Japan is absolutely legendary in the skiing and snowboarding communities for its epic snowfall and super fun terrain. Diehard skiers make their pilgrimage to the island nation every winter to knock it off their bucket list. Japan also has the most ski areas of any country in the world. This means that there are tons of great options for visiting powder hounds. It also begs the question, which resorts should you visit on your trip to Japan? We’ll walk you through the different options and share our go-to ski areas in Japan.
The country of Japan is made up of almost 7,000 different islands. Skiers and snowboarders really only need to worry about two. Hokkaido, whose capital is Sapporo – where the Sapporo brewery began, and Honshu. Visiting Hokkaido requires an extra flight from Tokyo to the northern island. Honshu is Japan’s largest island, home to many of its most populous cities, including Tokyo. Honshu is also home to Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Skiers and snowboarders can ride the train or buses from Tokyo to these resorts.
Choosing which Island you want to visit is the first step to planning your trip. The quality of snow is often better in the colder Hokkaido, but the resorts on Honshu can be easily accessed, and the peaks are larger. If skiing is your main goal, you can’t go wrong with either. However, if you’re trying to spend some time in Tokyo, Kyoto or any of Japan’s other great destinations, sticking with Honshu might make your logistics easier. If these logistics already have your head spinning, consider a ski trip package, there are many that offer Japan ski packages.
Hakuba Japan is not just one ski and snowboard resort, it’s a network of areas in one large valley. This valley has a bounty of great terrain, across 11 different areas. It’s almost too many to choose from! The peaks here are huge, reaching high into the alpine. This makes for some amazing backcountry access, however, avalanche danger can be extreme, so don’t travel out of bounds without a guide.
Happo-One and Cortina are two of the largest and most well known areas in the Hakuba Valley. Hakuba has a lot to offer visitors, on and off the mountains, which makes it one of the best places to ski and snowboard in Japan. There are many lodges throughout the valley that allow for walking access to the ski areas. Hakuna also has a bus system, which means you can easily do this trip without renting a car and driving on snow covered roads.
For skiers looking for a less crowded or more laid-back destination on Honshu, consider a ski trip to Myoko, this small area is another great option for visiting skiers and snowboarders. Compared to the larger, more western and family friendly Hakuba, Myoko is smaller, more “off-the-grid,” and has some of the best tree skiing in Japan. Similar to Hakuba, there are a couple ski areas in Myoko to explore. Off the mountain, there is a great town steeped in history and Japanese culture. For visitors looking for a nice balance between culture and skiing, Myoko is a sure bet.
Nozawa Onsen is a nice little village alongside a fairly large (by Japanese Standards) ski and snowboard area. It is located in Nagano, about a two hour drive from Hakuba. The village has a long and rich history, making it a great place to experience Japanese culture. The Fire Festival (held on January 15th every year) is a highlight, and definitely worth planning a trip around.
Compared to the tightly grouped clusters of ski areas on Honshu, Hokkaido is more spread out. Similar to the resorts on the main island, there are buses and shuttles available to get skiers to the resorts from both Sapporo and the airport, which is about an hour train or bus ride from the city. Below are some of the best and most popular ski areas on the island, though there are many additional areas worth checking out. These are located in smaller towns, making them great to link up on a longer vacation, but perhaps not the best basecamp in their own right. Hokkaido is known for its light powder snow, which comes from its cold winter temperatures. Prepare accordingly with lots of layers, a facemask, and a warm pair of mittens.
Niseko is one of Japan’s most popular ski and snowboard destinations, and for good reason. The area is actually four separate ski and snowboard resorts built around the same peak, with a nice village located at the base. The four separate areas are Grand Hirafu, Annupuri, Hanazono, and Niseko Village. They can all be accessed from town via bus. The skiing and snowboarding in Niseko is the most similar to North American ski towns and resorts. There is still a good balance of Japanese culture for those who seek it out, however. The town of Niseko is very lively and has the best nightlife of Japan’s ski and snowboard resorts. Niseko has grown popular because of the great access, reliably deep powder, and fun tree riding.
A close neighbor to Niseko, Rusutsu has access to some great terrain, and tends to be a bit less crowded. The base area is an amusement park (literally), with rollercoasters and other rides that run in the summer months. In the winter, the resort is a little more quiet. There is some fun backcountry access from Rusutsu, but skiers and snowboarders must remain wary of backcountry hazards. Hiring a guide is highly recommended if you plan to go out of bounds. The resort itself is one of the best ski and snowboard areas in Japan.
Kiroro is one of the closer ski and snowboard areas to Sapporo and routinely receives tons of snow. The backcountry access at Kiroro is very good. Inbounds, the ski patrol is fairly restrictive of off-piste access. Kiroro’s best terrain sits in an area just outside the ski area boundary. Ski patrol controls access to this terrain, requiring skiers and snowboarders to check in and check out, a task that is totally worth the reward. There is a guide service in the main lodge that can help show you around this sidecountry area safely. Kiroro does not have much of a base area town or village, although there are a couple hotels.