A Skiers Guide to Japan
Your next adventure: Ski Slopes in Japan
Where in the world? Japan
Activity: Skiing, Travel
Difficulty: Japan has ski fields suitable for beginners' right through to the hard core backcountry skier.
Wrap up: Japan offers a unique cultural experience with world renowned skiing for beginners and experienced skiers.
Skiing in Japan is as much of a cultural experience as it is a ski adventure. While skiers and riders usually return from Japan being amazed with the quality of snow and their experiences on the mountain, the memories of experiencing Japanese culture are often fondly recalled long after returning home.
Across Japan there are a huge number of snow resorts in many different areas. There are over 700 snow resorts to choose from and they vary widely in terms of snow conditions (groomed or powder) and facilities (from completely Japanese to more western-style). Carefully consider what is most important to you and it is recommended to do your research.
If you haven't skied in Japan before Niseko in Hokkaido is recommended for a first time experience. There are 4 separate resorts to choose from at Niseko with a large variety of terrain suiting all levels skill and experience. Two weeks at Niseko is just sufficient to see most of the patrolled area of the mountain. Niseko also offers some large unpatrolled areas which you are allowed to explore at your own risk, but a guide is recommended due to the risk of avalanches.
If time and money allow then a recommended way to first experience Japan skiing is to visit two different resorts (eg. 1 week at each resort) which will give you a greater range of experiences and terrain to explore. If Niseko is the first resort chosen then Furano (about 4 hours from Niseko) can offer a quieter experience where there are fewer westerners around. Both Niseko and Furano offer night skiing under lights which is highly recommended.
Many skiers and boarders also speak highly of their experiences at resorts on Honshu. The mountain range surrounding the awesome Hakuba valley is extremely impressive. Happo One resort offers breathtaking views of this region and I recommend this
If you are an experienced skier or rider definitely go out of your way to explore the backcountry. Take an experienced guide, and be prepared for some glorious powder that you will not forget.
Winter in Japan falls across December, January, February, during this time much of Japan is covered in snow. In particularly, central and northern Japan which are regarded as very reliable areas for snowfall.
The ski season in Japan can start as early as November and continue through to as late as May. January and February are regarded as having the best conditions for skiing, though December and March can also be fantastic. Late March to April offer blue sky days and fewer crowds though the snow will not be as dry.
Winter temperatures can be very cold but will vary depending on the latitude and altitude of the ski area visited. Temperatures on the mountains are significantly colder than down in the resorts. It is essential to be adequately prepared for cold conditions.
Getting ready for your ski trip:
Your skiing experience in Japan will be improved with a higher level of fitness. Ideally you should commence a fitness program focused on skiing or boarding a few months before your trip. Most people think of leg strength when preparing for skiing or boarding but core torso fitness is also important. A combined full body cardiac and strength training will help prevent injury and will increase your endurance on the mountain, and overall enjoyment. Of course leg strength will also help improve your skiing ability and reduce the chance of injury. If you are unsure about how to improve your fitness in this way then find a personal trainer who can help you.
Also, it helps to learn a handful of Japanese words - wherever you may go many Japanese will speak little or no English.
- There are things you can save money with on a snow trip but warm clothing isn't one of them. Don't under estimate how cold it can be in Japan's mountains. Temperatures down in the resort are usually misleading. Make sure to bring plenty of warm clothing.
- Take a daypack to carry an extra layer of clothing, some snacks and an insulated water bladder to keep your fluids up
- Wearing thermals under your snow pants is also recommended.
- Neck gaiters and face masks (or balaclavas) are a critical piece of gear for skiing in Japan, as is a snow skirt to prevent snow from getting up into your jacket.
- Rent or buy a helmet this will help to keep your head warm and protected.
- Ensure you have a good pair of ski goggles
- Ensure you take walking boots with a decent tread pattern, to keep yourself from slipping on icy roads or paths.
After a day on the slopes don't miss:
Ensure you visit an Onsen (Japanese hot tub). This is a cultural (and naked) experience. Check with a travel guide first and find out where they are in your resort region. You will need to read up on Onsen etiquette, as Onsens are not for washing in, but rather are quiet places for relaxing and absorbing the naturally heated water from the earth.
Try your best to eat in a range of Japanese restaurants. You'll discover many surprises, such as sushi and raw fish actually being a minor part of the Japanese menu, rather barbequed chicken sticks in sweet teriyaki sauce is very common, and always delicious. Observe the effort your Japanese hosts go to ensure your comfort and pleasure.