Travel

Top 10: Where to go skiing and snowboarding in Japan this winter

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

Winter is approaching fast and with it Japan becomes a bucket list destination on the mind of any skier and snowboarder, with fresh powder snow and Etch A Sketch skiing conditions.

While skiing in Europe and North America is primarily associated with long, steep runs and a hard snowpack, Japan’s mountains are generally much gentler and offer some of the world’s best conditions for powder and tree skiing.

The resorts here are typically much lower in height than their international counterparts, and most top out at under 2,000 meters. Compare this to many resorts in the European Alps that extend to well above 3,000 meters. Lower altitude (and warmer average temperatures) means that the trees that grow on the slopes tend to be deciduous rather than coniferous, and grow further apart, allowing for easy tree skiing.

At the same time, Japan receives some of the highest snowfall in the world, with averages in some areas exceeding 15 meters per year. The west-to-east movement of cold air from the Asian continent brings with it water from the Sea of Japan, which condenses as it is uplifted above the mountains along the north coast of Japan, resulting in heavy snowfall and excellent powder, particularly in January and February.

And the best thing about it? Most of the resorts are easily accessible from the country’s major cities through a series of bullet trains and local transport. Here are 10 of our favorites.

Niseko in Hokkaido is Japan's most famous resort internationally.
Niseko in Hokkaido is Japan’s most famous resort internationally. | COURTESY OF NISEKO UNITED

Niseko, Hokkaido

Among Japanese ski resorts, Niseko is royalty. It is the best-known internationally, mostly for its high snowfall, which is enviable even by Japanese standards. It is one of the largest resorts in Japan, offering a fantastic variety of slopes both on-piste and off, as well as night skiing to take you through the evening.

As one of the closest word-class ski resorts to Australia, there’s a big Australian presence in Niseko, and the resort caters well to English speakers and families, with child-care facilities and English-speaking instructors for younger skiers. There’re plenty of other activities on offer, too, from heli-skiing to Michelin-starred restaurants and a decent nightlife as well. The cons — it’s more expensive than many other resorts in Japan, and relatively crowded.

Open Nov. 23 to May 6, 2020; day pass ¥8,000; buses run between New Chitose Airport and Sapporo to Niseko multiple times a day during the ski season, three hours, ¥2,650 one way; niseko.ne.jp/en

Powder snow at Rusutsu in Hokkaido
Powder snow at Rusutsu in Hokkaido

Rusutsu, Hokkaido

Another of Hokkaido’s top resorts, Rusutsu is often paired with a trip to Niseko, but it’s also worthy as its own destination, with excellent lifts (better than Niseko’s aging infrastructure), meters and meters of snow, and off-piste and tree skiing. For the experienced and adventurous, the resort offers heli-skiing, but it is also family and (English-speaking) foreigner-friendly.

From the 2019-20 season, the resort will be accessible under the international Epic Pass program, so expect to see higher footfall this season. That shouldn’t be a problem, though, as Rusutsu is currently less busy than other resorts, and much less so than nearby Niseko.

Open Nov. 23 to April 5, 2020; day pass ¥6,200; shuttle buses run from New Chitose Airport and Sapporo to Rusutsu, advanced reservation required, two hours, ¥3,100 one way; helicopter charter service also available; hokkaido-rusutsu.com

The Furano ski resort in Hokkaido
The Furano ski resort in Hokkaido

Furano, Hokkaido

Bordered by the Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido, Furano has hosted the FIS Downhill World Cup 10 times, most recently in 2013, and regularly hosts national ski and snowboard events.

The resort is made up of two zones: Kitanomine and Furano. Between them there is an abundance of varied terrain for every level of skier and snowboarder, and a vertical drop of over 950 meters. Night skiing is also available in both zones.

Furano is a good base for day trips to nearby resorts such as Tomamu and Kamui Ski Links, which can be arranged easily in the resort.

