Ski Japan: The mighty mountains of Japan offer the best snow, skiing, culture and cuisine, reveals Rachael Oakes-Ash. Here’s our guide to locating the best runs, places to stay and things to do when hitting Japan’s slopes on your next winter holiday.
Snowflakes are fatter, fluffier, drier and lighter in Japan. And there are more of them, with an average of nine to 14 metres of snow falling from a rising-sun sky each winter. This is good news for skiers and boarders looking for a snow holiday filled with exceptional sporting opportunities, loaded with culture and laden with lauded cuisine.
Welcome to Japan, where slope-side vending machines sell hot coffee in a can, thermal onsens (hot springs) offer a traditional way to soothe weary muscles, and snow monkeys provide free entertainment. A land where you can soak in a hot spring and look up at snow-covered mountains.
There are more than 500 ski resorts to choose from and the sheer amount of snow is a welcome surprise for Australians. After all, this is the home of deep powder. Here we take a look at some of the most popular resorts in Japan, spread across the main islands of Hokkaido and Honshu.
Luxury ski holidays in Furano, Hokkaido
Hokkaido is Japan’s northern island and, thanks to a weather pattern that originates in Siberia, it is also home to the driest snow on the planet. The town of Furano is considered the ‘belly button’ of Hokkaido and is home to the Furano Ski Resort where Australian ski racer Steve Lee won the FIS World Cup Super G in 1985.
The town has a uniquely Japanese feel untouched by western influence, an hour from the resort is a zoo where guests can walk with giant penguins.
Furano has eased its off-piste skiing restrictions so that sidecounty and skiing among the trees is now allowed. Chuck Olbery from Hokkaido Powder Guides offers backcountry touring for the more adventurous.
Furano’s terrain offers long cruising runs over 964m of vertical rise and about 200 skiable hectares. Furano is perfect for the intermediate skier, and is accessed by gondola and a superfast cablecar.
A true ski-in ski-out property, the 12-storey The New Furano Prince Hotel is a one-stop shop for restaurants, bars, hot springs and an English garden. There are twins, doubles and suites, and all rooms are western style.
Niseko, Hokkaido: putting Japanese snow on the map
Niseko put Japan’s skiing on the world map this century thanks to Australian developers, so expect a blend of east meets west in the powder capital. If it is your first visit to Japan, Niseko is a good place to ease into the culture without losing the familiar creature comforts of home. Considered to be one of the top 10 international ski resorts in the world, Niseko is just two hours from Sapporo and you’ll even find familiar Australian ski retailers Larry Adler and Rhythm Snowsports.
Niseko is known for powder and lots of it, with almost 15m of snow falling each winter across more than 800 skiable hectares. There are plenty of on-piste groomed runs, but there is also tonnes of off-piste powder and tree skiing to keep everyone from beginners to experts happy all week long.
The resort is collectively called Niseko United and divided into four villages, Annupuri, Niseko Village, Niseko Hirafu (where you will find most of the restaurants and nightlife) and Hanazono, which is relatively new, with its first hotel, the Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono opening in 2020. All are interconnected, offering 50km of runs serviced by 32 lifts and gondolas.
The highlight of skiing here is the amazing views to Mt Yotei, a symmetrical volcano similar in appearance to Mt Fuji. A Niseko Village favourite is The Green Leaf Hotel, a stylish contemporary boutique property with day spa, onsen, three restaurants and rooftop bar.
Appi Kogen’s great Japanese Snow, Honshu
Appi Kogen, or Appi as its known, is a purpose-built ski resort complete with a grand hotel and a handful of slopeside villas in the very northern part of Honshu. It is considered an upmarket resort in Japan. With plenty of English signage and play areas for children, it is great for families too.
It is on the border of the Towada Hachimantai National Park and boasts about 280 hectares of terrain. The 21 runs are regularly groomed and accessed by two gondolas, 14 chairlifts and a two t-bars.
Appi’s longest run is 5.5km, so expect some thigh burn and 12 runs longer than 2 kilometres and the resort offers 2km of night skiing. Overlooking the ski runs, the Appi Grand Hotel has an indoor pool, gym, day spa and three restaurants.
Hakuba, Honshu: The closest skiing to Tokyo
Hakuba Valley is in the Nagano Prefecture and four hours from Tokyo. The Japanese Alps slice a spine down the island of Honshu and Hakuba reaps the rewards with its impressive peaks. For more than 70 years, Hakuba has been providing skiers, boarders and alpine enthusiasts optimal snow conditions. Hakuba was home to the 1998 Winter Olympic Games and continually hosts FIS World Cup Competitions.
Due to its abundant snowfalls and pristine ski conditions, this world-class ski destination offers unparalled alpine opportunities to visitors and is considered by many to be Japan’s skiing mecca.
There are 10 resorts and more than 200 runs in the valley, but it is the town of Hakuba that acts as the centre with direct access to Happo-One resort, the most famous of them all. The powder skiing here is steeper than Hokkaido and many local guides take skiers and boarders over the peak into the backcountry for virgin snow.
There is a thriving Japanese village sprinkled with restaurants, bakeries, pubs and cafes, and traditional onsens are offered at most accommodation properties. Day trips to the nearby Snow Monkey Onsen can be booked through tour companies, and it is worth a visit to see the monkeys soaking in the hot springs, surrounded by snow.
In the heart of Hakuba village, at the base of Happo-One, is the stylish Phoenix boutique hotel, featuring Japanese and Western astetics, a mist tauna and onsen-style baths.