Japan’s best-kept secret? You don’t need to fly to Hokkaido to find good skiing. The main island of Honshu has the goods—and snow monkeys, too.
Many skiers who head to Japan come for the deep powder on the northern island of Hokkaido, to internationally known spots like Niseko and Furano. But it turns out, you can save yourself the extra travel and stay put on the main island of Honshu, which still gets plenty of deep snow and is known for its steeper terrain and more off-the-radar ski areas. Here’s how to pull off a trip that packs in plenty of skiing, plus some cultural sights, too.
The Ski Resorts of Honshu
The Japanese Alps are exactly as they sound: steep, glacially formed, high-alpine peaks that top out above 10,000 feet. It feels almost like you’re in Europe—except the food and culture are distinctly different. The city of Nagano, host to the 1998 Winter Olympics, is your gateway to the Japanese Alps. From here, it’s a quick jaunt to many great ski resorts, including 11 ski areas known for steep terrain within the Hakuba Valley, plus spots like Nozawa Onsen, a traditional village and ski area around an onsen, and Myoko Kogen, a collection of smaller, more historic ski areas closer to the Sea of Japan and just north of Nagano.
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Getting To The Ski Resorts of Honshu
This is Japan’s closest high-quality ski region to Tokyo. Just ask Flylow co-founder Dan Abrams. “In Hakuba, there is plenty of snow and the terrain is steeper, plus it’s easier to get to than Hokkaido,” says Abrams, who visited Hakuba during a January storm cycle. To get to Hakuba, it’s a 90-minute bullet train from Tokyo. Once you’re there, most of the ski resorts are on the same lift ticket and you can get from one to the next via a well-designed bus system. You don’t need to rent a car here unless you’re planning to venture way off the beaten path.
Skiing on Honshu Island Japan
You’ll come for the powder skiing and steep terrain around the Japanese Alps, but you’ll also enjoy the soba noodles, friendly snow monkeys, hot springs, and historic traditions.
“My favorite thing about skiing in Japan is not only the pow but also the culture and food,” says Conor Pelton, a Flylow athlete who spent a month in the Hakuba area on a recent trip to Japan. “The people are so kind and after a long day on the mountain, nothing beats a big bowl of soba noodles.”
Pelton says his favorite zone to ski is around Hakuba. “You have all these different resorts with great terrain, from big-mountain lines to mellow tree skiing,” he says.
The Freeride World Tour has hosted a premier big-mountain contest in Hakuba for several years now, in case you need proof of how steep and imposing the terrain here can be. In the Hakuba range, the ski area of Happo One (pronounced on-ay) has some of the steepest slopes in the region and about 3,500 feet of vertical from top to bottom. From the top, you’ll spot volcanic peaks and stellar vistas of the entire Northern Alps and have access to ample backcountry terrain.
Forgot something? Three Peaks, a Flylow retailer and ski shop in Hakuba, has your backcountry essentials.
Hiring a guide if you’re planning to head into the backcountry in a foreign country is always a smart idea. Canadian mountain guide and Japan transplant Damian Banwell guides custom and group trips into lesser-known backcountry zones through his guiding company Hakuba Mountain Life. Evergreen Backcountry leads trips throughout the Hakuba area as well. Or let evoTrip plan your entire journey to Japan from start to finish, including lodging and in-country transport on guided group trips to both Hakuba and Myoko.
Seki Onsen, a small ski area in the Myoko area, has backcountry skiing into Myoko-Togakushi Renzan National Park. This quiet, historical zone used to be way off the map, but now it’s seeing more and more Western visitors. “Today, there are more skiers seeking powder lines around Myoko, just as there are more foreign investors buying up hotels and building Western-style cafes,” writes Matt Hansen in a recent issue of Powder Magazine.
A few hours away, the ski area of Tenjindaira, or Tenjin for short, sees less crowds and has excellent backcountry access.
If you have time to explore the rest of Honshu and want a few days without skiing, be sure to spend some time in the city of Kyoto, famous for its temples, wooden castles, and gardens.
Lodging and Onsens
You can rent a campervan or RV and be totally self-sufficient throughout the Nagano area. “If you are traveling around in an RV, make sure to get the map of public rest stops,” advises Pelton. “They provide 24-hour bathrooms that are clean and a warm place to hit the bathroom or brush your teeth and park your RV for the night.”
There are more and more Western or European-style hotels and chalets in this area, but if you prefer a taste of Japanese culture, look for traditional ryokan-style inns, where you’ll sleep in minimalist rooms with mats on the floor and use shared bathrooms.
In Hakuba and Myoko, Morino Lodge has hotels as well as private chalets for small groups. Near Myoko, the family-owned Akakuru Wakui Hotel is 10 minutes from the slopes at Akakura Onsen ski area, which has night skiing under the lights each evening.
You aren’t the only one who will be soaking in onsens after a day in the snow in Japan. Don’t miss Honshu’s famous wild snow monkeys as they lounge in steaming hot water at the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park near Joshinestu-Kogen National Park in the northern reaches of Nagano prefecture.
The Gear You'll Want On Your Ski Trip To Honshu, Japan
Betty Down Jacket
splitThere’s nowhere your Betty Down Jacket won’t go. Camping in the summer. Cold storms and breezy summits in the winter. When the furnace is broken at home. It’s a packable and lightweight but still ridiculously warm 800-fill goose down jacket that—get this!—is actually water resistant. The tightly-woven Pertex Quantum exterior fabric is made to boost the efficiency of the down. Plus, it stuffs into its own pocket to make a pillow for your next overnight flight. Plenty of pockets offer storage for your goodies.
• 100% Polyamide Pertex® Quantum
• 800-fill power goose down
• 100% nylon
• Wind and water-resistant
• RDS Certified Down
• Self-stowing inner pocket (makes a pillow)
• High Performance DWR (Durable Water Repellent)
• 3 pockets (1 internal)
• Baffled stitch-though construction
splitWomen who run extra cold traditionally didn’t have many options when it came to insulated ski pants. You’d have either the dreadfully unflattering or the not-at-all stormproof. No, thanks. Now, with the Sphynx Bib, a highly technical bib pant for women made with Finish 2-layer hardshell and lined with a toasty layer of thin micropuff insulation, you can stay warm and dry in all conditions and not look or feel like a triple wrapped burrito. It’s about time.
• Finish 2-layer hardshell fabric
• 40-gram Spaceloft™ micropuff insulation
• 10k/10k waterproof breathable membrane
• DWR (Durable Water Repellent)
• Powder gaiters
• 6 pockets (including a reach-through kangaroo pocket on the bib)
• Jean-style back pockets
• Fully seam taped
• YKK zippers
• Average weight: 754 grams