An Aussie's Guide to Skiing and Snowboarding Japan

October 15, 2015
An Aussie's Guide to Skiing and Snowboarding Japan

The snow has come and gone and we are welcoming warm days on the slopes like a friend’s dog come to visit: open armed, smiling and repeating to ourselves incessantly about how great everything is.

But what about Jack Frost? Looking down we see the snow is quickly turning to slush; Jack Frost is heading North in search of new peaks. And for those of you keen to follow in his wake, we've created the ultimate Aussie guide to skiing and snowboarding in Japan.

Japan

First up, Jack’s headed to Japan and we are hot on his heels. Home to some of the best powder in the world, the rejuvenating Onsen and the mythical Ice Monsters, this is definitely a destination to include on your list of must-do international ski trips.

There are over 500 hundred ski fields in Japan, which understandably is more than a bit daunting when you consider the prospect of choosing just one (or two, or five) to visit. That’s why we’ve pulled together this handy guide, so you can be sure to make the most of your time in Nippon, the land of sun’s origin.

hiroshima shrine sunset

Snow Season

Japan is stitched down its length with snow covered peaks in winter. It starts getting pretty cold around December, and most ski fields open around the middle of that month, with some staying open as late as March. Japan is less than ten hours from Australia, and there is only a two hour time difference: that means no jet lag so you can hit the slopes straight away!

If you really can’t stand the idea of 40 degree days and snags on the barby, why not try a different kind of summer holiday…white Christmas anyone?

Where to go

One of the greatest things about Japan’s size is that you can travel almost anywhere in a matter of hours by Shinkansen: the famous bullet-train. There is nothing cooler than flying through a snow storm at over 300kph; watching streams of snowflakes splashing against the window; towns coming and going in seconds; the mountains looming across the plains awaiting your arrival.

shinkansen mt fuji

Because it’s so quick and easy to get around – depending on how long you intend to stay in Japan – you can visit a number of ski resorts in one trip.

We’ll break up Japan into its regions and narrow in on a few locations within each one.


Hokkaido

During winter, Japan’s northernmost island is home to some of the best powder skiing in the world. Strong winds blow south from Siberia, dusting Hokkaido’s many peaks with light. Powder is consistent with some ski fields receiving up to 14 metres of snow (!) over the course of a season. Think powder up to your knees at the very least.

Veterans looking for pristine off-piste action, and newbies looking to get their skis (or board) cold for the first time are spoilt for choice in Hokkaido. It all depends on what sort of skiing, and what sort of cultural experience you are looking for while you are there.

Getting there

Most ski fields in Japan’s northern isle are fairly close to Sapporo, the city that gave its name to one of Japan’s greatest beers. Getting to Sapporo from Tokyo is usually done one of two ways: by air or by Shinkansen.

A domestic flight from Tokyo’s Narita airport to Sapporo’s New Chitose airport takes around an hour and a half, and can sometimes be cheaper than the train.

Travelling by train will take a little longer; you’re looking at around 10-11 hours. From Sapporo, you have a veritable feast of snow covered peaks to choose from all accessed easily by local train or by car…

sapporo to niseko

Niseko

The village of Niseko is home to four ski resorts - Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Annupuri and Hanazono resort, together known as Niseko United. Niseko receives some of the best snow in Japan, which has made it a hugely popular destination the world over.

Just over 100km from Sapporo, Niseko is the Bali of Japanese ski fields – it has all the infrastructure and western facilities to please and the population of Australians to go with them. Niseko has a good mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced runs so no matter what your abilities are, you are sure to find a slope to challenge you.

If you are travelling with the family, Niseko can be a great option as it’s the closest you will get to a European or North American style setup.

niseko snowboarding

Food & Accommodation

Four major resorts means plenty of accommodation options for every budget. Most accommodation is located on-mountain…you’ll be out the door and skiing before you know it. You’ll find a great deal of options are fairly westernised and this extends to the cuisine, so if you are looking for a quieter more authentic Japanese village style stay, you might consider accommodation in a private guest off-mountain rather than one of the big hotels.

If you can find a good Soba restaurant you have got to try Soba (buckwheat noodle soup), the perfect dish for warming your belly after a long day covered in powder.

soba noodles tokyo

Where to ski

Financially it can be a good option to go for a Niseko United All Mountain Lift Pass, which will give you access to Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, Niseko Annupuri and Hanazono resort ski lifts.

