Almost two thirds of Japan is covered with mountains and hills. In the month of November, rain turns to snow which settles on mountainous slopes all the way from the northern island of Hokkaido to the “Japan Alps” of mainland Honshu, and during the winter months Japan claims some of the best skiing and snowboarding sites in the world.
Many people who don’t know about the delights of a Japanese winter, are really amazed to hear how much snow falls in the many mountainous regions of Japan.
Japan offers some of the best ski and snowboard experiences out there.
There are number of reasons for this – consistent snowfall, guaranteed from November through to the end of March; exceptional powder conditions; varied and challenging terrain; most resorts easily reachable by public transport; literally hundreds of resorts, and natural ‘onsen’ hot springs to soak in after a day on slopes, to name just a few.
In recent years, Japan snow resorts have started to be internationally recognized as a major destination for skiers and snowboarders.
In this introductory guide, we want to give you some information about the winter sports in Japan.
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Niseko is located in western Hokkaido: one of the world’s premium ski resorts, globally well-known among snow-fans for the excellent quality and quantity of its crisp, fleecy, three-meter deep powder snow. Almost 700,000 skiers and snowboarders visit every year.
In the language of Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu people, Niseko means “sheer cliff”. As the name suggests, Niseko’s main attraction has always been its tremendous mountain scenery. In the east, the perfect cone of Mt. Yotei rises high into the heavens, and in the north is Niseko Annupuri, the highest peak in a volcanic chain. The Shiribetsu River flows between these mighty mountains, one of the most attractive unspoiled rivers in Japan. The river is a breathtaking sight in the warmer months, swelled by the snow-melt and reflecting the surrounding magnificent mountain scenery like a mirror.
According to Hamaguchi Kendo, of the Niseko Resort Tourist Association, “There are four main ski resorts spread across the hills of Niseko Annupuri, and this provides the region a rich range of miscellany and variety for the skier. Niseko Annupuri International Ski Resort is well known for its long steady slopes set between growths of the trees, offering a course suitable for everybody from beginners-level to expert-level skiers. At Niseko Grand Hirafu Ski Resort, visitors can enjoy spectacular close-up sights of Mt. Yotei as they ski.”
In recent years, the exceptional quality of the snow at Niseko, has attracted the attention of foreign skiers and snowboarders, bringing a large number of visitors from New Zealand and Australia to Niseko’s slopes during the southern hemisphere’s summer. In addition, Asian visitors have been coming to Niseko recently, for their very first taste of skiing. In the near future, Niseko looks to become a truly international winter sports resort.
Furano is also one of most famous ski resorts in Japan, though comparatively little is known about it outside the country. Located in the middle of Hokkaido, Furano benefits from the Siberian storm systems that pass over the Sea of Japan and then drop the lightest and driest snow in all Hokkaido, 9 meters of it each season. After a huge snow fall, there can be untracked powder for days.
Furano’s ski area is made up of two zones: the Kitanomine zone (Mid. Dec – Late Mar) and Furano zone (Late Nov – Early May). Both areas have many lodging options. The town of Furano is just a 3 minute shuttle from the Kitanomine resort, and a 6 minute from the Furano resort. It is home to a huge collection of restaurants and bars, and all the town services you would expect. Both of the zones can be accessed on the one pass and are serviced by 11 lifts. Furano has plenty of varied landscape for every level of skier and snowboarder, and a vertical drop of more than 950 metres, making it the steepest mountain in Hokkaido.
Surrounded by Hokkaido’s stunning Daisetsu-zan National Park, Furano is really a world-class resort and it is evidence to the superb mountain and the quality of the snow that it has hosted the FIS Downhill World Cup 10 times. Moreover, it often hosts National and International ski and snowboard events, which includes the 2005/2006 Snowboard World Cup. Most of Japan’s top skiers choose to base themselves here because of the great conditions, and exciting mountains.
Hakuba, situated in the Northern Japan Alps of Nagano Prefecture stands out as one of the finest winter resort areas in Japan. It is one of the most famous ski areas due to its snowboard slopes, good territory, vertical rise, advanced runs, and thick snow.
Hakuba hosted many events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and some Olympic facilities still exist in the area like Hakuba Ski Jumping Stadium, the Olympic museum, and Hakuba Olympic Memorial Hall, which is walking distance from the Olympic ski jump.
Hakuba claims some of the highest snowfall levels in Japan, with an annual base of snow higher than 10 metres, making it a favorite region for skiers and snowboarders. It is not only a good choice for pros but also for beginners. Ski and snowboard lessons are also available for beginners who are looking at getting into the sport. Lessons are conducted in both English, and Japanese. Equipment hire is also available in resorts around Hakuba valley.
Shiga kogen, Nagano
Shiga-kogen Highlands region is in the northeastern part of Nagano. The mountainous landscape is dotted with ponds and wetlands. From spring to autumn, more than 500 types of mountain plants bloom in this region, making a breathtaking spectacle.
Tourists can experience Shiga-kogen’s natural wonders at Higashi-Tateyama-kogen Shokubutsu-en (Mountain Plant Park). The park’s most remarkable attractions include orange-yellow day lilies, that usually bloom from mid to late July. Another natural attraction is the Yokoteyama Observation Deck, which at 2,305 metres above the sea level, is Shiga-kogen’s highest point. Accessible in only about 10 minutes using the Skylator, and the Natsuyama Lift, it gives spectacular views of Shiga-kogen, the Northern Alps, the Kusatsu-onsen Hot Spring area, and even Mt. Fuji.
The Shiga-kogen Highlands are also recognized as a venue for skiing, and other winter sports. The Yudanaka-Shibu-onsen-kyo Hot Spring Village, and natural hot springs situated in the Shiga-kogen Hilltops, are perfect places for tired visitors to rest after sports, walks through nature, or other activities.
Appi kogen, Iwate
Appi Kogen is located in the Appi Highlands in Iwate Prefecture. It offers powder snow and 21 wide, long ski courses, which includes groomed and ungroomed runs. This ski resort is a winter sports heaven for skiers and snowboarders, of all skill levels. The ski courses are situated mostly along the slopes of Mt. Maemori (1305 metres), with two runs on the adjacent Mt. Nishimori (1328 metres). Observation points at the top of both mountains offer exceptional views of the surrounding mountain range during clear days, particularly of Mt. Iwate and Mt. Hachimantai.
Other attractions are the Snow Park, with rails and other hurdles for snowboarders to try out stunts, a family park with sledges and mini courses for the children to enjoy the snow. A resort centre is situated at the foot of the slopes, where rental equipment, restaurants, and a ski school are available.
Ski areas suitable for advanced users are all located higher than the resort base, while the easy ones are all closer to it, with a “no-man’s land” of somewhat flat terrain in between, where it is essential to pole, or tuck to keep moving. So the action is very organized here.
Zao is a mountain park located in the Zao Mountain Range. You can really enjoy the beauty of nature here, especially when you visit the locations like the mysterious Okama hollow lake, also known as Goshiki-numa. It is well known for its variable water colours which can change many times a day. Also well-known is the Zao Shizen-shokubutsu-en, a treasure house of mountain plants. On the ropeway car (or cable car), you can really take a bird’s eye view of the whole Yamagata Basin.
If you enjoy outdoor sports, why not try camping and trekking among the lush greens of spring, or the red leaves of autumn, or taking a horse-riding lesson at the International Horse Riding Club.
But in winter, Zao changes into a Mecca for winter sports. The mountain summits here are famous for the “ice monsters” created by wind-blown snow coating the trees. Descending the slopes through clusters of these ice-covered coniferous trees, is an exhilarating experience!