Eat your heart out Canada, Switzerland, and just about every other famous ski destination out there — Japan is the snow sports paradise on the lips of serious enthusiasts around the world. With over 600 resorts to choose from and powder snow of legendary depth, it’s no wonder. But it’s not all about the snow itself; one reason that Japan has climbed up to a top spot on the world scene is its fantastic infrastructure and winter culture.
Skiers and snowboarders here benefit from excellent transport links, high-quality accommodation, and thousands of natural hot springs in which to ease their aching muscles after a long day on the slopes. Whether you want to spend a weekend away from the city or go for a full skiing vacation, you’ll find plenty of options to suit you.
Hokkaido in the north is famous for its reliable powder snow and breathtaking beauty. You’ll also find plenty of options within striking distance of Tokyo, nestled among the Japanese alps. Let’s take a look at 15 of the best resorts in the country, starting on the icy northern island of Hokkaido and moving southward.
After that, we’ll give you the inside track on how to score the best package deals for a Japanese ski vacation to remember!
At just a 90-minute flight from Tokyo, Japan’s northernmost island is easily accessible for a very modest price. Many of the resorts here enjoy over 600 inches of snowfall each winter, unbeatable powder snow, and stunning views across the wildest region of the country.
Probably the most famous ski destination in all of Japan, Niseko is believed to benefit from more snowfall than any other resort in the country — and possibly the world — with almost 50 feet pretty much guaranteed every year. Visitors have 7 distinct resort areas to pick from within the complex, with almost 30 miles of perfectly-manicured slopes between them. The slopes span the whole range of levels, from beginner to expert.
If you enjoy long runs or want the opportunity to try some wild, off-piste skiing, then this might well be the place for you. Aside from the world-class snow, Niseko also boasts a great atmosphere and entertainment. The best place to experience this is at Grand Hirafu — the largest of the hotel areas — or Niseko Village.
The only downside in all of this are the crowds which can gather at the height of the season, drawn in by this resort’s growing international reputation. However, if you only have time to try one ski resort in Japan, and want to guarantee yourself the best possible conditions, you really can’t go wrong with Niseko.
You can really get a sense of the unspoiled beauty of Hokkaido on these slopes, situated in the central mountains. Rather than a fully-fledged resort, Asahidake is comprised of four challenging trails and swathes of the untamed, tree-speckled, off-piste terrain of Daisetsuzan National Park. It offers a chance for higher-level skiers and snowboarders to test themselves without all the noise of crowd-clogged slopes.
The slopes of Hokkaido’s tallest mountain benefit from over 45 feet of annual snowfall, and most of the terrain is un-groomed backcountry, accessible via the ropeway. Hit the slopes at the right time of year and it will feel like you have your very own private mountain to yourself!
Although you won’t find as much infrastructure and amenities as at the bigger resorts, there are still plenty of hotels in the area with onsen and restaurants attached. Remember that your safety is largely in your own hands at a high-level place like this, so it’s not really suitable for families or beginners.
This town has access to two fantastic ski areas and plenty of entertainment for families. The Furano zone (3 min from town) is home to one of the steepest ski runs in the country, as the mountain has a vertical drop of 3,117 feet. You’ll find these slopes open from November to May. The other zone is Kitanomine (6 min from town), which opens from December to March. Between the two areas, there are over 15 miles of runs.
If you’re traveling with a mixed-ability group, then Furano is a great choice. There are plenty of runs to accommodate beginners as well as satisfy hardcore enthusiasts. Kids will love Family Snowland, where they can try all sorts of winter activities like dog sledding.
Perhaps the best thing about Furano is that it’s largely off the tourist radar, despite hosting a number of world championships such as the 05/06 Snowboard World Cup. If you travel here, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with in-the-know locals, and enjoy a truly Japanese atmosphere.
For an all-rounder which offers fantastic variety in trails and apres-ski activities, look no further than the largest single ski resort in Hokkaido: Rusutsu. With over 29 miles of well-groomed slopes, and extensive backcountry skiing, you’ll find something to fit your level no matter how long you’ve been at it.
The off-piste areas are accessible from the same lifts as the regular trails, and offer a chance to duck and dive around the tree runs which Hokkaido is famous for. The best part is that all of this is accessible in just 90 minutes from Sapporo, Hokkaido’s main city. That means that your journey here from Tokyo could be as short as 4 hours all in.
