Hakuba Versus Hokkaido: Where’s The Best Skiing in Japan?

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Snowboarding and skiing Japan is HUGE right now and it’s only getting bigger.

The question is:

Where is the best skiing in Japan, Hakuba or Hokkaido?

What are the main differences between these famous powder skiing destinations?

The differences may be subtle to most, but if you are reading this, 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.

Here you are going to find out what we see as the main differences between Hakuba and Hokkaido and what it means for you on your hunt for Japanese powder skiing this winter. 

Let’s dive deeper into where to find the best skiing in Japan.

The 2020 Japan Ski Guide

Snowboarding and skiing in Japan is on every serious powder chasers radar. Not a day goes by without another blog or movie hyping the incredible powder snow conditions, tree skiing, rich Japanese culture and history.

From December to March, social media channels ooze Japan ski and snowboard photos and teaser video clips of every pro skier and rider on the planet chest deep in legendary Hokkaido powder or slaying steep alpine lines in Hakuba, home to the Japanese Alps.

If you are sick of scanning Instagram stories and considering a trip to Japan this winter, you are in the right place.

With 500 plus ski destinations in a country made up of 6852 islands, deciding where to snowboard or ski in Japan can feel overwhelming.

Japan’s Ski Resort Popularity

Both Hakuba and Hokkaido are prime areas for chasing powder in Japan. Most ski resorts are well developed, and not off the beaten path by any means.

Fortunately though, if you are willing to explore, know where you are going or join a guided group you can still escape to plenty of fresh tracks. The terrain that professional ski guides strive to take you to, is away from the crowds.

There are an abundance of small off the beaten path ski resorts in Japan. Keep checking back with us as we are constantly exploring Honshu and Hokkaido on the hunt for these little backcountry gems to add to our popular Japan ski tours.

skiing in hakuba vs hokkaido

When to Ski Japan

The ski season in Japan runs from early/mid December and can stretch into early May in some areas. From January to March, the snow is deep. Very deep. Some ski areas can receive 50 feet or more per season on a big year.

The best time to ski in Japan really depends on what you hope to get out of your trip. However we assume you are here because you are an advanced rider, love powder and want some of those deep days like you’ve been blasted with on Instagram over the past ski season.

Japan in January AKA #Japanuary

Go in January to catch the legendary snowstorms that roll off the Sea of Japan. Generally by mid January, the snow pack is deep enough to be covering most of the sasa (dwarf bamboo) and the tree skiing starts to open up. You also get to hashtag #japanuary to annoy your jealous friends back home.

February

Go in February as the storms continue, the snow pack is deep and the backcountry truly opens up. The tree skiing really turns on as well. As the snowpack builds the lower, tighter branches are covered and the spacing really opens up allowing for better continuous fall line runs in the trees, even in Hokkaido where the trees are tighter compared to Hakuba.

March

Go in March to catch the tail end of true winter storms, more daylight and endless backcountry touring options in the national parks and high peaks finally appearing from the clouds. March experiences warmer days as well, which can be a nice change from the frigid days you get mid-winter, especially in Hokkaido where temps can drop to -10F (-20C) or colder. Do however expect a higher chance of catching a rain event in March.

When Not to Ski in Japan

There is one month we suggest not booking a ski trip to Japan.

December should be avoided unless you are happy sticking to the groomed runs and dealing with Christmas and New Years Eve crowds. Niseko in Hokkaido is an absolute zoo. In fact Niseko is becoming a zoo most of the season and we tend to avoid this area all together. There are plenty of other places to ski in Japan.

Generally the snowpack in December is not deep enough for quality backcountry or off piste skiing and the tree skiing is still very low tide. The 2017 ski season was an exception, but overall it is best to wait until the snow bases build in January.

What About Chinese New Year?

You may have read about Chinese New Year and the increase in crowds at the Japanese ski resorts. After 6 seasons guiding ski tours in Japan, we can say we rarely see Chinese tourists skiing off piste or in the backcountry.

You will certainly notice an increase in prices, resort traffic, restaurants and lift lines, but if you are here for the resort off-piste powder skiing and backcountry touring, you simply make sure you book your lodging early and you will have little issues except the occasional restaurant overbooking and parking.

