There’s more to a snow holiday in Japan than big dumps of powder, though that’s certainly not in short supply. It’s the combination of fantastic skiing and snowboarding, the extraordinarily polite people, some of the world’s best food, muscle soothing natural hot springs, karaoke and immersive cultural activities that keep snow lovers coming back time and again. But with hundreds of amazing powder packed resorts, which one do you choose? Here’s our round up of Japan’s best.
Rusutsu is a magnificent winter playground with fantastic skiing and snowboarding on the beautiful island of Hokkaido. With three mountains to explore; West Mountain, East Mountain and Mt. Isola, each accessed by a network of 18 modern ski lifts, including four gondolas, Rusutsu has a little something for skiers and snowboarders at every level and no crowds.
The Rusutsu Snowcat, which takes skiers and snowboarders to ski Mt. Isola before the chairlifts turn, is a must for experienced skiers and you’ll find excellent tree skiing and a terrain park that is one of Japan’s best. There are plenty of other on snow options including snowmobiling, dog sledding, igloo building and a snow park for tubing and sledding.
There is not a lot to do outside the fairly self-contained resort but après-ski options at Rusutsu include a large number of restaurants and bars, mostly located at the base of East Mountain. There are also game centres, an indoor wave pool, a large hot springs bathhouse and karaoke for those inclined to belt out a tune.
A chain of four resorts perched on the steep sides of Mt. Annupuri – Hanazono, Grand Hirafu, Niseko and Annupuri – Niseko is the largest of the Hokkaido ski areas and is famous for deep powder snow – and we mean deep. Serviced by 30 chairlifts and gondolas, the terrain is famously varied with epic tree runs, pristine powder fields and steep, long runs for the experts plus groomed slopes for beginners. Off-piste skiing is plentiful with 11 gates across the resorts leading to terrain and backcountry courses. Grand Hirafu Resort offers some of the best night skiing around.
There are loads of other wintery activities with rafting, tubing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and horse riding among the best ways to escape the crowds and enjoy a feast of sensational food, bars and entertainment. Or just soothe those tired limbs in one of the many sensational onsen resorts that dot the mountains.
One of Japan’s premier winter sports hubs, Hakuba, in Nagano Prefecture, is especially popular with international visitors as it caters to English speaking guests while providing an authentic Japanese cultural experience.
There are nine resorts on the mountain. Each is unique but Hakuba 47 is the pick for park action while Hakuba Cortina is the spot for advanced skiers and those who love tree skiing.
Happo One, the largest of the resorts, has something for everyone. Ideal for beginners, families and more experienced skiers, group ski lessons are conducted by English speaking staff. This is the place where you’ll find the biggest variety of accommodation, onsens and a lively après-ski scene.
When it’s time for a break from the snow, visit Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan’s most beautiful historic castles or Zenkoji temple, the most important pilgrimage site in central Honshu. If you’re feeling more adventurous strap on your snowshoes for the trek to pretty Togakushi Village, which is renowned for its shrine and delicious soba noodles.
Myoko Kogen is made up of nine separate resorts – the main ones being Akakura Kanko (sometimes called Akakan), Akakura Onsen, Myoko Suginohara and Ikenotaira Onsen, each with its own unique vibe. With great quality powder snow (an average drop of 13-metres of powder per season), the Myoko Kogen Ski Area has something to suit every level.
Suginohara has the longest run in Japan and Akakura Onsen one of its steepest, The Wall. You’ll also find great terrain parks, long cruisy groomers, tree skiing and excellent side country plus kids parks. It also one of only a few Japanese ski resorts to offer childcare and group ski and snowboard lessons for all ages in English.
One of Japan’s oldest ski areas and renowned for its history, culture and traditional onsen, it’s almost a mandatory activity to slip on your yukata (Japanese robe) and walk around the village for a soak in one of the many steaming indoor and outdoor hot springs.
Due to its proximity to Nagano, Myoko Kogen provides easy access to some culturally interesting side trips. One of the best is a day trip to explore the areas scenic temples, shrines and historic Takada Castle. For something a little more explosive, time your visit in January for the Dontoyaki Fireworks Festival in Suginohara.
