When we think of Japan, we think of many things. Karaoke, sushi, samurai, drunk Japanese businessmen, anime, Tokyo, Godzilla, Godzilla destroying Tokyo, Ken Watanabe, the rising sun, Mount Fuji, Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson; they're all, without question, utterly synonymous with that red dot on a white background. However, for action sports enthusiasts - skiers and snowboarders in particular, Japan means powder. Sweet, lovely, precious powder...and lots of it.
Japan's reputation for serving up insane amounts of snow is legendary. In Janurary 2015 for example, we reported that the country's Gassan Snow Resort receives such high levels of dumpage during the traditional winter months (December-April) that it can only open its lifts between May and July. When you consider the widely publicised snow-related difficulties many European resorts have been having in recent years, stories such as this really do boggle the mind.
From the northern island of Hokkaido to the more southerly island of Kyushu, the nation of Japan boasts over 500 ski resorts. Now, in an ideal world we'd list the pros and cons of every single ski resort in Japan, and tell you every single thing you need to know about them. Unfortunately, we've estimated roughly how long that would take and, well to be frank with you, it would just take way too long. Instead, here's a walkthrough for five of the best ski resorts in Japan and some convincing reasons why you should visit them.
The town of Niseko, on the island of Hokkaido, won the title of 'Japan's Best Ski Resort' at the World Ski Awards 2015 (so it's definitely got pedigree). Located in the Abuta District, Shiribeshi Subprefecture, Niseko also refers to the biggest and most popular cluster of ski resorts on Japan's northernmost main island.
The numerous ski areas here, that are all connected and can be skied on just one pass, surround the iconic Mount Yotei. Mount Yotei is often referred to as the "Mount Fuji of Hokkaido."
With an average annual snowfall of over 15 metres, Niseko is one of the snowiest ski resorts in Japan and therefore the world. Niseko also has a thriving après scene for people who like to party, and a vast choice of accommodation options for people who don't like to sleep on a park bench.
It's worth mentioning that the back-country stuff on offer in Niseko has such an excellent reputation on the skiing scene, that hardcore skiers have been known to fight each other to the death for the opportunity to ski there (we've made some of that up for dramatic effect, but the back-country runs will definitely get you hyped). Strawberry Fields for example, in the lower half of Niseko's Hanazono area, is a legendary forest route that needs to be skied to be believed.
Deep in the heart of the Japanese Alps, on the island of Honshu, is the Nagano prefecture. Now if you're withered old prunes like us, you'll remember that Nagano (as the capital city of the Nagano prefecture) hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. In terms of international seals of approval for your winter sports facilities, I think we can all agree that it doesn't really get much bigger than that.
Hakuba itself, which is a one hour drive from the city of Nagano, offers more fun for skiers than you could plausibly wave a ski pole at. The Hakuba valley, a short three hour trip from Tokyo, is home to 11 ski resorts and 200 runs of varying difficulty. With so many potentially awesome skiing options available in this region of Japan, you'll be delighted to know that lift lines here are virtually unheard of. Of course, we Brits do love a good queue so maybe you'll be disappointed by this particular news.
The village of Hakuba, which hosted the Alpine, Ski Jump, and Cross-Country events in '98, receives an average annual snowfall of 11.1 metres. It's home to an excellent array of bars, shops, and restaurants. Due to Hakuba's geographical location, accessibility, and proximity to Oceania, the village is particularly popular with Australian skiers and snowboarders.
Sapporo - Teine, Hokkaido
Speaking of Japan's excellent Winter Olympics heritage (see Nagano 1998 reference above), Hokkaido's city of Sapporo actually hosted the games 26 years beforehand in 1972. It was the first Winter Olympics to be held outside the traditional strongholds of Europe and North America. As a globally-recognised event, it was the moment when Japan's magnificent ski terrain first went under the biggest spotlight of them all.
Interestingly, and this is an informative nugget for the pub quiz enthusiasts perhaps, the only three medals Japan won at the 1972 games were the gold, silver, and bronze in the 70m ski jumping event. Anyway, and this is just a wild stab in the dark, you probably didn't come here for a history lesson. You came to find out where you should go skiing in Japan, and we intend to help you out on that score.
