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Japan

Why You Need a Japanese Ski Experience

Japan offers some of the best snow in the world, but it offers a whole lot more as well…..

When you think of skiing in Japan you think Niseko or Hakuba, however there are hundreds of ski resorts located across the country. They range from small ski hills with 1 or 2 ancient chair lifts to luxury resorts with world class infrastructure. Of these resorts, there are roughly twenty that are visited by international travellers and the rest you’d be lucky (or unlucky) to see another international visitor.

Riding the old lift lines at Madarao Kogen. Credit: Andrew Fawcett

The Resorts

At the more touristy resorts you can expect to find all the modern conveniences you’d find elsewhere around the world; luxury accommodation, restaurant and bar culture, rental and retail stores and English ski schools. However there are many resorts offering more authentic experiences and are easily accessible to even the most novice of travelers …. just don’t expect 5 star hotels, Michelin star restaurants and ski valets.

Snowy strolls through Nozawa Onsen

Japanese ski resorts have a varied selection of terrain, making most resorts suitable for beginner, intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders. For those looking for something more challenging there is some incredible side and backcountry terrain if you know where to find it. Skiing off piste is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan and resorts have been slow to adapt to the increasing call for this style of snowsports, however they are getting there…slowly.

Happo-one backcountry. Credit: Ollie Godbold

The Snow

You don’t have to search far for powder in Japan, it can be found most days at most resorts across the country. A weather system from Siberia that crosses the Sea of Japan is responsible for the dry and plentiful snow. The Northern island of Hokkaido has the highest average annual snowfall with some resorts recording 18 metres, one of the highest in the world. Fortunately their neighbours to the south also benefit from the Siberian weather system, especially those closest to the coast like Myoko Kogen.

Sierra getting deep in the Myoko powder.

The best time for guaranteed snow is from mid Jan to Feb, when the storms roll through and temperatures are cold, creating top quality powder snow. This is not surprisingly the most popular time to visit, however even the busiest day of the season in Japan would not rival the quietest day in some of the more popular US and Canadian resorts.

Credit: Snow Japan

The History and Culture

Japan offers so much more than mountains and snow, it is a country steeped in history and culture, with unique and delicious cuisine and some of the friendliest people in the world. The second you step off the plane you will experience glimpses of Japanese culture, from friendly staff with their over the top greetings and low bows to the busiest yet most efficient transport system in the world.

Fushimi Inari-taisha, Kyoto

Some ski towns are more traditional than others and you can get your cultural fix from the local people, customs and sites around the village, such as experiencing the onsens (natural hot springs) and Fire Festival in the quaint village of Nozawa Onsen. However if time permits, it is always recommended to spend a few extra days exploring another part of Japan. The options are endless, from castles and temples in Kyoto, historical sites of Hiroshima, samurai and geisha spotting in Kanazawa, dining at Izakayas (Japanese pubs) in Osaka to the crazy streets and neon lights of Tokyo.

Shinjuku, Tokyo. Credit: TCVB

The Efficiency

Choose one stopover city or do them all, as Japan has undoubtedly the best transport network in the world. Their famous Shinkansen (or bullet train) will have you get from one end of the country to another at record speeds. They even offer cost effective rail passes for foreign visitors which give unlimited access to the JR Network for periods of 7, 14 or 21 days.

Waiting for the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Credit: Abe Kislevitz

The Cost

Japan on the whole is cost effective, at least in comparison to other ski destinations around the world. Prices vary at each resort depending on size, popularity and infrastructure but it is not uncommon to find lift passes for 3800yen per day (equivalent to $36USD). Accommodation also offers great value for money in some of the more traditional Japanese resorts with rooms for as little as 4000yen ($38USD) per night. Of course, on the other end of the scale you will find luxury hotels and apartments with all the bells and whistles which can command prices well into the hundreds of thousands (of yen).

Otaru Fish Markets, Hokkaido. Credit: Matt Wiseman

As with accommodation, the cost of eating and drinking in Japan varies considerably. At one end of the spectrum you have convenience stores offering quick and easy meal options for next to nothing. In the middle you have local Japanese restaurants offering cheap and cheerful home cooked meals, like ramen, katsu curries and udon noodles, perfect winter warmers for your lunch time stop. Finally Izakayas, a typical Japanese restaurant/pub where tapas style food is shared among friends. Izakayas can offer good value for money but of course it depends on what you order and how much sake you drink.

Takahashike, Echoland, Hakuba

The Novelties

If you don’t mind a bit of a tipple, then you’ll be pleased to know an array of beverages can be purchased from the vending machines at any time of day or night. In some of the bigger cities, it’s not only drinks you will find but all sorts of weird and wonderful items, think hot corn soup, vegetables, batteries, toilet paper, underwear and face masks to name a few.

Hakuba vending machines

Face masks are not all that unusual and one thing you will notice is most Japanese people wear a mask in public places, like shopping centres, buses and trains. They did this well before the COVID pandemic caused the rest of the world to don a mask. You might be surprised to know they do it to protect others from catching their illness rather than the other way around. Japanese people are polite and considerate and particularly conscious of good hygiene practices.

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