Japanese winters can be cold and brutal, especially in the mountain regions where temperatures really drop and the snow piles up. Getting out of the cities in the winter may be a daunting experience for those who are already missing the heat and humidity of summer but for skiers and snowboarders, Japan offers many, many opportunities to make the best of the season.
With more than seventy percent of the country being mountains, there are ski resorts spread out all over the country. Even though it may not seem possible from the crowded expressways and trains, a huge part of the population is within hours of a weekend ski holiday. From huge resorts to small local ski hills, there are hundreds of resorts to choose from, offering quality skiing and snowboarding on some of the best quality snow in the world. Many ski resorts are located near onsens, offering a great chance for a hot soak in the bath after a day of braving black diamond runs and the half pipe.
Japanese ski resorts number well over five hundred, from Hokkaido in the north all the way to the southern island of Kyushu. The first snowfall generally comes in November in the North and many resorts are open by early December. Another attraction to skiing in Japan is the massive snowfalls with some resorts regularly reporting over twenty feet of snow during peak times. The snowfall here is so dependable that if you ski in first three months of the year, the conditions are almost certain to be excellent. In northern areas, snow remains on the slopes long enough for some runs to be open as late as early May.
Many of the most popular ski resorts are located in Hokkaido, the Tohoku region and the Chubu region. Hakuba in Nagano prefecture is a world-class resort that was the site many of the events of the 1988 Nagano Olympics including the downhill and super G competitions.
Snowboarding is relatively new to Japan, beginning in the early 90s and gaining popularity steadily ever since, with skiers and boarders sharing the slopes fairly evenly. There are a few skiers-only resorts around, but the number of resorts offering terrain parks groomed for boarders is growing and likely to increase.
As for price, the cost of the actual skiing in Japan is fairly low-priced when compared to other countries with daily lift tickets ranging between ¥4,000 and ¥6,000. The skiing in Japan gets expensive when you factor in the travel, food and accommodations, which can range from luxurious mountain lodges to minshuku (basically a pension), which usually offer a meal or two as part of the price for the room. There are many tour companies that offer packages that include a room, some meals and lift tickets for the duration of the stay.
There has been a boom in recent years of foreign companies operating ski tours into Japan with a huge influx of Australian tourists and tour operators hitting the slopes in Japan. This makes ski holidays much more accessible for the foreign set here as there are many instructors from around the worlds all over Japan and many staff at the resorts are able to speak English.
For those in Tokyo, there are no ski resorts located within the environs of the massive city, but there are many day drips available from the capital. The Yuzawa region of Niigata prefecture is only a ninety-minute train ride on the Shinkansen from Tokyo. Weekend trips to areas in Nagano are easy to plan with the help of many travel agents offering packages and tours. As for equipment, virtually every resort in the country will rent skis, boots and clothing for the weekend snow warrior at a reasonable cost and this is recommended for the occasional skier.
There are many websites dedicated to skiing in Japan run by travel agents and tour companies and a simple Internet search for “ski” and “Japan” will yield more results than you will know what to do with. With so many ski resorts dotted about most of the country, the best train system in the world to get you there and equipment to rent, there is no reason for anyone who is interested in skiing to not give it a try.
Story by James Souilliere
From J SELECT Magazine, January 2009