This is the winter you finally make it to Japan. Here’s how to do it right.
Yes, it’s a pricey 20-hour travel day to get to Japan. You don’t speak the language. You don’t know how to drive on the left side of the road. And jet lag sucks. None of that matters. Because once you drop into your first turn of light, cold smoke Japanese powder, all of those setbacks will disappear. The only thing you’ll be questioning: Why haven’t you been to Japan sooner? You’ve seen the photos on your Instagram feed or in ski magazines of skiers in Japan completely encased in powder in a magical forest of spirited trees. You’ve thought about going. Dreamed about it even. Now is the time. Make a ski trip to Japan happen. We’ve done all the homework for you.
The Best Time of Year to Ski in Japan
It’s called Japanuary for a reason. North American, Australian, and European skiers migrate to Japan’s wintery paradise come January for some of the most reliably deep, cold powder anywhere on the planet. Niseko, Japan, gets an average of 590 inches of snowfall a year. “Mid-January through February is the heart of the season in Japan,” says Dave “Gomez” Johnson, owner of Casa Tours, who has been guiding ski trips to Japan’s island of Hokkaido for 10 years now. “You’re talking snow on an almost daily basis. It stacks up. Typically, you’re getting anywhere between 6 inches and over a foot of super-light, cold snow.”
Traveling to Japan With Ski Gear In Tow
Be sure to check the latest travel advisories regarding traveling to Japan from the U.S. From the U.S., you’ll fly an international flight into Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. You can find direct flights to Tokyo from many major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Portland. Gomez says it’s worth it to stay a night or more in Tokyo to explore the city. Otherwise, you can hop a connecting flight or another mode of transportation to the ski destination of your choosing.
If you’re heading to the north island of Hokkaido, home to popular ski resorts like Niseko, Furano, and Rusutsu, there’s a bullet train that goes from Tokyo to Sapporo, but most skiers choose to fly from Tokyo to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. That airport even has its own onsen, or bathhouse, so you can soak in healing hot springs the minute you get off your flight. From the airport in Sapporo, you can hop a bus, rent a car (note that you’ll need an international driver’s license to do this), or book a private transfer to your accommodations.
If you’re staying on the main isle of Honshu, home to ski destinations including Nagano, Myoko, and Hakuba, you can take a bus, train, or private taxi to reach your destination directly from the airport in Tokyo. No additional flight needed.
The Best Places to Ski in Japan: There are Two Main Ski Regions.
A lot of skiers B-line it to Niseko, the well-known ski resort located on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido with four base areas and plenty of terrain for everyone. This destination resort is on the Ikon Pass and the Mountain Collective Pass, so you’ll have a few free days of skiing here if you have either of those passes, and the backcountry access from here is unparalleled. But Niseko isn’t the only ski resort in Japan. Far from it. The Epic Pass gets you skiing access to Rusutsu, another Hokkaido ski resort, and to Hakuba Valley, on Honshu. Furano, in Hokkaido, is another popular choice.
The difference between Hokkaido and Honshu is mainly terrain. “People say, Japan isn’t that steep—and Hokkaido isn’t. There, you get lower angle trees and magical forests that make for fantastic storm skiing,” says Gomez. “On Honshu, a lot of the good terrain is steeper, high alpine, so if it’s stormy, you don’t have the trees for visibility.” While the mountains in Honshu tend to be steeper, Hokkaido’s slopes tend to get more powder.
If you’re looking for the famed snow monkey hot springs, head to the Hakuba Valley in the heart of the Japanese Alps in Honshu.
What to Pack to Ski in Japan
“Japan is colder than you think—all that cold smoke in your face,” says Brooke Edwards, who guides backcountry ski trips with Whiteroom Tours around Hokkaido, Japan. “I wear a puffy jacket under my ski shell and double long johns.”
So, even if you’re touring, you’ll want a warm insulating layer under your shell or an insulated shell, and you may want to consider insulated pants or bibs. (Good thing Flylow makes all of that. See our Men’s Deeper Collection and our Women’s Deeper Collection.) If you’re planning to ski in the backcountry and the resort, you may want to consider bringing two ski setups, or work on a hybrid kit that does everything well. “People always ask about traveling with two setups,” says Edwards. “The best answer is a setup like a good powder ski with a touring binding like the Salomon Shift or the Marker Kingpin that skis well at resorts too, since a lot of the backcountry in Japan can be accessed from the resorts.”
If you’re spending a few days in Tokyo before skiing and don’t want to deal with lugging your ski bag around the city, check out Black Cat Luggage Services, which will ship your gear directly from the airport in Tokyo to your final destination, so you can travel light on busses and trains.
Want to Backcountry Ski in Japan? (yes, yes you do) Here are a few considerations.
All over Japan’s ski country, there’s ample backcountry terrain—and not a ton of people exploring it. So, you’ll find plenty of fresh tracks if you know where to look and you’re willing to hike for your turns. Hiring a backcountry ski guide if you’re planning to head out of bounds is always a smart idea. Just because the country is known for lower-angle terrain, that doesn’t mean avalanches don’t occur here. They certainly do, and much of the terrain is known for its terrain traps and dicey exits.
Casa Tours, Hokkaido Powder Guides, Black Diamond Tours, International Mountain Adventures, and Whiteroom Tours are all trusted, vetted backcountry ski guides in Japan that will show you the goods and do it responsibly. Or opt for a fully planned trip and let someone else do the guiding and logistics for you—evoTrip offers guided ski trips to Niseko, as well as to Honshu’s Myoko and Hakuba.
“The avalanche forecasts in Japan tell you about backcountry protocol—not ducking ropes, watching out for crevasses—but they don’t really give good information on the snowpack. And if you can find information, generally it’s in Japanese,” says Ross Matlock, a longtime backcountry ski guide in Japan who runs International Mountain Adventures. “You’ve got to be prepared to make observations and decisions on the spot because you’re not going to get info any other way. Even the weather forecasts aren’t that reliable—they’ll forecast 1 to 2 centimeters and then all of a sudden, you get 25 centimeters.”
Not all resorts have open-boundary policies, so check before you go. Niseko, with nearly a dozen gates into the backcountry, is perhaps the most progressive. Some resorts offer a two-hour or four-hour lift ticket if you plan to ski for a bit inbounds before heading into the backcountry.
Here’s a tip: Need food for the backcountry? That’s easy in Japan. Pop into 7-11 or Seicomart, or whatever convenient store happens to be on the corner, and load up on onigiri—rice triangles coated in dried seaweed and packed with mysteries like cod roe, red salmon, or pickled plum. Your summit picnic is served.