It might not have quite made it into the wider American cultural zeitgeist quite yet, but it’s definitely no secret that Japan has some of the greatest powder snowboarding and downhill skiing on the planet. With some of the world’s highest annual snowfall and a myriad of resorts to choose from, it should be on every winter enthusiast’s bucket list. If you’re in the market for a winter getaway, there’s no better place to buy a lift pass. If you are visiting for the first time in 2016, here’s a guide to take you from the slopes to the izakaya .
Most airlines will fly into either Narita International Airport, about 30 minutes outside of Tokyo, or Haneda Airport, which is located in the heart of the city. Connecting flights to Hokkaido depart from both airports, so double check which departure location works best for you before you book your ticket.
If you’re taking public transportation in Japan — and you should — prepare to be amazed by its speed, efficiency, and cleanliness. Trains and buses can get you to nearly anywhere in the country. Bonus: if you’re traveling with lots of gear, you’ll have the option to ship it directly from the airport to your hotel and save yourself the hassle of lugging it around. Your gear should arrive within a day, which gives you a good amount of time to explore Tokyo before you take off for the mountains.
If public transit isn’t for you, there are several rental car options available from the airport. Be sure to pick up a SIM card or portable WiFi router at the vending machine (yes, the vending machine) to keep you connect to Google Maps. While most traffic signs in Japan are in English, things get a bit trickier once you get into the mountains.
What To Expect In The Mountains
The weather in Japan can be tricky and completely unpredictable, but you can be sure that when you’re in the mountains in the winter, there will be a LOT of snow. It’s not uncommon for areas like Niseko in Hokkaido to dump many inches of pow every day. Case in point: the area receives up to 15 feet of powder annually.
Lost in Translation
Japan can be a frustrating place to communicate, but the good thing is that nearly everyone tries their best to communicate in whatever way works. The nation continues to improve the use of English writing, but be aware that many restaurant menus, convenience store labels, and hotels can be challenging to non-Japanese speakers. Bring a phrase book and prepare to gesture with your hands a lot.
It might sound like a small detail, but believe me — it makes all the difference. Japanese hotels, homes, and apartment tend to be colder than western style, but they more than make up for it with heated toilet seats. Be warned: it’s hard to go back to anything else when you go home again.
Bring The Essentials
Japan is obsessed with gear. Nearly anything you could want or need is available for you to buy. In Tokyo, the Ogawamachi neighborhood is known as the “Sporting Goods District,” and you can often find some amazing deals here. Note: If you’re looking to pick up some of your favorite Western energy bars or gels for the slopes, this is the place to do it; outside of Ogawamachi, most stores only carry Japanese brands.
This one’s obvious. If finding untouched sugary powder is something you’re in the mood for, then be sure to pack your powder boards or skis. Or both.
Clear Goggle Lenses
Night riding in Japan is amazing. Bring your clear lenses, wear an extra layer, and be prepared to score.
International Driver’s License
While Japan’s legendary bullet trains and public transportation can get you to the slopes in no time, many of the best resorts can only be reached by car (and definitely don’t forget that in Japan, you drive on the left). Before you rent a car, check with your accommodations; it might be that they provide transport from the trains.
Japan uses the two prong system for charging your GoPro, iPhone, and Bluetooth speakers — all essentials for your ski vacation. Stop at any 100 yen store to buy one or use your Apple plug with a USB power cable.
Where To Go
There are hundreds of resorts to choose from in Japan. While many of the local mountains have a few secret runs, the larger resorts have easy access to off-piste riding. Be sure to respect the resort rules and know your limits. Here are my three top for best areas to score some powder.
Japan’s northernmost island is the best known around the world and is a mecca for international riders. And with some of the world’s driest powder and highest annual snowfall, it’s easy to see why. Niseko is well known to the Australian and Kiwi riders escaping the southern hemisphere summer, but resorts like Kiroro and Asahidake are fantastic, lesser-known gems for escaping the crowds.
Home to the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano Prefecture is easily accessible from Tokyo and has a variety of mountains and attractions to choose from, including the “snow monsters” at Zao Onsen Ski Resort and the hot springs at the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort. In Hakuba, eight of the major resorts have teamed up to offer the All Mountain Ticket package, which gives discounts on multiple day lift tickets to be used at any of the participating resorts.
Gumma and Niigata
These resorts straddling the border of these prefectures are the easiest to access from Tokyo. Resorts like Gala Yuzawa have a gondola directly from the Shinkansen station. The larger resorts tend to be crowded, but smaller resorts like Tenjindaira have a pristine backcountry and receives the fifth most snow in all of Japan.