Skiing in Japan: When/Where to Go & What to Expect in 2024

Skiier going downhill on a ski slope in Japan
Skiing in Japan: Our Guide to Planning Your Trip

Imagine carving through deep powder for hours before pausing to enjoy fresh, hot ramen and a cold beer for less than $10 USD. You click back in to enjoy even more powder lines after lunch, and at the end of the day, you beeline to a nearby hot spring for a long, relaxing soak.

No, this isn’t some ski bum’s daydream — it’s skiing in Japan.

Millions of skiers and snowboarders flock to Japan’s famously snowy resorts every year. In February, I hit the slopes and learned that as amazing as all those powder days are, skiing in Japan is about so much more than the snow.

If you’re interested in experiencing Japan’s globally renowned ski scene, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve put together a guide on skiing in Japan, including when to go, where to ski, and what you should expect to find on a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Why go skiing in Japan?

Fresh snow on ski runs with powder dusted trees
Skiing in Japan was one of the best travel experiences of my life • Photo Credit: Vi Fleshman

There are countless reasons to go skiing in Japan, but the quality powder is the number one draw for skiers and snowboarders from across the globe. Every year, the island of Hokkaido and Honshu’s Japanese Alps receive huge quantities of dry, light snow, affectionately called JAPOW.

Secondly, a ski trip to Japan can be stunningly cheap compared to North American resorts. Food, transport, and lift tickets all cost a fraction of their Western Hemisphere counterparts. For example, a day pass at Niseko, one of the top Japanese resorts, is just $63 USD.

Other upsides include the abundant family-friendly amenities, resort cleanliness (no chairlift litter here), and the local ski culture, which we’ll get to shortly. Suffice it to say, skiing in Japan is like nowhere else in the world — it has to be skied to be believed.

When’s the best time of year to visit?

Chair lifts full of skiiers in the Hakuba Valley resort
Hakuba Valley in Japan: Plenty of snow to be had • Photo Credit: Vi Fleshman

Japan gets most of its snowfall between January and February. Of course, this is also when crowds descend on the country’s ski resorts. I did see some great powder days in mid-February, but I also had to contend with lengthy lift lines and jam-packed shuttle buses.

Though ski seasons typically run from mid-November through April (or into May, in some cases), you can expect plentiful snow coverage until mid-March. If you dread the thought of skiing among the masses, try to visit in April, when you still may get a snow storm or two.

Anyone hunting for a holiday getaway in November or December, meanwhile, should plan to ski on Hokkaido island. Though powder isn’t truly guaranteed at this time of year, you’ll have much better chances up here, since the snow starts falling earlier than on Honshu.

What type of snow can I expect in Japan? What skiing is it similar to in the US?

Fresh powder in the Rusutsu Resort
The snow quality in Japan rivals some of the West’s best powder

Thanks to a unique combination of meteorological factors, you’ll mostly be skiing soft, fluffy powder in Japan. You can expect lots of it, too — some areas are known to receive more than 10 meters (over 30 feet) in a single season, with snow days much more common than not.

In terms of snow quality, you might compare it to far northern resorts like Jackson Hole or Big Sky. But don’t expect to see those resorts’ big steeps. Grades are usually fairly mellow, and even expert-rated slopes can usually be tackled by a confident intermediate skier.

That said, individual resorts are typically quite small, hence why a ski area like Hakuba Valley ties together 10 different resorts. Oh, and you’ll see next to no hazard warnings in the trees and sidecountry, so watch out for unmarked risks like waterfalls. (True story.)

What is the cultural experience like when skiing in Japan? How is it different from skiing in the west?

Bowl of soba with a side of tempura and dipping sauce
Enjoying soba and tempura in Nagano

Ski days in Japan seem to pass at a slower, more leisurely pace. For example, quads and even gondolas are rarely packed to max capacity. And almost all those lifts are pretty dated — you have a better chance of spotting a cute Japanese serow than a high-speed quad.

This can be frustrating, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of trying to cram in every possible run, take your time eating lunch and sipping Sapporos at the cafeterias. Rather than rushing to a bar at the end of the day for après-ski shenanigans, head to an onsen.

What is an onsen, you might ask? In lieu of busy, noisy bars, skiers in Japan wrap up a day on the slopes with a soak in these geothermal hot springs, found near or even in almost all resorts. They’re a major part of local ski culture and a balm for sore muscles.

What are the top resorts I should consider visiting?

Skiier standing in front of a snowy ferris wheel
Ever been to a ski resort with a ferris wheel? (Rusutsu Resort in Hokkaido)

Japan is home to hundreds of independent ski resorts, many of which cropped up during the country’s economic and skiing boom in the 1980s. Located across the Japanese Alps and Hokkaido, here are a few standouts worth noting:

Niseko

Composed of four individual resorts with tons of backcountry and sidecountry — a rarity for Japanese ski areas — Niseko boasts a huge variety of amenities and some of the steepest runs in Japan. It also has an easily navigated village bustling with restaurants and nightlife.

