The opposite side of the world has become more and more
“open” to western skiers in recent years, and, as word spreads of the truly
awesome conditions available, it is hard not to be tempted by Japan.
The hustle and bustle of the megapolis of Tokyo acts as gateway to all of Japan via its two airports, Haneda and Narita, both served from the UK. Short connecting flights take you to Sapporo, hub for the northern island of Hokkaido, or a bullet train across the narrow width to Nagano, for Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen. However, it is worth spending a few days in Tokyo or Kyoto/Osaka to soak up some Japanese culture and gorging yourself on incredible cuisine.
Japanese skiing is similar in many ways to North American, and certainly Japan and Korea have allowed themselves to be led by North American countries on many aspects, including avalanche safety and instructor training. The incredibly low altitude of many resorts – Rusutsu sits proudly at only 400m – does not diminish the volume or quality of snow received, thanks to constant inflow of weather blowing in from Siberia. As a result, don’t expect many bluebird days or corduroy pistes, but Japan is famous for its endless powder, making it the holy grail for many powder chasers.
The different culture and language barrier can be off-putting to some travellers. However, many Japanese resorts are highly westernised thanks to the strong North American influence and an influx of skiers and boarders from Australia and New Zealand. You will find plenty of non-Japanese instructors and accommodation providers available, and English is prevalent on all modes of public transport. Menus are regularly pictorial as standard, even if only in Japanese, allowing you to navigate superb Japanese cuisine easily.
From Tokyo, Japan has two major skiing areas that offer the best variety for those coming from abroad; the Nagano region and the island of Hokkaido.
N.B. Japan’s famously efficient “Takyubin” courier service allows you to ship your ski bag on direct from the airport to your resort hotel, avoiding the need to haul it across the country if you’re not heading directly to the resort.
Nagano – Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen
Situated only a couple of hours from Tokyo by bullet train and coach transfer from the city of Nagano, Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen offer some of the best skiing close to Tokyo and act as the capital’s “local” resort.
Hakuba consists of several bases strung out along a valley encompassing the town of Hakuba itself, offering endless opportunities to vary your skiing over the course of your time there. Nozawa Onsen, focused on one hill face, offers a great chance to test yourself off-piste, cushioned by Japanese powder and the luxury of the relative shallowness of Japanese mountains.
These resorts can get somewhat busy, especially at the weekend, owing to their proximity to Tokyo. However, they offer the best opportunity to mix up your skiing during your eastern adventure, without straying too far from the major cities on the east coast, especially if your time is limited.
Getting Here: Regular direct flights serve both of Tokyo’s airports, Haneda or Narita. From Tokyo, regular bullet train services run to Nagano, from which coach transfers will get you to resort.
Japan’s northern island is home to some of the best powder known to man, fed by near constant snowfall driven in from Siberia by northern winds. Low altitudes and shallow slopes means this is the best opportunity to ski steeps, bowls and trees comfortably, cushioned by the snow underfoot.
The biggest resort in Japan is Niseko United, which sees four resort bases at the foot of a single mountain, focused on the village of Hirafu. With an influx of Australian money in recent years, the resort is developing quickly into a modern, high spec ski area, with fast, modern lifts and well-developed resort bases.
Hokkaido’s other ski areas are also sublime hunting grounds for powder hunters, including Rusutsu, which can be done in a day trip from Niseko, and Furano, who’s single lift opens up an incredible powder field for you to explore to your heart’s content.
Getting Here: The Sapporo-Tokyo air route offers one of the most frequent service intervals of any air route in the world, making it easy to get to Hokkaido. From there, regular transfers take you to most major north island resorts, including Niseko (3hrs) and Rusutsu (2 ½hrs).
For the adventurous, the bullet train from Tokyo terminates as Shin Hakodate, on the southern tip of Hokkaido; from here, a series of express and local trains will take you to Niseko (Kutchan) and on to Sapporo. An extension to the bullet train is currently construction to bring it to Sapporo, which will open the island’s other resorts to better connections.