Skiing in Japan: A Complete Guide

Scenic View Of Snowcapped Mountains Against Blue Sky
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Japan may not be the first place you think to ski, especially if you live in the United States (Howdy, Colorado!) or Europe, where the Alps run through half a dozen countries. Yet Japan is legendary among everyone who skis its slopes, to the extent that its fine, almost silken snow even has its own name among the crowd: "Ja-pow." Stick to well-trodden slopes like Hokkaido's Niseko and Nagano (where the 1998 Winter Olympics took place), or explore lesser-known resorts in the underrated Tohoku region.

If you're already set on skiing in Japan, you've cleared the first hurdle. However, there are some things you should keep in mind whether or not you've booked your flight yet.

Until at least 2030, when the Hokkaido shinkansen connects Tokyo to Sapporo by bullet train, you'll need to fly from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Hokkaido's New Chitose Airport if you plan to ski in Hokkaido. Otherwise, most of the other Japan ski destinations on this list are connected to Tokyo via shinkansen.

Secondly, you should be aware that skiing in Japan isn't cheap, even as compared to the average cost of traveling in Japan (which is high, to begin with). A three-day, two-night ski trip to Niseko in Hokkaido might cost around 7,000 yen ($65) per person for lift passes, plus an additional $150 per person for a round-trip flight from Tokyo, and close to $225 per night for a three-star hotel near the chairlift.

Even without incidental costs like airport transfers, meals, and alcohol, a Japan ski trip for two people can easily cost upwards of $900 for a long weekend.

Of course, you get what you pay for, and traveling in Japan is always a priceless experience. Here are the 10 top spots we recommend visiting to experience "Ja-pow" for yourself.

01 of 10

Niseko (Hokkaido)

Niseko

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Niseko is, without a doubt, the most famous ski resort in Japan, in Hokkaido and otherwise. With a season that runs from December to April and nearly 30 miles of groomed trails with runs of up to three unobstructed miles, Niseko is the best place in Japan to enjoy "ja-pow." Due to its world fame, Niseko also has plenty of amenities, including rental of any gear you'd need, dozens of hotels, and resorts at all luxury levels (including ski-in, ski-out properties) and legendary après-ski such as Scot Hotel and Yuki's bar.

How to get there: Nonstop flights from Tokyo Haneda to Sapporo New Chitose operate at least once per hour during peak season and take about 90 minutes gate to gate. From the airport, ride the train to Kuchan Station, where shuttles for most hotels will be waiting.

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02 of 10

Nozawa Onsen (Nagano)

Nozawa Onsen

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Nagano boasts many world-class ski resorts, but the most famous is probably Nozawa Onsen. Boasting many equipment rental shops and snow that's second in fame only to Niseko, Nozawa Onsen offers 36 runs, which are divided about evenly between advanced, intermediate, and beginner difficulty. The town has more than a dozen resorts, countless hotels, and guest houses, and popular après-ski facilities like the Craft Room, which makes it slightly easier to ride one of 21 lifts and gondolas down the slopes when your day is done.

How to get there: Ride the shinkansen from Tokyo to Iiyama (less than two hours, covered by the JR Pass), where you will board a shuttle bus bound for one of several resort areas within Nozawa Onsen.

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03 of 10

Shiga Kogen (Nagano)

Shiga Kogen

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Nozawa Onsen, while famous, is not the only game in town...er, prefecture, when it comes to Nagano skiing. With more than 48 total miles of runs divided into 19 different areas, Shiga Kogen is one of Japan's largest ski areas, in Nagano or otherwise. Plus, it's replete with everything else you need to enjoy your trip, whether you stay at one of the many ski-in, ski-out resorts, take advantage of dozens of equipment rental spots and enjoy après ski in the Ichinose area, where festive Japanese Izakaya pubs and warming shabu-shabu hot pot awaits.

How to get there: Ride frequent bullet trains from Tokyo to Nagano (90 minutes), where you can board a Nagaden bus that will take around 60-70 additional minutes. Note that if you plan to ski at Yudanaka Onsen, this is an ideal base for visiting Japan's famous snow monkeys.

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04 of 10

Kiroro (Hokkaido)

Kiroro

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Located northwest of Sapporo, more or less on the way to Otaru, Kiroro bills itself as "Alpine skiing in Japan." Tangibly, this manifests itself with more than a handful of luxury resorts, which all boast on-site equipment rental, ski-in-ski-out functionality and a wide variety of après ski experiences that will make your head spin—to say nothing of the 21 runs you find here, which are comparably quiet when compared to Niseko (or many other places on this list).

