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. Before you travel, be sure to read up on the latest COVID-19 regulations and advisories regarding visiting Japan from the U.S. 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 hosted a premier big-mountain contest in Hakuba for several years, 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. Evergreen Backcountry and Vertical Land lead trips throughout the Hakuba area. 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 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.
Hodaigi and Tenjin ski resorts are close to one of the largest onsens in Japan, the Takaragawa Onsen. Be sure to study up on onsen culture before you go.
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.