Japan Powder Skiing (Japow)
The secret is out. Japan has some of the best powder on the planet. Not only that, but it is also incredibly consistent. In January and February, the Northern island of Japan, Hokkaido, gets hammered with fresh snow. During the hight of the season, it snows more often than not—averaging 15-20 meters (590-787 inches) annually. To put that into perspective, places like Utah get about 550 inches annually. That’s a lot of snow.
The flight to Japan is long, but definitely worth it when you know the payoff is guaranteed fresh powder. Places like Niseko, Kiroro, and Rusutsu resorts will see 10-15 feet of fresh snow in January alone—guaranteed. Not only is there a lot of powder, but the cultural experience of skiing in Japan is like no other.
“Visit Niseko for 10 days in January and you’ll ski nearly five feet of fresh snow.”
—Eric Hansen, Outside Magazine
What You Need to Know
There are two main ski regions in Japan. On the main island of Honshu, you’ll find many well-established Japanese ski resorts. Hakuba Valley (think Nagano Olympics), Myoko Kogen, Shiga Kogen, and Nozawa Onsen are a few of the larger resort areas. Although this region is great for its proximity and access from Tokyo, it is not where you find the fabled Japanese powder (a.k.a. JaPow). To guarantee you’ll get your powder fix, you want to fly to the city of Sapporo on Hokkaido, Japan’s big North Island. Hokkaido is where the huge stashes of powder accumulate every season. This is where you’ll want to go if you’re looking to ride waves of fresh snow on a daily basis.
For first-timers, we suggest going to Niseko by way of Sapporo. It is one of the largest resorts in Japan and caters to an international crowd. Many resort and restaurant staffers speak English and there is sufficient signage in English for folks to get by without getting lost in translation.
Niseko is made up of 4 main ski areas: Annupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu, and Hanazono. There are also the Moiwa and Weiss ski areas adjacent to Niseko. Each resort area has its own pros and cons, but all areas are blessed with the epic powder this region is known for.
The village at Grand Hirafu Resort is where you’ll find the majority of restaurants and nightlife. For anyone remotely interested in apres-ski, this is the place you’ll want to stay. Hirafu is the hub of all activity off the mountain.
In addition to the apres-ski, Hirafu also offers some impressive night skiing for folks looking to stay on the mountain after dark. Hirafu has a wide range of accommodations but most are relatively expensive due to their proximity and access to all the action.
Niseko Village sounds like it’s main “village” area at Niseko but it’s relatively low-key. There is a small village there but it pales in comparison to the village at Hirafu. What you will find at Niseko Village are the big ski-in/ski-out resort hotels with an international vibe. Stay in Niseko Village if you’re looking for resort-style accommodations with a family-friendly atmosphere.
Niseko Annupuri & Hanazono
Annupuri is a great spot for beginners but also offers some of the best side-country to be had in Niseko. The downside is that foul weather can and will cut off access to other Niseko ski areas.
Hanazono is also a great area for beginners. Kids new to skiing and snowboarding will enjoy the enclosed magic carpet rides on heavy snow days. There you’ll find some decent terrain parks for anyone wanting an alternative to powder skiing. Just like Annupuri, you’ll find great side-country runs with plenty of snow to go around. The powder at Hanazono is particularly good due to its location. The downside is that there is not as much to do once the lifts shut down.
True powder hogs should give Moiwa a try. There they’ll have their best shot at getting the mountain all to themselves. Although it is accessible from Annupuri, folks staying at the relatively quiet resort of Moiwa can enjoy quick access epic side and back-country tree runs through waist-deep powder.
Kiroro Ski Resort is only an hour from Niseko. No longer a hidden gem, Kiroro is a good choice for early season travelers. With reported annual snowfalls in excess of 20 meters, they have no shortage of fresh snow on tap all season long. Although there is plenty of terrain for all levels of skiers, this resort is known for its epic side-country tree runs (or “courses” in Japan). Skiers and snowboarders will have a blast floating through waves of powder mixed with groomers and phenomenal tree courses.
New this season is the addition of a high-speed lift connecting the Tribute Hotel with the main resort area making for new ski-in/ski-out accommodations. Non-skiers can make use of the many amenities available at both resorts. There are open-air hot springs, a swimming pool, and day spas for relaxing. Other activities include snowcat sightseeing tours, snowshoe tours, sledding, and snow tubing. This is an obvious choice for families and couples looking for an international ski getaway.
Rusustsu is where you’ll find powder bliss. Located 90 minutes southwest of Sapporo, it is consistently rated as one of the best resorts for waist-deep powder and tree skiing. The snow here is dry and plentiful. Tree runs are easily accessible from the lifts and the terrain is suitable for all ski and snowboard levels—just make sure your legs are ready for all the turns you’ll be getting in.
Rusutsu is much less crowded than Niseko United. The large resort area makes it well suited to folks traveling with families. The main resort offers ski-in/ski-out accommodations and a superb lift infrastructure to keep you out of the elements when the snow is dumping. For folks looking to get in some high-octane turns in, Japan’s best heli-skiing is also locally available.
Travelers looking for more of a cultural experience should definitely spend some time in Sapporo. It’s Japan’s 5th largest city and is the capital of Hokkaido. It’s also home to one of the largest annual snow festivals in the world. More than 2 million visitors descend the Sapporo Snow Festival every February. During the festival, the city is transformed into an ice sculpture garden with over 400 snow and ice sculptures on display throughout the city.
Amazing cuisine and modern Japanese culture will welcome all that travel to Sapporo. Throw in a couple of epic Japow day-trips and you can’t go wrong.
Sapporo’s cuisine will make any Japanese food lover weep with excitement. Know for its ramen bowls and abundance of seafood, Sapporo is a foodies’ dream. Sample some soup curry or fresh crab ramen in one of Sapporo’s many 4-star restaurants or food stalls. You won’t be disappointed either way.
At the end of the day, you’ll be able to wash it all down with some home-brewed goodness. Did we mention that this is the birthplace of the world-famous Sapporo beer? You can even take a tour of the Sapporo factory/museum.
You might feel a little overwhelmed if you’ve never been to Japan before but the laidback vibe of Sapporo will soon put you at ease. Although Sapporo is a big city by many standards it has an outdoorsy culture that sets it apart from places like Tokyo. Visitors have often compared it to the chill of San Francisco or Seattle as opposed to the bustling metropolis New York.
Both dedicated powder chaser and fellow travelers looking for some winter fun will find skiing in Japan an experience like no other. You’ll never forget your first Japow trip.