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 waist deep in legendary Hokkaido powder or slaying steep lines in Hakuba, home to the Japanese Alps. If you are sick of scanning Instagram and considering a trip to Japan this winter, you are in the right place.
Cool Fact: Did you know Japan is made up of approximately 6,852 islands?
Quick Links to Snowboard and Ski Trips in Japan
A guided Japan ski trip is a great way to quickly access the off-piste and backcountry terrain with certified ski guides while having all your travel logistics such as lodging, transportation, lift tickets, restaurants etc managed by an experienced tour operator.
Guided powder tours to Hokkaido
All guided ski tours to Japan
When to ski Japan
The ski season in Japan runs from early 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 years.
Go in January to catch the legendary snowstorms that roll off the Sea of Japan. Generally by mid January, the snow pack in 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.
Go in February as the storms continue, the snow pack is deep and the backcountry really 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.
What about Chinese New Year?
You may have read about Chinese New Year and the increase in crowds. After 5 seasons guiding tours in Japan, we can say we never see Chinese tourists skiing off piste or in the backcountry. You will notice an increase in resort traffic, restaurants and lift lines, but if you are here for the resort powder skiing and backcountry, you simply make sure you book your lodging early and you will have no issues. Chinese New Year in 2019 is February 5th.
Go in March to catch the tail end of true winter storms, more day light and endless backcountry touring options. March experiences warmer days as well, which can be a nice change from the frigid days you get mid-winter, especially in Hokkaido.
Thanks to Eric Pollard and our friends at Nimbus Independent for providing us this video from their Japan ski trip and capturing the soul of tree skiing in Japan. Don’t miss their masterpiece After The Sky Falls, one of the best ski movies out in recent years.
When not to book a Japan ski trip
December should be avoided unless you are happy sticking to the groomed runs and dealing with Christmas and New Years Eve crowds. 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.
Where to go skiing in Japan
With 500 plus ski destinations, deciding where to ski in Japan can feel overwhelming. If it is your first trip and you do not speak Japanese, Hakuba and some of the main areas on the island of Hokkaido can be recommended. Access is easy from Tokyo, you will find more Engish speaking locals. There are a number of very good off-piste and backcountry tour options where you can just disconnect, enjoy your vacation and feel assured your guides will get you to the best powder skiing in Japan. Local culture and good food? That’s all included.
If you need help deciding between Hokkaido and Hakuba and do not have time to ski or snowboard both areas in one vacation, check out our Hakuba versus Hokkaido ski guide.
When packing for a snowboard/ski trip to Japan, you want to bring everything you would on any other snow trip, however you will want fatter skis that turn well in tight trees and float in deep dry powder. 110-120 waist is a good range.
Ski runs in the Japanese resorts can be short and not as steep (with the exception of Hakuba) compared to what you may have experienced in Europe, South America or North America. Due to the shorter runs and smaller size of many of the ski areas, it does get tracked out pretty quickly. At least at the most popular ski areas like Niseko and Hakuba.
Touring skis or a splitboard with skins allow you to explore a few laps in the resort before heading out of bounds into the Japanese sidecountry and backcountry.
You will also want to be prepared for very cold weather and heavy snow. It is quite common to be skiing while it is snowing multiple inches per hour for hours at a time. Japan, especially Hokkaido, is quite possibly one of the coldest places we have skied. Days can touch -5F to -15F and despite being known as the land of the rising sun, the sun rarely makes an appearance. When the sun does decide to pop out, it is generally not for long. Temperatures spike quickly on sunny days so warm yet easy to swap layers is paramount when preparing for your day in the mountains.
How to get there
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, DC and New York.
Upon arrival to Tokyo, to get to Hokkaido it is best to book a domestic flight to Chitose although in 2018 a bullet train was introduced making train travel a great option. If you are skiing the main island on Honshu, you have options ranging from private ground transfers, car rentals and trains. If you go with renting a car you need an international drivers license. Be sure to rent with all wheel drive and snow tires. Oh, did we mention you’ll be driving on the left side of the road with the drivers seat on the right side of the vehicle?
Do I need a visa to visit Japan?
Visas are not required for USA, Canada, UK, EU, NZ, or Australian passport holders entering Japan for less than 90 days for tourism.
Suggested Snowboard and Ski Trips to Japan
Professionally guided lift assisted ski touring trips for advanced to expert skiers and snowboarders. Each Japan ski trip has a maximum of 8 guests and is focused on getting you to that legendary Japanese powder you have been dreaming about.