The months of freezing temperatures, kerosene poisoning and way too much Netflix, otherwise known as Japanese winter, have an upside: affordable, accessible and often outstanding skiing and snowboarding throughout the country. A spine of mountain peaks runs almost the length of Japan, covering more than 70 percent of the landmass and offering about 600 ski resorts that average up to 14 meters of snowfall per year.
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. Add a generous helping of spectacular luxury resort accommodations to the mix, soak it with the country’s famous relaxing and rejuvenating natural onsen (hot springs), flavor it with a dash of sensational seasonal food then sprinkle liberally with copious amounts of off-piste entertainment and local culture — and you have the recipe for an epic winter adventure you won’t soon forget.
When to Go
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.
Where to Go
Ski resorts in Japan span right from the north of the country in Hokkaido all the way down to the southern island of Kyushu. The most well-known and busiest resorts are Niseko in Hokkaido (popular with overseas tourists, especially Aussies), 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).
There are many ski areas within easy reach of Tokyo, making day trips from the city center or its environs out to the slopes an easy possibility. Within two hours you’re able to visit ski resorts in Niigata, Gunma, Tochigi and Nagano.
Japan also has tons of micro-resorts, which are basic ski and snowboard hubs built for locals and leftover from the Japanese ski-craze during the bubble economy in the 1980s. 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 five 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 at night as the traffic can be horrendous on a weekend or holiday. Though the resorts are developed, the roads around them sometimes aren’t so plan accordingly.
Here’s a breakdown of the most well-known ski areas and their resorts. For more on skiing and snowboarding in Japan, have a look at GaijinPot Travel which has just released its list of Top 10 Ski and Snowboard Destinations in Japan.
Due to its cold winters, with Siberian weather fronts crossing the Sea of Japan, the northernmost island of Hokkaido has the deepest powder in Japan. Niseko United is easily the most popular ski resort area for foreigners, with many English-speaking tour operators, lodges and restaurants. Other popular resorts include Rusutsu Resort and Asahidake Ropeway (the tallest mountain in Hokkaido), which are slightly smaller (and less travelled) though they receive similar heavy snowfall as Niseko.
Close to them, the town of Hirafu has one of the best après-ski scenes on offer in Japan (if a little nightlife is also something that you’re after). In central Hokkaido, a little further east, lies Sahoro Resort, another quality ski area with excellent powder and conveniently, quite close to Tokachi-Obihiro airport.
For English tours in the region, check out Hanazono. They can handle everything from passes, ski schools and tours to accommodations and rentals.
The Tohoku region on northern Honshu covers a very wide area and the resorts are more scattered, with the most popular being Appi Kogen and Shizukuishi Ski Resort in Iwate Prefecture. If adventure is more your style, then Hakkoda Ropeway in Aomori is less of a resort area and more popular for people looking for some serious backcountry powder.
|Shizukuishi Ski Resort||visitiwate.com/article/4724|
There are two main ski resort regions in Niigata on the east coast of Honshu (facing the Sea of Japan): Yuzawa and Myoko. Yuzawa is by far the easiest day trip from Tokyo, with a direct shinkansen (bullet train) to Echigo Yuzawa station. The Gala Yuzawa Resort even has its own bullet train stop that doubles as a gondola station — so you can step off the train and head straight to the lifts!
There are many other resorts in the area including Ishiuchi Maruyama, Iwappara Snow Resort and Naspa New Otani. Another 20 minutes from the station is Kagura Mitsumata Resort and a little further yet is the popular Naeba Ski Resort (where the annual Fuji Rock Festival is held every summer). The other main region is Myoko, home to the Suginohara Ski Resort, Akakura Kanko Resort and Spa and the Ikenotaira Onsen Resort.
|The Gala Yuzawa Resort||gala.co.jp/winter/english|
|Iwappara Snow Resort||iwa-ppara.com (Japanese)|
|Naspa New Otani||naspanewotani.com|
|Kagura Mitsumata Resort||kagura-mitsumata.ne.jp/english/index|
|Naeba Ski Resort||enjoyniigata.com/english/08/naeba-ski-resort|
|Suginohara Ski Resort||myokokogen.net/resorts/suginohara|
|Akakura Kanko Resort and Spa||akr-ski.com/english|
|Ikenotaira Onsen Resort
Nagano famously played host to the 1998 Winter Olympics and has some excellent world-class ski areas. Resorts are found throughout the Nagano mountains, but the biggest resort areas are Hakuba, Shiga Kogen and Nozawa Onsen.
Hakuba is arguably the most popular winter sports region on the main island of Honshu and a 30-kilometer stretch of its impressive mountain backdrop is home to a number of snow fields, including Hakuba Happo-one, Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field, Tsugaike Kogen, Joetsu Kokusai Ski Resort, Hakuba 47 and Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort. The men’s downhill and super giant slalom as well as the ski jump and nordic combined events of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics all took place in Hakuba.
Shiga Kogen comprises about 20 resorts. With 71 lifts in all, it’s one of the giants of the Japanese ski scene. Best known for Yakebitai Yama and Okushiga Kogen, it is one of the best places for accommodations, with some of the larger Japanese hotel chains having locations in the area.
Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort is another popular spot and includes the combined Karasawa, Hikage and Nagasaka ski areas. The wide variety of terrain and eclectic array of visitors means there’s plenty to see and do for kids and families as well as more extreme snow parks and off-piste runs for the advanced riders.
For English-speaking tours, Evergreen Outdoor Center in Hakuba offers English ski lessons, guided tours and backcountry adventures.
|Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field||hakuba.jp/iwatake/en|
|Evergreen Outdoor Center
The northern region of Gunma has some excellent ski resorts and offers convenient access from Tokyo via the Kanetsu motorway and cheap return packages are available to the bigger resorts from the main bus companies. In the northeast, the Minakami area of Gunma includes Marunuma Kogen Resort, White World Oze Iwakura, Kawaba Ski Resort and Minakami Ski Resort Norn — destinations all popular with the younger, cooler snowboarders.
|Marunuma Kogen Resort||marunuma.jp/winter/en|
|White World Oze Iwakura||oze-iwakura.co.jp/ski/en|
|Kawaba Ski Resort||g-jmt.com/kawaba/eng|
|Minakami Ski Resort Norn||norn.co.jp/english_ski_information|
The traditional Japanese version of après-ski entertainment is onsen. These hot, steaming wonder pools of 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.
To enjoy the experience with your partner or friends, check out our lists by regions of hot springs where men and women can bathe together. Those with tattoos should read this guide to finding onsen and visit GaijinPot Travel to see a list of the 30 Tattoo Friendly Onsen in Japan.
This post was updated from the original on Dec 4 2018.