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Flylow Guide: How To Find Powder Skiing In Hokkaido, Japan

Well, that’s easy: Book a trip to Japan’s northernmost island in January or February and deep snow is pretty much guaranteed.

Skiing in Hokkaido, Japan, is like taking a trip to an all-you-can-eat buffet. You’re going to get your fill, and then some. This is the kind of place where powder days aren’t a rarity; they’re a near daily occurrence. Snowbanks tower as tall as buildings and roads are plowed just enough to let one car through. Even if you don’t nail it with powder, you’ll still be treated to the best of Japanese culture, from its cozy noodle shops and back-alley bars to its healing onsens.

To get to Hokkaido, fly into Tokyo, then hop a quick flight to Sapporo, Japan’s New Chitose Airport, a launching-off point to heaps of stellar Hokkaido ski resorts all within a relatively short drive. If you’re planning to visit multiple ski resorts around Hokkaido, you’ll want to rent a car—make sure to get an international driver’s license beforehand and know you’ll be driving on the left-hand side of the road. If you’re heading to one place, a private transfer or public bus might be sufficient.

When to Go On A Ski Trip to Hokkaido, Japan

January and early February are the months to go skiing in Japan. Chinese New Year takes place in late January and brings in crowds but also unforgettable rituals. “I will never forget seeing the Taiko drummers perform drum music about skiing, snow, and the mountains. New Year’s Eve in Sapporo at the temple is a must if you can pull it off,” says Scotty VerMerris, a Flylow athlete and the team manager for Icelantic Skis. VerMerris has skied in Japan three times, totaling about 40 days, most spent in Hokkaido. 

The best skiing in Hokkaido, Japan.

The best skiing in Hokkaido, Japan.

What to Pack For A Ski Trip to Hokkaido, Japan

Bring enough layers for cold temperatures. Night skiing isn’t uncommon here and long days in the backcountry are the norm when conditions are prime. “Pack at least one clear lens and carry extra lenses for your goggles,” advises VerMerris. “Pack layers and extra items, so you are prepared when you go out for the day. You might end up damp and want a dry layer or fresh goggles or fresh gloves halfway through the day and you might to ski until 10 at night. You never know, but when it’s good and keeps getting better, you’ll want to stay out.”

Forgot some gear? Three Peaks ski shop—a Flylow retailer at the base of Niseko ski resort—has all-mountain gear, including backcountry essentials.

The Best Ski Resorts In Hokkaido, Japan

Option 1: Base Out Of Sapporo

You can stay put in Sapporo, host of the 1972 Winter Olympics, and ski right from there. It’s a much more manageable city than Tokyo and more affordable. Think of Sapporo as a Portland, Oregon, to Tokyo’s New York City—it’s got its own unique, laid-back vibe, with tasty, cold-water seafood, tons of hip bars and restaurants, and a ski resort, Sapporo Kokusai, right on the western edge of the city. The two-week-long Sapporo Ice Festival in February is worth a visit.

Option 2: Ski Niseko, Japan’s Most Famous Ski Resort

Niseko, which connects four base areas into a sprawling resort, is the most popular and well-known ski destination on the northern island of Hokkaido for powder-hunting visitors. Go for at least 10 days if you can to guarantee the most powder days. At Niseko, drink coffee out of a vending machine in the base lodge before boot-packing to the top of 4,291-foot Annupuri for untracked powder in all directions. Niseko is on both the Ikon Pass and the Mountain Collective Pass, so if you have either of those passes, you’ll get a few days of free skiing here.

Option 3: Rusutsu If You Have an Epic Pass

Epic Pass holder? Check out Rusutsu Resort, another large ski area—it’s got 18 lifts and 4,200 skiable acres—accessed via a 90-minute drive from Sapporo or about 25 minutes from Niseko. Rusutsu is now on the Epic Pass.

Option 4: Small Japanese Ski Resorts Like Moiwa are Rad Too

Don’t overlook the little ski areas, either. Moiwa Ski Resort, which borders Niseko, is small but powder filled—the place stays untracked for days after a storm. You can ski out the gates of Moiwa into neighboring Niseko. Stay at the no-frills Moiwa Lodge, where breakfast comes included, and you can walk to the lifts from your room.

Option 5: Central Hokkaido Offers its own Incredible Skiing

Furano Ski Resort in central Hokkaido used to limit off-piste and tree skiing, but thankfully that’s not the case anymore. You can shred powder in the trees all day long here. This place is large but has a more local, quiet feel to it than Niseko and Rusutsu.

Kamui Ski Links, 30 minutes from the city of Asahikawa, is another gem of a small, uncrowded Hokkaido resort that doesn’t get tracked out and has dreamy inbounds tree skiing. Don’t miss the curry donut at the café atop the gondola and the ramen noodles at Nobu in the base area. There’s no lodging on site, so stay in Asahikawa—book a room at Omo7 Asahikawa and they’ll shuttle you to the slopes for free for the day.

