There are more resorts per person in Japan than anywhere else in the world. Since the 1960s, Japan's winter snow market has been expanding at an incredible rate. Winter sports are huge here, with the snowboarding industry in particular considering the country to be a hugely important market. For the Japanese, the closeness of many of the major resorts to large cities and conurbations make a spot of after hours skiing very viable, and as a result the slopes tend to be busier in the evenings and weekend. You'll find the majority of fellow slope users are locals, although there is an increasing number of foreign visitors (particularly Australians and Kiwis) making the trip.
Cold, Siberian air is sent across the Sea of Japan where it absorbs moisture and forms perfect snow crystals just in time to catch the volcanic mountains of Japan. As such, Japan's mountains are blessed with some prolific snowfalls, with the northerly island of Hokkaidõ hit more than most. Piles of snow higher than local buildings are a common site in many Hokkaidõ towns. It is generally very cold too, with night temperatures often below minus 10°C. Add to this the thermal effect of the local volcanoes (onsen baths – the local name for hot springs) and you've got very different conditions to most other resorts around the world.
When to go
Japanese resorts traditionally open at the beginning of November, depending on how much early season snow has fallen. This is a great time to go to avoid crowds and enjoy a cheaper trip – although it's best to check conditions before travel. November and December 2005 had the best snowfall in Japan for 80 years, following an upward trend that is hoped to continue. By January, cold temperatures and deep snowfalls mean powder days and flat light are the norm, and with crowds still manageable this can be a great time to visit. February is the most popular month for visitors, but generally speaking, the months vary little as most of the clientele is made up of local riders coming after work. March should still have snowfalls but the decline to slush can hit midway through the month. As with most northern hemisphere resorts, the season ends in April, though late snowfalls are not uncommon.
off piste policy
It used to be the case that local skiers and boarders would never dare to ride in the trees, but most of the bigger resorts have now realized that this is their main attraction, and attitudes are changing fast. But it's best to observe local rules – if a resort truly wants you to stay in bounds, we're not going to encourage anyone to break the law. Pretending you didn't understand local custom is becoming harder to get away with. The opening of previously banned tree runs is making that less of an issue.