For such a compact, densely populated nation, Japan offers multitudes for the adventurous traveler. The mighty Mt. Fuji beckons intrepid hikers, while the southern islands around Okinawa offer brilliant watersports and diving. Plus, there’s the food—washoku Japanese cuisine is so iconic, it’s been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Now, you can add another must-do to your Japan itinerary: skiing in the Japanese Alps.
"A ski trip to Japan is a markedly different experience than just about anywhere else in the world,” says Dan Sherman, the CMO of Ski.com, North America’s largest supplier of mountain ski vacations. “It’s not just the epic amount of snowfall the region receives, although that’s a huge draw. Everything from the food and people to the ski culture is unique and out of the ordinary compared to typical North American ski trip experiences.”
Here are five reasons why Japan should be on any powder-hound’s list of winter destinations.
Japan is synonymous with top-notch powder skiing. While resorts across the west have experienced drier than average conditions, Kioro boasts an 80" base, and most resorts receive around 600" of snow each year. One oddity: “Although the Japanese promote this abundance of powder,” Sherman says, "you will rarely find them skiing it." This means more untracked powder and deep turns for visitors. (There are still mellow blue and green runs for beginners and intermediate skiers.)
The resorts are also known for their back- and side-country terrain, with breathtaking birch glades blanketed in often chest-deep powder. And in a nation so known for its neon-soaked cityscapes, it’s only fitting that night skiing under florescent lights is also popular in Japan—perfect for those who just can’t get enough during the day. Other excursions include exploring the stunning Mount Yotei, the inactive stratovolcano that looms above Niseko and Rusutsu.
If the skiing isn’t a big enough draw, Japan’s cultural experience is unlike any other ski or snowboard vacation. For instance: There’s a wealth of culture bound up in traditional Japan onsens, which are primarily nude, hot spring-fed pools steeped in tradition and ceremony. Onsens are usually divided into male and female pools, and one must wash and scrub well before entering the quiet and contemplative waters. (If you have tattoos, you may be refused entirely.)
Japan’s culture of gracious hospitality extends to the slopes, too. Lift attendants bow and greet skiers and riders on every lap. Those at the bottom and top of the lifeline are "very polite and often bow as you get on the lifts,” says Sherman. “It’s very formal.” Snow monkeys can be found lounging near onsens in Nagano. Other interesting wildlife include large rabbits and kamoshika (aka Japanese serow), a goat-like animal that hangs around in the backcountry and out-of-bounds areas of the resorts. And if you want a break from the slopes, you can take a shinkansen (aka bullet train) or cheap domestic flight down to Tokyo, absorbing the culture, history, and unparalleled hustle-bustle of the sprawling (and spotlessly clean) metropolis.
As with skiing and culture, Japanese food is a world unto itself. Ramen is the most popular dish served in mountain towns. Each region has its own style of ramen, but ramen in the northern island of Hokkaido usually includes noodles in a meat- or fish-based soup broth with toppings such as pork, dried seaweed, green onions, bean sprouts, and cabbage. Skiers and riders find this fueling dish pairs as well with an afternoon of skiing as a cold glass of Sapporo Classic beer (only available on Hokkaido). Sushi is prevalent, and, of course, delicious, thanks to Hokkaido’s proximity to the sea. You can even buy sake and beer at vending machines, where the glass is even tilted for the perfect pour. (Should you really crave a burger and fries, western food options are also available at larger Hokkaido resorts.)
It may seem daunting to travel halfway around the world to ski, but at least 10 major U.S. cities offer flights to Tokyo, many of them direct. Once in Tokyo, it’s easy to hop on a bullet train to the Japanese Alps. (Those skiing on the northern island of Hokkaido will have to take another flight to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. From here, either rent a car or take a shuttle or bus to the resort. Americans can easily rent cars and drive in Japan, provided they have an International Drivers License from AAA. If you’d prefer that someone else take the guesswork and Japanese translation out of an international ski trip, Sherman suggests booking with companies like Ski.com. By booking with experts who know the lay of the land and accommodation options, you ensure that your trip is hassle-free. (Ski.com also books guided trips, so all you have to do is show up, ready for action.)
From high-end digs in Niseko to more budget-friendly options and guided tours, there are accommodations for every budget range. Compared to the $100-plus lift tickets at North American resorts, lift tickets and equipment rentals range around $48/day. On-mountain dining is also a steal in comparison—skiers and boarders can enjoy a delicious midday lunch on the hill from about $5 to $14. Cheaper airfare can often be found flying out of LAX.