The Iconic Tree Skiing of Hokkaido, Japan

 

Backcountry Skiing in Hokkaido

Most of the ski resorts in Japan now allow backcountry access from the resort, but check to make sure before you duck a rope. At Niseko and Furano ski resorts, you can leave the resort but only through designated gates.

Or skip the resorts and tour straight from the road. In Niseko, there’s backcountry skiing that starts and ends at an onsen, the Japanese bathhouses, at spots like Niseko Goshiki and Niimi Onsen. Which means you can go for a ski tour and end your day in a steaming hot pool of healing waters.

East of Sapporo, ski touring in the volcanic peaks of Daisetsuzan National Park can deliver some of the lightest, coldest powder around. Mt. Yotei, near Niseko, is another popular backcountry ski zone where you can ski into the crater of a volcano.

No matter where you go, you may want to consider hiring a backcountry guide to show you the ropes—or rather, outside of them. Casa Tours, Hokkaido Powder Guides, and Black Diamond Tours all lead guided backcountry trips throughout Hokkaido.

Where to Stay and Onsen 

In Niseko, Black Diamond Lodge is a popular choice for ski bums who want to ski Niseko and they’ll shuttle you to the lifts by day and nearby onsens by night.

There are a few things to know before you onsen. “Be prepared to be nude. It’s disrespectful to wear clothing in the onsen,” VerMerris says. “Men and women will bathe in separate areas. Don’t bring music or alcohol or extra things into the onsen. Towels are usually provided for a small charge.”

You won’t find many coed onsens, but the pools at the Grand Hotel in Niseko do allow men and women to soak together.

If you’re skiing in Sapporo, take a soak at Jozankei Onsen afterward.

Where to Eat and Drink

Open your mind to eating tons of meals from 7-11. Have fun with it and experiment. Pro tip: Throw rice triangles into your pack for ski snacks. And ramen is your friend. Put an egg on it.

Scotty VerMerris, Flylow Athlete

You can go as fancy as you want when it comes to food and drinks in Japan, but know this: Beers are sold out of vending machines and the best backcountry snacks come from minimarts. “Open your mind to eating tons of meals from 7-11. Have fun with it and experiment,” VerMerris says. “Pro tip: Throw rice triangles into your pack for ski snacks. And ramen is your friend. Put an egg on it.”

Izakaya Nagomi is a solid spot for traditional Japanese food in Niseko's Hirafu Ski Resort

Izakaya Nagomi is a solid spot for traditional Japanese food in Niseko's Hirafu Ski Resort

We asked VerMerris for some of his favorite restaurants in Hokkaido. He says to explore the countryside around Niseko and Kutchan to find quaint little soba restaurants. “In the Niseko area visit the Pancake House—not actually named that—which can be found at the intersection of 66 and 343,” he says. “If you’re in the Niseko area and want sushi, head 20 minutes to Kutchan to hit up the Sushi Train, found across from Sanpachi Ramen Shop.”

If you need groceries from a bigger store, Kutchan is your best bet.

In Niseko, make sure to seek out Elvis King of Kebabs food cart in Hirafu. And one more tip from VerMerris: “Find an Izakaya—a type of Japanese bar in which a variety of small, typically inexpensive dishes and snacks are served to accompany the alcoholic drinks—on backstreets somewhere and hang out.”

Great Gear For Your Ski Trip To Hokkaido Japan

Baker Bib

A stout pair of 20k/20k three-layer bibs that can handle any powder day.

Features

- 3-layer Intuitive™ Oxford fabric

- 100% Polyester

- 20k/20k waterproof breathable membrane

- 1000 denier Cordura reinforcements

- Kangaroo chest pouch

- Fully seam taped

- Articulated knee box

- OmniBloq DWR (Durable Water Repellent)

- Powder gaiters

- Seamless cuff reinforcements

- YKK waterproof zippers

- Inner and outer thigh vents

- Average weight: 948 grams

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Handlebar Tech Flannel

It looks like a regular flannel. But it’s got high-performance superpowers.

Features

- 100% polyester

- Duraflex snap buttons

- Work shirt fit and styling

- Two buttoned chest pockets

- Average weight: 267 grams

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Foxy Bib

A well-loved bib ski pant for women with all the high-end features.

Features

- 20k/20k waterproof breathable membrane

- 500 denier Cordura reinforcements

- Kangaroo chest pouch

- Fully seam taped

- High Performance DWR (Durable Water Repellent)

- 2 mid-thigh pockets, 2 chest pockets

- Powder gaiters

- Seamless cuff reinforcements

- YKK waterproof zippers

- Long exterior zipper for easy entry

- Inner thigh vents

- Average weight: 785 grams

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