The resort also offers a great selection of restaurants, both Western and Japanese. Most of the hotels also have natural hot spring facilities, which you’ll be incredibly thankful for after a hard day of dodging the pine trees up on the mountain. For families, the resort also has plenty of activities such as rubber tubing and snowmobiling.
Convenience is key at this ski resort, located just a short trip northwest of central Sapporo. It mostly caters to skiers at either end of the scale: beginner or advanced. Intermediate skiers aren’t provided for as much, because the groomed runs of the Olympia Zone (named so for its role in the 1972 winter games) are on the lower end of the difficulty scale, and the alternatives are the black runs and off-piste areas of the Highland Zone.
From the latter, you get amazing views of the city and ocean beyond, from over 3,200 feet above sea level. Intermediate skiers should just go for the view then take the lift back down because the runs here are some of the steepest in the country!
Thrill-seekers will also want to try out the well-equipped snow park, while families can head along to the kid-friendly snow park to try rubber tubing and other activities. For cost performance, convenience, and easily accessible powder snow, this is a difficult one to beat.
Tomamu enjoys a reputation as one of the swankiest ski resorts in Japan; the two glitzy hotel towers would look more at place in downtown Tokyo than the countryside of Hokkaido. If you don’t mind spending a little bit extra you can have an absolutely amazing time with the sheer breadth of experiences on offer here.
Activities include onsen, off-piste areas, a wide range of lower-level runs, helicopter skiing, an ice village, snow rafting, and a 50m wave pool! You’ll want to add on a few extra days to your trip to make sure you can take it all in.
Tomamu is fairly easily accessible, at around 90 miles to the east of Sapporo. It’s not just for high-end family ski vacations though — this is actually an excellent place for serious powder heads to enjoy excellent slopes without too much competition for space.
Another day trip-friendly ski destination, this resort is perfect for families visiting Sapporo who want to experience great Hokkaido snow without traveling too far. The amenities are very modern, and the resort benefits from being largely unknown to tourists. That’s not for lack of snow — in fact, Kiroro enjoys over 55 feet of snowfall each year.
For those who enjoy sticking to the pistes, Kiroro is a great place to enjoy a leisurely cruise. There are also plenty of opportunities for powder-seekers to hunt out virgin snow, so long as they head out early.
One of the best benefits of this place is the accessibility for families. While mom and dad head up the slopes to seek some thrills, the kids can enjoy group skiing, or English-language lessons. If you want to extend your stay beyond a day trip, there are plenty of nice hotels in the area, such as the Sheraton.
Maybe you don’t like the sound of taking another flight all the way up to Hokkaido. Well, never fear, the main island of Japan still offers plenty of opportunities for world-class snow sports. Let’s take a look at the northern prefectures first.
Hakkoda Ski Resort
On the very tip of Japan’s main island, you’ll find Aomori Prefecture, which has almost the same climate as Hokkaido to the north. This means you can enjoy fantastic powder snow here too, and a huge amount of reliable snowfall throughout the season — up to 65 feet in fact!
The fact that it’s located so far away from the major tourist destinations makes Hakkoda a perfect place for powder seekers to catch some of the best virgin snow of their lives, without having to compete for space. This place isn’t particularly recommendable for lower levels, as the main draw is the backcountry-style skiing. The vast, wild, off-piste playground boasts over 2000 feet of vertical drop.
This sort of off-trail adventure is only for hardcore enthusiasts who know how to take care of themselves on a mountain. If that sounds like you, then head along to Hakkoda to be rewarded with some of the crispest, fluffiest powder you’re ever likely to ride.
Iwate prefecture is quite a distance north of Tokyo, but you can reach the capital city Morioka in about 2 hours and 40 minutes on the high-speed Shinkansen. Its most famous ski resort has something of a luxury image and a well-deserved one. It’s known as the St. Moritz of Japan by those in the know, on account of the high-end accommodation and services found there.
It boasts around 28 miles of runs split across 21 different trails into two different mountains. There’s plenty of variety on offer, but the main draws are the long, leisurely pistes and high-octane mogul runs. For beginners, English lessons are available, making this a great place for families and mixed-ability groups. Families will also enjoy the mini runs for kids, and activities like sledding and snowmobiling.
The après-ski is a little lacking when compared to other resorts, but the real draw of Appi Kogen is that the vast majority of its patrons are Japanese, so you can experience a true Japanese resort feel without much foreign influence.
Zao Onsen Resort
As with many of the best traditional ski resorts in Japan, Zao started its life as a popular tourist town visited for its natural hot springs. When skiing came to Japan in the 20th century, it added another string to its bow with some of the best pistes in the region. Nowadays it boasts over 40 ski lifts and a huge range of trails for any level.