One of Japan’s largest and, at 2,305-metres, highest ski areas, Shiga Kogen is a network of 21 ski resorts strung along Nagano’s Shiga Plateau. A great all-rounder, the Shiga Kogen ski area comprises a wide variety of terrain including easy cruisers, knee-busting moguls and powdery bowls as well as more gentle slopes for beginners, ensuring skiers and snowboarders of all levels will never get bored.
If you want a break from skiing, Shiga Kogen is the closest ski resort to the famous Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park. Located on the western edges of the national park, this is the place to watch ice-tipped snow monkeys bathing the cold away in the natural hot spring waters. For a hit of culture, take a day trip to Zenkoji temple and Matsushiro Kaizu castle or visit the lovely old villages of Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen. And if you want a little heat to take the edge off those chilly temps, the Daiō Wasabi Farm is the place for all things wasabi, including beer and ice cream.
With 24 lifts and a massive 50 kilometres of terrain, Nozawa Onsen offers the best of modern facilities for skiers and snowboarders, while maintaining a traditional atmosphere.
An abundance of high-quality powder snow allows for skiing well into early May and a variety of slopes and courses, including a snow park, will satisfy skiers and snowboarders from L-Plate to expert. Other activities include snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Off the slopes, stroll the cobbled streets of the village, famous for the abundance of natural hot springs that were discovered in the eighth century, for a truly traditional Japanese experience. If a visit to one of the 13 public baths (sotonoyu) is not for you, then try a modesty preserving hot footbath (ashinoyu). Just as hot as the steamy springs is the Dosijin Fire Festival, a highlight of any Nozawa visit. Held on 15 January each year, the area is ablaze with kanpai, fireworks and fire – it is guaranteed that you won’t have seen anything like it before.
Known as the Aspen of Japan, Appi is only three and a half hours from Narita Airport on the Shinkansen bullet train. One of the largest ski areas in Japan, Appi’s snow quality and grooming by a large fleet of modern snowcats is exceptional. Visitors will find numerous long runs from 2km to 5.5km, a variety of snow activities such as backcountry and snowshoeing and a separate family park.
World-class facilities and glitzy ski-in, ski-out accommodation cater to discerning skiers and snowboarders who are happy to pay a little more for a quality experience. Appi caters especially well to English speaking visitors with lots of English signage, English menus in the restaurants and bilingual hosts.
An apres-ski soak at either of two natural hot springs is a must and if you need a break from the snow altogether, try a day trip to pretty Morioka city to visit the German brewery, or the Sakurayama Shrine and ancient Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree at Morioka Castle Ruins Park.
Zao Onsen is one of the more traditional skiing and snowboarding resorts in Japan and is known as much for its famed “snow ghosts” and onsen resorts as it is for its awesome powder.
The so called Juhyo snow ghosts are actually fir trees clumped with sprays of ice and snow from the seasonal winds – though their bizarre shapes lend them more of a spectacular than spooky appearance. The ski resort has 42 lifts leading to 15 different slopes and 12 courses including some of Japan’s most stomach-dropping vertical drops and leg-cramping long runs. Below the ghostly tree line you’ll find terrain more suited to beginners and intermediate skiers and boarders as well as a family snow park and snowboard park.
After dark, ride the ropeways to the top of the mountain to view the snow ghosts in all their illuminated glory. Or head into Zao village, a traditional Japanese onsen town where the main après ski activity is soaking weary muscles in the therapeutic water. You’ll also find a variety of restaurants as well as quiet bars and not-so-quiet karaoke. Need a break from the snow? Take a day to visit the Museum of History and Culture Warabe No Sato, find a little zen at one of the local shrines or follow in the footseps of Samurai and ninja at nearby Kaminoyamajō castle. •
Photography courtesy JNTO, SkiJapan.com
• Niseko United: niseko.ne.jp/en/
• Rusutsu: en.rusutsu.co.jp
• Hakuba: hakubatourism.jp
• Myoko Kogen: myokokogen.net
• Nozawa Onsen: nozawaski.com
• Shiga Kogen: skijapan.com
• Zao: zao-spa.or.jp
• Appi: appi.co.jp