The north island of Hokkaido is a powder-fest with some resorts experiencing ten metres of snow or more. Down south around Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics there are pretty and traditional resorts, as well as steep downhill.
With Japan’s extensive and efficient Japan Rail, it’s easy to get around, lift tickets are half what they cost in Australia, add to that good quality accommodation and Japanese food, you have the makings of a fabulous getaway – only one time zone away.
Here are five top resorts and why you should visit:
Four picturesque hours by train from Tokyo, via Mount Fuji, is the charmingly traditional ski resort of Nozawa Onsen. Dotted with ‘onsen’, public hot springs where weary skiiers soak and locals bathe, Nozawa is about as traditional as Japanese ski resorts get. The food is a highlight, being less expensive than the bigger resorts but still maintaining fantastic quality, and the area is known for its apples, sake and soba noodles. Check into a traditional ryokan, like Ryokan Sakaya for the full Japanese experience or take a tatami mat room in one of the lodges like Villa Nozawa. Powder here is accessible, even intermediate runs getting some powder action and kids [and parents] will love the ski school.
With four interlinked resort areas, Niseko is the beast of Japanese skiing and the go-to destination for many Australians. In the past it’s been called ‘Bali on the Snow’ but the local operators have been busy diversifying the offering to lift the tone. And there’s a compelling reason why so many of us head there – the freezing Siberian winds dump over 14 metres of snow annually, creating super high quality powder. The Japanese love night skiing, and Niseko has the largest lit area in Japan, extending each ski day by a few hours. Dining ranges from fine dining to quick ramen bowls and accommodation is predominantly in the village, a quick walk up to the slopes. SkiJapan have great packages including transfers from Sapporo, accommodation and lift passes.
Up in the Hokkaido powder belt, Furano boasts more sunny days than any other ski resort, but still manages an epic nine metres of powder each year. And this may possibly be the friendliest resort too – the local tourist association runs a volunteer mountain guide program where visitors are welcomed by a local English speaking volunteer who will show them the ski area. With 40 per cent of the runs being beginner and fun terrain parks, it’s a great choice for families. But don’t think this is just a beginners mountain, Furano has a vertical drop of over 950 meters making it one of the steepest mountains in Hokkaido, as well as hosting the FIS Downhill World Cup ten times. The nightlife doesn’t pump here like Niseko, but there are over a hundred restaurants to choose from, many featuring the local delicacy – the Furano curry omelette.
Back on the main island in the Northern Alps three hours from Tokyo, Hakuba actually a collection of nine resorts spread across a beautiful valley. With over 200 different trails and some of Japan’s longest vertical skiing and challenging terrain, Hakuba is the area where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held, which will give you an idea of the quality of the skiing here. Base yourself at the bottom of Happo-One Mountain [the venue for the Olympic slalom, ski jumping and downhill racing] and check into one of the many small hotels, like Phoenix or Hakuba Hifumi, both with their own communal baths [which are much better than they sound]. Izakayas [small pub style bars] feature heavily here and are a great option for dinner and beyond.
Rusutsu is near the powder stashes of Niseko and Furano, but so far has avoided the Australian invasion. But the secret is out. Rusutsu has beautifully wide, long runs, and fresh, thick powder routinely falling so fresh tracks can be made each morning. The big advantage of Rusutsu is the accessibility and quality of the tree runs – you can head through the trees and straight back onto the lifts with no trekking to get there. You can easily do a day tour here from Niseko, an hour away, or check into one of the lodges, cottages or even log huts.
Getting there: Qantas, Jetstar, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines to Tokyo daily from major Australian cities.
Organise a Japan Rail JR pass before you leave to take advantage of discounted fares.
Top Tip: Many Japanese ski resorts have limited or no access to ATM’s. Take enough yen with you when entering the resort areas, just in case.