It’s located in Yamagata Prefecture, which can be accessed from Tokyo in just a few hours via the Shinkansen bullet train. One of the benefits of visiting a place with such rich history is the chance to stay at a traditional Japanese inn: a ryokan. These usually have natural hot springs in which to relax your muscles in preparation for the next day.
Another draw is the famous Zao snow monsters! Don’t worry, these only look like an army of abominable snowmen; they’re actually trees caked in ice and snow by the Siberian winds blowing from the northwest. Weaving through these bizarre-looking formations is a pretty unique experience, and makes for a memorable ride.
The Japanese Alps
Central Japan is home to a collection of mountain ranges which run across the length of the country and span four prefectures. These high-altitude spots are some of the best places in the country for skiing and snowboarding, which is why the 1998 Winter Olympics were held there. If you’re going to be based in Tokyo, then these resorts are probably your best bet for easily-accessible, high-quality slopes.
This is central Japan’s equivalent of Hokkaido’s Niseko snow sports area: a sprawling collection of 11 different resorts all nestled within one stunning valley. This was the site of the aforementioned 1998 Olympics, so you know that the facilities here must be world-class. Covering the mountains you’ll find about 85 miles of trails split across over 200 different pistes.
These run the entire spectrum from easy blues and greens to terrifyingly steep blacks. The powder on the runs is exquisite, and at these altitudes, the conditions are pretty much guaranteed to be good; the peaks are all around 3000 meters! You’ll be spoilt for choice when deciding where to stay, but definitely consider Shiga Kogen and Happo One — these resorts are two of the best.
In each of these places, you’ll find an excellent selection of apèes-ski bars, restaurants, and activities. The best part is that you can reach Nagano, the nearest city, in a little over 90 minutes from Tokyo with the Shinkansen. From there, it’s just a short trip west to the beating heart of snow sports in Japan.
Another Nagano Prefecture resort, this one started its life as a popular hot spring destination. The ski resort itself opened in the 1920s, making it one of the longest-established in Japan. Here you’ll find over 30 miles of trails spread across a wide range of levels. Thrill-seekers will be happy to hear they have half pipes, steep inclines of 39 degrees, and mogul runs to challenge your agility.
The resort itself has a charming historic feel, and around a dozen public onsen baths in which to soak your aching muscles. This makes it one of the most authentically Japanese resorts in the area. While Hakuba Valley has distinctly European vibes, a place like Nozawa Onsen could only exist in Japan.
As well as providing plenty of entertainment for experts, the resort is also great for families. English-language lessons are available for kids, meaning you can leave the little ones in the safe hands of their instructor while you hit the black runs. Nozawa Onsen is also situated very near the Jigokudani Snow Money Park, where you’ll have the chance to see the famous hot-spring bathing monkeys!
Another great ski resort accessible from Tokyo, Yuzawa is located in Niigata Prefecture. Rather than a single resort, it’s a collection of a dozen different ones with 124 miles of piste between them. The connections between each resort are great, and lift pass deals can be purchased covering multiple areas, so you can spend a full vacation exploring this winter sports playground.
Alternatively, you could just come for a day trip. The area can be reached in just about 90 minutes from Tokyo via Shinkansen, making this far and away one of the easiest places to visit from the capital. Whether you’re here for a week or a day, after hitting the slopes it’s worth taking the time to enjoy the good selection of hot springs and après-ski venues on offer.
If you’re traveling with young kids or beginners, they’ll find plenty of easy slopes to fit their level. And with so many different areas and runs to choose from, the veterans among you will find plenty to test their skills as well.
Although not the largest resort on the list, Naeba benefits from being accessible from central Tokyo in less than 90 minutes. That’s not to say that it’s small by any means — in fact, it has 27 different runs across a wide range of difficulties. The powder here is good, and the season lasts well into spring. Perhaps its greatest draw is that you can expect good snow conditions here right up until May!
The facilities are modern and well-developed, as this is one of Japan’s newer resorts. For kids, the resort has a snow playground area, while adults can get their thrills on the high-speed downhill course. You’ll also find a lot of nice outdoor hot springs, and great restaurants.
Once you’ve conquered all of the slopes of Naeba, consider heading along to nearby Kagura. You can reach here with a ride on the extremely long gondola (named the Dragondola), opening up a whole new extra range of chilled slopes with lovely views over the lake.
