Whether Japan is brand new to your ski-trip radar or it’s been on your bucket list for a while, traveling to a completely new part of the world can feel a little daunting, no matter how adventurous you consider yourself. A ski trip to Japan is a markedly different experience than just about anywhere else in the world, and that’s a huge part of the draw—in addition to the epic amount of snowfall the region receives.
Photo: Rusutsu Resort
Couple a can-do, open-minded attitude with our guide below and you’re pretty much guaranteed an awesome, stress-free trip that you’ll be talking about for years to come.
Important pre-trip details
- Conveniently, U.S. travelers do not have to worry about acquiring a visa nor paying an entry or departure tax.
- To ensure the utmost in comfort, we recommend packing your own ski boots. However, if you’d prefer to leave your gear behind you can expect new and adequate snowboard rental equipment at most ski resorts in Japan.
- Japanese electrical outlets are the same as in the U.S. (110 voltage), but an adapter is always a good thing to pack in case of older plugs.
- Be sure to bring a lot of cash with you, as many businesses and restaurants do not accept credit cards. To save yourself some money, order Yen from your local bank at least 24 hours in advance. Often, there’s no charge or the exchange fee is less than what you would pay in the airport. If you’re in need of cash once you’re there, all Japanese 7-11’s have ATMs.
- Wi-Fi access and connectivity varies from hotel to hotel, so we recommend renting a local hot spot device from Japan Wireless. You can have it delivered to your hotel, so it’s waiting upon arrival. When it’s time to leave, simply drop the hot spot in the mail box at the airport.
- You’re going to need a AAA international driver’s license if you intend on driving in Japan. The Japanese drive on the left side and are generally slow drivers.
When to visit
The most popular time to visit Japan—especially for powderhounds—is January thanks to its proclivity to be extremely snowy. In fact, the month has been playfully coined “Japanuary” by the many hardcore skiers and snowboarders who have enjoyed its snowy bounty.
In addition, mid-December through the New Year see a lot of holiday visitors from Australia, making lodging availability hard pressed and more expensive. The time around the Chinese New Year (January 28, 2017) also sees lots of crowds.
For quieter slopes and less expensive accommodations, we recommend visiting Japan in either early December, mid to late February or March. The ski season in Japan is generally shorter than the Western U.S., so you don’t want to go much later than late March.
What to expect when traveling
Getting to Japan may seem daunting since you’re traveling half way around the world, but it’s much easier than you might think. In fact, 11 major U.S. cities offer flights to Tokyo, and then it’s easy to hop on a bullet train to the Japanese Alps. If you’re skiing on the northern island of Hokkaido (which generally receives more snow), you’ll take another flight (just 1.5 hours) to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. From there, the ski resorts are anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours away by bus, shuttle or rental car. It’s also possible to fly into Asahikawa Airport for easier access to Furano.
What to expect on the slopes
Most resort base areas are located between 800 and 1,800 feet above sea level and rise to a top elevation of about 4,000 feet, so you won’t have to worry about elevation sickness in Japan. In fact, you can see the Sea of Japan from Rusutsu. Japan has some of the snowiest winters on the planet due to icy blasts of cold air converging over the Sea of Japan. To learn more, read our post “Why is there so much snow in Japan.” If you’re not powder hungry, don’t fret. You can also enjoy plenty of green and blue slopes that are regularly groomed.
Most of the resort terrain and even much of the sidecountry and backcountry terrain is actually quite gentle. You won’t find steeps or couloirs like that of Jackson Hole, but you will find breathtaking birch glades bedecked in a blanket of powder that is often chest deep. Be sure to bring or rent fat skis.
If tree skiing in Japan is high on your list, make sure you check beforehand that the resort allows it. A couple resorts, like Furano, don’t allow tree skiing.
Mogul skiing or “zipperlines” as they’re referred to in Japan is immensely popular among Japanese skiers so there’s no shortage of runs to rip bumps. It’s actually an excellent place to try out moguls for the first time or perfect your technique, as most zipperlines are narrow and flanked by groomed terrain. Unlike many mogul runs in North America, you almost always have the option to bail out if you get tired.
In Japan, chairlifts with hoods are plentiful and a much appreciated feature on a snowy day—of which there are many. However, there aren’t too many high-speed quads.
Backcountry and sidecountry skiing in Japan is very prominent and accessible. Most resorts have designated gates where adventurous skiers and snowboarders can leave the resort boundary to enjoy untracked powder stashes. If your Japan powder pursuits lay out-of-bounds, we highly recommend asking your Ski.com Mountain Vacation Specialist about hiring a professional guide to ensure safety, prevent getting lost and quickly and easily locate the best terrain and snow. Some top excursions include exploring the stunning Mount Yōtei, the inactive stratovolcano that looms above Niseko and Rusutsu.
