Ask any experienced skier about Japan and there is one thing that always gets a mention – the powder. Fine, soft, and wonderfully reliable, there is no better snow to carve your fresh tracks into each morning. Add in the volcanic wilderness, soaring mountains and bubbling hot springs, and Japan offers one of the most exhilarating and culturally rich winter sports experiences in the world. The sake is pretty good too.
Here is our guide to some of Japan’s best ski resorts…
At 1,308m, Mount Niseko Annupuri, is the heart of Japan’s powder scene. It has an average annual snowfall of more than 50ft, and one of the longest seasons in Japan (most of the runs stay open until early May). Situated on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island, Niseko has four interconnected resorts, giving experienced skiers and boarders plenty of space to explore.
As well as some long, wide, groomed pistes, there are miles of beautiful tree runs to explore. The area’s Shirakaba, or white birch trees, create perfect zigzagging routes for those looking for an adrenaline fix, while children and people who are new to skiing can enjoy gentle meanders through idyllic winter wonderland forests. The softness of the powder also makes Niseko the perfect place for beginners and people looking to improve their confidence at skiing – it’s a very forgiving surface to fall onto.
For advanced skiers there is a controlled off-piste area, which can open up some of the best snow conditions you will ever see – you will feel like you are floating down the mountains. A guide can take you on the best routes according to the daily conditions.
And for those aching muscles afterward, head to one of the region’s luxurious hot springs - there can be a no better, or more memorable place to soak away the day.
Hirafu is the liveliest town in the Niseko ski region, with a buzzing après ski scene. Whiskey bars will help to warm you from the inside, while foodies can dine out on fresh seafood from Hokkaido’s eastern coast - snow crab, sweet oysters, and the freshest sashimi are all on the menu.
But this is still a family-friendly resort. The ski-in ski-out accommodation to the north of Hirafu makes getting your little ones to their lessons simple and stress-free, and there are areas kept exclusively for children and people on ski lessons, which feel safe and controlled. A play park also helps to keep the youngest skiers entertained while their parents can take advantage of some off-piste skiing and snowboarding areas, should they wish.
Hirafu also boasts opportunities for night skiing. There are few experiences more magical than floating down the powdery trails by lantern light, led by an expert guide.
Tiny by comparison to Hirafu and Niseko, but all the more beautiful for it. The fishing port of Otaru on Ishikari Bay is a place to escape the crowds and soak up some authentic Japanese culture. Of course, the seafood here is incredible and there is an entire street of Sushiya-dori or traditional sushi shops, which would alone make the journey to Otaru well worth it. A picturesque canal runs through the town, nodding to the area’s heritage. Visitors can also explore the numerous working glassworks studios and meet the local artisans who are working to continue this ancient craft that has formed part of the area’s culture for centuries. The Tanaka Sake Brewery offers a glimpse into the country’s other world-famous culture, and an opportunity to learn about the finer points of sake.
When it comes to the slopes, Otaru is small – there are just six runs that are mostly serviced by a ropeway and two small chair lifts. This means the area stays off the usual tourist track though, which is a big part of its appeal.
Located in the heart of the Japanese Alps, (though also just three hours from Tokyo) the Hakuba valley comprises 10 individual resorts and is one of the country’s best-known snow sports regions. It hosted the 1998 winter Olympics, so the facilities here are plentiful. There are numerous children’s snow parks with magic carpets, tobogganing, and snow tubing runs, as well as a terrain park for experienced boarders and skiers, which features a well-maintained half pipe and a variety of kickers (ranging from small to 20 meters) and jib rails. There are also more than 200 slopes within the various resorts, so plenty of opportunity to explore a different area each day if that’s what you are looking for.
The area has a number of traditional Ryokan, or Japanese inns for food and overnight accommodation, so the après ski offers an authentic taste of the country’s culture. There are also local onsen, or hot springs, to help you soak away the efforts of the day.
Famously Japan’s most accessible ski area (there is a Shinkansen station at the base building), you could spend the day exploring Yuzawa’s alpine slopes before being whisked off to the capital for dinner.
There are 12 resorts within the Yuzawa area, and they are generally family friendly with some long, wide slopes that are perfect for learning on. Iwappara and Maiko have ski-in ski-out accommodation, while the Kagura, Naeba, and Hakkai-san have some steep runs and off-piste areas where advanced skiers can get their adrenaline fix.
Of course, because of its proximity to Tokyo, it can get busy, so we recommend an expert guide to take you away from the crowds and into the virgin snow.
Get in touch with our Untold Story team for more advice on our winter snow experiences and to explore Japan.