I’m talking about Japan of course! Japan has some of the snowiest winters on the planet. It’s true! This is due to icy blasts of cold air converging over the Sea of Japan. So, while I love to refer to it as the mystical land of incredible powder – it’s actually not so mystical after all. What it is though, is an amazing country, AND ski destination for everyone!
Japan has been calling your name… flirting with you and parading its insane powder potential in your face. Are you finally ready to give it a go? Yes! Off we go to Japan next season!
You really will love it 😍. Whether you’re an avid skier or a first time snowboarder – the ski resorts in Japan have something for everyone. Both on and off the slopes.
If you’re feeling nervous about what else you might need to know or do before you leave, check out my post ‘The In’s & Out’s of your First Ski Trip to Japan’ for a little more background information to get you started.
What You’ll Find on Snow
Lots of it. If you’re lucky, you’ll be up to your neck in it! Most people ski in, or have heard of skiing in Japan, for the amazing powder. It’s unbeatable. I know, I sound like a broken record…
During January and February, you can expect consistent snow fall during your trip. I’m talking about DAILY top ups. In some areas, especially in Hokkaido, you can expect 30 plus cm’s daily. Sometimes, it will even be snowing so much that by the time you come out from your lunch break, your tracks are filled in. I promise I’m not joking.
Hot Tip: Riding in powder is tricky, and there’s definitely a knack involved. First of all, set your bindings back a little if you can, and leannn back. The tricky part is you still need to keep your stance correct, but you also need to push the tips of your ski’s or board to the surface 🤨.
If you do try and ski completely normal, you will end up flat on your face 😬. Leaning too far forwards will dig your tips in too deep and see you somersaulting through the snow. Luckily for you, it’s soft.
Don’t be discouraged though! You’ll pick it up in a few runs (or a day or two) and your life will be changed forever.
Fun Tree Runs
In Japan, you can expect an abundance of amazingly fun tree runs. In my opinion, tree runs are some of the most fun on the mountain. They get you off the main piste and lets you feel like you’ve entered another realm.
Do be careful before you dive into any old trees – especially in Japan! Some areas can become very dense and narrow, very quickly, which can be scary even for advanced riders. Some areas also don’t return to the main run and can spit you out in the middle of nowhere.
Always consult the map, consider other peoples tracks in and out of the area, and always, always ride with a partner.
Hot Tip: Some resorts in Japan also don’t allow tree skiing so make sure you know what stance your resort of choice has on tree skiing. The last thing you want is to have your pass taken off you on your very first day.
It has only been in the last 5 or so years that the Japanese Ski Patrol have started to open up to people skiing in the trees, and out of bounds. This is largely thanks to some Western influence on these guys, through education and avalanche awareness. But not every resort is on board.
All rules can be bent, it’s a matter of how far you can bend them, before you lose your lift pass. My advice is to check with your hotel staff – someone in there is bound to be a powder hunter and know the local rules.
For example, in Furano you’re technically not allowed in the trees at all (I say technically because literally nobody obeys this rule). In Myoko, you’re allowed into the trees, although it’s frowned upon. However, do not get caught riding directly under the lift. The difference? Who bloody knows. That’s just the rules.
Very Accessible Side & Back Country
Side and backcountry skiing is huge in Japan. You’ll see tons of people from all over the world, armed with their fancy touring ski’s and split boards, backpacks full of gear who are heading off under the boundary rope. If you are untrained and inexperienced with mountains, do not follow them.
Don’t get me wrong. The backcountry is absolutely amazing. There is nothing quite like looking down into an untracked bowl of waist deep powder. Or looking around and seeing not a single person in sight (outside of your group) 😍.
But the reality is that mountains are simply unpredictable, and need to be respected. Sadly, even the most experienced mountaineers can get into trouble out there, and deaths in Japan are not uncommon – even in bounds.
