All you need to know about skiing in Japan
So you’ve gone snowboarding at Perisher and tried heli-skiing at Coronet Peak, now it’s time to take your snow skills to Japan for an epic ski trip and an immersion into the amazing (and unique) Japanese culture. Think deep powder, hot onsens, fire festivals and plenty of places to get your après-ski on. For the inside guide to all things snow-related in Japan, I chatted to the expert, Oz Snow’s resident powder hound Ben Kelly (who’s been to Japan five times in the past five years), for the lowdown on skiing in Japan.
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Why Japan? How about the most snowfall on the planet, for starters? Ben says it snows constantly throughout January and February in Japan with about 12 to 15 metres falling in three months. Japan also has the best snow conditions with fresh snow a.k.a. powder – a rare sight in Australia. “A Japan ski trip is not just about the snow, it’s also a great cultural experience where you can see the bright lights of a great modern city like Tokyo and then also sample different and authentic traditions on the one holiday,” Ben adds.
When to go: The peak snow season in Japan is from December to February, continuing until May at some resorts. To avoid the crowds and take advantage of cheaper lift ticket prices, consider a Japan ski holiday in March or November. But if you want to avoid the risk of dwindling snow or a late season, the best time to hit the slopes is mid-January to late February.
Where to go: Whether you’re a ski novice or a seasoned pro, want an authentic Japanese snow experience or a party-hard wintersports holiday, there’s a Japan ski destination for you. Ben tips these three hotspots as offering the most bang for your buck (and the best powder):
Hakuba: the emerging destination (steep and deep) While Hakuba is well-known for hosting events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, it’s still off most visitors’ radars. It’s a great all-round ski destination just four hours from Tokyo by coach on the southern island of Honshu. You can access eight ski fields (resorts) on the one lift pass, and there’s heaps of different terrain for different competencies from beginners to pros with heaps of challenging runs. You’ve also got the cultural aspect for a more authentic ski experience in Japan.
Niseko: the big name Niseko is known as the ‘Whistler of Japan’ and ‘Kuta Beach on ice’ – think lots of Aussies. This destination on the northern island of Hokkaido is the most Westernised of the three ski destinations that Oz Snow goes to, and is renowned for its après-ski nightlife too with Japanese restaurants, bars and karaoke rooms. With the largest ski area in Hokkaido, Niseko snows a bit more than Hakuba with deep powder and varied terrain including steep runs, huge powder fields and vertical drops.
Nozawa: the authentic experience Nozawa is famous for its free public onsens – hot springs heated by volcanic activity. It’s a little quieter than the other ski destinations and boasts an authentic cultural experience – there’s not much Western influence and it retains a traditional atmosphere. Located two hours from Hakuba on the southern island, it’s also a great spot for a side trip, especially during the annual Nozawa Fire Festival on January 15, which involves a shrine that’s torched in a ‘battle’ and plenty of sake!
How to get there: From Australia, you can fly direct to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (see our Black Market Flights deals to Tokyo for even more savings) and then ground transport will get you to the snow. While Oz Snow is not a tour company, they’ll get you there and back. Japan can be a bit daunting if you don’t speak the language, so Oz Snow offers airport coach transfers from Narita Airport to their own hotel, shuttle buses to all ski resorts, as well as transfers back to Tokyo. Once you’re at the snow, you can stick with the group or do your own thing.
What to bring: If you have your own ski or snowboard equipment, and don’t mind paying the excess baggage fees, taking your own gear with you is the way to go. Otherwise, the Oz Snow crew can also sort your equipment hire and lift passes. Make sure to pack a snow jacket and pants, thermal layers, gloves, ski goggles, sunnies, warm socks, a beanie, scarf and lip balm. Apparently finding good sunscreen in Japan is difficult, so be sure your bring your own. Heading to an open-air onsen? Leave your cossie at home – bathing in hot springs is traditionally done nude. Just ask the snow monkeys...
Don’t forget: Travel insurance! Whether it’s your first time or not, breaking a leg is only lucky on Broadway. And that budget holiday won’t be so cheap if you land in hospital! To make sure your skiing trip goes as smoothly as a well-groomed run, make sure you take out travel insurance before you hit the slopes.