Another atypical ski experience possible in Japan is night skiing. Most Japanese ski resorts keep the bull wheel running after the sun sets and it’s something not to be missed. Big fluorescent lights illuminate the slopes and allow you to see where you’re going. The bright lights combined with a snow storm provide an even more stunning affect. Often, you’ll see festive Japanese locals donning glow-in-the-dark duds.
What to expect in the villages
Japan offers a range of ski-resort experiences from traditional to Westernized and everything in between. At Niseko you can expect a world-class resort experience akin to some of North America’s best, while at Rusutsu and Kiroro you’re treated to no frills base areas and an authentic Japanese atmosphere. For a quiet escape that puts you near 100-plus restaurants in an authentic Japanese town, Furano is a great choice. Across the board, nightlife is generally non-existent or subdued, however, Niseko’s Gran Hirafu village is renowned for its excellent dining scene, which features traditional and international cuisine.
When it comes to international and fusion-style dining, particularly in Niseko, you can expect similarities to what you might experience in the U.S. and Europe. If you’re looking to eat like a local, you’re going to be slurping a lot of ramen. And when we say “slurp” we mean it. Slurping is, in fact, the proper way to eat ramen. The noodles will become mushy if left in the hot broth for more than five minutes, so you’re supposed to eat the bowl as soon as it’s delivered and not stop until you’re finished.
Miso ramen is native to Hokkaido–each region of Japan has its own style of ramen—and includes wheat noodles in a meat- or fish-based soup broth with toppings such as pork, dried seaweed, green onions, bean sprouts and cabbage. Many other types of ramen are available, but this is the most prevalent option in Hokkaido. Most travelers find that the hearty, delicious soup-like meal is perfect after a day on the slopes. Pair it with a cold, locally made Sapporo Classic beer and you’re in Japanese dining heaven. Sushi, is of course, also available at most restaurants and out-of-this world thanks to the proximity to the ocean.
What to expect in terms of price
Everyone from ski bums on a shoestring to those seeking high-end digs and fine dining have options on a Japan ski trip. Due to popularity and an influx of new, luxury accommodations, Niseko is considered to be the most high-end destination in Japan. On the whole, the other ski-trip components are quite reasonably priced. Lift tickets are around ¥5,000 or $48 USD and equipment rental packages are also in that ball park. On-mountain dining in Japan will feel like a steal when compared to Europe and North American. You can enjoy a delicious lunch for ¥600 to ¥1,500 or $5 to $14 USD. Dining out in the villages is also quite affordable. A bowl of ramen is around $9.50 USD.
What to expect at an onsen
Post-skiing hot tub sessions are a classic and beloved way for skiers and snowboarders to unwind at the end of the day. In Japan, onsens (hot-spring fed pools) serve that purpose, but like almost everything in the Land of the Rising Sun, they are steeped in tradition and ceremony.
The mineral-rich water is not only soothing on ski-weary muscles, but it also provides incredible health benefits. In fact, Hokkaido has long been a wellness destination for the Japanese. Some onsens in Hokkaido have been in operation since the 1860s. Now, even the modern hotels have their own onsens and provide their own onsen kits, which include a towel, comb, soap and toiletries (in some cases).
If you’re planning on visiting an onsen, which we highly recommend, here are some rules that must be followed:
- Leave your bathing suit at home. Onsens are divided into male and female pools, which are separated by a wall. Note: some onsens are outdoors and those are called rotenboro.
- Wash thoroughly in the washing area before entering the bath or pool. Be sure to use lots of soap and scrub with the wash towel.
- When walking to the bath or pool you can use a towel for modesty, but before entering the pool, it must be set aside or on your head.
- Be sure to ease into the water. Never splash or dive and never wring or wash the towel in the pool. Do not try to swim. The onsens are for quiet soaking and contemplation.
- If you have tattoos, even small ones, you may be refused entry entirely. Tattoos are uncommon in Japan and indicate gangster ties. If possible, cover up your tattoos with waterproof bandages.
Feeling prepared for your first Japan ski trip now? Our 65+ Mountain Travel Experts can help answer any remaining questions you have and book your entire vacation. They’re standing by at 800-610-8911. You can also get started by filling out a form for a free custom quote.
Originally from the icy trails of New Jersey, I moved West to pursue powder and a career in writing and editing. Now in Aspen, Colo. and working for Ski.com managing the website and blog content, I couldn't be happier. You'll find me skiing at Aspen Mountain or Aspen Highlands in the winter and mountain biking at Snowmass in the summer.