The Hakusan Ichirino Onsen Ski Resort has six chairlifts plus a gondola — Photo courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organization

Like the ephemeral cherry blossoms of spring, the ski season in Japan is brief, but spectacular.

Every January and February, the mountains on the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu are gifted with prodigious snowfall from storms that blow across the Sea of Japan from Siberia, covering dozens of ski areas with the light, fluffy snow lovingly known to skiers and snowboarders as “Japow.”

Snow doesn’t last long at lower elevation ski areas, but during peak ski season in Japan, this is considered one of the best ski destinations in the world.

“Unlike the rugged mountains you’d find in the Rockies or the Alps, a lot of the mountains in Japan are much smaller and gentler but receive a ridiculous amount of snow,” says Josh Laskin, a New Hampshire-based writer, photographer, and snowboarder who took his first ski trip to Tōhoku in northeastern Honshu in 2023. “When I finally went for my first time, I learned what powder skiing really meant. For the first four or five days, we had waist-deep, untouched, extremely light and dry snow every single day.”

Where to ski in Japan

Hakusan Ichirino Onsen is the top-rated ski area in Honshu's Ishikawa prefecture, one of several ski destinations on the islandHakusan Ichirino Onsen is the top-rated ski area in Honshu’s Ishikawa prefecture, one of several ski destinations on the island — Photo courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organization

Despite its relative proximity to Tokyo (about four hours via bullet train), Tōhoku is a less-traveled destination for skiers compared to those in the Japanese Alps, home to the city of Nagano.

Ski towns in this central mountain range include Hakuba, a prime venue for the 1998 Winter Olympics, and Nozawa Onsen, known as the birthplace of Japanese skiing. It’s also home to volcanic hot springs that have soothed the aching muscles of bathers since the eighth century.

Japan’s biggest ski destination is Hokkaido, where resorts reliably receive 45 to 65 inches of exceptionally dry snow each winter. Niseko, the center of Hokkaido’s ski culture, is the main draw for international skiers eager to experience what’s been called the powder capital of the world.

Sapporo, the main city on Hokkaido, is not only the gateway to the island’s ski areas but hosts a world-famous Snow Festival each February featuring hundreds of snow and ice sculptures.

While getting “first tracks” is something of a holy grail for American skiers, all that Japanese powder is of less interest to the local residents than it is to visiting skiers, says Doug Fish, founder of Indy Pass, an international multi-resort ski pass that includes a dozen ski areas in Japan.

“It snows so much that they don’t get to ski [groomed runs] as often, so they tend to stay out of the trees,” according to Fish, who recalled a day at the Ani Ski Resort in Kitaakita where his group of American skiers had the off-piste runs entirely to themselves. “The only tracks we crossed were our own,” he says. “The locals were happy to give us their powder.”

Skiing vs. snowboarding in Japan

Snowboarding in Japan is wildly popularSnowboarding in Japan is wildly popular — Photo courtesy of anatols / iStock Via Getty Images Plus

Japan has hosted two winter Olympics (Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998), so snow sports aren’t exactly unknown here. Japanese athletes have won five Olympic gold medals in snowboarding, most recently Ayumu Hirano, the men’s halfpipe champion of the 2022 winter games in Beijing.

Their success reflects the fact that snowboarders outnumber skiers on Japanese slopes by a considerable margin. Skiers are quite accepted, of course, and visitors in general will get a warm welcome almost everywhere in Japan, where politeness and hospitality are baked into the local psyche.

Japan ski resorts and hotels

Soaking in a hot tub or "onsen" is a relaxing way to end a day on the slopesSoaking in a hot tub or “onsen” is a relaxing way to end a day on the slopes — Photo courtesy of Japan National Tourism Office

Lodging options range from traditional ryokan inns, where the sleeping arrangements include the option to bed down on tatami mats, to upscale hotels like Yu Kiroro and Club Med Hokkaido Kiroro, both with slope-side accommodations at Kiroro Peak.

Many ryokan and resorts include onsen, communal baths fed by natural hot springs that offer the Japanese version of hitting the hot tub after a day on the slopes.

Separate bathhouses are designated for men and women; in both cases, bathing suits are almost always prohibited. Though rare, some like Kotan Onsen allow bathing suits.

Other apres-ski activities are a little more familiar to visiting skiers, including nights spent in karaoke bars or toasting the day’s accomplishments with sake, Sapporo beer (bīru), or Japanese single malt whiskey (u-isukī).

Tours and guides

Snowmobiling, banana boat riding, tubing, and snowball fights are all part of the winter fun at Fukushima's Ashinomaki Onsen SnowparkSnowmobiling, banana boat riding, tubing, and snowball fights are all part of the winter fun at Fukushima’s Ashinomaki Onsen Snowpark — Photo courtesy of Japan National Tourism Office

Learning a few basic Japanese words goes a long way, especially away from the big cities, where English speakers are less common.

Fish advises joining a tour if you’re visiting Japan for the first time, such as the Tokyo-based Japan Ski Tours. Just as a ski instructor can help you find hidden stashes of snow and overlooked trails, “it’s nice to have a translator and guide” who can show you the best that Japan has to offer skiers, says Fish.

“You can get good snow in many parts of the world, but what you won’t get is the Japanese culture,” he says.

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