If it’s history and tradition you’re looking for, this ski town is the one for you. In operation since the 1930s, Myoko Kogen is famous for its authentic onsen and traditional, family-run businesses. Here you can get a taste of real Japanese mountain life, but with plenty of English support.
With nine different ski resorts in the area, there are plenty of great runs to choose from, including the longest run in Japan (almost 5.3 miles) at Myoko Suginohara. These pistes enjoy an average annual snowfall of up to 50 feet, making it an excellent place to catch some of Japan’s legendary powder snow.
The resort is located in Niigata Prefecture, meaning you won’t have to spend too much time traveling to reach here. The total journey from Tokyo can be completed in under 2.5 hours. If you’ve tried all of the ultra-modern resorts and now want something with a little more local character, then this is the place.
When To Go Skiing In Japan
When choosing the time of year to go on your Japanese ski or snowboard trip, first consider what your main priorities are: crowds, price, powder? In general, the season runs from mid-December to April, but you’ll be able to find resorts that open earlier and remain open later than this.
If you’re going at the very start of the season, then you’ll want to head as far north as possible. Hokkaido’s season gets in full swing before the Japanese Alps, so consider catching a flight up there in December.
Be careful when booking during the Christmas and New Year holidays. These are (quite predictably) the peak times for most resorts in terms of crowds. To avoid having to fight for your space on the pistes, head to some of the less popular resorts during this time. Basically, this means avoid Niseko and Hakuba Valley.
Once the holidays’ end, however, it’s open season for powder hunters! The off-piste areas will be blanketed in snow by mid-January, making this far and away the best time to ski in Japan. All of those beautiful images you’ve probably seen of sheer white scenery and fluffy powder — those were probably taken in January.
Another key calendar date to watch out for is Chinese New Year. This is basically the equivalent of the Xmas holidays for Japan’s mighty neighbor, so expect the big-name resorts to be packed with Chinese tourists near the end of January and start of February (the exact dates of these holidays change each year).
After the end of Lunar New Year, the slopes will clear up and give you access to great powder once again. The condition won’t become patchy until mid-March when some warmer days will give the pistes the dreaded icy sheen. However, the crowds will have largely dissipated by this time, leaving little competition for powder-heads on those days when the conditions still hit the sweet spot.
By April and May, conditions will have started to deteriorate and some resorts will begin to close. To give yourself the best chance of landing good conditions, head to high-elevation resorts such as the Gassan Glacier.
How Much Does Skiing in Japan Cost?
All you experienced skiers and snowboarders are already well aware that we haven’t exactly picked the cheapest hobby, but you might be surprised to hear that Japan’s resorts are quite affordable when compared with other top destinations. Below we’ve marked out the general cost of each of the main expenses for a snow sports vacation in Japan.
|Lift Pass||¥4000 – 6000 per day|
|Gear Rental||¥3000 – 5000 per day|
|Clothing Rental||¥3000 – 5000 per day|
|Budget Accommodation||¥7000 – 14,000 per night|
|Luxury Accommodation||¥20,000 – 30,000 per night|
|Group Ski Lessons||¥6000 – 7000 per session|
|Food and Drink||¥800 – 1400 per meal|
|Public Onsen||¥600 – 1200 per entry|
Tips for Saving Money
As you can see, it’s the gear and clothing rental which is the killer, so consider bringing your own. If you’re going for three or more days, it will probably work out cheaper to just buy a whole new set of clothing when you touch down in Japan.
As for food, if you want to save money you can easily pack a bento lunch box and take it up onto the slopes. The Japanese love a packed lunch, so you’ll find plenty of options at the convenience stores. These are also great places to grab a cheap morning coffee, or a few cans of beer for the lodge.
To get the inside track on lift pass purchases, take a look at the ticketing machines located in the convenience stores. You can buy tickets for anything from soccer games to concerts at these, but many tourists aren’t aware that the konbini in the cities and towns near ski resorts will sometimes offer discounted deals on your lift pass too. Unfortunately, these things are almost all in Japanese, so get the clerk to help.
Transport costs can really rack up in Japan, especially if you’re touring multiple destinations. If that’s the case then consider getting the popular Japan Rail Pass, which gives you unlimited travel on their network for up to 21 days, even on the bullet trains.
The Best Option for Skiing and Snowboarding in Japan
If all of that planning and budgeting sounds like a headache to you, and you’d rather have someone else hammer out all the details, then there are plenty of package deals available which will cut costs and maximize your time on the slopes. The operators run all kinds of different trips, from guided off-piste adventures to fun-packed family vacations.
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