When and where to ski in Japan
Just like anywhere else in the world, no one really knows when or where the best snow will be in any given season until that season arrives.
As the chart below shows, the best snow can usually be guaranteed between mid January and late February. However, with the highest probability of pow comes the highest amount of crowds--but this only applies at places like Hakuba and Niseko which both have a high foreigner population. Also remember that "long lift lines" in Japan means any wait of 10-15 minutes.
When is the best time to ski in Japan?
* Long lift waits only apply at Hakuba or Niseko. Generally at other resorts, this period will experience long lift waits only during weekends and holidays. A long wait is 10-15 minutes, except at the Hirafu base of Niseko and Happo base of Hakuba where it may be longer.
Where is the best place to ski in Japan?
As you would expect, this is a highly debatable question that mostly comes down to personal preference, who you're traveling with, and whether you're looking for the best pow, the best steeps, or the least crowds. Japan offers a variety of skiable terrain and each area has a specialty that it brings to the table.
- Niseko gets the most snow with very good quality. As the chart shows, the trade-off is steepness. While you'll have plenty of pow in this region, you'll find yourself doing a lot of short laps. If you're a snowboarder, you'll really need to be on your game to not get stuck in waste-deep pow every 10 minutes.
- Niseko is a great resort area for an introduction to riding Japow because the tourist infrastructure is second to none in the Japow-scene. Any information you want on Niseko in English can be found with a quick online search. The trade-off of this kind of accessibility is that it also has the most tourist crowds and is the lowest ranked on the "Authentically Japanese" scale. If you're from North America, think of Niseko as Cancun, Mexico. If you're from Aus or NZ, think of Niseko as Bali.
- The crowds that Niseko attracts also means the mountain gets tracked out really fast compared to other Japow options, so on a pow day you've got to be first at the lift line and you'll probably be finished by lunch.
- Niseko is also very consistent. If you're planning an international ski vacation, you'd have to be very unlucky to strike out here. Even a bad year at Niseko is still a good year by the standards of most people.
- If you're into backcountry touring, Niseko has lots of options and will keep you entertained for a long time. None of the touring is very steep, but in terms of avalanche safety, sometimes you don't really want the steepness anyways.
- Niseko also has a strong Apres scene and lots of non-skiing activities to keep the family (or the girlfriend/boyfriend) entertained while you shred the slopes.
Bottom Line: If you're looking for the best quality powder, with the best apres scene, with the best non-ski activities for the non-skiers in your life, OR if you're traveling alone and looking to meet other skiers who speak English at bars, hotel/hostels, or on the hill, Niseko ranks highest.
- Hakuba gets the award for the steepest big mountain skiing in Japan. Located in the Japan Alps, there is no shortage of vertical here. The trade-off here is that the snow quality isn't usually as good as in Hokkaido so you'll find the powder to be a bit more dense here.
- While the mountain still gets crowds, its definitely less than in Niseko. Also unlike Niseko, there's a pretty big population of local Japanese skiers who come up on the weekend so the lift lines are noticeably affected on Saturdays and Sundays.
- Because Hakuba is a destination visited by locals, you can find more authentic lodgings and experiences in Hakuba, but they won't be immediately apparent by searching the internet in English.
- At Hakuba, when the snow gods deliver, they DELIVER and, unlike in Niseko, you'll have the vertical you need to have the best day of your life. But when the gods don't deliver it can be pretty rough. Compared to Niseko, Hakuba tends to have more of a moody relationship with its snow, although on average its usually not a problem.
Nozawa Onsen Area
A video made by one of our clients in the 2016 season, used with permission
Northern Central Hokkaido Area
Ski areas including Furano, Asahidake, and Kamui
- Northern central Hokkaido has the best quality snow in Japan, but the trade-off is that it doesn't usually have the same quantity of snow as Niseko or Hakuba. But when the snow gods deliver, they deliver vapor snow so fine and so dry that it will just evaporate as you ride it. The feeling is truly incredible.
- Much like Niseko, Northern Central Hokkaido doesn't have the gnarly terrain and steeps that you want, but it can make up for it in other ways.
- For destinations in this region including Kamui, Asahidake, Tokachidake (which is only a touring area) and Kurodake there is basically no tourist infrastructure and no good public transportation option so you'll have to rent a car and look up some business hotels.
- Furano is a great resort and ski town with good tourist infrastructure, a moderate apres scene (although a bit spread-out) and a good selection of restaurants and bars (again, slightly spread out so you'll have to walk to get to most, even if you're located in the ski town).
- Good touring options in this region are basically limited to Tokachidake, which is accessible from Furano by car or by booking a tour.
Northern Honshu (Tohoku Area)
Resorts including: Geto, Appi Kogen, Hakkoda, Tazawako, Hachimantai, etc
Resorts including: Geto, Appi Kogen, Hakkoda, Tazawako, Hachimantai, etc
- Tohoku has a lot to offer, but its a bit spread-out. Unlike other ski towns where you can base yourself in one place and hit other resorts nearby, Tohoku requires more planning, a car, and knowing what you're doing. The reward if you put in the effort? Empty ski hills with just you and your buddies shredding the good stuff. Its like the movie "I am Legend" with Will Smith, but for skiing. Japow used to have the reputation of these kinds of empty slopes, but most places are now far more busy from ski-tourists. Luckily Tohoku remains largely unchanged for now.
- The snow may not be as plentiful or as high quality as other places in Japan, but having a private ski mountain to yourself with no competition can be worth it. Plus even if it hasn't snowed in 4 days, there'll be plenty of freshies all around so long as the temperatures have stayed favorable.
- We're biased here at JST, but we think joining a tour is the best way to experience this region given its logistical and language hurdles, info on our Frontier Explorer tour here.
- Take the snow quality of Hakuba, replace the extreme steep terrain with nice mellow tree lines, then increase the quantity of the snow, and boom, you've got Myoko. Myokyo is also less discovered than Hakuba (read: less competition for snow), with less tourist infrastructure and less appres, but this isn't a problem; its a feature.
- The tourist infrastructure is limited but if you book lodging through one of the few western accommodations, they'll give you instructions in English on how to access Myoko. The appres scene is limited to a few restaurants and bars in this very small ski town, but its quiet, beautiful and very powdery when its on.