Japan offers adventurous skiers and snowboarders the opportunity to experience some of the best powder snow in the world, with excellent runs and varied terrain in a stunning alpine landscape. But so do lots of other places across the globe, so what makes a skiing holiday in Japan so different?
Well, continual cold winds from Siberia mean huge dumpings of quality powder snow across Japan’s major ski areas. Hokkaido, and the Tohoku, Nagano and Niigata areas of Honshu receive consistent falls throughout the season. Soaking in a traditional Japanese onsen (hot spring) is an unbeatable way to finish off a day in the snow, and the excellent cuisine and renowned Japanese service is a very different kind of aprs-ski.
Most of all, a winter holiday in Japan offers an entirely different cultural experience; a land of temples, hot spring spas, red-faced snow monkeys and an exciting calendar of winter festivals, which will set your trip apart from the norm.
So where should you go? Our basic guide breaks down the major options…
Japan’s northern island Hokkaido is home to a renowned winter sports scene. The nation’s first Winter Olympics were held here in Sapporo in 1972, and it’s home to one of the busiest events and festival calendars in the country, including the world-famous Sapporo Snow Festival staged every February.
Hokkaido has several major ski areas, with Niseko being an adventure skier’s paradise. Four distinct resorts have access to some of the longest and highest quality powder skiing and snowboard terrain in the country, with off-piste areas and scenic courses through beautiful natural forests.
Famous for its light dry snow and clear blue skies, Furano is a town of 25,000 with a distinct culture, which appeals to families and more mature skiers and snowboarders. Thirty different hotels and lodges, and more than a hundred restaurants cater for all budgets.
Rusutsu Resort is Hokkaido’s largest single ski resort, situated in a picturesque highland area covering some 1,700 hectares at the base of Mt. Yotei. With 37 beautiful courses across three mountains and serviced by four gondolas, seven quads and seven lifts, it’s Hokkaido’s premier resort.
Visit Hokkaido’s official tourism website for more information on the island’s attractions and getting there from Tokyo.
Nagano and Niigata
The prefectures of Nagano and Niigata are located on the western side of Honshu – the largest island of Japan – with Nagano particularly noted for its spectacular winter snowscapes. Nagano City, the prefecture’s capital, also hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. In addition to the snow fields that attract so many sports enthusiasts, the region is renowned for its abundance of hot springs, including Nozawa Onsen and Shibu Onsen, well known for the wondrous sight of dozens of snow monkeys who bathe in the hot spring at Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park.
The Echigo Mountain Range cuts across the south east part of Niigata Prefecture, with a string of 2,000 metre high mountains stretching one after the other, dotted with ski resorts and more hot springs. Many of Japan’s leading sake labels are located here, whose produce is made with the finest quality rice and spring water. Niigata is also home to many fine restaurants, who specialise in pairing sake with seafood.
The Tohoku area comprises six different prefectures and is located in the northern part of Honshu. The region is fairly remote and quite traditional with incredible scenery, small quirky festivals throughout the year, more than 150 hot springs, and dozens of ski resorts scattered throughout the mountains. Among the most popular events are the Akita Kanto Lantern Festival, the Kamakura Snow Hut Festival in Yokote City and the Namahage Bogeyman Festival in Oga City. But in winter time it’s really all about the snow, and at the resort of Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture, the amazing powdery stuff causes a strangely eerie sight when it clings to the trees; a windswept spectacle known to the locals as ice monsters.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight to Japan from London Heathrow.
Header photo © JNTO