Ride powder snow and carve lines on Japan's most coveted slopes in Niseko, Hakuba, the Japan Alps and traditional hot spring towns
Japan ranks consistently as one of the top destinations in the world for skiing and snowboarding. Thanks to the cold winds that blow over the Sea of Japan, the country receives some of the highest amounts of snow in the world, and lot of it comes in the form of powder snow.
With the country's variety of ski resorts, from the largest, Niseko in Hokkaido, to smaller resorts in hot-spring villages, Japan is an ideal destination for beginners, experts, families with young children, and couples looking for adventure, culture and great skiing and boarding opportunities.
Come for the skiing and snowboarding, stay for the hospitality, cuisine, hot springs and culture.
When to ski in Japan
The ski season in Japan generally begins in mid-December and lasts until April but the actual dates depend on each resort and their location. Hokkaido, due to its location in the north, and the mountains of Nagano, located in higher altitudes, tend to get more snow earlier in the season that other places.
The peak season is in January and February, the months that get the most consistent snowfall. There can also be significant dumps of snow in March, though the weather begins to be more unpredictable with a higher chance of warm spells. The Christmas and New Year's holidays, as well as the week of the Chinese New Year in February, draw the highest number of crowds on the slopes.
Where to ski in Japan
The best places to ski and snowboard in Japan are in Hokkaido , the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago, and the main island of Honshu. Niseko is the largest, most developed, and popular of all the ski resorts in Japan, and Hakuba, located in the Japan Alps in Nagano Prefecture attracts winter sports lovers for its accessibility from Tokyo, variety of resorts and terrain.
There also plenty of skiing and snowboarding destinations to choose from throughout the country; Tohoku in northeastern Japan offers family-friendly resorts with beginner and intermediate terrain, while central Honshu—in particular, Niigata, Nagano and Gumna—offer many great options, with some close enough to Tokyo to make a day trip.
Japan's best skiing: Niseko or Hakuba?
It's sometimes a difficult choice between these two areas if you have limited time in Japan. Both areas get a lot of snow in winter and you won't be disappointed by the expansive terrain or views.
Niseko, a mountain village in southeastern Hokkaido, is rated among the world's top 10 ski towns by various publications, including National Geographic. It's beginner friendly and has the most options for English speakers in Japan, not to mention the views of Mt. Yotei.
Hakuba in Nagano was host to the 1998 Winter Olympics and has a total of 11 resorts combined, providing a variety of terrain for skiers and snowboarders of all levels. Most of the resorts are not connected to each other and are more spread out compared to Niseko, but Hakuba does offer an array of accommodation options for the more budget conscious.
You can also find good deals on lift passes and accommodation at lesser-known resorts throughout Japan which still have great quality skiing and fewer crowds.
Skiing in Hokkaido
Niseko is by far the most renowned ski resort in Hokkaido, but it's not the only one. There are several other resorts on the island that get high volumes of snow every season—and they are often less crowded than Niseko.
Rusutsu , located next to Niseko, is known for its excellent tree runs, large amount of snowfall, and great lift infrastructure. Get away from the crowds at the family-friendly Furano resort , west of Sapporo, where you can also enjoy snowmobiling, ice fishing and a number of activities for children, including English-language lessons.
There is also Sapporo Teine , less than an hour from Sapporo City, as well as Tomamu, a resort known for its high standard amenities, family-friendly facilities, and off-piste skiing and boarding opportunities.
Skiing the Japanese Alps
The Japanese Alps, the “Roof of Japan” as they are often referred to, are a group of high mountains, the tallest reaching above 3,100 meters. They extend across central Honshu from Toyama Prefecture bordering the Sea of Japan to the Southern Alps in Shizuoka Prefecture, bordering the Pacific Ocean. These mountains are a great place to ski and snowboard, and receive annual average snowfall of 11 meters per season. The ski resorts in Hakuba are located in the Northern Alps, along with Nozawa Onsen and Shiga Kogen. A day trip to see the snow monkeys in Yudanaka Onsen makes a great rest day while skiing in the Japan Alps.
Skiing in Tohoku
Zao Onsen Ski Resort on the border of Yamagata and Miyagi, and Appi Kogen in Iwate are the stars of Tohoku. Zao Onsen, famous for its slopes lined with “juhyo” or so-called snow monsters , is filled with Japanese charm and natural hot springs, perfect for relaxing after a long day carving up the runs. The mountain is accessible by bullet train and then shuttle bus from Yamagata Station. Appi Kogen Ski Resort is a stellar resort in the Hachimantai area of Iwate Prefecture. It features high-end ski-in, ski-out accommodation, excellent food, plenty of intermediate slopes for younger children and beginners, as well as group ski and snowboard lessons in English. In particular, Appi Kogen is known for is high-quality groomed slopes.
Day trips from Tokyo
Luckily the mountains aren't too far from Tokyo and there are some excellent ski and snowboarding options close enough to make a day trip if you are pressed for time but want a taste of skiing in Japan. Visit Gala Yuzawa in Niigata for the convenience—there is a gondola connected to the train station—or head just a bit further north in Niigata to Kagura Ski Resort where the heights give you access to powder snow and long runs. It's also a good place for beginner and intermediate skiers. For expert backcountry terrain, skiers and snowboarders can head to Tenjindaira in Gunma Prefecture. Access the area by shinkansen to Jomo Kogen Station.
