After the 1998 Winter Olympics, Japan became the world’s new favorite destination for skiing and snowboarding. The natural climate creates ideal conditions for deep and dry powder snow. Combined with Japan’s rich culture, long history, and stunning landscapes, a winter excursion here is unlike anywhere else in the world.
Cold winds from Russia and China collect a tremendous amount of moisture on their way to Japan. As a result, some parts get consistently heavy snowfalls of 600 inches or more annually. The prime snow conditions aren’t the only reason why you should come here during this time of year, though.
During the winter season in Japan, you can attend unforgettable festivals, see rare wildlife, and catch the early cherry blossom bloom. If you’re a winter sports enthusiast, here’s why Japan belongs at the top of your bucket list!
If you love powder snow, head to Japan in January—or as some call it, “Japanuary!” You’ll experience the heaviest snowfalls from mid-January to mid-February but watch out for the Lunar New Year holidays, which are some of the busiest travel dates in Asia. Prices exponentially rise, and hotels get booked up quickly during this time of year.
Spring skiing lasts through March, April, and even May in some resorts. You won’t have the best conditions on the slopes, but you’ll get plenty of sun, warm temperatures, and uncrowded trails. Not to mention, if you’re a budget traveler, you’ll save a bundle on lift tickets and hotel rates.
There are over 500 ski resorts from Hokkaido to Kyushu. You’ll find world-class snow conditions and resorts particularly in Hokkaido, Tohoku, and along the coast of the Sea of Japan. To help you narrow down the list, here are some of our recommendations.
You can’t miss out on skiing in Japan’s northernmost island. Niseko is the most beloved ski resort town, known for its powder snow, spectacular countryside, and a surprisingly large population of foreign residents. The Westerners—mostly Australian—living in Niseko help make the resorts accessible for travelers, even if you can’t speak Japanese.
The three largest resorts are Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, and Annupuri. By purchasing the “Niseko All Mountain Pass,” you can go on all of their ungroomed and groomed runs. If you’re looking for tree skiing, head to the smaller Hanazono Resort and hit the Strawberry Fields route. The jumps and obstacles that pepper the trail make this place a paradise for adventurous snowboarders.
As you ride the chairlift to your next slope, you'll come across Zao’s unique phenomena, the “Snow Monsters.” When the ice and snow piles up on the fir trees, they take on bizarre shapes resembling creatures from another world. They form near the peak of Zao Ski Resort and look best in February. Around this time, Zao holds a festival to celebrate the spectacle with fireworks, ice sculptures, and lights.
Zao is one of Japan’s oldest ski resorts and has courses that are suitable for everyone. The longest run is around ten kilometers long. It starts in the middle of the snow monsters area and ends at the Zao Onsen hot spring resort. In the evening, you can enjoy night skiing at the lower elevations.
There aren’t any ski resorts in the Greater Tokyo Area, but it’s possible to take a day trip to Yuzawa by boarding the bullet train. When you arrive at the Echigo-Yuzawa station, don’t leave before stopping by the Ponshukan Sake and Rice Museum. Here, you can bathe in sake, savor meals made with locally grown ingredients, and sample over one hundred brews.
Around town, there are approximately twenty ski areas of varying sizes, and you can reach them all by public transportation. A few resorts offer combination tickets giving you access to all of their facilities. Some of them are so close that you can ski or snowboard to get from one to another.
The two ski resorts near Mount Fuji are a bit small, but you can’t beat their views of Japan’s tallest mountain. On the southern side of Fuji, Snow Town Yeti opens for the season in mid-October with manufactured snow. There are two runs for beginners and two runs for experts. There is also a terrain park with rails and jumps and facilities for young children.
At Fuji’s northern base, you’ll find the slightly larger Fujiten Snow Resort. Its advanced courses and the terrain park attract talented skiers and snowboarders. Like Snow Town Yeti, Fujiten uses cannons to produce snow when the weather isn’t cooperating. While this region of Japan doesn’t get as much snowfall as Hokkaido, winter is the best time of year to get unobstructed views of Mount Fuji.
Hakuba served as a venue for multiple events during the 1998 Winter Olympics. Some of the facilities built for the games like the Ski Jumping Stadium and Olympic Village Memorial Hall are still open to the public. You can make a day trip from Tokyo or Kansai to Hakuba Valley, but an overnight stay will give you plenty of time to soak in a hot spring.
Nozawa Onsen is a traditional Japanese hot spring town with 13 public bathhouses the community has maintained since the Edo period. Along the canals, you’ll feel like you've stepped back in time as you explore the traditional inns, restaurants, and shops. Although you’ll find modern facilities inside of these buildings, the facades retain their original architectural styles.
Shiga Kogen is the largest ski area in Japan with 19 partnering ski resorts. It takes at least two days to cover it all, and you can buy a pass to access the 52 ropeways, gondolas, and lifts. 2000-meter or higher peaks flank the northern and southern regions of Shiga Kogen, providing both beginner slopes and advanced tree runs.
Surrounding Shiga Kogen, you’ll find the 400-year-old Shibu Onsen and the modern-style Yudanaka Onsen. If public bathing isn’t for you, you can still have fun at the hot springs when you go to Jigokudani Monkey Park. In winter, families of Japanese Macau monkeys bathe in the geothermal waters to keep warm!
The Hachimantai area of Towada-Hachimantai National Park is a volcanic plateau 1400 meters above sea level. The powder snow makes it one of the best places to enjoy skiing in the Tohoku region. Many people love to stay in the APPI ski resort. However, if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, book a room in the Hachimantai Ski Resort Shimokura Ski Area which boasts a 250-meter ungroomed tree run.
Backcountry skiing is also available to visitors, but you don’t have to be an expert to try it. CAT Tours offers you the chance to ride a snowcat, which includes breaks where you can attempt taming the untouched slopes. Or, take a walk through the pristine pastures and frozen waterfalls on snowshoes.
For some powderhounds, what you do after the slopes is just as important as what you do on them. First-time travelers in Japan will quickly realize that the après-ski culture is very different from their home countries. In Hokkaido, you’ll find plenty of Western-style pubs with live music, craft beer, and American-inspired cuisine. In most other parts of Japan, you can immerse yourself in the local culture.
After-skiing activities in Japan might mean starting your evening at an authentic Japanese izakaya. These types of establishments often offer private rooms and tatami floors. All-you-can-drink menus usually serve local sakes, mixed cocktails, and draft beers. Some also provide all-you-can-eat options so you can satisfy your hunger with the local fare.
Most Japanese people love to end their days by soaking in an onsen. It’s hard to resist taking in views of the mountains and night sky as the piping hot water washes away the dirt and heals your sore muscles. However, if you aren’t comfortable with wearing your birthday suit in front of strangers, consider staying in a ryokan that has private hot spring baths.