Why Japan Should Be Your Next Ski Destination
I thought I knew what skiing was.
I enjoyed, the icy, artificial snow of the springtime Alp slopes and had even accepted the realities of hundred-dollar lift passes for the chance to ski with those enchanting Lake Tahoe views. That was before I moved to Japan.
I had heard rumors of course: the country’s legendary powder snow that covered your tracks as fast as you could make them. I imagined this was equivalent to a good snow day during a good snow season elsewhere in the world. Amazingly, the reality is even better.
Japan is actually one of the snowiest countries in the world. Thanks to freezing winds blowing across the sea from Siberia, most Japanese ski resorts get around 500 to 600 inches of snow per year. The dry air from the Asian continent creates ideal powder snow, granting Japan the distinction of having some of the best slope conditions in the world.
In practice, this means an almost limitless supply of fresh, fluffy snow consistently throughout the winter.
This high quality of snow makes Japan a great destination for all ski and snowboarding levels. Ski areas feature soft snow for beginners and epic backcountry powder for the more experienced. The slopes never feel too crowded (with a few exceptions during the holidays) and most resorts have a wide range of slopes suitable for mixed ability groups.
Most resorts also offer night skiing options, with certain lifts running until 9:00pm. This is a great option for skiers who like to make the most of their ski day, and being on the mountain at night is a totally different experience than a daytime run. If you are feeling adventurous, I highly recommend a backcountry ski tour or a catskiing tour available at the larger resorts.
Top Ski Resorts
Japan has over 500 ski resorts, so the possibilities are endless! You can choose to hop from one smaller resort to another, or spend a week at one of the larger world-class resorts of Niseko, Hakuba, or Nozawa Onsen.
In the northern reaches of Japan lies Hokkaido, where winters are long and the snow is deep. Niseko is the ski hotspot of the north, and maintains a stellar reputation with consistent powder throughout the season and top of the line luxury accommodations and services. The area around the stunning Mt. Yotei averages double the amount of snow per year compared to many resorts in North America. Catskiing, heliskiing, and backcountry tours are popular activities thanks to the rugged and beautiful terrain of Niseko.
Located on the main island of Honshu, this resort in the Japanese Alps was host to the 1998 Winter Olympics. The network of local resorts features diverse ski slopes, plenty of powder, and some enjoyable après-ski options. If you are looking for steep runs, this is the place for you. Easily reachable by bullet train from Tokyo, this destination allows for additional sightseeing options during your trip.
Also located in the midst of the Japanese Alps, Nozawa Onsen is one of the country’s largest resorts and is famous for its many hot springs and vibrant nightlife. The village itself is very picturesque and has a rich history. Visitors in January can enjoy the town’s renowned fire festival.
Onsen Hot Springs
Soaking in a hot onsen bath after a long day on the slopes is a uniquely Japanese way to enjoy après-ski. Step into an outdoor hot spring and enjoy the invigorating chill of the air on your skin as the warm mineral water eases your sore muscles. Winter is the best season to enjoy onsen, and taking a nighttime dip while snowflakes dissolve in the rising steam may fast become the favorite part of your Japan ski experience.
From ramen on the slopes to a hearty nabe dinner (Japanese hot pot), discovering Japan's ski resort food is an experience in itself. Enjoy a delicious meal of shabu-shabu beef cooked at your table, or sample the nearly-countless ways of cooking fresh tofu. Crab is in season in the colder months, making for some delightful seafood dishes. Winter is also the time for warming up with piping hot sake, or exploring the popular ski resort craft beer scene.
Winter brings with it an array of culturally intriguing and often sensational festivals. Many popular ski areas host their own, as do larger cities nearby.
The Sapporo Snow Festival (January 21st-February 11th, 2020) is the big winter celebration up north. Not far from Niseko, this festival features impressive snow and ice sculptures mingled with stunning illuminations.
Visitors to Nozawa Onsen can enjoy the local Fire Festival (January 13th-15th, 2020). This winter spectacle has everything you could hope for, including free sake and a 'fire-setting battle'. Villagers compete to either try to set fire to or defend a huge wooden shrine. It is a fascinating cultural event and also great fun.
Another stunning display is the Nagano Lantern Festival held in commemoration of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. During the festival, Zenkoji Temple is brightly illuminated and the main road leading up to it is decorated with numerous lanterns. These kiri-e paper lanterns feature four images on their sides and are backlit by a candle. They are made by local artists and students and the overall effect at night is stunning.
Adventures Beyond the Slopes
If you enjoy combining skiing with other activities, Japan will not disappoint. Other snow activities are available at most resorts, including snowmobile tours and snowshoe hikes. Travelers skiing in Hakuba or Nozawa Onsen are also a short drive away from the famous snow monkey park. The monkeys can often be seen relaxing in the park's snow-covered hot springs, much to the delight of the many visitors there to snap some amusing shots.
The Art of Travel also recommends combining your ski trip with visits to the futuristic marvel of Tokyo and the cultural capital of Kyoto. Contact us to book one of our Insider Collection ski itineraries or build your own custom ski trip.