Upcoming Chinese New Years:

  • January 25, 2020 (year of the rat)
  • February 12, 2021 (year of the ox)
  • February 1, 2022 (year of the tiger)

Access- Getting To Japan

Getting to Japan is quite simple from North America as most major airlines have flights to Tokyo’s two main airports; Haneda and Narita. Some flights connect in Hong Kong, but it is pretty easy to book direct flights from Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Washington DC and New York. Check Google Flights for good options.

Getting to Hakuba’s Ski Resorts

Hakuba with 9 ski resorts is located in the north Japanese Alps. Getting there 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 weather and road conditions.

You have options ranging from shared and private ground transfers, car rentals and trains. 

Reliable transfer companies are Chuo Taxi and Nagano Snow Shuttle.

Getting to Hokkaido’s Ski Resorts

Upon arrival to Tokyo, to get to most Hokkaido ski resorts it is best to book a domestic flight to Sapporo-Chitose airport (CTS airport code). Your international flight may offer a connection with ANA. Or book a separate ticket. Low cost Japanese airlines offer good fares; Jetstar, Peach and Vanilla airlines, but watch the strict baggage allowance restrictions or you will be paying extra fees.

From Chitose getting to your choice of ski area is not too challenging. Companies like Resort Liner offer coach bus services direct to most ski areas including Niseko, Rusutsu, Furano, Kiroro, Kokusai, Tomamu, and more.

Depending on where you are snowboarding or skiing, ground transfer times can vary from 1.5-3 hours and of course can be influenced by Hokkaido’s famous winter weather. (AKA heavy snowfall)

Driving in Japan

Rental cars with all-wheel drive and snow tires are available to rent from the airport. Winter driving kits are pretty standard when renting in Hokkaido, but in Tokyo you will want to double check what you are renting.

If you go with renting a car you need an international drivers license. Oh, you’ll be driving on the left side of the road with the drivers seat on the right side of the vehicle.

Note: Everyone loves the Toyota 4×4 10 seater vans. In fact you probably will dream up ways to ship one home, but you will need a D-Stamp in your international drivers license to rent and drive one here in Japan.

getting to japan ski resorts

Snow and Winter Weather of Japan

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 (or is it East Sea?), 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.

Snowing multiple inches per hour, all day is a pretty common experience throughout Japan.

Some winters, Hokkaido sees the constant precipitation. Other years it is possible for Hokkaido to be drier, and Hakuba to be seeing regular snow. During some winters, 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 Hokkaido and Hakuba is the potential for rain events, and more importantly the snow condition’s recovery from these rain events.

Winter Weather and Snow Conditions 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 for powder? Go in mid-January to late February.

Winter Weather and Snow 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.

Hokkaido Snow Report

Is it snowing in Hokkaido? Chances are yes, but to stay on top of weather and snowfall in Hokkaido here are a few useful resources:

Best time to ski in Hokkaido? January-mid March.

Ski Terrain in Japan

A little known fact is that around 70% of the country is mountainous. However, the topography varies considerably from regions, and between islands.

Skiable Terrain in Hakuba and The Japanese Alps

Hakuba, is a mecca for big mountain terrain in Japan. Its prime location in the Japanese Alps gives it climbable ski lines from as high as 9,185ft. The top lifts of the valleys ski resorts range from 4,265ft to around 5,900ft.

With valley bottom sitting at around 2,625ft, this provides descents between 1,500ft to 3,900ft (1600m-1200m) from lifts, and up to 6,500ft (or 2,000m) if you have the weather and legs to ski from mountaintop!  

Epic Pass Discounts in Hakuba

If you are an Epic Pass holder, there are some major advantages to considering Hakuba including free lift tickets. PowderQuest is offering Epic Pass holders $250 off our guided tours to Hakuba. 

Big Hakuba alpine terrain awaits those eager to explore in the Japanese Alps. 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.

What about the locals? Pure talent and a lot of soul. If this beautiful film by Travis Rice featuring Nagano local and pro rider Shin Biyajima does not make you buy a plane ticket to Japan right now, nothing will.

Hokkaido Ski Terrain 

 

Hokkaido’s mountains are different in numerous ways. With the highest mountain in Hokkaido topping out at 7,500ft (2,291m), 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  (Taisetsuzan) volcanic chain in Central Hokkaido.

