Header image courtesy of Yamagata Tourism Information Centre
Japan is a veritable paradise for powderhounds seeking groomed runs, off-piste opportunities, and fabulous backcountry terrain, so if cruising down smooth slopes is your idea of a good time, then this island nation should be your next port of call. In fact, the hardest time you will have is choosing which of the almost 600 ski resorts available is the one you should head to. Not to fret—here are some of the best ski resorts in Japan for you to consider.
As a leading holiday destination, Niseko needs little introduction. Foreigner-friendly and highly accessible, the groomed powder snow runs and beautiful backcountry of Mount Niseko-Annupuri are huge draws for travellers looking for excellent ski and snowboarding terrain, and the area’s après-ski attractions are second to none. Its international appeal comes with the unfortunate downsides of high cost and crowdedness during peak holidays, but there is still plenty to love about Japan’s most famous ski town and its collection of resorts.
Hit up Grand Hirafu for the ultimate resort experience, which is connected not only to its own little town—Hirafu—but also two other large ski resorts, Niseko Village and Annupuri, with the possibility to ski between them. Hirafu offers vibrant social activities, a plethora of restaurants, and energetic nightlife, while the larger neighbouring town of Kutchan boasts opportunities for shopping. Cat skiing—a form of guided backcountry skiing where participants are taken to a remote location with untouched powder—is also available for intermediate and advanced riders.
Located in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture, Zao Onsen is a hot spring town that caters to skiers looking for a thrilling adventure on the slopes of Mount Zao. Not only is the ski resort at Zao Onsen counted amongst the oldest in Japan, but it also offers something of a pilgrimage destination for “monster” hunters, as it is one of the few places in the country to see juhyō (樹氷; “ice trees”). Affectionately nicknamed “snow monsters,” these imposing natural formations are sculpted through a unique cocktail of snow-laden trees and icy winds, where a repeated process of snowfall and Siberian winds pummelling the mountainsides whip the fresh powder into grotesque shapes.
Blessed with one of the highest annual snow rates in the world, Zao Onsen Ski Resort offers wonderful opportunities for beginners and intermediates with its abundance of green and red runs, with a few black runs reserved for advanced riders. Navigating the lift system can be a little tricky as they are all operated by different companies, so some extra planning is needed before you hit the slopes. Zao Onsen has a couple of ski-in, ski-out accommodations available—like the Forest Inn Sangoro—but we would recommend staying at a classic ryokan (旅館; inn) instead, where you can take advantage of the on-site onsen (温泉; hot springs bathing facilities). Takamiya Ryokan Miyamaso, a restored historic property with tatami rooms and a luxe feel, is one such place to stay.
Rivalling Niseko for the title of Japan’s ski capital is Hakuba, an internationally renowned alpine wonderland. Skiiers will find their fun on over 200 different runs before winding down the day at one of many cheerfully bubbling onsen. Located in Nagano Prefecture, Hakuba attracted global attention as the host of alpine competitions during the 1998 Olympics, including various slalom events, the ski jump, and downhill and cross-country skiing.
Hakuba has no shortage of resorts, either. Happo-One is the largest, though the surrounding valley boasts 10 ski resorts in all. Locals head to Kashimayari to escape the crowds, while families with children in tow would be well served at the learner-friendly Tsugaike Kogen or Goryu. Cortina, once a well-kept secret amongst ardent powderhounds, sees the best snowfall compared to other Hakuba resorts and offers exciting tree skiing opportunities, advanced terrain, and lenient off-piste policies to boot.
As for the village, Hakuba offers a condensed collection of both Japanese and Western restaurants, cafés, bars, souvenir shops, boutiques, and outlets to stock up on gear and snow-wear. Culture vultures can stop by the Hakuba Saegusa Museum, which showcases the works of over 80 local painters.
Nozawa Onsen is home to one of Japan’s oldest ski resorts and frequently comes out on top as a premier ski destination. Before its modern life as a top-rated spot for skiing enthusiasts, Nozawa Onsen and its surrounding areas were already bustling locales even in the late 1800s, home to two dozen inns providing hot spring services to visitors. According to local legends, the village can trace its history back to the eighth century when its hot springs were first discovered by a monk, but in all its years of operation, the quaint townlet has remained much the same.
Although the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort opened in 1924, its facilities are anything but ancient. 19 high-speed lifts and two gondolas shuttle skiers around the 36 runs, which offer a good mix for all levels. Challenges include moguls, a half-pipe, and a 39-degree incline, as well as gentle slopes for beginners. For travellers who like a bit of charm and culture with their skiing itineraries, Nozawa Onsen—with its sublime ryokan accommodations, traditional architecture, public onsen, and cobblestone streets—is not to be missed. Plan your visit in mid-January for a chance to witness the spectacular Dosojin Matsuri, a famous fire festival held in Nozawa Onsen.
Niigata Prefecture is known for its hot springs and snow sports, and Yuzawa, in particular, is a must-visit. Its convenient distance from Tokyo—a mere 80-minute commute on the bullet train—makes Yuzawa a highly popular ski destination, and the resorts’ huddled geographical nature has the advantage of allowing visitors to hop between multiple ski resorts on one trip. Powderhounds in search of a network of mega-resorts—like Naeba and Kagura—will find their appetites well catered to, while those seeking a more exclusive experience will find themselves spoilt for choice between the dozen of ski areas available across the south and north of Yuzawa.
For something other than snow and cold, flock to the Echigo-Yuzawa Station for the Ponshukan Sake Museum, where you can sip your way through a wide range of local sake at the “tasting counter,” an automated vending machine that dispenses your selection. At Sakeburo Yunosawa, a soak in the special sake onsen will soothe your weary bones and leave your skin feeling plump and smooth. If you would like to learn more about the history of the region, head to the Snow Country Museum, which also keeps a permanent exhibit on Kawabata Yasunari, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Yukiguni (雪国; “Snow Country”), a novel set in Yuzawa.
Wintertime sees Furano’s remarkable lavender fields blanketed in light and dry powder snow and experienced skiers hurtling down challenging downhill courses with steep vertical drops. 25 kilometres of cruising runs await the fearless powderhound in the “belly button” of Hokkaido Prefecture, with Japan’s fastest cable car to get them up the snow-capped mountain of Mount Furano-Nishidake in record time. Divided into two connected areas, the Furano zone opens from late November to early May and the Kitanomine zone from mid-December to late March. Furano Ski Resort is operated by Prince Hotels, which also offers the ski-in, ski-out New Furano Prince Hotel.
Little ones can keep themselves entertained at Family Snowland, where exciting activities like snow banana boating, sledding, snowmobiling, and snow rafting will allow them to burn off all that excess energy. Ningle Terrace, situated just below the New Furano Prince Hotel, is a charming arts and crafts village made up of timber cottages, where artisans peddle their wares against a forested backdrop lit by picturesque fairy lights. Just over an hour away by car, the nearby Asahiyama Zoo also organises “penguin walks,” where you can get up close to a waddle of nature’s most amusing animals and watch them totter down the road in haphazard formation.