Niseko United Facilities at a glance:

  • Free rides on the inter-mountain shuttle bus

  • Ski and snowboard rental facilities available

  • 29 lifts

  • 60 runs

  • Adult One Day Pass: 6,900

  • Ages 7-12 One Day Pass: ¥4,100

  • Ages 12-15 One Day Pass: ¥5,100

  • Seniors 60 and over One Day Pass: ¥5,100

These figures were correct at the time of first publication – check for latest updates.


Tohoku Region

Located in the North East of Honshu Island (Japan’s largest Island) Tohoku region is home to a number of awesome mountains. It’s easy to get to the Yamagata prefectures in Tohoku by train and should only take two to three hours depending on the service that you are on.

Zao onsen

Zao Onsen

There are two outstanding reasons that people head to Zao Onsen in Tohoku’s Yamagata Prefecture: the Onsen after which the town is named, and the infamous Ice Monsters that come alive from December through until March.

Juhyo

The Ice Monsters or ‘Juhyo’ as they are known, are magnificent to behold. Super-cooled water slowly builds up as ice on fir trees and over the winter months the monsters grow as cold Siberian winds see snow levels building over four metres deep.

At the start of February, the Juhyo Festival lights up the mountain as fireworks erupt in the sky, the Juhyo casting long shadows on the snow. Great fun for the kids, although you might not want to use the word monster when referring to the icy statues.

zao onsen ice monsters

Onsen

As you arrive in Zao Onsen the characteristic smell of Sulphur at first assaults the senses, but that smell signifies the concentration of geothermal activity in the area. All throughout Zao Onsen you will find thermal hot springs fuelled by natural processes deep beneath the mountains. Most hotels and resorts in the area have indoor Onsens and there are a number of outdoor Onsens available so you have the option to experience true Japanese bathing.

A few things to consider when bathing:

  • Onsen are typically male or female: men and women don’t bath together.

  • It is traditional to bathe in the nude and most Onsen will not permit you to wear bathers.

  • You should wash before entering the baths. Most onsens offer a wide range of toiletries and facilities to use and will usually provide a towel and slippers to wear.

onsen

Food and accommodation

There is enough accommodation in Zao Onsen to cater for about 9,000 people, so as long as you plan ahead, you shouldn’t struggle to find somewhere to stay. Things are a bit more laid back in Zao Onsen than in Niseko; you have the choice of staying close to the mountains in one of the up-market hotels or spending your time in a traditional guest house or backpackers if you are travelling on a budget or want to meet other travellers.

Don’t even worry about having to leave the mountain for lunch. There are over 40 eateries on the slopes, so you can park your board and chow down on some hot Genghis Khan Lamb Barbecue and warm up for the afternoon’s runs.

Resort facilities at a glance:

  • Ski and Snowboard rental facilities available

  • 41 lifts

  • 26 runs

  • Adult One Day Pass: Approx. ¥5,000

  • Child One Day Pass: Approx. ¥1,900

These figures were correct at the time of first publication – check for latest updates.


Nagano

Northwest of Tokyo is one of Japan’s most stunning regions, Nagano. Dotted with peaks topping the 2,000-3,000m mark, it’s not surprising that Nagano city hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. Much of that infrastructure is still there — you can ride the same slopes as the pros. Nagano is home to more than just mountains; make sure you check out our section suggesting some awesome après-ski activities.

Getting there

Like Niseko, Nagano is a popular destination among international tourists, mostly because of its accessibility from Tokyo. It should take less than two hours to get to Nagano station from Tokyo by Shinkansen on the JR Nagano line.

Food & accommodation

While you are in Nagano, you’ve got to try Takoyaki: fried octopus balls served with special Takoyaki sauce and Japanese mayo. Hot and dusted with dried bonito flakes, you will want to eat these every day.

There are plenty of options when it comes to accommodation. You can stay at the various villages in Hakuba valley in hotels or chalets, or stay in independent accommodation off the mountain as well.

Après-Ski

We are not just talking about nightlife in this case. If we can offer up one priceless tip, it would be to plan your rest days well ahead of time. Runs are much longer in Japan than in Australia, so Aussies often find their legs giving up after a couple of days.

