Japan Skiing Overview
Japan is home to the best snowboarding I’ve done outside Europe and North America. Most of Japan’s territory is mountainous, the northern regions receive an absolute of ton of snow, and there’s a large population – and these are the main prerequisites you need to support a ski industry. However, despite the large population and crowded cities, Japan’s slopes are on the whole a lot less crowded than the famous resorts of the Alps and western USA & Canada – you can find yourself marvelling at the fact you’re spending the day riding beautiful fresh powder, doing laps on a high speed 6-man chair with an automatic hood to keep you warm, and there’s hardly anyone there. There are exceptions – the most popular resorts (like Niseko) do get very busy, as do (on weekends & holidays) the hills which serve as the ‘local’ hills for Tokyo (like those in Yuzawa) and Osaka / Kyoto (Biwako Valley) – but on the whole, crowds are thin, facilities are excellent, and the snow is good.
Skiing in Japan: Snow Conditions
The first I ever really heard of Japan’s snow was while taking the bus on my way to do a ski season in Thredbo, Australia. I got chatting to the Aussie guy sat next to me, and he waxed lyrical about skiing in Japan and got me to write down the names of the two resorts he liked most – Niseko and Hakuba. A couple of years later I was in New Zealand for the season, and during this bus journey the driver was a Kiwi with a Japanese wife who also raved about Japan’s snow and spent half of every year in Hokkaido. I did eventually follow their advice and went to Japan to investigate their tales of dry & fluffy waste-deep powder and all-day freshies.
Unfortunately when I went to Hakuba for the day I came down with a stinker of a cold and didn’t go riding, but then I took the ferry up to Hokkaido and got well acquainted with the riding in and around Sapporo. And what they’d said was true – Hokkaido’s snow is amazing.
To expand on this a little though, skiing in Japan doesn’t automatically mean outstanding snow everywhere you go – western Japan gets sticky, wet snow, and icy conditions if it’s windy. But the further north you go, the better it gets – the central Honshu (Honshu = Japan’s main island) mountains in Nagano and Niigata get lots of snow, but the really good stuff is in northern Honshu (Tohoku) and especially Hokkaido. The powder in Hokkaido is absolutely the best snow I’ve ridden, and it falls in stupendous and reliably regular quantities. If you’re specifically looking for beautiful snow to ride, head to Japan and make sure Hokkaido is on your itinerary.
Skiing in Japan: Terrain
Terrain-wise, skiing in Japan doesn’t compete with the European Alps or the Rockies. Hokkaido’s terrain isn’t fantastic, but you’re waste deep in powder so you tend not to care. Honshu has the better terrain, certainly not anything like Whistler or France, but making it the better choice in Japan for those who aren’t specifically hunting powder.
My own experiences of snowboarding in Japan stem from a winter living in Sapporo (Hokkaido), two winters living in the Kyoto / Osaka region (Kansai i.e. western Honshu), and two winters in Tokyo (riding in Yuzawa, Niigata).
My reviews of Japanese ski resorts:
For skiing in Kansai (the options are limited), see my review of Biwako Valley
And see here for a more in-depth look at the options for skiing around Sapporo, Hokkaido