POW WOW MOMENTS
Dreaming of hitting the slopes in Japan but don’t know where to start? We’re here to help
Can you feel it? It’s snowing in Japan. Before long the country’s famously dry powder snow will be piling up in metres, burying cars and sending skiers and snowboarders into a fever. While most will flock to the world-famous playgrounds of Niseko or Hakuba Valley, others will jump bullet trains to explore lesser known regions. With more than 500 resorts to choose from there’s no shortage of options. We asked industry experts for their tips.
POWDER HOUNDS HOKKAIDO
Japan is coveted for the quantity and consistency of its snow. Skiers rave about carving first tracks through waist-deep powder all day long.
January and February are the snowiest months but the season extends well into April.
“Almost every day is a powder day in Japan on a good year,” says SnowsBest.com editor Rachael Oakes-Ash, who recommends Cortina and Madarao for off-piste thrills.
But it’s the northern island of Hokkaido where the snow really smothers the land. Niseko averages a staggering 15 metres annually; nearby Rusutso gets almost as much with far fewer people.
For serious skiers and boarders, Oakes-Ash suggests Asahidake, also on Hokkaido, for “more powder than you can dream of ”.
FAMILY FUN FURANO AND TOMAMU
Families tend to prioritise convenience over snow depth. Japan offers both.
SnowAction magazine editor Owain Price has skied “around 100” resorts in Japan and recommends self-contained ski in/ski out resorts for families. Hotel chains such as Prince Resorts and Club Med offer allinclusive packages and slope-side accommodation eliminating transfers and stress.
Price likes Furano and Naeba for a hassle-free snowcation. Both have plenty of beginner terrain, Englishspeaking instructors and lengthy snow escalators (magic carpets).
And then there’s Tomamu Resort in Hokkaido which boasts an ice village as well as a 50m indoor wave pool (Japan’s biggest).
“If the kids get sick of the snow they can have some beach time as well,” suggests Price.
SOAK LIKE A SAMURAI ONSEN VILLAGES
Australians appear spellbound by the Land of the Rising Sun. And while the snow is a mighty drawcard, it’s the scenery, cities, food and people that can bump a ski trip into the unforgettable category.
Authentic culture is in richer supply away from the mega resorts which cater for western tastes. Onsen resorts double as health retreats and are often steeped in tradition.
In the village of Yudanaka (near Shiga Kogen Resort) you can ease into a communal hot spring used by battle-weary samurai 700 years ago or watch snow monkeys enjoying their own tub.
Further north, Zao Onsen is a quaint mountain village famed for its traditional inns (ryokans) and openair hot springs (rotenburo).
The mountain above has a varied mix of terrain including a forest of snow-covered trees known as snow monsters. Tokyo, of course, is not to be missed.
THRILLER TERRAIN HAKUBA VALLEY
Japanese resorts are small by Northern Hemisphere standards but experts can still get their hearts hammering.
The highest elevations are found in the prefectures of Niigata and Nagano, to the northwest of Tokyo.
Hakuba Valley, consisting of 11 ski resorts, is a mecca for serious skiers and boarders. James Robb runs a back-country guiding service, Evergreen Outdoor Center, from here.
“Hakuba has enough variety and challenging terrain within 30 minutes of the village as well as ample back-country for advanced skiers and riders to explore,” he says.
Many of Japan’s best runs lie outside resort boundaries (backcountry) but are only suitable for well-equipped experts or specialist tour operators.
Inside the resorts, Robb says the best black diamond runs in all of Japan are among the Hiedayama courses at Cortina.
APRES PARTY NISEKO
Unlike the Australian Alps, Japanese ski towns don’t often double as party spots when the sun sets.
Apres bars and nightclubs are noticeably absent from most Japanese mountain villages where a naked communal hot tub is the preferred wind down.
The exceptions are the big resorts which cater for international guests (ie, thirsty Aussies).
Far and away the biggest apres scene is found in Niseko Resort in Hokkaido. Here the village of Hirafu has a good selection of restaurants and cocktail bars that are perfect for an apres session.
Those who like to party can kick on at The Edge Bar, a nightclub which rages until late. Hakuba also has some good night-life, including The Pub, a top spot from which to watch the Winter Olympics in February.
SECRET SPOTS GETO KOGEN AND SHIZUKUISHI
Australians continue to swoosh down Japanese mountains in increasing numbers with the majority heading for Hakuba and Niseko, according to the Japan Tourist Office.
To escape the Aussie migration, you need to look further afield. SnowAction’s Owain Price recommends booking a JR East Rail Tohoku pass.
“Heading north from Tokyo, the Aizu region west from Fukushima has some great areas for mellow ski in/ski out pow lines and, for a great stay, try Grandeco Resort Hotel & Ski,” he says.
“Further north, Geto Kogen gets insane amounts of snow and there are brilliant tree courses by which to access it.
“Next stop up the Shinkansen line is Shizukuishi Prince Resort, a smaller, great value hotel where you can still lap the powder. Then up in Aomori (region), Hakkoda is as good as anywhere on its day.”
PACKAGE DEAL OR INDEPENDENT?
Independent travel is adventurous and rewarding but it can be intimidating for first-timers.
English speakers are hard to find in regional Japan and bullet trains don’t wait for anyone.
Booking with a tour group ensures smooth travelling.
“Most tour operators offer both traditional and western-style options so you can choose which works for you,” says SnowsBest.com’s Rachael Oakes-Ash. “Ski Max Holidays are one of the biggest and they know their stuff,” she says. “For a more boutique experience: Liquid Snow Tours, Mint Tours or the specialised SkiJapan.com.”
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Hokkaido has much to offer, such as the rolling hills of Shikisai no Oka (above), ideal for riding on a snowmobile and snow rafting; or the offbeat charm of the Snow Crystal Museum at Asahikawa; and Hakuba is for serious skiers with plenty of challenging terrain.