Why Japan is the perfect place to get your skis on
Dreaming of skiing down a mountain covered in fresh powder but need to learn the ropes? Japan's ski resorts are ideal for first-timers hitting the slopes.
- January 2019
Upwards of 40 per cent of Japan’s skiing terrain is suitable for beginners so if you’re thinking of learning to ski or snowboard (or taking the kids for their debut on the snow), it’s one of the best places to find your feet. The Christmas period and January can be extremely busy. Late February is the sweet spot when you can still get powder without too many crowds, while discounted deals are available around March.
When Australian brothers Dale and Glenn Goulding took a handful of intrepid skiers on their Deep Powder Tours back in 1993, Niseko was a ghost town of poor facilities, little signage and even fewer people. A generation on and it’s a global winter phenomenon.
With four interconnected resort areas (Annupuri, Niseko Village/Higashiyama, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono) making it the biggest in Hokkaido, countless accommodation options and the best après ski scene in the land at Grand Hirafu, it is understandable why this place is now referred to as the Aspen of Japan.
The international flavour has seen the quality and quantity of English skiing and snowboarding instruction shoot through the roof and you’ll get as good as anywhere in the world with the Go Snow school in Grand Hirafu.
The Niseko Village area is best for beginner terrain. There’s also a good selection of terrain parks if that is – or could become – your snow thing. Grand Hirafu opens in new windowis definitely the pick there with stunning views of Mount Yotei.
What remains unchanged in Niseko is the glorious snow. Consistent, deep and invariably drier than a speech on macro-economic reform, you know you’re onto a winner when 10 metres of snow has fallen – in a bad year.
Aya Villas opens in new window for stunning ski-in, ski-out villas near the Hirafu gondola.
Pension Woody Note opens in new window for a fun, funky and good value bed and breakfast in lower Hirafu.
Shiki Niseko for spacious apartments with super views – ideal for groups.
Traditionalists and travellers looking for a quiet snow trip will love this resort 281 kilometres north-west of Tokyo in the Niigata prefecture. Blending tradition with convenience, Myoko Kogen is not a ski resort but a region with nine areas that are either interconnected or a just bus ride away.
Suginohara Ski Resort opens in new window boasts one of the longest runs in Japan – an 8.5-kilometre quad-killer from the top to the valley, with everything except the top skiable for beginners. With almost 90 years of history, you won’t see any bubble-era (when the economy was booming and money was being garishly splashed around) 1980s monoliths here, rather a quirky mix of traditional Japanese architecture and the odd updated ryokan (inn) and izakaya (pub).
Given 40 per cent of terrain is marked for beginners across the multiple resorts, it’s hard to go wrong but the cream of the crop is Myoko Snowsports opens in new window.
Run by Falls Creek-based Australian Tom Langtry with his wife, Nozomi, and located at Akakura resort, they offer Honshu’s best group, private and multi-resort skiing and snowboarding lessons in English.
Silverhorn for a beautifully renovated lodge with great meals that’s centrally located at Akakura Kanko ski area.
Lotte Arai Resort Hotel for a huge, recently refurbished hotel at the base of Mount Okenashi.
Akakura Kanko Hotel for a classic stay with ski-out-the-door convenience for Akakura Onsen.
You’ll find families, groups of mixed skiing abilities and people who love après-ski village life at Nozawa Onsen, 255 kilometres north-west of Tokyo in the Nagano prefecture. Unquestionably the prettiest ski village in Japan and surely one of the most attractive in the world, Nozawa Onsen lays on the charm as thick as its mid-winter snows. It’s both a visual and gastronomic feast: gorgeous cobblestone streets give way to vendors selling oyaki (steamed buns) and a bevy of restaurants that will comfortably look after you for less than AUD $25 a head.