Mount Teine, which is just a 40 minute car drive from the centre of Sapporo, has a great reputation for anyone looking to clip on the planks and hit the snowy slopes of Japan. The Sapporo Teine ski resort is made up of the Highland Zone and the Olympic Zone. The two zones are connected by the super long Rainbow Course, which fortunately/unfortunately (depending on your view) is nothing like Mario Kart's Rainbow Road.
The Highland Zone comprises of runs suitable for all levels of skiers, and offers some truly spectacular views over the sea and city. The Olympia Zone is more suited to intermediate and advanced skiers. Rather unsurprisingly, given the zone's name, it's here that sporting pilgrims can look upon the Olympic flame-holder from 1972.
Skiers who come to this part of Japan in February should make some effort to check out the world famous Snow Festival in Sapporo. Held annually since 1950, the festival sees some of the planet's finest snow and ice sculptors come together to display their epic statues and sculptures to the public. In the year 2007, two million people visited Sapporo for this event. Of course, if you've come to Japan primarily for the skiing and don't fancy doing anything other than ski you're free to give the cultural stuff a miss...you philistines.
Zao Onsen Ski Resort, Honshu
If you've gone to all the effort of organising a skiing holiday in Japan, you'll no doubt want your Japanese ski experience to serve up a multitude of memorable experiences that more than justify all the hard work you've put in. What we mean by this is that you don't want to fly all that way, and pay all that money, to come home with a reel of holiday photographs that could have been taken in your standard French Alps resort. You want something alternative, a bit different; a little thing called originality.
And, when it comes to ski resorts in Japan specifically, we're happy to report that powdery terrain doesn't get much more original than that which is on offer at Zao Onsen Ski Resort in the Yamagata Prefecture on the island of Honshu. Zao Onsen, which is also home to some of the country's finest hot spring baths, is one of the few places in Japan where juhyo (aka "ice trees"/"snow monsters") can be seen and subsequently skied between. These remarkable trees take on bizarre shapes due to the combined effect of heavy snowfall and freezing winds. Camera phones at the ready...it's time to melt Instagram.
Skiing in Japan doesn't get much more magical or "Japan-ish" than it does at the Zao Onsen Ski Resort. It's one of Japan's oldest ski resorts and features over thirty lifts, ropeways, and gondolas. The runs here are suitable for skiers of varying ability, but is particularly suitable for those who fall into the beginner and intermediate brackets. The 10km run that starts at the summit of the volcanic Mount Zao, in amongst the stunning "snow monsters", is an absolute must if you're skiing in Japan.
Shiga Kogen, Honshu
Size-wise, the Shiga Kogen Ski Area is 4.25 square kilometres (1.64 square miles). It's the largest combined ski area in Japan, and one of the biggest in the world. This enormous Japanese ski resort, located in the Shiga Highlands of the Nagano Prefecture, is actually made up of approximately 21 smaller resorts that are all interconnected. With 71 ski lifts waiting to take skiers and snowboarders here, there, and everywhere across the area it's easy to see why so many see Shiga Kogen as the ultimate destination for a ski holiday in Japan.
There are more than 100 hotels in the area. The rooms on offer in these hotels vary widely between a Japanese style, a Western style, and a style that can only really be described as semi-Japanese. There's also plenty of ski-in ski-out accommodation here for skiers who hate nothing more than carrying their skis about like some sort of mountain golf caddy.
Compared to the Hakuba resort, also in Nagano, Shiga Kogen has a much more Japanese feel. Some of the tiny villages here have avoided Westernisation which, on one side, is great if you're looking for a traditional Japanese skiing experience but less great if you want to order something without reaching for your phrasebook. English is rarely spoken. Another potential negative is that Shiga Kogen isn't the best for off-piste skiing. In some parts it's strictly banned, while in others the off-piste terrain is too mellow or extremely limited.
One of the best things about Shiga Kogen, other than its sheer size, is the fact that it has one of the longest ski seasons in Japan. The official ski season here starts in mid-to-late November and continues right on through April, until the very first week of May.
If you were thinking of spending an entire winter skiing in Japan, Shiga Kogen's seasonal conditions are an absolute dream come true.