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Caitlin See is an avid snowboarder and regularly travels to Japan in search of experiencing first tracks — but lacks the discipline to wake up that early.
Japan is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations for snow lovers everywhere, after its fall from grace in the late 90s. Visitation levels to the country's 500+ ski fields reached a feverish pitch in the late 90s before the burst of Japan's economic bubble saw visitation levels to ski resorts nearly halve up to 2011. But the past decade has seen things shift again towards an upswing as Japan embraces a huge spike of international tourism.
There is little wonder why. Japan is inexpensive, safe, easy to get around, and the snow is second to none. During my most recent trip to Nozawa Onsen, near Nagano, we were regularly getting snowfall of 50 centimetres or more on top of a five-metre base every night. And because the temperatures in Japan stay so low, you’ll have soft, dry, fluffy powder to play on all day.
The ski season in Japan offers you a choice of hundreds of ski resorts across the country's four main islands, but the biggest and best are arguably on Honshu and Hokkaido.
On the main island of Honshu, the biggest region for ski resorts is the Nagano. Within this region, Hakuba is undoubtedly the most popular skiing destination for Australians, boasting nine resorts, 135 lifts, and over 200 runs — a giant snowy playground!
However if the beaten track is not your thing, there are many other great ski areas within Nagano. If you are after a more traditional Japanese cultural experience, I recommend Nozawa Onsen — an old town full of traditional Japanese buildings and natural hot springs, as well as long wide ski runs, lots of snow covered trees, and a more peaceful, laid back vibe.
Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan, and experiences massive snow falls during its winter season. Niseko Resort, near Sapporo in Hokkaido, is a favourite with Aussies. In fact, you may find it hard pressed to hear anyone speaking Japanese there. Niseko is the place to be if you want skiing with a side of nightlife, as the resort has several funky bars that will keep partying into the wee hours.
If you’re an experienced skier or snowboarder staying at Niseko, be sure make a day trip to Rusutsu resort for some more challenging (and less crowded) terrain.
The ski season in Japan runs from mid-late December through to late March or early April.
“The earth lay white under the night sky,” wrote Yasunari Kawabata in his 1956 novel Snow Country. Japan is famous for its historically significant snowfalls, with some places seeing over 40 feet of snow per year.
There have been warnings from scientists that we should expect these falls to become less common and less heavy in a more volatile climate, but with places like Niseko seeing some of the largest dumps of snow in the world, this is still one of the best locations in the world for experiencing the weightless freedom of powder skiing.
From Tokyo, the Nagano region is just a one hour journey on the Shinkansen (bullet train). From Narita airport, you will need to get the train to the city, and catch the Shinkansen to Nagano station. From Nagano there are connecting buses to each of the resorts.
Train travel in Japan is a cultural experience in itself. Enjoy the journey! If it’s in your budget, splash out for the first class carriage – it’s worth the expense.
The bus system in Nagano operates by paying when you get off, not when you get on. Take a ticket when you board the bus, and then when you get off, the driver will calculate your fare based on how many stops you’ve travelled. Be sure to carry loose change to pay for your trip.
Getting to the north island of Hokkaido is a little bit more of a mission, but is well worth it for the guaranteed dumping of powder throughout winter. After flying into Tokyo, you will need to get a connecting flight to Sapporo, and then a long winding bus ride to Niseko. The bus trip can take up to three hours when there is heavy snow, so make sure you bring snacks.
Use the opportunity of a stop over to spend a couple of days in Tokyo, one of the most exciting and culturally rich cities in the world.
Don’t lug your own ski bag – take advantage of the Japanese’s impeccably efficient luggage transfer services. Just look for the black cat logo (Yamato), which you’ll see all over airports and train stations. This service is cheap and speedy — when I used this on the way to Niseko, my luggage arrived before I did, and was ready waiting for me at my accommodation.
Japan is cold in winter. And if you’re chasing a good run, you’ll probably find yourself on a flimsy chair lift in the middle of some serious wind. And if you’re not properly prepared, your face, fingers and morale may take a good beating.
When you factor in the wind chill, the temperature at the summit can get down to an epic -30C or so. The biggest tip here is to layer, and layer well. I’m talking multiple layers of technical garments to protect yourself from the elements.
Ready to hit the slopes? Check out our range of ski and snow gear before you go.
Aside from the delicious pow-pow, one of the best things about a snow trip to Japan is the food! There’s nothing better than coming in from a long day of skiing or snowboarding to a steaming hot bowl of ramen and a $5 pint of Japanese beer.
Depending on the size of the resort, there will be several options for mid and post-run snacks and meals, most often very affordable. There's also some great cocktail bars for the perfect après imbibements. Here’s some of my favourites.
Bar Gyu AKA the Fridge Door. Look for a literal fridge door among the snow covered street and enter for cocktails and winter warmers.
The Barn. For those nights you want a nice meal, The Barn does French cuisine. After dinner, visit the cocktail bar upstairs.
JAM Cafe Bar. A cozy izakaya.
Haus St Anton. A delicious coffee, and ice cream. Make sure you try the different flavours of hot steamed buns from the vending cart outside.
The Craft Room. For craft beers, and try a chuhai (a refreshing canned beverage) to really get your night started!
The big ski resorts like Niseko and Hakuba have plenty of accommodation options, ranging from cheap hostels to large 5-star hotels.
If you opt for a more traditional resort like Nozawa Onsen, I recommend staying in a ryokan for a traditional Japanese experience. Ryokans are Japanese guest houses, involving tatami mats on the floor instead of beds, and usually the owners will provide traditional Japanese meals.
For your rest days, there are plenty of other wintery activities to enjoy in Japan.
A big part of Japanese ski culture is the use of hot springs, or onsens. Most ski towns will have onsens, and it is traditional to soak in the hot water after a long day on the mountain. The village of Nozawa Onsen has many public bathhouse that are free to use.
Tourists are welcome, but be warned that it is culturally expected that bathers be completely naked. Some bath houses are mixed whilst others are either for men or women only. Onsens within hotels are usually a little more westernised, so you may be able to wear clothing.
If staying in the Nagano region, a visit to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is a must do. You’ll see the monkeys bathing and playing in the natural hot springs amongst the mountains.
Skiing in Japan is very affordable. The lift passes in Nozawa Onsen are only $40 per day, compared to $120+ at some Australian resorts.
The Australian dollar is usually worth around 80 yen. Prices for food and beverages area comparable to Australia, or slightly cheaper, as is accommodation.
Airlines often do deals and packages for travel during the ski season, and you should be able to get return flights for under $800.
Train travel is the easiest way to get around Japan, however be wary of the cost of this - a reserved seat on the shinkansen between cities can set you back around $200 AUD.
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