Have you been skiing in Japan? If not, then let me tell you how a typical day unfolds. You wake up to blue skies and mountains covered in freshly fallen snow. Fuel your day with a hearty Japanese breakfast of miso soup, rice porridge and Tamagoyaki (rolled omlette). Hit the slopes and spend 8 hours gliding across never-ending bowls of knee-deep powder. Wind down the day soothing tired muscles in a thermal hot-spring (onsen). Follow your soak with Après ski, which usually consists of snacking on salted edamame beans while sipping hot sake and beer. Then, end the day at a quaint village restaurant devouring a plate of the freshest udon, sushi and Carpaccio you have ever tasted.
Winters don’t come much better than those in Japan….
Japan caters for the true winter enthusiast, the kind of person who is looking for a down to earth ski vacation where they can spend quality time on the slopes rather than ‘being seen’ in some trendy bar or over-priced boutique. It’s the kind of ski holiday that resonates with the folk of the southern hemisphere – hence why 90% of the snow tourists in Japan are Aussies and Kiwis.
Over the last 15 years ‘Niesko’ on the north island of Japan has fast become a hotspot for those of us in pursuit of the perfect powder. Yep…. it is undeniably the best place on earth to ski; boasting consistent snowfalls, powder runs, ramen and even VB on tap.
However, with over 600 ski resorts across Japan there are many other resorts worth exploring, all of which serve up their fair share of great snowfall and scenic powder trails. With so many options on hand, why head year after year to the popular north island resorts of Niesko and Furano? Instead venture out to somewhere new.
Here are some of my favourite resorts all within three to four hours of Tokyo via the high-speed rail:
Hidden deep within the Japanese Alps is the Hakuba Valley, a winter wonderland that averages 11 metres of snowfall per season and is commonly known by winter fanatics as ‘steep and deep’. The consistent powder and challenging runs at Hakuba make this region a high priority destination for serious skiers and boarders.
Hakuba is the heart and soul of winter sports in Japan, playing host to many events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Below the towering peaks you’ll find 10 ski resorts, over 200 runs, 139 lifts, a local village, ski /snowboard shops, a combination of traditional and western dining and plenty of onsens to relax in after a hard day on the slopes.
One lift pass will get you access to eight of the resorts and also includes a free shuttle bus. The resorts cater for all levels and there are plenty of activities for those who prefer not to hit the slopes. Some of the alpine alternatives and adventures include snow tubing, tobogganing, snow rafting and daily tours to Nagano where you can visit Matsumoto Castle, the famous Zenkoji Temple and the snow monkeys who spend their days lazing in the thermal hot springs.
The majority of Hakuba’s accommodation have onsite Onsens or Rotenburos (indoor & outdoor hot springs), and soaking in the magma-heated waters is an ancient Japanese ritual after a hard day skiing.
Post-soak, rug up and walk along the lantern lit walkways to one of the many restaurants in the village – if you’re after an authentic Japanese meal try Soba Shubo Zen.
During your stay at Hakuba make sure you check out the often forgotten resort of Cortina – this is where you’ll discover the best of the ‘deep and steep’. The resort is small, and not included in the 8-mountain pass, but it has the highest snowfall of the region and is well worth a visit.
How to get to Hakuba:
Option One: From Tokyo jump on the Shinkansen Bullet Train to Nagano. From Nagano Station to Hakuba take a bus. Total travel time is 2.5 hours.
Option Two: Chuo taxi is the easiest way (but longer) to get from Narita airport to Hakuba.
With an average snowfall of 13 metres per season, views over Mt Fuji, a variety of terrain for all abilities and one big vertical drop, it’s no wonder this resort is a favourite with Japan’s Royal Family.
Myoko is still somewhat of a hidden gem in Japan. It’s one of the country’s oldest ski resorts so you’ll find that the accommodation options are largely traditional and the locals don’t speak much English.
This is a slice of Japan not yet crowded with international tourists – primarily attracting tourists who are chasing a cultural experience as well as a ski holiday. Myoko isn’t known for its nightlife and has limited establishments to cater for the party-going traveller. Nightly entertainment is limited to soaking in an onsen and taking part in karaoke competitions – and I must warn you that the locals take their singing very seriously.
During the peak season expect an overnight dumping of snow anywhere from 40cm up to 120cm. Powder-wise, during peak times it's as light as it comes. You’ll find even the devotees of more famous ski destinations raving about its quality.
You'll also experience uncrowded ski runs on all of Myoko’s nine mountains, where there are plenty of wide groomers for beginners and lots of powder in the trees for intermediates. Beautiful tree-lined runs with views of lakes below make it quite a scenic destination, with views of Mt Fuji on a clear day.
How To Get To Myoko Kogen: From Tokyo catch the bullet train to Nagano (90 minutes), and then travel another 40 minutes by train before taking a 10-minute bus transfer.
With its authentic ryokan inns, cobblestone streets, Buddhist temples and ancient hot springs, Nozawa Onsen is like stepping back in time. It has the charm of a traditional Japanese village, while rolling out some of the best trails that Japanese skiing has to offer.
With a seasonal snowfall average of 12 metres, there’s no shortage of frozen H and 2’s to be found. The resort boasts 50 kilometres of runs accessed by two gondolas, five quad chairs, four triple chairs and 13 double chairs.
The skiing is sublime; where waist-deep powder is the norm and gorgeous vistas make for the perfect backdrop as you carve your way down the mountain.
Fresh and untracked powder is accessible to all skiers and board riders no matter their level. At many resorts the to-die-for powder is up high or tucked up in some of the more advanced shutes, however in Nozawa even the greenest of skiers can get a taste of what its like to ride the powder.
Nozawa Onsen caters for those who prefer to focus on quality days spent on the slopes rather than raging nights out. However if you are craving a pre-dinner drink, there are a handful of intimate bars that make a mean martini.
How to get to Nozawa Onsen: From Tokyo jump on the Shinkansen Bullet Train to Nagano. From Nagano Station to Nqzawa Onsen take a bus. Total travel time is 3 hours.
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