If you’ve been keeping up with the latest and greatest ski and snowboard movies, you’ve probably noticed that more and more segments are being filmed in Japan. Sure, it’s exotic and not-your-average ski experience, but what’s the real reason these production companies are schlepping their gear to the far East? Snow! Lots and lots of snow year in and year out!
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Japan’s sea-effect snow
So, why is Japan especially blessed with consistent, deep snow? According to OpenSnow.com meteorologist Joel Gratz, we can thank Asia and the nearby ocean for Japan’s abundant snowfall.
“The general west-to-east flow of weather pushes cold air from Russia and China over the Sea of Japan and then into the mountains along the west coast of Japan. The combination of cold air, moisture from the Sea of Japan, and the lift created when the wind hits Japan’s mountains is what creates heavy snow,” says Gratz.
Another factor that contributes to the consistent snowfall in Japan is that the water in the Sea of Japan does not freeze. This means that the ocean water is always contributing moisture into the atmosphere, which eventually falls as snow. Meteorologist Gratz explained further that “If the Sea of Japan froze during the winter, much like the Great Lakes sometimes do in the United States, then the flow of moisture would be cutoff, and that means that the snow would largely stop. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen.”
How much snow falls in Japan?
Most records show an average of 300 to 600 inches of winter-time snowfall throughout the mountains of Japan. However, these measurements usually come from observers in towns near the base of ski areas. The upper elevations of the ski mountains can get up to twice as much snow as the nearby towns.
Watch GoPro footage of pro-skier Chris Bentchetler and pro-snowboarder John Jackson test out just how deep Hokkaido, Japan can be.
Two regions for powder chasers
The northern island of Japan—Hokkaido—sits at a latitude similar to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Because if its northern location, the air can be a bit colder and the powder a bit lighter, on average.
Further south, the main island of Japan—Honshu—and the most popular ski areas on this island sit at a latitude similar to Mammoth, California and the southern border of Colorado. Due to its slightly more southern location, Honshu tends to be a bit warmer than Hokkaido. However, in general, the mountains here are taller than on Hokkaido, which means that you can go higher and find colder air.
Which region gets the best snow? That depends on the weather patterns of each particular season, which means that if you have enough time, you should explore both areas!
What kind of snow is in Japan?
Japan is famous for deep, light, fluffy powder. This is usually the case, though the temperature of each storm dictates whether you’ll find fluffy or heavy powder. For the most part, expect medium-density to light, fluffy powder, with occasional times of heavier, thicker snow when a warmer storm pushes through.
Is the snowfall in Japan as consistent as they say?
Many people boast that the snow in Japan falls consistently all day long during most days of the winter. While that is not quite true, the reality is that compared to nearly all ski regions in the world, Japan offers just about the highest probability of a winter powder day. The snow does stop occasionally, but the next powder day is usually just a few days away.
Thank you to Meteorologist Joel Gratz of OpenSnow.com for contributing his expertise to this article. Joel and his wife visited Hokkaido in January 2016 and they were thrilled to enjoy powder on 10 of 11 ski days.
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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.