Open Nov. 24 to May 6, 2020; day pass ¥5,700; buses run from New Chitose Airport to Furano, three hours, ¥4,000 one way; snowfurano.com

Aomori Spring, Aomori Prefecture
Aomori Spring, Aomori Prefecture

Aomori Spring, Aomori Prefecture

Out in the northern reaches of Honshu, Aomori Spring is well off the beaten track, but it has a growing reputation as a spot for excellent powder skiing.

The resort also has good halfpipe and park facilities, somewhat of a rarity among Japanese resorts, and a cross-country skiing course. It is close enough to the coast that many of the runs overlook the Sea of Japan when they weather is clear.

It is a small resort by most standards, with only 14 runs and five lifts, so the main attraction for more advanced skiers is the backcountry, with plenty of fresh snow and lines running through the trees.

Open Nov. 15; day pass ¥4,800; shuttle buses run from Shin-Aomori Station to Aomori Spring, 1½-hours, ¥1,500 one way, advanced reservation required. Aomori Station connects to Tokyo by bullet train; aomorispringski.com

A snowborder cuts a powder line in the Geto Kogen resort located in Iwate Prefecture
A snowborder cuts a powder line in the Geto Kogen resort located in Iwate Prefecture

Geto Kogen, Iwate Prefecture

In the 2018-19 season, Geto Kogen received over 25 meters of snow and proclaimed itself “King of Snow” — a title it deserves.

Located in southwestern Iwate Prefecture, the resort is built around the 1,099-meter Mount Yoko. There are five lifts servicing the resort and its specialty is tree skiing, with five different managed zones for that activity: Beech, Stream, Rabbit, Summit and Shooter, as well as extensive backcountry ski areas.

The resort is not particularly easy to get to, but that is part of its charm — due to its inaccessibility, it is uncrowded even during peak season.

Open Nov. 30 to April 30, 2020; day pass ¥4,900; a free 45-minute shuttle bus to Geto Kogen is available from Kitakami Station, which is connected to Tokyo by bullet train; geto8.com

Lake Nojiri as seen from the Lake View Line linking Madarao Kogen to the Tangram Ski Circus resort. | OSCAR BOYD
Lake Nojiri as seen from the Lake View Line linking Madarao Kogen to the Tangram Ski Circus resort. | OSCAR BOYD

Madarao, Nagano Prefecture

Madarao Kogen is a resort on the up and up, priding itself on two things: its powder snow and its tree skiing. While the former is a claim shared by many resorts throughout Japan, few embrace the latter to the extent of Madarao.

That is not to say the resort is short of quality pistes. Madarao strikes a balance between beginner slopes, such as the scenic Ocean View course, and less frequently groomed runs with moguls that will put the legs of even the most experienced skiiers to the test.

With the Mountain Pass, skiers and boarders can also access the linked resort of Tangram Ski Circus, a nifty adjunct to Madarao that boasts its own share of tree skiing and pisted runs. Together, the resorts make up a sizeable ski area with enough terrain to spend several days skiing and leave without feeling like you’ve explored the entire resort.

Open from Dec. 14; one-day Mountain Pass ¥5,500; local buses run between Iiyama Station and Madarao, 30 minutes, ¥500 one way. Iiyama Station connects directly to Tokyo by bullet train. Direct buses from Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita airports to Madarao run daily during the winter season; madarao.jp

Nozawa Onsen's Dosojin fire festival | U-ICHIRO MURAKAMI VIA FLICKR
Nozawa Onsen’s Dosojin fire festival | U-ICHIRO MURAKAMI VIA FLICKR

Nozawa Onsen, Nagano Prefecture

While Niseko holds the crown for the most popular ski resort in Japan, at least for the international crowd, Nozawa Onsen is a ready challenger to that title.

As well as having extensive terrain for skiing and snowboarding, the town’s charm lies in the ready availability of onsen (hot-spring baths). The town has 13 onsen that are open to the public, as well as numerous others associated with individual hotels and lodging.

