By now, most avid skiers and snowboarders have heard about the incredible powder snow found in Niseko and Hakuba, and the majority of powder junkies include Japan at the top of their bucket list of must-visit ski and snowboard destinations.
So you’ve heard the talk, but still need to walk the walk. If you’ve ever wondered exactly where in Japan you should ski or snowboard, and when is the best time to go, our guide has you covered.
So first of all, are the rumours true? Why ski in Japan? If we had to sum it up in one word, it would be, of course: snow. Even in the time of climate change, the amount, consistency and quality of snowfall in Japan remains fairly reliable year on year.
Amount of snow
Like all resorts, the amount of snowfall can vary from season to season, but even a ‘bad’ season in Japan is usually comparable to and if not better than the best seasons in Europe in terms of the amount of snowfall. Certain Japan ski resorts such as Niseko report annual averages of 14-17 meters (550-670 inches) of the white stuff. Kiroro resort reports an average of anywhere from 17-21 meters (670-825 inches) of snow annually.
Quality of snow
Most importantly, not only does it snow a LOT and OFTEN, but the snow itself is true powder: lighter and dryer than any other high-snowfall area across the globe. Japan ski resorts consistently rank as having some of the best powder snow in the world.
Easy access to back country and side country
Japan ski resorts are also well known for their side and back country terrain, easily accessible via ski lifts through backcountry gates. Powder lovers can easily dip into the trees to their hearts’ content at almost all of Japan’s large, international ski resorts. Check out these Niseko maps and Hakuba maps to get a feel for the resorts terrain. We particularly recommend booking backcountry guiding if you want to go a bit further afield.
Fantastic beginner and intermediate terrain
Not a pro? Beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders don’t need to be intimidated. There is no shortage of perfectly groomed runs for beginners and intermediates who prefer to stick to the piste.
Most Japan ski resorts ;m,also offer night skiing over the main season months, where you can ski and board on floodlit slopes of all difficulty levels. Due to the often continuous snowfall all day, you can often get fresh tracks when you set out in the evening. Check out these Niseko night skiing and Hakuba Valley night skiing articles if you want to learn more.
Snow aside, it’s not hard to think of a million other reasons to visit Japan. The chance to experience the incredible fusion of the traditional with the modern. The beauty of the countryside, the thriving metropolis of Tokyo, the rich history, and mouth-watering food. Combine all of that together with the chance to hit up some of the best powder snow in the world makes Japan the perfect destination for an international ski or snowboard holiday.
WHEN TO GO?
So when is the best time to ski in Japan? Some people are surprised to learn that the Japan snow season is similar to that of North America, with the majority of resorts opening sometime between late November and early December and operating right up to April and even early May in some areas.
While the Japan ski season can be nice and long – especially in the more northern Hokkaido resorts – most people planning an international ski or snowboarding trip do want to try to align it with the best snow conditions on offer, especially those seeking Japan’s amazing powder snow. The weeks in January and early February are going to give you the best chance of having a ton of powder days.
Generally speaking if at all possible, we recommend avoiding the week around Christmas/New Year and Chinese New Year which tends to be the busiest weeks of the season and accommodation prices can be quite inflated at that time.
While the powder junkies out there may prefer to stick to peak powder conditions, early March can be a fantastic time to visit the Japan ski resorts, with lots of incredible deals to be had. Accommodation rates drop exponentially, lift pass rates are often lower, and in some resorts, kids ski free, which is a huge cost-savings for families. If you time it right, you may also travel through Tokyo at peak cherry blossom blooming time.
WHERE TO GO?
What is the best ski resort in Japan for international visitors? The answer to that largely depends on what you’re after. If you are dead-set on powder, a lively village area and all the conveniences and amenities of an international ski resort, then Niseko ski resort is probably for you. If you’re still after the powder but prefer a quieter experience and don’t mind not having a proper ski resort village area, then Kiroro resort or Furano resort might be a good fit. If a big part of the reason you chose Japan as your destination country is for the country and culture itself, then Hakuba ski resort, with its Japanese village feel, scenic setting and Japanese-style accommodation options, is the perfect choice.
HOW TO GET THERE?
If you plan to travel to one of the northern Hokkaido ski resorts such as Niseko, Kiroro, or Furano, you will need to fly into Sapporo New Chitose Airport. You can fly direct to Sapporo from Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore and Taipei. Guests traveling from other countries will need to fly via Tokyo Haneda or Tokyo Narita Airports. There are a number of low-cost carriers like Peach, Skymark and Jetstar Japan offering affordable flights between Tokyo and Sapporo and they are easy to book. From Sapporo it’s just an easy 1-2 hour coach ride to the ski resort, depending on where you’re going. Japan Ski Experience will arrange your coach transfer from Sapporo New Chitose Airport to the door of your accommodation with your Japan Ski Experience booking. Check out our Getting to Niseko guide for more information.
