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Japanese Resorts Transition into World Class Ski Destinations

A lone snowboarder tearing through the slopes after February 2022's record-breaking snowfall in Hokkaido

With the news that Japan will reopen its borders to tourists fresh off the press, it feels like a good time to take stock of all that has happened in Japan ski resorts since the pandemic began, and what lies in store for those who are lucky enough to make it over this winter!

Japan has been closed to tourists since the end of the 2019-20 ski season. Looking back it is hard to believe just how much time has passed in the intervening period. 2 full winters have elapsed, and much has been said about how bitter sweet they were.

The empty snow-filled streets of Hakuba

Japan’s spectacular snow fell in huge dumps, day after day, onto empty pistes, but the powder was only accessible to skiers and snowboarders from outside Japan via ski blogs and social media. In a cruel twist of fate, February 2022 broke snowfall records on Hokkaido and mainland Japan.

The sleepy, white roads of Niseko in January 2021 with the bright lights of its ski resort up ahead

In the context of Japan ski resorts, less has been said about the 3 summers which have taken place, despite the fact that in ski resorts, summer is the time when things change! While much stood still in the pandemic, new developments which had long been in the pipelines went ahead, and while the rest of the world was focused elsewhere, Japanese ski resorts continued their evolutionary path towards becoming world class ski destinations.

A skiier marvelling at the giant mounds of snow as a result of February 2022's record-shattering snowfall

The resort of Niseko on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido has seen changes to infrastructure, amenities and accommodation. A new ski course and Hanazono Symphony Gondola await returning visitors, together with the opening of some great new restaurants. A branch of one of Tokyo’s most talked about ramen restaurants, Afuri Niseko, lies in wait, and Ichi Ichi Kitchen’s ‘farm to plate’ dining will tempt every lover of good food. The Yard Niseko offers an exciting new pet-friendly, kid-friendly community space including a cafe, juice bar, studio with an impressive range of fitness classes, skate room and co work facilities.  

The opening of the Symphony Gondola, Hanazono Ski Resort's newest feature

But the most dramatic development is Niseko’s new accommodation offerings. In Hirafu Village the already impressive lineup of places to stay has been taken to a new level, especially in the form of luxury apartments offering Japanese Western fusion experiences with a focus on relaxation, wellness and harmony with the local environment.  Notable examples include Sansui Niseko located in Upper Hirafu next to the Quad Lift. This is set to become one of Niseko’s most exciting places to stay, with five star facilities including a traditional onsen, fully equipped gym, children’s playroom and art gallery.

The lavish exterior of Sansui Niseko boutique hotel

Setsu Niseko in central Hirafu also has its own onsen and brings a range of new dining experiences to Niseko. It will be home to Afuri Niseko, méli mélo led by Michelin-starred Chef Hironori Sato, Sushi Kato, Tempura Araki, Luke’s Oyster Bar & Chop House and Lounge Bar by Park90.

The Setsu Niseko hotel with its unrivalled view of Mt Yotei on the horizon

Other impressive new accommodation complexes include Yamakei Residences in Hirafu Lower Village, which boasts private onsen and tranquil forest views from each private residence, and Intuition, a central Hirafu luxury property in a forested nook across from the Ace Family lifts offering daily breakfasts.

Yamakei Residences in Niseko provides visitors with a relaxing hot-spring retreat. 

The trend in development of five star self contained accommodation has been seen in smaller resorts too. The Vale Rusutsu, Fenix Furano and Fenix West and Yu Kiroro have opened their doors to visitors over the past 2 years. On the mainland of Japan, Roka Apartments epitomises luxury new ski in ski out Hakuba accommodation, and there has been a particular focus on the development of new chalets, in particular for larger groups. These include aptly named, colossal 8 bedroom 9 bathroom ‘The Castle’ and the stunning 5 bedroom Echo Rocks

A lounge in The Vale Rusutsu, a luxury condominium style hotel with breath-taking mountain views. 

In Hakuba Valley, perhaps the most exciting development is the ongoing trend towards lesser known Hakuba resorts emerging from obscurity. Avid Japan skiers and snowboarders will be familiar with the fact that Japan is home to hundreds of small resorts, and that often the best ski and snowboard experiences can be found off the beaten track. Of course, that is easier said than done for international visitors who don’t speak Japanese and want to enjoy world class facilities on their holiday - and this is the beauty of Hakuba!

The development of Fenix Furano hotel in the summer of 2021

From a comfortable, accessible base in Happo One or Echoland, you can easily explore up to 10 Hakuba ski resorts, some of which are  perfect representations of those smaller, off the beaten track Japanese resorts. Examples include Norikura, which is in the process of building a new ski lift at the top of its resort which will open up access to spectacular powder. Iwatake is continuing to develop at an impressive pace; having opened Hakuba Mountain Harbour with its awe inspiring views in 2018 it has now announced a new Iwatake Gondola for 2024 and we welcome its beautiful new coffee shop, Chavaty.

A skiier ripping through Hakuba's world-famous powder snow

And in a piece of good news Sanosaka, a small Hakuba resort, much loved for its spectacular Lake Toya views, has announced reopening for the 2022-23 ski season after closing due to low visitor numbers during the pandemic. Snow Peak Land Station Hakuba’s extraordinary facilities and expansive mountain views also help elevate Hakuba to a new level.

A snowboarder braving the near-vertical snow-powdered slopes of Hakuba Norikura

We applaud this progress. Development which opens Japan ski resorts to a wider audience, enabling them to compete with long established world class ski destinations in Europe and North America is a huge win for Japan, and an even bigger win for all the powder lovers out there whose Japan ski experiences lie ahead. 

Sunrise on the awaiting empty-runs of Niseko

To learn more about all the cultural experiences in and around Hakuba Valley, click here

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