In Nagano, there is plenty to do when your legs are sore or when the weather is poor. Make sure to head to the Jigokudani Monkey Park to see the snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs (made famous in the documentary Samsara – a great watch on a cold night).

snow monkeys nagano

If you want to learn a little bit more about Japanese history and culture, you can’t go past Zenkoji Temple, and Matsumoto castle. While you explore the local villages and towns keep an eye out for the traditional storehouses (Kura) that sit beside Japanese homes which are used to house valuable supplies through the winter.

Hakuba Valley

If you are heading to Nagano, you are going to want to zero in on Hakuba Valley, only a short trip from Nagano station. There are eleven ski resorts in Hakuba! No matter what the weather looks like there is likely to be a resort that will suit the conditions.

The runs here are long. You might spend 15-20 minutes in the gondola ride to the top, so that means you had better make sure your legs are fit before you arrive.

Nagano to Hakuba

If we had to pick just one…

Hakuba Cortina

It’s a little bit remote, but Hakuba Cortina offers a unique snow holiday within Hakuba valley.

Hotel Green Plaza dominates the resort an example of stunning Japanese architecture from another era. You’ll find an Onsen with 11 different types of baths, three restaurants and plenty of rooms to accommodate so long as you remembered to book in advance.

As far as the snow goes you’ll be experiencing some of Japan’s finest powder. Plenty of options for off-piste action, the groomed trails range from beginner level runs through to advanced runs hitting the 40-degree incline mark.

  • 16 runs

  • 7 lifts

  • Runs that are over 3km long...

Hakuba Cortina is an awesome alternative to some of the busier resorts.

skiing hukuba


Niigata

Heading north straight up the middle of the island of Honshu, you will eventually run into the mountains that dominate the landscape of Niigata. If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Niseko and Hakuba, Niigata might be a good place to aim for. Famed for its sake distilleries and beautiful izakayas, Niigata is not without some seriously good powder runs.

Getting there

It’s easy to get to the centre of Niigata from Tokyo; the best way is to head there via Nagano using the JR line. Myoko is only a 40-minute train ride from Nagano and is one of the best ski and snowboard resorts in Niigata and in all of Japan.

Nagano to Miyoko kogen

Miyoko-Kogen

This is where you are aiming for in Niigata. Miyoko-Kogen is home to half a dozen or so ski resorts and is less frequented than other areas of Japan during the snow season. Less queues, quiet bars and restaurants and authentic Japanese infrastructure that hasn’t been readily converted to cater to the continuing flock of western tourists.

The snow is world class, too. There is a good mix of terrain with runs leaning toward intermediate and advanced levels. The Miyoko Big-4 lift pass is great value giving you access to Akakura Onsen, Akakura Kanko, Ikenotaira and Suginohara for under ¥5,000 a day for an adult.

These figures were correct at the time of first publication – check for latest updates.

Food & accommodation

Myoko has held on to tradition meaning there are some great options for staying in authentic Japanese guest houses and hotels. Just remember to follow custom and remove your shoes before you step inside. Don’t worry, Japanese people are very accommodating and if you forget, they’ll let you know politely as they offer you a pair of slippers.

skiing miyoko kogen

Après-Ski

Niigata is well known for its world class sake distilleries. On your days off, make sure to take a tour and sample some the delicious rice wines, perfect for warming up after a day on the slopes. If you can’t make it direct to the source, there are plenty of small bars (izakaya) offering a great selection along with beautiful tapas style dishes.


Customs, and things to consider

In some Japanese resorts, it can be difficult to find boots and skis that fit western men and women. At the bigger resorts, this shouldn’t be any trouble if you are renting, but your whole trip can be a lot less stressful if you are taking your own gear. Shoes off, slippers on.

The Japanese are very polite and many people speak English, but it is also much appreciated when you throw in a few simple phrases. Ohio is great for saying hello at most times of the day, and a few arigato never go amiss.

Slurping while eating is heaps of fun, and shows you are enjoying your food. Compliments to the chef!

Don’t assume you can bath with clothes on. Make sure you ask before you enter an Onsen in bathers.

Now that you have a bit of an idea of where to go to find the snow in Japan, it’s time to start booking your next adventure!!!

follow the snow japan


Image credit: ©JNTO

A big thanks to JNTO for supplying images and information for this article. For more info on skiing and snowboarding in Japan head to the JNTO website.


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