If you plan to travel to one of the mainland ski resorts such as Hakuba, you will need to fly to Tokyo Haneda or Tokyo Narita Airport, and then you can easily take public transportation to the resort. Japan Ski Experience can also arrange private taxis or coach transfers from Tokyo Narita or Haneda to the door of your Hakuba accommodation with your Japan Ski Experience booking. Check out our Getting to Hakuba guide for more information.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Many people are surprised to learn that in fact, Japan can be an extremely economical destination – especially the ski resorts themselves – when compared to other international ski resorts.
When it comes to eating out, there are a lot of low-priced dining options, especially on-the-go. For breakfasts, stock up on supplies from the grocery store and eat in. For lunch, stop for a bowl of ramen on the ski hill (about $10), or pick up a convenience store ready-made snack (eg onigiri, or rice ball, is a good option) for less than $2. The cost of skiing and snowboarding is also quite a bit less than what you would expect to find in other large resort areas. A single day lift pass at Niseko United Resort is around $75 USD ($95 AUD). A complete set of ski or snowboard gear is about $50 – $70 USD based on the available packages.
Here are some great insider tips to help you make the most of your ski holiday:
Japan has an amazing luggage transfer service called Takkyubin. For a very reasonable rate you can ship your luggage and ski & snowboard equipment directly from the airport to your accommodation. In most cases it will arrive within 24-48 hours. The service is fantastic for those wanting to add on a few days in Tokyo before or after a ski resort stay. Every large airport (Tokyo Narita, Tokyo Haneda, Sapporo New Chitose, Kansai, etc) as well as most convenience stores and accommodations offer this service.
Japan operates on a 100V / 50/60Hz voltage system, with A or B plug types (the type that has two flat pins or two pins + grounding pin). This plug type is the same as in North America.
Mobile phone use
You should be able to use your mobile phone in Japan, though roaming charges can get expensive for some without decent international plans. A great option is to purchase a SIM card at one of several kiosks at Tokyo and Sapporo airports. They are available for a flat rate depending on the number of days travelling.
Japan is still primarily a cash-based society, so don’t expect to be able to use your debit or credit card everywhere. For this reason, it’s recommended to carry a sum of cash with you (JPY 20,000 – JPY 30,000) in case you get into a pinch. Japan has an extremely low rate of theft and it’s not unusual for people to have a large sum of cash with them at all times.
It is customary to remove your shoes before entering most buildings in Japan such as restaurants, office buildings, homes, etc. Many hotels and chalets have a no-shoe rule beyond the genkan entrance. You are meant to swap out shoes for slippers, which are often provided. In many restrooms inside of restaurants, toilet slippers are provided as well.
It is not customary to tip in Japan whatsoever. In fact, it can sometimes be viewed as offensive, and your tip will usually be returned to you!
One of the best things about visiting Japan in the winter is the chance to visit a natural hot spring or onsen, of which there is a plethora across the country, especially in ski resort areas. Leave your modesty at home and be sure to check out several of them during your trip. There is nothing better than a soak in an onsen after a day on the slopes. Check out our Japan Onsen Rules & Etiquette post before you go to familiarize yourself within onsen rules. You can also check out our Niseko and Hakuba onsen guides for our favourite spots.
Driving in Japan
Japan ski resort areas are very snowy! That means that generally, unless you have experience operating a vehicle in winter type weather conditions, it’s advisable to avoid it altogether and stick to public or private transit options. If you are comfortable driving in snow, then hiring a vehicle which is 4WD and has snow tires is an absolute requirement.
Ski and snowboard equipment
For the most part, large international ski resorts like Niseko and Hakuba as well as Furano have excellent ski and snowboard equipment rental shops such Rhythm Japan (Niseko/Hakuba/Furano) and Central Snowsports (Hakuba). These shops stock the latest and best ski and snowboard equipment so you don’t need to worry about lugging your own for top quality gear. For those coming from warmer countries, they also hire out ski jackets & pants, as well as Apres boots for stomping around in the snow.
When hiring, especially if you plan to dip into the trees, consider ski width (fat skis).
Hire a guide
An excellent way to get familiarized with the ski resort is to hire a guide, even if it’s just for a mountain orientation on the first day. This will allow you to plan out your stay and hit up the best spots in the subsequent days. Niseko ski resort offers some amazing guiding options with Niseko Academy. In Hakuba check out Evergreen Outdoor Centre.
Follow our Japan Ski Experience Blog & Niseko Snow Report for more Japan ski travel advice & tips!