Decisions, decisions, decisions. Both of these top Japanese ski regions (the Japanese Alps and Hokkaido) provide killer on and off mountain experiences, but they each have their differences. Discover which area you are best matched to by reading our guide below.
- Hakuba – Very international and best for English-speaking guests. Largest variety of Western-style lodging and dining. Exceptional views. Lots of steep, expert skiing, but plenty of options for every level. Best destination in Honshu for guided backcountry experience.
- Nozawa Onsen – Ancient hot spring destination near Nagano. Skiing dates back to 1912 there, so there is a unique tradition both on and off the slopes. English guests are well catered to. 31 miles of varied slopes to explore. Great glades.
- Myoko Kogen – Great powder and comprised of several ski resorts, which date back to the 1930s. Located on an old volcano, thus there are plethora of onsens. Great spot to experience guided backcountry skiing.
- Shiga Kogen – Largest ski resort in Japan. 19 ski resorts in one destination, 50 miles of trails, varied terrain and interconnected lifts. Offers a European-style experience, as you can ski from base village to base village.
- Niseko – Receives the most snow in the country, typically 50 to 60 feet. Very popular among international skiers and riders, and the villages (especially Grand Hirafu) and accommodations reflect that.
- Rusutsu – Receives 46 feet annually, making it a great option for powderhounds, too. Great tree skiing with minimal traversing and plenty of beginner zones, too. Skiing through the kitschy, summer amusement park is pretty special and makes for great photos.
- Kiroro – Fewer crowds than other Hokkaido resorts, but plenty of powder. Ski in ski out hotels and world-class Western options. Quiet nightlife, but variety of family experiences. Off-piste and backcountry skiing technically isn’t allowed here.
- Furano – Great snowfall, but less than other resorts (30 feet annually). However, this means more sunshine. Skier and riders enjoy awesome terrain for all ability levels, impressive vertical relief and good off-piste terrain.
Nagano ski resorts, located in the Japanese Alps, receive an average annual snowfall between 400” and 500”.
Most Hokkaido resorts receive 600” of snow annually, that’s double what most Colorado resorts see. Niseko has seen totals approaching 1,600”. That’s a lot of snow!
If you’re looking for easy access to explore Tokyo or other popular Japanese cities, like Osaka and Kyoto, opt for a Japanese Alps trip. You’ll fly into Tokyo’s Narita International Airport (about $2,200 USD from Denver with one stop during peak travel time). Next, you’ll hop on a bullet train from Tokyo Station ($73 USD), which is just a couple stops away. Zooming past smaller cities and countryside at 200 mph, you’ll arrive in Nagano city within an hour. From there, a handful of top resorts are just an hour’s shuttle ride away and about an hour apart from each other.
You’ll want to hire a shuttle or guide to experience more than one resort in the Japanese Alps. It’s also possible to arrange a shuttle directly from Narita and forgo the bullet train, but adventurous travelers won’t want to miss this unique experience.
Making the journey to Hokkaido takes an extra flight versus skiing on the main island of Honshu, where the Alps are located. You’ll fly into Narita International Airport and then hop on a regional flight to Sapporo (about $2,400 USD during peak travel time).
From there, you’ll want to hop in a pre-arranged shuttle, which is included in Ski.com’s Guided Hokkaido Trip (starting at $2,599). You’ll really want the guided shuttle service at your disposal so you can experience other nearby resorts (most are about an hour apart) based on snowfall.
Those craving traditional Japanese experiences, like Ryokan hotels—rooms feature tatami mats and futons—shops, markets, ancient onsen (hot spring) villages, etc. then the Alps provide more options.
Nozawa Onsen, an 8th Century wellness village turn ski destination, is especially ideal for those seeking traditional experiences. When you’re not skiing the varied, world-class slopes or finding powder in the numerous gladed zones, this idyllic village provides a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in local culture. The cobblestone hamlet that sits at the base of the ski resort is brimming with charming, authentic hotels and hostels, bakeries, yakatori, sushi and ramen restaurants and lively bars. This is also a great spot to go shopping for classic Japanese trinkets and souvenirs as well as special sweet treats.
While Hokkaido has plenty of authentic attractions to enjoy, it’s important for cultural seekers to note that the Nothern island had underdeveloped transportation to and from the main land and a small, isolated population up until the last two centuries. Thus, Hokkaido does not boast the same deeply rooted traditions you’ll find on Honshu. What you will find in Hokkaido, particularly Niseko, is lots of options for Westerners. Australian developers have invested heavily in the Niseko area, including Western-style lodging, restaurants and bars, particularly in the Grand Hirafu village.
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.