The unbearable hell-scape of freezing temperatures, kerosene poisoning and way too much Netflix, otherwise known as Japanese winter, has an upside: affordable, accessible and often outstanding skiing and snowboarding throughout the country. From December right through to April/May, you can find great conditions and friendly crowds across a diverse range of resorts – many within reachable distance of major cities.
Most ski resorts in Japan generally open around mid-December depending on snowfall and can last up until late May when some resorts offer discounted lift prices for spring skiing. Peak conditions are usually found in mid-January until the end of February, though some higher resorts can have incredible snow outside of these times – online communities like SnowJapan provide regularly updated information on where the best snowfall is happening.
The peak season is obviously when the resorts will be most crowded, especially on weekends or national holidays. The best time to head to the mountains is on a weekday if you can – you might find you’ll have the slopes almost entirely to yourself.
There are over 500 ski resorts in Japan from the north of the country in Hokkaido right down to the southern island of Kyuushu. The most well-known and busiest resorts are Niseko in Hokkaido (popular with overseas tourists), Zao in Tohoku (famous for snow monsters), and the largest ski resort in Japan, Shiga-Kogen in Nagano (where you can spot real-life bathing apes). Yuzawa in Niigata is convenient for a day-trip from Tokyo being only an 80 minute train ride away.
Japan also has tons of micro-resorts, which are basic ski and snowboard hubs built for locals and leftover from the post-war Japanese ski-craze before the economy went, tumbling downhill. Lots of micro-resorts offer night-skiing since locals can only hit the slopes after work. Fukui prefecture on the West coast has at least 5 micro-resorts so you can take a car and hop between them.
Getting to/from most resorts is a fairly painless process. Most resorts run shuttle busses and if you’re staying in the area your accommodation should provide transport. If taking your own car you should try to avoid the rush hour by leaving early or driving in the middle of the night as the traffic can be exceptionally horrendous after a weekend or holiday. Though the resorts are developed, the roads aren’t so plan accordingly.
Japanese ski resorts are by and large less developed than their European or American counterparts. Even at the bigger sites you’re unlikely to find chalet complexes, skiwear stores or even a medium-sized supermarket. But they’ll have everything you need (rentals, lift passes, food) before you reach the orderly queue for the ski lift, on which every seat is repeatedly swept clean of snow so your butt doesn’t get wet.
The average cost of a one-day lift pass is around 4000 to 5000 yen. Many resorts also have half-day, multi-day, evening and season passes or you can book a package deal which can also include transport and accommodation. Rental gear is also reasonable at 3000 to 5000 yen for a full-set for a day. Pretty much every resort will have at least one rental shop but beware that the sizes they stock are Japanese so guys or girls with bigger feet might have trouble finding anything above a size 12 (28cm).
For lessons, some resorts will have resident instructors but for smaller places you may have to book with a ski club or affiliate beforehand. Tokyo Snow Club gives free beginner lessons on many of its organized trips.
The most important thing to remember is that there will absolutely in no way be an ATM anywhere within easy walking/driving/flying distance (especially in ski-boots) so make sure to bring enough cash.
The Japanese version of après-ski entertainment (since there typically isn’t really any nightlife to speak of); these hot, steaming wonder pools of après-ski amazing-ness are the absolute BEST thing about skiing and snowboarding in Japan. Most, if not all, resorts will have an onsen(s) nearby for you to sink into after a day on the slopes. Some even let you drink beer.