If you are researching where to go for the best snowboarding and skiing in Japan, you are in the right place.
With 500 plus ski resorts in a country made up of 6852 islands, discovering the best place to ski in Japan for advanced to experts can feel overwhelming.
Here we break down our favorite Japan ski resorts and backcountry destinations from Hakuba to Hokkaido. Discover the best powder skiing in Japan plus how to make that bucket list Japan ski trip reality.
Highlights we cover in the updated Japan ski guide:
- Our ranking of the best ski resorts in Japan for experts
- The best time to base your ski trip to Japan, including when not to go
- Skiing in Hakuba vs Hokkaido- terrain and snow quality
- What to expect with weather and snow conditions
- How to get there and make it all happen
Best Ski Resorts in Japan
There are over 500 ski resorts in Japan. Yes, more than the USA, a country 26 times larger than the land of the rising sun. Truly impressive.
You will find ski resorts near Tokyo, but most of the best winter destinations for experts are found on the island of Hokkaido and in the Nagano, Nigata and Iwate prefectures on the main island of Honshu.
Let’s start with ski resorts in Hokkaido.
Hokkaido Ski Resorts
Without a doubt, Hokkaido Japan receives some of the most consistent and driest powder on Earth. When it comes to Hokkaido ski destinations, most tourists flock to Niseko.
However, there are good reasons to skip Niseko all together. Many of our favorite zones for Japan powder skiing and snowboarding are far away from busy Niseko. We cover all of this in our updated guide to skiing in Hokkaido.
Curious on where to ski in Hakuba? That’s up next.
Hakuba Ski Resorts
The Hakuba Valley is home to 9 ski resorts and of course the famous Hakuba ski village.
While you will find online comparisons of Niseko vs Hakuba, in our opinion, skiing and snowboarding in Hakuba takes the prize. Especially if you are an expert. Bigger mountains, better spaced tree skiing and epic backcountry touring options.
We are currently updating this Hakuba section to include our ranking of the best ski resorts in Hakuba and other Nagano ski resorts for 2022. Check back in early February 2021 for our reviews.
For now, we invite you to continue reading to learn more about the snow, terrain and what to expect when snowboarding and skiing Japan.
While no place on Earth can guarantee powder, it’s hard to go wrong with any of these zones. From Hakuba to Hokkaido, chances are you will get to experience legendary Japow.
What Does Japow Mean Anyway?
The meaning of Japow is simple. The consistent dry powder snow found in Hokkaido and many Honshu Japan ski resorts and backcountry destinations.
Also referred to as japowder, the deep powder snow in Japan is quite possibly the driest powder snow on the planet. (Although New Mexico and central Chile’s ski resorts may put up a good debate.)
Best Skiing in Japan: Hakuba vs Hokkaido
The differences between these famous Japan powder skiing and snowboarding destinations may be subtle to most. But if you are reading this, they probably mean a lot. Especially if you are an advanced-expert skier or snowboarder spending most of your time riding powder, off-piste or in the backcountry.
Here you are going to find out what we see as the main differences between snowboarding and skiing in Hakuba vs Hokkaido, and what it means for you on your hunt for Japanese powder skiing this winter.
Let’s start by covering the Japan ski season- When and more importantly, when not to ski Japan.
Best Time For Skiing in 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. It’s the time to snowboard and ski the best powder in Japan.
Some ski areas can receive 50 feet of snow (15m) or more per season on a big year. While you can find powder in late December and early January, the best time to ski powder in Japan is mid-January through February.
Here’s our month by month detailed breakdown on the best time to ski Japan.
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 in Hokkaido and Nagano is deep enough to cover most of the sasa (dwarf bamboo) and the tree skiing starts to open up. You also get to hashtag #japanuary #japow #japowder to annoy your jealous friends back home.
Ski Japan 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 and tighter tree branches get covered. 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.
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.
By late March, Japan is pretty much done. Sure you can do some ski mountaineering on the volcanoes, but powder days are pretty much long gone. Time to start planning new powder destinations- like skiing South America from July to September.
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 Skiing Japan During Chinese New Year?
You may have read about Chinese New Year and the increase in crowds at the Japanese ski resorts. After multiple 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 or guided backcountry tours early and you will have little issues except the occasional restaurant overbooking and parking.
Upcoming Chinese New Years:
- February 12, 2021 (year of the ox)
- February 1, 2022 (year of the tiger)
- January 22, 2023 (year of the rabbit)
- February 10, 2024 (year of the dragon)
Japan Snow and Winter Weather
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.
What area gets the most snow?
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 powder snowfall. Experiencing this phenomenon is what we all come to Japan for!
Hokkaido vs Hakuba Ski Terrain: What to Expect
A little known fact is that around 70% of Japan 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 as high as 9185ft. The top lifts of the valley’s ski resorts range from 4265ft to around 5900ft.
With valley bottom sitting at around 2625ft, this provides descents between 1500ft to 3900ft (1600m-1200m) from the ski lifts, and up to 6500ft (or 2000m) if you have the weather and legs to ski from mountaintop after a backcountry tour!
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 hardcore Hakuba skiers and split boarders coming back season after season.
Epic Pass Discounts in Hakuba
If you own an Epic Pass, there are some major advantages to considering skiing Hakuba including free lift tickets. Learn about the Epic Pass discount.
Hokkaido’s Ski Terrain
Hokkaido’s mountains are different in numerous ways. With the highest mountain in Hokkaido topping out at 7500ft (2291m), all the mountains on this island are smaller than the Japanese Alps. However, this does not mean there are any shortage of areas or powder 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 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 powder snow quality and consistency rather than its ability to provide a variety in steep terrain.
Hokkaido powder is some of the best in the world and generally speaking is still not getting tracked out too quickly. One exception- Niseko.
Niseko powder skiing and snowboarding is indeed high quality. Unfortunately Niseko has become a total zoo for powder hounds and partiers. We prefer to skip the Niseko powder frenzy all together and head to less crowded ski resorts in Hokkaido. The powder in locations out of Otaru and Furano is just as plentiful and dry and you don’t have to fight for fresh tracks like you do at the Niseko resorts.
Looking for a Hokkaido ski guide or backcountry powder trip a bit more off the beaten track?
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 Hakuba’s winter season.
The good news, is that more often than not the warm air is quickly replaced by a Siberian flow, and the snow in Hakuba quickly returns to the famous Japanese 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 mid 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 ski resorts see slightly smaller (albeit consistent) amounts of precipitation in general.
Best time to ski powder in Hokkaido? January-early/mid March. January and February are the prime months for deep powder and guided Hokkaido ski tours.
Getting To Japan
OK, so we’ve convinced you that Japan powder skiing is a bucket list adventure. Now let’s discuss how to get there for your Japow vacation:
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, home to 9 Nagano ski resorts is located in the north Japanese Alps. Getting to the Hakuba powder 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 5-7 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.
Getting to Hokkaido’s Ski Resorts
Leaning towards skiing powder in Hokkaido? 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.
Travel tip: If you want to skip flying into Tokyo, there are international flights direct into CTS. Check out Hawaiian Airlines direct from Hawaii. Other options are international connections via Hong Kong on Air China straight into CTS.
From Chitose getting to your choice of Hokkaido ski areas is not too challenging. Companies like Resort Liner offer coach bus services direct to most powder meccas and 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)
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, sidecountry and backcountry terrain from January to February.
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