Rusutsu

This Hokkaido resort comprises 37 runs across three mountains (yes, that’s big by Japanese skiing standards). On-slope cafeterias serve delicious, low-cost snacks and meals. Intermediate and advanced skiers will love riding through the trees and a closed amusement park.

Hakuba Valley

Deep in the Japanese Alps, Hakuba Valley has 10 different resorts that make for seemingly endless skiing with gorgeous mountain views. You can easily spend several days here exploring all those resorts; you’ll just need to pay close attention to the shuttle timetable.

Nozawa Onsen

Founded as an onsen resort town, Nozawa Onsen features numerous hot springs and a charming village full of traditional Japanese architecture. Nozawa gets crowded in peak season but also hosts a famous fire festival every January, so braving the crowds may be worth it.

Shiga Kogen

Shiga Kogen is Japan’s largest interconnected ski area, consisting of 18 resorts that you can ski between without a shuttle. It’s also a short drive away from one of the country’s top attractions: the hot-spring-loving “snow monkeys” of Jigokudani National Park.

What are the best ski hub cities/towns to stay in?

Tourists walking around outside of the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano
Exploring the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano

Though nearly all ski resorts in Japan have some sort of base lodging, from hostels to B&B-esque pensions to glitzy hotels, you can also stay in a bigger city nearby and commute to the slopes. However, note that public transport can fill up fast and schedules often vary.

Nagano

If you want to ski on Honshu, Nagano will be your gateway to the Japanese Alps. An hour away from Tokyo by bullet train (shinkansen), this high-elevation city hosted the 1998 Olympics and has been nicknamed the “roof of Japan.” Direct buses run to and from many ski areas.

Sapporo

Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and the biggest city on the island, home to two airports, where you’ll likely fly in if you plan to ski here. Ski-friendly lodging options are close to the bus and train stations, and you can ride low-cost shuttles to certain resorts.

Otaru

Though I didn’t get to visit this Hokkaido port city, I heard nothing but rave reviews from skiers who stayed in Otaru. Close to the ski slopes, dotted with fun restaurants and hotels, and filled with fascinating historical buildings, Otaru seems to have it all.

How much time should I take off to get the most out of my visit to Japan?

If you don’t check out the hot spring snow monkeys, you’re doing it wrong • Photo Credit: Vi Fleshman

The length of your ski trip may vary based on which resort you choose to visit, but at minimum, I’d recommend setting aside a week and a half to two weeks. Don’t forget, you’ll need at least a day or two to overcome jet lag and learn the lay of the land.

Even if you don’t end up skiing every day, this will give you some wiggle room to check out other attractions. There are countless temples, shrines, museums, and other spots worth visiting. You’re in Japan, after all — there’s so much more to do here.

If you don’t have much time to spare, consider how long it will take you to get from the airport to your destination resort. Factor in train and bus schedules, too. Speaking from experience, you could lose up to two days in transit, so calculate your time frame accordingly.

Can I make this happen myself, or should I consider booking with an agency?

Snowy mountain in the distance of Niseko village
Booking your own ski trip to Japan is complicated but completely doable

With some elbow grease and patience, you can easily book a ski trip to Japan. Thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly, research transport and lodging beforehand — it could make the difference between getting stuck in a hostel far from the resort or scoring cushy, slopeside digs.

If you prefer to leave the trip planning to the professionals, many travel agencies do offer ski tours of Japan. This can be an especially good choice if you want to ride the backcountry, where you’ll often need avalanche gear and at least a little navigational know-how.

Tours can be pricier, but they will save you the headache of negotiating public transport (trust me, it can be a doozy). Some companies also bundle off-slope experiences into your trip, so you can visit multiple resorts and get a taste of Japanese culture in one go.

Ready to book your skiing trip to Japan?

Gondolas climbing up a snowy ski slope
Skiing in Japan: an experience you won’t regret • Photo Credit: Vi Fleshman

Now that you know when to go and what to expect when it comes to skiing in Japan, it’s time to plan your visit (or book that ski tour ASAP). This is a bucket-list experience for many skiers for good reason, and our guide will help you embark on the ski trip of a lifetime.

Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to explore, and always respect Japanese traditions. Remember, skiing in Japan is very different from Western-style resorts: look into local customs beforehand so you don’t end up being that tourist.

Whether you’re an expert skier or a beginner rider, a bargain-basement traveler or someone who only skis in style, there’s something in Japan for every kind of skier on and off the slopes. Get ready to ski the JAPOW and slurp up all the ramen and curry you can eat.

Last Updated on April 10, 2024

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Cu Fleshman

Cu Fleshman is a writer, editor, and hiker originally from the backwoods of South Carolina. She now resides in Southern California where she hikes, backpacks, and always has an eye out for her next adventure.

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