Nozawa’s onsens – the 13 public hot baths (plus dozens of private ones) with which this resort is synonymous – are its liquid jewel. They’re the perfect place to chill after a day on the slopes. As for the white powder riding – while intermediate terrain is a bit light-on, beginner terrain is excellent. There are six specific beginner areas and with 14 metres of snow in an average season, there’s every chance you’ll get to enjoy them on a fluffy base.
Nozawa Peak opens in new window for well-priced, traditional Japanese lodging within a 10-minute walk of all the action.
Sasa-Nozawa opens in new window for a gorgeous, boutique lodge with all the bells and whistles.
Ryokan Sakaya opens in new window for traditional but top-end accommodation with great food offerings and service.
In the Nagano prefecture, 273 kilometres north-west of Tokyo, Madarao opens in new window is heaven for those in search of a quiet ski trip that won’t break the bank. The little resort that could, Madarao proves you don’t need gondolas, garish apartments or Gucci stores to have a good time skiing or snowboarding. Initially seen as only a single-day option from Nozawa, Madarao has enough going for it to make it a short-stay destination in its own right.
With a vertical drop of 440 metres, it won’t be hosting World Cup downhill races any time soon but there are 15 lifts and access to 30 named runs, so there’s plenty of riding for a few days. (Spend the extra AUD $7 per day to access the Tangram side of the mountain for five more lifts and more terrain).
Depending on your confidence levels, there’s outstanding skiing and snowboarding amongst the beech and pine trees. Action Snow Sports operates a small English-speaking ski school that specialises in multi-day improvement clinics. If you’re up for a party, this probably isn’t the place for you and dining options are limited but if you want to avoid the throngs and still feel comfortable, it’s hard powder to beat.
The Snowball Chalet for a cute, recently refurbished chalet.
Madarao Kogen Hotel for older-style but perfectly located digs at the base of Mount Madarao.
Fujio Pension for a classic Japanese pension with welcoming hosts.
Families with young children and all-in-one holiday lovers will find their perfect match with Tomamu opens in new window, 143 kilometres east of Sapporo in the Hokkaido prefecture.
The first things you notice are the towers. Sticking out like two Lego creations in a sea of white bricks, the dual hotel buildings are Tomamu’s calling cards. As odd as they seem, they kind of suit this quirky but quintessential snow resort that’s very much a product of Japan’s bubble era in the 1980s.
Bare bones just won’t do in Tomamu, where there’s an 80-metre wave pool, high-end restaurants and a mid-winter ice village that would look right at home in the movie Frozen. For all that, it’s affordable for families. With 28 marked runs, it isn’t huge but the grooming is excellent and you can ski or board top-to-bottom green (beginner) runs on both Tomamu and Tower Mountains.
Tomamu The Tower opens in new window for well-appointed digs.
Pension Ing opens in new window for a small but good value pension.
Club Med opens in new window for an all-inclusive hotel stay – check their early bird specials in February.
Adventure-seekers should head 270 kilometres north-west of Tokyo to the Hakuba Valley in the Nagano prefecture. Hakuba Valley opens in new window sets the standard for big mountain riding and diversity in Japan’s alps. But you don’t have to be a gun athlete to enjoy the huge alpine area of 10 resorts that are covered in a 30-kilometre drive from Cortina to Kashimayari. If you’re new to the snow, Tsugaike Kogen opens in new window is the best place to start.
Run-wise, there’s more green here than a St Patrick’s Day parade and great transition spots for lower intermediates to find their powder legs without getting into too much trouble. For English language instruction, head to the areas of Hakuba-47/Goryu, where you’ll find the excellent Hakuba Snow Sports School. opens in new window
Happo One opens in new window offers more diverse terrain and more glittering nightlife.
Another bonus of the area is its recent affiliation with Australian resort Perisher. If you have an Epic Australia Pass, you’ll get five days riding at the Hakuba resorts included.
Sierra Resort opens in new window for a sprawling resort with good access to Tsugaike and Iwatake.
Mominoki Hotel opens in new window for hot springs.
Ready for a Japan snow holiday? Check out our cheap flights to Tokyo.