Where is the better skiing in Japan, Hakuba or Hokkaido? What are the main differences between these famous powder hubs of Japan? The differences may be subtle to most, but if you are reading this article, they probably mean a lot, especially if you are an advanced level skier or rider spending most of your time riding off-piste or in the backcountry. Read on for what we see as the main differences between Hakuba and Hokkaido and what it means for you on your hunt for Japanese powder this winter.
Access- Getting There
In terms of logistics, both locations are just as easy to get to. Hakuba located in the Japanese Alps, involves a flight to Tokyo (Haneda or Narita airports), and a bus, or combination of train and bus to arrive in the Hakuba valley. Expect travel times of 6-7 hours to get from Tokyo to your accommodation in Hakuba, depending on road conditions.
Getting to Hokkaido, involves a train or flight from Tokyo to Sapporo (Chitose airport), and then ground transport to a ski area on Hokkaido. Depending on where you are skiing, ground transfer times can vary from 1.5-3 hours and also can be influenced by winter weather.
Both Hakuba and Hokkaido are prime areas for chasing powder in Japan. These ski areas are well developed, and not off the beaten path by any means. Fortunately though, the terrain that guides strive to take you to, is away from the crowds.
There are an abundance of small off the beaten path ski areas in Japan. Keep checking back with us as we are constantly exploring Honshu and Hokkaido on the hunt for these little backcountry gems in to add to our Japan ski tours.
The same fabled Siberian Flow brings cold snow to both Hokkaido and and Honshu (the main island of Japan where Hakuba is located) mountains. This cold air, moves down from Siberia, crosses the warm Sea of Japan, and then hits the mountains of the Japanese Alps on Honshu, or Hokkaido. When the flow sets up favorably, low pressure systems sit in the Northwest Pacific and a constant NW flow brings steady amounts of precipitation for potentially days on end.
Depending on where the weather systems that drive the Siberian flow sit, is what normally determines which areas bear the brunt of the precipitation. Some years, Hokkaido sees the constant precipitation. Other years it is possible for Hokkaido to be drier, and Hakuba to be seeing regular snow. During some years, the snowfalls may be just as consistent in each place.
The good news is both Hakuba and Hokkaido can experience these weather patterns of slow consistent snowfall. Experiencing it is what we all come to Japan for! However, one major difference between the two locations is the potential for rain events, and more importantly the snow condition’s recovery from these rain events.
Winter Weather in Hakuba
Being located further south on the main island of Honshu, Hakuba is statistically subject to greater chances of rain events into the alpine. When the upper airflow shifts, warm air from the Philippines can invade and create temperature spikes, rain events, and spring like conditions at any point during the winter season. The good news, is that more often than not the warm air is quickly replaced by a Siberian flow, and snow begins again to return conditions to powder. Due to its proximity to the ocean and the effects of orographic lift, when the snow does turn on in Hakuba, it can really turn on. Large overnight snow events at cold temperatures are common. Also, as we talk more about later, the terrain can handle these larger snow events. Best time to ski in Hakuba? Choose January or February.
Winter Weather in Hokkaido
Hokkaido on the other hand, being located further North, is less susceptible to rain events, but unfortunately they are not impossible. These warm air events still affect the island, but not to the same degree as they can in the Japanese Alps. There are also areas of Hokkaido that due to their topography and proximity to the ocean, receive the large overnight snowfalls that can be seen in the Japanese Alps, but overall Hokkaido areas see slightly smaller (albeit consistent) amounts of precipitation in general. Best time to visit? January-mid March.
Ski Terrain in Japan
A little known fact is the around 70% of the country is mountainous. However, the topography varies considerably from regions, and between islands.
Terrain in Hakuba
Hakuba, is a mecca for big mountain terrain in Japan. It’s prime location in the Japanese Alps gives it climbable ski lines from as high as 9,185 feet. The top lifts of the valleys ski resorts range from 4,265 feet to around 5900 feet. With valley bottom sitting at around 2625 feet, this provides descents between 1500ft to 3900ft (1600m-1200m) from lifts, and up to 6500ft (or 2000m) if you have the weather and legs to ski from mountaintop!
Along with vertical relief, the Japanese Alps also have a great variety of terrain. Large alpine faces, ridge lines, couloirs, tree line glades, and an abundance of great steep tree skiing keeps a devoted following of Hakuba hardcore skiers and split boarders coming back year after year.
Suggested Hakuba tour
Terrain in Hokkaido
Hokkaido’s mountains are different in numerous ways. With the highest mountain in Hokkaido topping out at 7500 feet, all the mountains on this island are smaller than the Japanese Alps. However, this does not mean there are any shortage of areas to ski. Some prominent volcanoes provide the centers of backcountry ski activity on this island, and the greatest vertical relief (Yotei and Annapuri in the Niseko area, and the Daisetsuzan National Park volcanic chain in Central Hokkaido).
Much of the rest of the island provides tree covered mountainous terrain. Vertical relief is around 1500ft-2700ft, (500-900m) and typical topography is treed and more gentle than found around Hakuba. While there are areas with steeper riding in Hokkaido, visitors who prioritize Hokkaido come for its snow quality, and consistency rather than its ability to provide a variety in steep terrain.
Suggested Hokkaido tour
Experiencing the Culture
Both areas of Japan provide a very different cultural ski experience. Backcountry skiing and foreign skiers are flooding Japan these days. Skiing hotspots like Hakuba, and many areas of Hokkaido, are now bustling with local and foreign powder chasers every winter. Despite this popularity though, it is still possible to have a unique Japanese ski experience in both areas.
With the main island of Honshu historically being populated for a longer time, one does not have to wander far to delve deep into the wonders that Japanese history can provide. Temples, snow monkeys, historic onsens, and Samurai legends lie in and within a short distance from the Hakuba valley.
Since Hokkaido has been populated less time than the main island of Japan, finding places of historical interest are harder to find, but experiencing Hokkaido’s short but rich history is easy. Most popular skiing areas will take you though and around areas of farmlands and coastline from which the people of Hokkaido make their living. Larger Hokkaido cities such as Otaru our home base on our guided Samurai Adventure, provide a great insight on life on the coast. This along with Japan’s onsen culture is the heart of the Hokkaido experience.
Epic Pass Discounts
If you are a Epic Pass holder, there are some major advantages to considering Hakuba including free lift tickets. PowderQuest is offering Epic Pass holders $250 off our 2018/2019 guided tours to Hakuba. Get the details.