Another reason to visit is the town-wide Nozawa Onsen Dosojin fire festival, which takes place annually in mid-January. Unlike Niseko, Nozawa Onsen is easily accessible via train from Tokyo, and is a short drive from Japan’s famous snow monkeys in Jigokudani Monkey Park.

Open Nov. 23; day pass ¥5,200; buses run between Iiyama Station and Nozawa Onsen, 25 minutes, ¥600 one way. Iiyama Station connects directly to Tokyo by bullet train. Direct buses from Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita airports to Nozawa Onsen run daily during the ski season; nozawaski.com

A skiier hikes to the top of the Happo-one ski resort in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture
A skiier hikes to the top of the Happo-one ski resort in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture | OSCAR BOYD

Hakuba Valley, Nagano Prefecture

One of the host venues of the 1998 Winter Olympics, Hakuba Valley is made up of 10 individual ski resorts, connected by buses that snake through the mountain roads.

Collectively, the Hakuba Valley is Japan’s largest ski area, but of the individual resorts, Happo-one (pronounced “o-nay”) is the largest, with a vertical descent of 1,071 meters and 22 lifts. The Happo-one village also acts as a transport hub for many of the smaller Hakuba resorts.

Happo-one does get crowded, so if you’re looking for a more relaxed resort in the region, consider Cortina, which has a far friendlier outlook on off-piste skiing than many of the other Hakuba ski areas. Cortina is a belter for experienced skiiers looking to test their legs at tree skiing.

Open Nov. 23 to May 6, 2020; all-mountain day pass ¥6,100; the Hakuba Valley area is a one-hour, ¥2,000 bus ride from Nagano Station, which connects to Tokyo by bullet train; hakubavalley.com

Yuzawa Kogen, Niigata Prefecture | COURTESY OF YUZAWA KOGEN
Yuzawa Kogen, Niigata Prefecture | COURTESY OF YUZAWA KOGEN

Yuzawa Kogen, Niigata Prefecture

If ease of access from Tokyo is your priority, then this is the resort for you. Located in Niigata Prefecture, Yuzawa is a 75-minute bullet train ride out of Tokyo Station via Echigo-Yuzawa Station.

There are about a dozen ski resorts within the Yuzawa town area, but Yuzawa Kogen is the most immediately accessible from the station. It’s a small resort, perfect for beginner and intermediate skiers who want to tackle the easy and immediate pistes before heading out to the more challenging slopes.

Yuzawa Kogen gets crowded at the weekends and accommodation can become quite expensive because of its accessibility from the capital. That said, prices plummet midweek, making it a worthy contender for those looking for one or two days of escape.

Open mid-December to the end of March, 2020; day pass ¥5,000; Yuzawa Kogen is a 75-minute bullet train ride out of Tokyo Station via Echigo-Yuzawa Station; yuzawakogen.com

The Naeba ski resort in Niigata Prefecture | COURTESY OF NAEBA SKI RESORT
The Naeba ski resort in Niigata Prefecture | COURTESY OF NAEBA SKI RESORT

Naeba, Niigata Prefecture

A short drive from Yuzawa is another of Japan’s largest resorts, Naeba — which doubles up as the host site of the summer Fuji Rock Festival.

Situated on the eastern slopes of Mount Takenoko, Naeba was purpose-built during the bubble era and has a wide selection of different terrain for skiing. Naeba is connected with neighboring Kagura Ski Resort by Dragondola, Japan’s longest gondola.

The top of the resort is much higher than many of the surrounding ones in the Yuzawa region, so the snow quality is better throughout the season. Naeba has a fairly strict view toward off-piste skiing so shouldn’t be the first choice for backcountry skiers, but its ease of access from Tokyo is a huge plus.

Open early December to early April, 2020; day pass ¥5,700; Naeba is a 50-minute, ¥670 one-way bus from Echigo-Yuzawa Station, which connects to Tokyo by bullet train; naeba.gr.jp/en