For many travelers, Japan evokes images of modern cities, Shinto shrines, and of course, amazing sushi and ramen. Few people would add skiing and snowboarding to that list, but for winter sports enthusiasts, Japan remains a best-kept secret. Like most ski resorts in the Northern Hemisphere, Japan’s prime ski season is from January through March, but powdery conditions are still feasible in late December and early April. Here, we’ve outlined five of Japan’s top ski regions, and the most popular resorts in each area.
Located 55 miles southwest of Sapporo, Niseko is Hokkaido’s, if not Japan’s, most famous ski resort. International visitors flock to Niseko for its incredible powder, off-piste terrain, and accessible backcountry. The area is also known for its lively après-ski culture, great bars, and variety of restaurants. Since Niseko caters to international travelers, English is widely spoken, which isn’t always a given in Japan. However, some travelers note that Niseko can feel a tad inauthentic and a little too busy during peak season. Travelers shouldn’t expect clear blue skies in Niseko. Snow storms regularly pass through the region, which give the area its famed powder. Nearby resorts include Moiwa and Rusutsu. Moiwa is a bit more subdued and less crowded, while Rusutsu is known for its dry powder and excellent tree skiing. Kiroro, outlined below, can also be considered part of the greater Niseko region.
Hotel Pick: A modern hotel at the base of Mount Yotei, Niseko Konbu Onsen Tsuruga Besso Moku no sho is an excellent pick for skiers seeking upscale comfort after hitting the slopes. The on-site hot springs are a great way to warm up after a day spent in the snow. The hotel also has two on-site restaurants that serve both Japanese and Western fare.
Sapporo became famous in 1972, when it hosted the first Winter Olympics in Asia. Today, millions of tourists visit the city each February for its famed Snow Festival -- a weeklong celebration best known for its amazing snow statues and ice sculptures. Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Hokkaido is the country’s coldest, snowiest region, making it a premier ski destination. Sapporo is an excellent gateway to the island’s many ski resorts. Sapporo Teine is a 45-minute drive from the city center, making it an excellent choice for day-trippers, or those looking for a ski vacation that also includes city nightlife. Sapporo Teine is family-friendly and great for beginners, but advanced skiers and boarders may want to head to Kiroro. Located 35 miles west of Sapporo, Kiroro is another excellent spot for day-trippers. It tends to fly under the radar, which keeps crowds at bay. Kiroro doesn’t have its own village -- just a few hotels at the base of its two peaks. Plus, a third of Kiroro’s 21 runs are rated black, which entices accomplished skiers and snowboarders.
Hotel Pick: Sapporo Park Hotel is a modern mid-range option with a central location and views of Nakajima Park. It offers free Wi-Fi and has three on-site restaurants, including one that serves a Western-style breakfast.
Located in central Hokkaido, Furano is less touristy and less expensive than Sapporo and Niseko. Furano’s ski villages aren’t westernized and offer an authentic taste of Japanese ski culture. The weather here is generally more pleasant than Niseko's -- sunny days and clear blue skies -- but its powder isn’t as good. It’s ideal for all skill levels as well. Its runs are groomed enough for beginners, but its off-piste terrain is exciting enough for pros.
Hotel Pick: Hotel Naturwald Furano is a family-friendly hotel with great amenities, including a kids playroom, outdoor onsen (Japanese hot spring), minimart, laundry room, and library with books for adults and kids. Guests rave about the hotel’s breakfast buffet, but it should be noted that there are scant Western options.
Nagano, a modern Japanese city that lies 150 miles northwest of Tokyo, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1988. While there aren’t any places to ski in the city itself, Nagano is a gateway to some of Japan’s best ski resorts. Hakuba is one of Nagano’s most well-known resort areas, and is popular with locals and westerners alike. It’s a family-friendly destination that’s great for skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels. Hakuba also has a lively après-ski scene, so non-skiers can hit the bars, book massages, or take a dip in local hot springs. Another popular Nagano resort is Nozawa Onsen, which is considered by many to be the birthplace of skiing in Japan. Nozawa Onsen is known for its diverse terrain, which is best suited for advanced skiers and snowboarders. Its charming cobblestone village and local hot springs are also popular attractions. The Myoko Kogen resort area averages about 45 feet of powder every season, which is significantly more than some of its neighbors (Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen average 30 to 35 feet annually). For travelers who want a truly authentic Japanese winter experience, Madarao Mountain Resort is hardly patronized by westerners.
Hotel Pick: In Nagano, we like the Metropolitan Nagano Hotel for its convenient location adjacent to Nagano Station, where high speed trains from Tokyo arrive and depart. It’s also where express buses to Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen depart from.
Travelers looking add a ski weekend to their Tokyo trip should head towards Yuzawa. Located in the Niigata Prefecture, Yuzawa is a quick 75-minute bullet train ride from Tokyo. All of Yuzawa’s ski resorts are within close proximity of one another and are easily accessible via public transportation, so travelers can check out a few resort towns in a short amount of time. Naeba is probably the most well-known of Yuzawa’s resort towns. It isn’t historic or charming, but offers convenient ski-in/ski-out mega-resorts and modern lifts. Neighboring Kagura is connected to Naeba via gondola. Kagura is quieter and more laid-back than Naeba and offers great runs for novice and intermediate skiers.
Hotel Pick: Inamoto offers an authentic ryokan (Japanese inn) experience in Yuzawa. The hotel has stunning mountain views, and offers rooms with both shared and private onsens. Guests give Inamoto high marks for its convenient location across from the train station, and for its food, which is served in a traditional Japanese-style dining room.
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