 37 courses (30% beginner, 40% intermediate, 30% advanced) meant for 70% skiing and 30% snowboarding. Its longest trail runs for 3,500 m.
- Yubari Mount Racey (Open from December to March)
Yubari Mount Racey is 60 km away from Sapporo. It has a hot spring within its vicinity perfect for tourists to relax in after enjoying the snow. The complex has 18 courses (20% beginner, 40% intermediate, 40% advanced), 70% of which is made for skiing while the other 30% for snowboarding. Its longest run is 3,500 m.
Skiing in Niseko, Japan - The Place of Powder Snow
Niseko is a 2.5-hour car ride away from the Chitose Airport and is the top snow destination in Japan for foreign ski and snowboard enthusiasts. It has become popular for its lovely powder snow which creates an average snow depth of over 15 m during the winter season.
Niseko has a total of 4 resorts and 30 chairlifts. The lift system used by Niseko is quite modern and makes use of an electronic pass, which provides the holder access to all of the resorts – Niseko Hirafu, Niseko Village, An’nupuri, and Hanazono. Off-piste skiing and night skiing are permitted.
The complex is open to the public from December to April and has a variety of lodging options available for rent. Tourists will be glad to know that the language barrier in Niseko is thinner, as the resorts provide extensive English services.
Skiing in Hakuba Valley, Japan - Host of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics
The Hakuba Valley is located 5 hours away from the Narita Airport. It is one of Japan’s well-known alpine resorts and was the host of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. The valley has a massive 960-hectare terrain for skiing and has a total of 11 resorts with courses for beginners and experts. Its main resorts are:
- Happo One
Happo One is Hakuba’s biggest resort and has a wide variety of courses ranging from steep, banked, and open trails. It has a total of 13 courses spread over its 220-hectare expanse.
- Goryu Ski Resort
Goryu Ski Resort has a total of 16 courses that cater to novices and experts. The beginner’s section is located at the bottom of the mountain range; each section further up increases in difficulty. The resort is connected to the Hakuba 47 Ski Resort which guests can also access with their paid ticket at Goryu.
- Iwatake Ski Resort
Iwatake Ski Resort is ideal for beginners and intermediates. It has plenty of open terrain and a few courses with steep and challenging runs.
- Cortina Ski Resort
Cortina Ski Resort is relatively small but it is Hakuba’s powder capital. It has several tree runs ideal for intermediate skiers and snowboarders and plenty of beginner courses as well.
Skiing in Appi Kogen – The Leading Ski Resort of the Tohoku Region
The Appi Kogen by Iwate Hotel & Resort is among Japan’s biggest resorts. It is best known for its ski trails but also consists of golf courses, soccer fields, hot springs, and guest ranches, among many other facilities. It is a 50-minute bus ride away from the Morioka Station.
Its ski terrain stretches over 2 mountains – Mt. Maemori and Mt. Nishimori. Appi Kogen has a total of 21 courses suitable for beginners, intermediates, and experts in skiing and snowboarding. The resort also has a children’s area complete with a petting zoo, snow play section, and child care service.
The Best Ski and Snowboard Resort Options in Japan
- Kiroro Resort
Kiroro Resort is 100 minutes away from the Shin Chitose Airport by bus. The resort offers a ski lesson or class from time to time for guests aged 3 years old and above. There are 21 courses (33% beginner, 29% intermediate, 38% advanced) available, of which 65% is meant for skiing while 35% for snowboarding.
- Furano Ski Resort
Furano Ski Resort is located in the heart of Hokkaido and consists of 23 courses (40% beginner, 40% intermediate, 20% advanced). It provides easy access to Furano where tourists can find plenty of authentic local restaurants and bars.
- Hoshino Resorts Tomamu
Hoshino Resorts Tomamu is a family friendly resort that promises to provide its guests with a fun and memorable experience of Hokkaido’s untouched beauty. It has a total of 29 courses (30% beginner, 40% intermediate, 30% advanced) for skiing and snowboarding. The resort also has other activities for tourists to enjoy such as ice skating, sledding, and snow tubing.
- Shiga Kogen
Shiga Kogen is located in the Nagano Prefecture and consists of 19 ski resorts. It has a wide variety of courses for skiers and boarders to enjoy ranging from beginner slopes, powder bowls, and mogul fields. Tourists who want to explore the whole complex will have to dedicate at least 2 days of their trip to Japan.
- Hokkaido Backcountry Club
The Hokkaido Backcountry Club is the go-to resort in Japan for heli skiing. The resort has daily helicopter trips to the Shiribetsu-Dake volcano which is stunningly covered by powder lines during the winter season.
- Nozawa Onsen
Nozawa Onsen is located in the Nagano Prefecture. It has a variety of open and tree-filled runs perfect for beginners and intermediates in skiing and snowboarding. Night skiing is permitted from December to March but only until 8:00 PM. The resort is also well-known for its public hot springs which can be used for free.
- Myoko Kogen
Myoko Kogen is among Japan’s oldest ski destinations and consists of 3 resorts. It not only offers the longest runs and best verticals in Japan but also offers a cultural experience for its guests with its rich history and traditional Japanese-style hot springs.