If you’re interested in gaining some backcountry experience – hire a guide! We have done many backcountry tours now with Whiteroom Tours. You can read about our experiences in my blog post Backcountry Touring in Japan.
Mellow Terrain for the Newbies
If it’s your first time skiing in Japan, all this talk of incredible snow, tree skiing and backcountry skiing might be freaking you out a bit. Don’t let it!
Japan has something for everyone! There are plenty of suitable runs for beginners or intermediates that are still finding their powder legs. There are even some really mellow tree runs! I always spend a few hours cruising the groomers, on the first day of my trip, to get my bearings in an unfamiliar resort.
Hot Tip: Check the groomer report every morning. Some resorts don’t groom all of the beginner runs, as they still want you to experience the fresh Japanese powder! Sometimes, this means it may be a little bumpy underneath.
Side Note: The groomer is the snow cat that drives around the slopes at night, smoothing out all the bumps and uneven snow left from the day. Kind of like a tractor but for snow 😁. Interesting fact – I used to be scared of snow cats – why? Who knows! 😂
A Mixture of New & Very, Very Old Lifts
Japanese chair lifts are interesting ones. In some bigger, more popular resorts, like Hakuba and Niseko, you’ll find some high speed chairs. Some of these chairs even have hoods on them, which is great for warming up on a bitterly cold day. All of the newer, high speed lifts, have safety bars and foot rests. However, these types of chair lifts, are few and far between when we get to smaller, less developed ski resorts 😬.
The most common type of chairlift you’ll find yourself on in Japan, is a very old one. Let’s just say, they have a lot of character. Some are quads or doubles, but you’ll also come across single person chair lifts which we inevitably name “The Pizza Box”.
The Pizza Box is literally a plank of wood, attached to a pole and linked to the lift line. There are usually no safety straps or foot rests on these babies. It’s called character, remember? Just hold on to the pole – you’ll be okay ☺️.
What You’ll Find in the Villages
Restaurants & Places to Eat
From fine dining to pubs to Western cuisine – you can find a range of hospitality options in most ski villages. In places like Hakuba and Niseko, you’ll find a wide array of options, with an emphasis on catering for the western traveller.
However, my favourite restaurants that Japan have to offer, are the teeny, tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are hidden down alleyways or back streets. Some even just look like they are someones house from the outside! These places identify themselves as being a restaurant with a red lantern at the door. What you will find here is amazing Japanese food. What you might not find, is an English menu 😬. It’s all apart of the experience 🤷🏼♀️.
Hot Tip: During high season, it’s essential to book ahead for dinner reservations. Especially if you’re a larger group (anything over 6 people). My advice is to grab a village dining guide at the start of your stay, and make reservations for the whole week at the places that look the best, or are highly recommended. Bookings can always be changed. This way, you won’t be waiting an hour for a table or going hungry.
For the Coffee Lovers
You can also find a good Barista made coffee in places like Hakuba and Niseko. There may be only a handful of places, and it’s pricey at 600 yen for a large cappuccino. But, if you are as reliant on a daily delicious cup of coffee as I am, then you know you’ll pay whatever it costs to keep your sanity in check.
Interestingly, even in the smallest of ski towns, you’ll find at least three bars! Japanese people LOVE to party 😱.
So if you’re having a rest day the next day, and you’re looking to blow off some steam, you’ll have no problem finding somewhere to sink some beers, play some pool or belt out some karaoke (highly recommended).
Plenty of Ski Shops
Aside from ski shops, you won’t find much else in the way of retail. It seems cray, but bear in mind that during the summer time, most of these towns are quiet little farming villages.
You’ll find that the pricing of things in these ski shops are quite ridiculous compared to the US or Australia. But, they are handy if you forget to pack something, or are having gear issues during your trip.
Village Shuttle Bus
In the well known resorts like Niseko and Hakuba, sometimes the most affordable accommodation is not within walking distance of any of the important stuff. In the smaller towns, you’ll find everything is focused around one main street, and it’s super easy to walk everywhere.