Japan is a dream for snowboarders—thanks to the many resorts with wide runs, ungroomed slopes and huge amount of powder snow that falls in winter. Snowboarding is particularly popular in Japan, at least compared to North America and Europe. Almost all resorts allow snowboarders on the slopes and have facilities for boarders, but make sure to check in advance if there are certain “off-limits” areas.
Family friendly skiing
If you're coming to Japan with children many resorts offer mixed-level terrain for family members at different levels, along with day care, kids lessons and English-language lessons. Shiga Kogen resort is a safe bet for families, with its varied slopes. Nozawa Onsen had a kids' ski school. Tsugaike Kogen in Hakuba has gentle slopes for beginners, and there are several ski schools in the Hakuba area that have both group and private lessons for children. Most resorts also have a kids' play area where you can play in the snow and go sledding. Paid childcare is also available at many of the resorts, although the majority of places offer it only in Japanese. In Niseko, high-end accommodation offer childcare services. Self-contained accommodations like apartments and houses are also popular among families who want to cook their own food.
There are many different transportation options to the ski resorts around Japan. It usually consists of a combination of bullet train or plane plus local bus transport to the resorts. Some hotels and chalets offer free shuttle services from local train stations.
You can get to Niseko by taking a 90-minute flight from Tokyo to the New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido, then a 3-hour direct bus to Niseko which makes several stops in the three main areas of Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annupuri. There are also direct flights to New Chitose from Australia and other Asian countries.
If you want to go directly to Hakuba after arriving on your international flight, Chuo Taxi runs long-distance shuttle services from Narita and Haneda airports, which take around 4-5 hours.
Cost of skiing in Japan
Cost at a glance
Lift Pass 3,500 yen - 5,000 yen
Rentals from 3,300 yen / set
Accommodation from 5,000 yen / night
Every ski resort in Japan has rental outlets, usually located at the base of the mountain near the main lifts and gondolas, or in the villages surrounding the slopes. Most outlets offer a range of rentals—top quality and branded gear is available at a premium, and older versions of skis and snowboards can be rented at lower cost. It's usually more economical to rent ski and snowboard sets, which include the skis or snowboard, boots and poles. Some places also rent helmets, masks, gloves, jackets and pants. You don't normally need to book in advance, but if you have large feet or require large sizes, it's best to inquire in advance to check if the rental outlet has your size available.
Transporting your own gear
If you've decided to bring your own gear with you and skiing in Japan is part of a larger itinerary, Yamato Kuroneko baggage and delivery service can transport your gear to your hotel at the ski resort, or onward to other cities in Japan you will be visiting. The service is inexpensive and is available in airports and convenience stores, and your accommodation can help you arrange this service and many hotels have the delivery forms readily available.
Compared to Europe and the U.S., Japan remains underdeveloped in terms of apres ski options. If you're looking for great restaurants and bars, Niseko comes in first for the range of food, drink, and nightlife catering to international travelers. Hakuba comes in second, with a number of izakaya, craft beer bars and restaurants located in Hakuba Village. Other areas of Japan are relatively quiet at night, but offer traditional hot springs and Japanese-style pubs run by locals, affording travelers a uniquely Japanese experience. Sip a hot beverage, drink warm sake or dip in a natural hot spring after a day out on the mountain.
For beginners, many of the popular ski resorts offer both kids and adult lessons, half-day or full-day. If you would like to guarantee an English-speaking instructor, it is recommended to book lessons in advance during the peak season—availability of instructors can be limited and they get booked quickly during the high season.
Off-piste and backcountry
Some ski resorts in Japan have strict rules about going off piste, and an attempt at this will get your lift pass confiscated by the ski patrol; Shiga Kogen is one of these resorts, although it is one of the most family-friendly ski resorts in Honshu.
Other areas are more relaxed about skiers and boarders going off-piste, but be aware that this is at your own risk; if you become injured or stranded, the cost of being evacuated is not covered by the resort and you will be charged for it.
Nozawa Onsen in Nagano and Myoko Kogen get a lot of fresh powder and are excellent places to try off-piste and backcountry touring. Niseko also has excellent off-piste and backcountry opportunities. To get first tracks, powderhounds hike to the top of Mt. Niseko Annupuri (1,306 meters) from the top of the highest lift, heading down to the Hirafu and Hanazono areas.
If you're going off piste or backcountry, it's best to hire a professional guide. Heli-skiing is very limited in Japan, and the only place to do true heli-skiing is on Mt. Shiribetsu, north of Rusutsu resort. Book a package with local outfitters in Hokkaido—reserved for high-level intermediates and experts only. Cat skiing is available at Niseko and Tomamu resorts in Hokkaido along with some smaller resorts in Honshu.
The range of accommodation at Japan's ski resorts spans from budget to luxury, and includes guesthouses, Western-style hotels, Japanese inns, chalets, serviced apartments, rental houses and five star luxury accommodations. Find the right accommodation for your budget and travel style with some help from these reservation sites .
While you're in Japan
While you enjoying the thrill of skiing or snowboarding with family and friends, take some time to explore Japan's cultural side. During the winter, there are also many snow festivals featuring elaborate ice sculptures, igloos, lanterns and illuminations at night. Make the most of your holiday trip to Japan at these fun, festive events.