How to get there: Many guests at more expensive resorts get a shuttle directly from Chitose Airport, though you can reach Kiroro via public transport. Specifically, you can ride the train from JR Sapporo Station to Otaru-Chikko, where several buses per hour departure for Kiroro.

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05 of 10

Furano (Hokkaido)

Furano

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In the summertime, the flat fields around the town of Furano are famous for sprawling lavender, the expanse, and beauty of which can allow skilled photographers to deceive you into thinking they're in France. In winter, however, you can ski the slopes of the mountains around the town, which are divided into two zones with 23 trails. Although Furano is smaller and less crowded than Niseko, there's something for every type of skier. You'll also find equipment rental and several hotels and resorts, though the general "ski village" culture is arguably missing.

How to get there: Fly to Chitose Airport and get a train to JR Sapporo Station, where several trains per hour depart for Furano. You can expect a total journey time of under two hours.

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06 of 10

Zao Onsen (Yamagata)

Zao Onsen

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The good news? You don't need to be a skier to enjoy winter in Zao Onsen, where heavy snow causes evergreen trees to grow into towering "Snow Monsters." The better news? If you are a skier, then you can enjoy a very thrilling ride indeed, as you make your way down the hillsides from the long ropeway that leads from this hot springs town to the top of Mt. Zao. Featuring 25 runs (the longest is more than five miles!) and a top elevation of 5,449 feet, Zao Onsen is ideal for beginners, pros, and even cross-country skies.

How to get there: If you don't take the direct night bus from Tokyo's Shinjuku station (eight hours), you can ride the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo to Yamagata (two hours, 45 minutes), where at least one bus per hour travels directly to Zao Onsen.

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07 of 10

Yuzawa Onsen (Niigata)

Yuzawa Onsen

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Most travelers to Japan have never heard of Niigata prefecture, which is just one reason Yuzawa Onsen remains so delightfully off the beaten path. In spite of this, Yuzawa Onsen offers many ski-in, ski-out resorts and several gear rental shops, not to mention 22 runs, including one with a vertical drop of nearly half a mile.

How to get there: Ride the shinkansen from Tokyo to Echigo-Yuzawa station (just 80 minutes) and catch a shuttle to your hotel or resort.

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08 of 10

Tazawako (Akita)

Tazawako

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Lake Tazawa is the deepest lake in Japan and is beautiful in any season. However, during the winter months, the mountains rising around the lake are covered in pure white snow that makes its water seem almost supernaturally blue—and throngs of skiers take to 13 runs, which range in length and difficulty to beginner from advanced. Facilities in Tazawako, which is something of an underground Japan ski destination, are basic, but you can feed yourself three times a day and rent equipment.

How to get there: The Shinkansen Komachi runs directly from Tokyo to Tazawako several times per day and takes less than three hours. Once at the station, board frequent buses bound for the ski resorts.

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09 of 10

Rusutsu (Hokkaido)

Rusutsu

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Looking for a Hokkaido ski resort that sits somewhere between the in-your-face awesomeness of Niseko and the understated quietude of Furano? Welcome to Rusutsu. Located between Mt. Yotei and scenic Lake Toya a couple of hours southwest of Sapporo, Rusutsu boasts 37 runs, though the longest is only about 2.2 miles. The resort offers four main hotels as well as many guest houses and cottages, and 19 different lifts that can take you from the town (where you can rent equipment) to the top of the mountain.

How to get there: Fly to Chitose Airport, then ride the train to JR Sapporo Station (45 minutes), where frequent buses to Rututsu (two hours, 10 minutes) depart.

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10 of 10

Hakkoda (Aomori)

Hakkoda

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Another worthy entry for skiing in Japan's Tohoku region is Hakkoda, a mountain in Aomori prefecture whose other claim to fame is in September and October when it blazes with some of the most spectacular autumn colors in Japan. A relatively small resort by Japanese course by Japanese standards, Hokkoda has just five trails, which beginners and intermediate skiers will find the most enjoyable. You'll find some equipment rental amid its hotels and restaurants, though you can expect the equipment will be rather basic.

How to get there: Ride the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori (3 hours, covered by the Japan Rail Pass) and board a JR Bus bound for Lake Towada.

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