If you downhill ski and skiing in Japan isn’t on your bucket list, add it now. This is how to score the best snow in the world.
So you’re dreaming about a trip to “Japow”? Yeah, you and every other ski bum. There are a million reasons to jet to Japan for a ski trip — fresh sushi, slurpable ramen, and relaxing onsens, just to name a few.
But the main reason why the word “Japow” triggers a Pavlovian yearning in skiers is the snow — the deep, bottomless snow. And there are a few ways to go about scoring that fabled powder. We’ll break down a few of our favorites here, from skiing resorts to exploring the backcountry with a guide.
Skiing Japan: The Resorts
Nothing beats a deep day at the resort. Lapping untracked inbounds terrain via chairlift is not only incredibly fun, but you’ll also score maximum vertical feet at a minimal cost.
Plus, assuming you stay inbounds, your chances of triggering an avalanche go down dramatically. That said, inbounds avalanches do happen, so when exploring a new resort, especially after a significant snowfall, you may want to ride with avalanche safety gear as a precaution.
Our favorite aspect of resorts in Japan? Epic conditions notwithstanding, the prices are just too good to be true. While flights can be steep and cheap lodging isn’t necessarily easy to come by, affordable lift ticket prices help offset those other travel expenses.
Remember: Ikon Pass holders get 7 days at Niseko United, while Epic Pass Holders get 5 days each at Rusutsu (on the island of Hokkaido) and Hakuba Valley (on Honshu, otherwise known as mainland Japan.)
But even if you don’t have one of those passes, a lift ticket at Niseko United costs around $75, which is way cheaper than the wallet-walloping lift tickets at Vail Resorts. There are also hundreds of smaller, lesser-known (and less crowded) resorts that offer lift tickets at half that price.
Another cool thing about lift tickets in Japan: they don’t just offer single- and half-day tickets — some resorts allow you to buy lift punch cards or to purchase lift time by the hour. If you’re only going to ski for a couple of hours, that’s an awesome call. And if you’re going to explore the sidecountry, it’s even better.
Exploring the Sidecountry in Japan
You may be surprised to learn that in Japan, trees are often considered out-of-bounds terrain, and tree-skiing is a good way to get your pass pulled — or at least, receive a good talking-to from a lift attendant. So it follows that actual sidecountry gates aren’t exactly commonplace.
However, sidecountry offers a sweet option for those looking for lift-accessed backcountry skiing in Japan. Resorts like Niseko United, Rusutsu, Furano, and Moiwa are great places to sample Japanese sidecountry.
Often, a smart way to make the most of a sidecountry trip is to book a guide for a day or two at the onset of your trip. That way, you learn the lay of the land and can effectively plan tours on your own moving forward. Or, you can book a tour with the likes of Japan Ski Tours and explore sidecountry with knowledgeable guides for an entire week.
Backcountry Ski Touring Japan
Due to the excellent resort and sidecountry skiing, many would-be backcountry skiers are content to stick to chairlift-accessed terrain — and we can’t blame ‘em. But that also means more backcountry Japow for the rest of us! If you’re willing to earn your turns, there’s top-notch touring to be had. Just prepare to break trail through the deep stuff.
When checking out the backcountry in Japan, it’s not a bad idea to book a guide. Black Diamond Tours can help you out in Hokkaido. Another option is to book a weeklong tour with Pacific Alpine Guides — they’ll take care of all of the logistical details and let you focus on crushing vert, slamming sushi, and resting your weary muscles in the hot springs.
CAT skiing is the ultimate way to score Japow, and there are several operations to choose from on both Hokkaido and Honshu. On a trip to Japan last winter, we spent a few days with Japan Ski Tours, checking out its recently launched Hachimantai CAT Skiing trip in Iwate.
Iwate is a northern province on the main island. It boasts incredible snowpack, steep terrain, and plentiful resorts and touring opportunities. Best of all, it doesn’t have the same tourism-saturated feel as Hokkaido.
For just over $1,000, you get two guided days in the CAT, plus room and board. Japan Ski Tours offers a couple different options for accommodations, but we highly recommend you stay at Clubman, a historic, off-the-beaten-path lodge with cozy rooms and mouth-watering meals.
A Note on Avalanche Safety
There’s a notion that Japan’s maritime snowpack is safe. While such ocean-proximate snowpack certainly leans toward stability more than, say, the pesky continental snowpack in Colorado, that’s a misguided and dangerous assumption. In general, the snowpack on Hokkaido will vary from the snowpack on Honshu.
Regardless of where you end up skiing, having avalanche safety gear and knowing how to use it is requisite before exploring out-of-bounds terrain. Also, while the Japan Avalanche Network posts avalanche bulletins, the website can be convoluted. So we recommend you feel confident assessing conditions on your own or book the services of a reliable guide.
Enough Dreaming — Now Go Score
No matter what way you decide to ski in Japan, you’re in for a treat. Even if, Ullr forbid, you get skunked and the pow doesn’t stack up during your trip, the culture and cuisine make Japan one of the best ski destinations in the world.