The Japanese Alps—named because they feature glacier-carved slopes and summits over 10,000 feet like the European Alps—are located 130 miles west of Tokyo on the main island of Honshu. In fact, with the exception of Mt. Fuji, the highest mountains in all of Japan are located in the Japanese Alps. These jutting peaks were formed by volcanic activity, much like the mountains on the northern island of Hokkaido, and thus, there’s no shortage of hot springs or onsens to soak in after a day of skiing.
The Japanese Alps are home to several dozen ski areas, many of which surround the city of Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Popular Nagano Ski Resorts
Hakuba Valley, which is comprised of 11 ski areas, is easily the most famous ski domain in all of the Japanese Alps—particularly among international skiers. Easily accessed via 90-minute bullet train from Toyko, Hakuba provides heaps of amenities and services for English speaking guests, as well as an ideal variety of Western-style lodging options.
Combined, Hakuba Valley offers 137 kilometers (85 miles) of skiing, 200-plus trails and 135 chairlifts. While most of the resorts are not interconnected via chairlift, they are available on one lift ticket, which is uncommon at Hokkaido ski resorts. The terrain is quiet varied, but the majority of the advanced to expert runs are moguls—which are a favorite of local, Japanese skiers. If you’re looking for tree skiing, Hakuba can be a challenge, as the resorts have an uptight approach to off-piste, gladed access. The exception to that rule is Cortina ski area, which is where you’ll find all the powder-loving tree skiers and riders.
If you’re willing to earn your turns, the Hakuba backcountry offers a powder-lover’s paradise. To ensure you don’t get lost, have any other mishaps and find the best powder pockets, hiring a professional guide is a must.
Famous for convenience to the famed snow monkey hot springs and home of the women’s downhill, slalom and super G in the 1998 Olympics, Shiga Kogen provides an array of on- and off-mountain experiences. Made up of 19 different ski areas, which are mostly linked via slopes and lifts, Shiga Kogen ski domain features 80-plus kilometers of terrain all accessed on one shared lift ticket.
Much like Hakuba, Shiga Kogen offers skiers and riders of all ability levels terrain options, however off-piste tree skiing is banned here. Groomer-loving intermediates will especially appreciate the ‘roy’ and mogul aficionados will be pleased, too.
This charming hot spring and ski-resort village is located in the northern part of the Nagano Prefecture and is a must for those seeking an authentic cultural experience. While the skiing is great, with wide open groomers and picture-perfect mogul lines, the hot springs and idyllic streets are the biggest draw in Nozawa. The village was first founded in the 8th Century when the hot springs were discovered. Steam rises up from all over the village and many of the traditional ryokan inns have their own onsens. In Nozawa, Western-style hotels are few and far between; rather, the rule tends to be classic Tatami-floor hotel rooms with futon bedding.
Powder seekers will probably want to hire a backcountry guide and head off piste, but the Nozawa ski patrollers are known to take a more laidback approach to off-piste skiing and riding compared to some other Nagano ski resorts.
Japanese Alps Snow
On average the Japanese Alps and Nagano area do not receive quite as much snow as their northern cousins on Hokkaido, but 11 meters (36 feet) of powder per season is nothing to sneeze at. In addition, the snow isn’t quite as dry as Hokkaido, but still worth the trip.
How to get to the Japanese Alps
Because Tokyo is less than a two-hour bullet train from most of the Nagano ski resorts, getting to the Japanese Alps is easier than Hokkaido. Many airlines fly into Toyko’s Narita International Airport. In addition, because the Toyko railways are so sophisticated and fast, ski travelers en route to Nagano don’t need to worry about shuttles, shared rides or car rentals. Simply hop on the train with and go.
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.