Known as the powder Mecca of the world, Japan is the snowiest place on earth with Aomori City (Hakkoda Mountain) receiving 26 feet of snow a year. It's no wonder thousands of avid skiers make the pilgrimage to this mystical land and return year after year.
Apart from the quite ridiculous snow, Japan offers visitors a real cultural convergence, blending the historic tradition with the ultra-modern and a pinch of the absurd. And for any foodies out there you are in for a treat.
Hopefully, this guide provides you with the impetus to take the plunge, book that ticket and experience this phenomenal destination first hand.
Why does Japan get so much snow?
Record amounts of snow come from cold arctic winds in Siberia picking up moisture off the Sea of Japan and hitting the Niseko mountains. The mild, moisture-laden sea air is blown up to the higher elevations, creating the perfect conditions for heavy snowfall.
Japanese Ski Resorts
Japan consists of 6,852 islands but the main four makeup 97% of the land mass: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. Most of Japan's mountains and snow is found in Honshu and Hokkaido.
There are hundreds of resorts to choose from in Japan but here are some of the best:
Best for Powder
- Terrain: This resort is all about steep backcountry terrain
- No. of Lifts: 5
- Lift Pass Price (1-day adult): £23.68
- Nearest Airport: Sendai Airport
- Pros: Expert terrain, easy access backcountry, quiet resort
- Cons: Small resort/pistes and not much else to do off the hill
What time of the year is best for skiing in Japan?
The winter in Japan is similar to that in Europe with the season lasting from the start of Nov to the beginning of April. *Watch out for national holidays and a few other dates to avoid hiked-up prices.
There is no guarantee of snow pre-Christmas and this is reflected in the cheaper than normal price of accommodation. Hokkaido is a good punt for early season snow and although you need to watch out for shrubs and bamboo poking through when off-piste.
Like most countries, resorts are busy and costly over the festive period (most Japanese skiers hit the slopes at this time).
Cold temperatures make for great snow conditions during January but with that comes the crowds; especially at the bigger resorts. This is the best period to book a guided backcountry tour in remote areas although the weather can be punishing, closing lifts and limiting visibility.
A good balance on price, snow quality and lack of crowds, the weather patterns are similar to January and the slopes are a lot quieter apart from Chinese New Year (Chinese tourist flock to big resorts often hiking up accommodation costs).
Spring has started and there are some bluebird days to enjoy especially if you travel to the northern high-altitude resorts. You can still enjoy the famous powder in Japan although the warm weather will have made the snow wetter and heavier.
Some resorts have started to shut along with restaurants and local shops. You can grab a discounted lift ticket but you may be restricted in what terrain you can ski.
Travel In Japan
Japan has an excellent train network with fast trains that are clean and punctual; famously one train company apologised to its customers after a train arrived 2 minutes late – it was late because of an earthquake.
The trains are pretty expensive but they are a great way to see the country and get to your destination quickly. If you plan on jumping around from one resort to another, there are multi-day train passes, Japan Rail Pass (JR) or the Seishun Juhachi Kippu Pass, that will make it cheaper
If you are travelling to smaller resorts a bus may be your only option. Be aware that they are not as cheap as you would think.
While they may be some of the most polite, clean and professional taxi's in the world you certainly pay for it. Taking a taxi in Japan is not cheap, however, almost all drivers have sat nav's and will get you to your destination.
Unfortunately, Tokyo is the only city in Japan to run Uber so be sure to write down your destination for all other taxis.
Internal flights are a lot cheaper and quicker than trains – if you plan on heading to Sapporo from Tokyo a flight is £33 and 1hr 40 versus £150 and 8.5hr on the train.
Costs In Japan?
Japan is known as an expensive place to visit although compared to certain European cities such as London or Gothenburg, there isn't much difference.
Ski resorts are expensive places to stay in all over the world. Japan is no exception; accommodation can become scarce and costly during peak season.
Food depends on your tastes with cheap meals available in the form of ramen and convenience store food (in Tokyo a bottle of Coke costs 91p and a coffee will set you back £2.66). Restaurant prices vary depending on the quality of food, service and setting.
Lift passes fluctuate in price depending on the resort with the more expensive multi-area passes around £40; much cheaper than America and Canada. The smaller resorts have even cheaper passes and some of the best off-piste skiing in the world; excellent value for money.
Off-hill Activities And Culture
Most resorts in Japan are purpose built for sking and only skiing; don't expect too much Japanese culture on your doorstep. A few days in Tokyo or even Sapporo should give you a taste of how amazing this country is.
There is a plethora of options from traditional temples, tea ceremonies and museums to modern day Pachinko parlours (pinball), robot shows and real-life Mario Kart around the city streets.
One aspect of Japanese culture you can experience at a lot of resorts is an Onsen (natural hot spring) - a great way to help your muscles recover after a full day skiing, although be warned shorts are not an option.
If that sounds a bit too risqué then you'll do worse than hitting up your local 7–11 store and trying some unusual snacks and drinks, have a taste of the local whiskey and hit up a karaoke bar. And if you're feeling a bit rough the next day you can always try "hair of the dog" with a domestic beer out of a vending machine.
- Avalanche, probe, shovel, ABS pack
- Bibs pants
- Jacket with a powder skirt
- Buff – for those inevitable face shots
- Lumalens or Prizm lens goggles
- Powder skis and touring binding
- Merino base layers, socks and underwear – working hard when skiing and less smell less to pack
- Mid-layer – it will be cold in January and February
- Gore-Tex gloves
- Helmet – avoid trees
- Hand sanitizer – there is a lack of soap in most washrooms
- Buy a Japanese sim for cheap data
- A plastic bag for rubbish – there is a lack on bins
Skiing In Japan FAQ's
If you have a 'British Citizen' or 'British National (Overseas)' passport you can visit Japan for up to 90 days without a visa - you will have to show proof of your return flight ticket.
Japan is strict on pharmaceuticals and has made illegal several common flu medicines, sinus inhalers and painkillers. Any prescriptions you have will require an accompanying letter from your doctor and may still be not allowed into the country. It's best to check on the www.gov.uk website for more details.
Even though English is taught at all schools, most Japanese people have no need to use it in their daily life, the standard of English is mixed at best and it becomes worse the further you get from cities.
Google translate has improved a lot in recent years and you can download Japanese for use when you are offline. Although you can never really go wrong with a handy phrase book, it's best to try and learn some basics. Before you go and plan all your journeys and trips, write the name of your destination, hotel, etc. in Japanese characters on some paper.
Despite being reserved, people are painfully polite and most locals will try and help you, especially younger Japanese.
Ordering food should not be a problem; nearly all restaurants have photos of the food on the menu or sometimes even replica models of their food you can point at.
It is not customary to tip in Japan so if you've had a great meal it's better to try and show your appreciation in words rather than cash.
Post offices and most convenience stores have ATM s. Credit cards are accepted at some major establishments, though Japan is a cash-based society so it's best to keep money on hand for most purchases.
It is also worth investing in a coin purse, 1 Yen to 500 Yen (£4) are all coins – so you are going to accumulate a lot of change.
At some resorts skiing, off-piste without a guide is not allowed. At others it is and at some, they turn a blind eye if you are subtle about it.
A good guide soon pays for themselves showing you hidden pockets of powder and minimising your risk. If you plan on making the most of Japan's abundance of snow it worth hiring a guide at least for a few days. It's cheaper than you think if you split the cost across a group.