Much of the rest of the island provides tree covered mountainous terrain. Vertical relief is around 1,500ft-2,700ft, (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.  

hokkaido ski resort backcountry access

Skiing in Hokkaido: Where to Go

Different from Hakuba where all 9 ski resorts can be reached within a drive no longer than 20 minutes, skiing Hokkaido involves a bit more time and research deciding on where to ride on this 32,222 square mile island (Slightly smaller than the USA state of Maine).

While Hokkaido ski terrain is generally not steep, the deep and dry Japan snow is legendary providing one of the best snow experiences on the planet. But you need to select your destinations wisely.

We say skip Niseko all together and explore some lesser known ski resorts with good backcountry access.

8 Alternative Hokkaido Ski Resorts to Niseko

There is a lot more to skiing in Hokkaido than crowded Niseko. Even the once off the radar resort of Kiroro is becoming too crowded.

Skip them and check out some of these alternative ski resorts.

Furano Ski Resort

Furano is a town in central Hokkaido (25,000 population) with an excellent ski resort and plenty of bars and restaurants allowing you to experience Japanese hospitality and culture.


At the ski area you’ll enjoy some of the best tree skiing in Hokkaido, with easy to access steeper faces and powder filled gullies. The cold temperatures keep snow dry and when it’s on, it’s hard to beat.

If you have even been to Niseko, you will notice the distinct lack of crowds here despite the growth in recent popularity. Express ski lifts take you to the top in a little over ten minutes accessing over 3180 vertical feet of powder runs along with very good off-piste terrain.

I’ve been skiing for over 50 years, from Iceland to Chile and everywhere in between, and I have never seen snow like Hokkaido.

Andy Greenberg

Tomamu Ski Resort

Tomamu hosts arguably the best in-bounds powder skiing in central Hokkaido with 11 ski lifts to access the varied terrain. Originally the Hokkaido ski resort mainly catered to the rich Japanese and Chinese tourists due to its’ billion dollar infrastructure however recently some great advanced/expert off piste terrain and touring options have opened up.

While there is no super steep ski terrain here, the deep snow, awesome tree skiing and backcountry touring options make up for it. 1 hour drive from the town of Furano.

Kamui Links Ski Resort

Kamui Links is a small ski resort with generally plenty of fresh tracks, located just over an hour north of Furano. 7 lifts (one gondola and 6 double chair lifts) accessing powder filled trees and gullies, known for low crowds. Kamui has one of Japan’s most open ski area policies (as far as Japanese skiing goes) allowing us to explore even deeper. Cold temperatures and dry snow make this place a must visit.

Sahoro Ski Resort

Fun in-bounds skiing and snowboarding along with some outstanding tree runs at this off the beaten track resort. Options for long tree run descents in an area very few people know about and some really nice backcountry ski touring.

Mt. Racey Ski Resort

Another little known Japanese ski area that is ideal when the storms arrive from the South. While some other local ski areas get shut down due to weather, this small off the grid destination is a great option.

snowboarding in hokkaido @markwelshphoto
@markwelshphoto

Asahidake Volcano

Hokkaido’s tallest peak, Asahidake is known as the “playground of the gods” with over 45 feet of snow a season on average. You need to base your trip around a weather window on this active volcano  to explore this deep backcountry powder mecca in the Daisetsuzan National Park. While certainly  no secret spot and quite busy on a powder day, it offers a great mix of alpine and classic Japan tree riding.

Kokusai Ski Resort

Recognized for some of the driest snow in the area as well as one of the deepest snow packs, this small ski resort only has 7 marked runs and 2 gondolas and a quad chair, yet the off-piste and backcountry terrain is where you’ll be focused. All accessed from a short tour and traverse off the top gondola.

Teine Ski Resort

Located near the port town of Otaru, the views from Teine ski area are outstanding, overlooking Sapporo and the Sea of Japan. Focus on the off-piste terrain and fun tree runs that are mainly north facing and quite often very deep! Some of the steepest skiing in Hokkaido is right here.

Experiencing the Rich Culture of Japan

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. To learn more about Japanese culture, check out this extensive guide to culture, customs, and etiquette. Learn more >

Temples, snow monkeys, historic onsens, and Samurai legends lie in and within a short distance from the Hakuba valley.

onsen in 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 through 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.

Guided Powder Adventures to Japan

Still undecided where to ski in Japan? Hakuba or Hokkaido? Check out these guided tours focused on the best off-piste and backcountry terrain from January to February.

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