While there are definitely taxi’s in those bigger towns, most ski resorts have a village shuttle bus that circles around the village route from around 7am until 11pm. Some of these shuttles ask for a 200 yen ‘donation’ and some are completely free. In any case, your poor little tired ski legs will not have to carry you all over the village, if they don’t want to 😂.
I have saved the best til last here. If you do one thing aside from skiing on your trip to Japan, it should be to fall in love with a Japanese Onsen. If you’re not comfortable getting naked in front of other random people – you’re about to learn how to be. Really quickly 🙈.
An onsen is a Japanese hot spring, which has been created by volcanic activity. The onsen water is geothermally heated below the ground, and rises to the surface, piping hot and full of magical minerals. You can find them in nature or you can find a bunch of man-made baths around town.
Many traditional Japanese Ryokans (B&B’s) have their own man-made onsen baths, which are filled with the natural water through pipes running directly from the source. Don’t be put off if you smell a little sulphur as you’re heading in to one. The benefits are amazing, and well worth it!
There are a few rules and etiquettes to visiting an Onsen, and it’s really important that you understand and adhere to them.
- Wash yourself thoroughly and carefully before entering the baths.
When you walk into the onsen, you will see an area to undress, with lots of little baskets. Put all your clothes in here, as well as your big towel. Bring your smaller ‘modesty’ towel with you into the shower room. Sit on a little stool if you like, or stand if you prefer, and scrub yourself clean under the shower. You are, after all, about to share a bath with who knows how many people!
- Use your modesty towel.
You’ll be given two towels upon entering the onsen. One is for drying yourself when you’re done (the bigger one). And the other, is for you to put over your private parts when you’re wandering around the onsen (the smaller one). Even though no one is really looking at you, it does save them from having to avert their eyes deliberately. And I found, it helped me to be a lot more comfortable those first few times.
- Entering the water quietly and gently.
This is a big one! Many people go to the onsen for relaxation and meditation. The last thing they want is for you to splash on in. So use the stairs, and ease gently into the water. As you enter, make sure you keep your modesty towel out of the water. Popular places to put them are either to the side, in the snow for cooling later (you’ll need it!) or on your head 😁 – yes, I’m serious.
- Don’t talk too loudly.
If you do want to chat with your friend, do so very quietly. Just be respectful for others quiet time. I think you’ll find very quickly that you will also want to just sit quietly and absorb the tranquility after a while.
- Tattoos are unwelcome.
Now, I actually have a few tattoos and I have never once been denied entry or asked to leave. However, mine are all small and hidden by clothing. I have always felt a bit nervous that I could be asked to leave. If you have large, blatantly obvious tattoo’s, you’ll most likely be denied entry. The reason for this is that Japanese link tattoo’s to the Yakuza or gangster ties, and they’re seen as disrespectful.
If you are covered in tattoos, don’t fret! You can still enjoy the amazing onsen experience in a private onsen. Ask your hotel to point you in the right direction of the closest one.
- You’re allowed to stay as long as you like…
However, the recommended time to stay in an onsen is between 20 to 40 minutes. Think of it like a sauna. If you do start to feel dizzy, just sit up on the side for a moment to reduce your body heat a little. Make sure you drink lot’s of water pre and post onsen.
You might think I’m crazy and just a little bit weird for loving the Onsens. Just trust me, they are amazing and once you get past that first feeling of awkwardness when bathing naked with strangers – you’ll love it! 😍
That is a wrap on skiing in Japan guys. Obviously, each ski resort and village that you visit will have their differences, but this covers the overall gist of what to expect.
I’m hoping to nut out some more area specific posts on Japan soon, so keep an eye out for those. If you have any other questions about Japan, or specific to the areas Hakuba, Myoko, Niseko or Furano, feel free to reach out anytime or leave a comment below ☺️.