On the mountain in Japan
With consistent snowfall, world-class powder, and a modern lift infrastructure, the Japanese are spoiled when it comes to ski terrain.
The winds from Siberia carry a seasonal snowfall that eventually settles on the mountain ranges of Japan, creating a yearly winter wonderland. So be sure to pack your snow boots, as we’re heading to Tokyo to discover three of the most impressive resorts near the capital of the land of the rising sun.
Niseko: pine and bamboo forest runs
Each winter, the fresh snow found in the mountain resorts of Hokkaido attracts many winter sport afficionados. It’s not uncommon for backcountry areas to be covered in chest-high powder, and the runs through the pine and bamboo forests see good coverage throughout the long season, which stretches from November to May.
The region’s four resorts have separate but interlinked ski areas, all accessible from a single lift pass. The modern gondolas and chairlifts keep skiers moving, so you won’t have to worry about long wait times. During the day, the views are dominated by Mount Yōtei on the horizon—a half-scale replica of Mount Fuji.
After sundown, the Grand Hirafu ski area offers extensive night skiing for anyone that still has strength in their legs. The tree-lined Holiday run skirts along the western edge of the resort and offers incredible views of the town below. When you finally slide back into your hotel to unclip your skis, you have your choice of sushi spots and traditional omakase restaurants to pick from, thanks to the rapidly expanding food scene. niseko-village.com
Zao Onsen: hot springs and snow ghosts
Often overshadowed by Hokkaido, travelers are slowly beginning to discover the beauty of northeastern Japan. Zao Onsen is the largest resort in this part of Japan, offering 25 slopes and over 9km of pristine pistes that novice to expert skiers alike can enjoy. Located in Yamagata Prefecture on the volcanic slopes of Mount Zaō, this resort is famous for its surreal Juhyo—rows of snow-covered pines that form a gathering of ice sculptures. If you’re not confident enough to race between them on your skis, the cable car ride to the summit can offer you a breathtaking panoramic view of the range.
In town, it’s all about soaking in the hot springs. There are plenty of bathhouses to choose from, and the sulfur-rich waters are said to help both hypertension and skin irritations. While none of this has been medically proven, the warm waters are sure to at least soothe the aches and pains of a long day on the slopes. zao-spa.or.jp
Shiga Kogen: perfect powder and untouched backcountry
The largest resort in Japan has seen a lot of investment since hosting major events like the Women’s Downhill and Super-G in the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympics. Divided into 18 ski areas interlinked by a network of quality lifts and gondolas, you’ll need at least three days to conquer all 90 runs.
Although the resort is more sheltered from those Siberian winds we mentioned earlier, the quality of the snow remains high throughout the season. And although there’s a run for every ability, the intermediate and advanced skiers are likely the ones that will get the most from their stay. If you’re tempted to hit the backcountry, know that you’ll be required to hire an official guide to show you the way—an expense that’s well worth it for the untouched snowscape and feeling of pure seclusion.
Off the slopes, life in the major town of Sun Valley revolves around rejuvenating dips in public hot springs and partying in the many lively izakayas (bars) as well as the booming food scene. The region is home to the famous Jigokudani Monkey Park, where Japanese macaques spend their days relaxing in the hot natural pools. If you’re looking to make friends with the local macaques, there are plenty of guided tours that will be happy to make an introduction. shigakogen-ski.com