Destinations

How Japan Became the Hottest Ski Destination in the World

This winter, Japan is all you will hear about.
IMAGE YTL HOTELS
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The Winter Olympics have been held in two different regions of Japan, Hokkaido/Sapporo, and Nagano, yet for decades the island nation has remained off the radar of most Americans as a ski destination. There’s no good reason it’s been overlooked, given the amazing snow quality, singular culture, unbeatable cuisine, impeccable service, and unique lodging options for every taste.


The biggest appeal is the prodigious powder, the Holy Grail of skiers. Japan routinely gets two to four times the annual totals for a very good season in Utah or Colorado, and even Alaska’s best winters wouldn’t raise an eyebrow here, where measurements far in excess of a thousand inches are possible. Japan holds the planetary record for the deepest snow cover ever recorded, and on Hokkaido, the northernmost island, locals expect full-blown powder days—the kind that shutter stores with "Gone Skiing" signs in the American West—four or five days a week. And that's all season long.

The powder really is unbelievable, but so is range of terrain—Japan has hundreds of ski resorts, from mom and pop local areas to party villages that look like Whistler to side-country meccas like Silverton. On top of that, most Japanese skiers greatly prefer groomers, so the deep powder is often left—in vast quantities—for foreign visitors. Thigh-deep unbroken lines linger in full view of busy chairlifts into mid-afternoon, something that simply never happens at home.

In addition to bottomless fresh tracks, Japanese ski towns and resorts serve up ultra-fresh sushi, tempura, tonkatsu, ramen, sake, beer, and some of the world’s best whiskies, along with a never-ending dose of mind-boggling hospitality, in lodgings from traditional ryokans to modern full-service luxury hotels, with muscle-soothing onsens (natural hot springs baths) at every turn. And it’s cheap: lift tickets and lodging run 40 to 60 percent less than equivalent spots in the U.S.

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Enthusiasm for Japan's mountains among adventurous skiers and professional athletes is sure to bring the next wave of enthusiastic amateurs. "There’s a predictable cycle for ski destinations getting hot," explained Dan Sherman, vice president of Ski.com, the nation’s largest specialty ski travel agency. "Ski and adventure film makers look for perfect destinations, then they bring pro athletes and make movies. More athletes hear about it and start going. Hardcore ski audiences see the movies and start going. The ski media starts covering it, then ski clubs and groups start going, the mainstream travel media starts covering it, and finally, regular skiers go. It’s about a five-year process and Japan is in the final stage of that cycle right now. This winter it’s all you will hear about.” In response, Ski.com added trips to Hokkaido for the first time last winter.

This winter Japan is all you will hear about.

Scout Ski, a boutique custom ski tour planning company more focused on the luxury market and personalized needs, has been increasingly sending savvy skiers there for more than 10 years, and while it offers trips to Canada, the U.S., Europe, and the Southern Hemisphere too, Scout recently started to focus much more heavily on Japan, where it covers both Hokkaido and less heavily developed regions and hidden gems including Nagano.

"It’s got the world’s best snow and the world’s best food and it’s a ton of fun," said owner Sarah Plaskitt, who has skied all over the world and spent several weeks each of the past few winters in Japan. "Why wouldn’t you go there?"

Skiing in Japan offers two distinctly different experiences by region. The most developed resorts with the biggest infrastructure are in Hokkaido, which has a far more Westernized feel, with mostly English spoken, international cuisine, and name-brand chain hotels (Hilton, Westin, and, under construction, a Park Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton’s highest-tier Reserve). It also gets more snow, and is the choice for those who value turnkey convenience and powder above all else.

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Nagano is much more traditionally Japanese, with few large hotels, lots of ryokans (classic inns), and very little Western influence—no Irish pubs or Mexican restaurants. This is the more adventurous choice for both excellent skiing and a deeper dive into local Japanese culture, with limited written and spoken English, no crowds, still great snow, and easy proximity for combining with a visit to Tokyo.

Trip planning is far more complex than most domestic or European ski vacations because of language differences, flight and airport options and recommendations, insider expertise, ground transfers by train and vehicle, convoluted ski pass and lodging options, booking difficulties, and myriad options for English-speaking guides and instructors. It is highly advisable to use a travel agent or ski travel specialist familiar with Japan such as Scout Ski or one of the regional experts below.


HOKKAIDO

WHERE TO SKI

Niseko: Japan’s answer to Whistler, Niseko is the nation’s most visited and most developed ski resort, with lots of hotels, bars, four interconnected ski mountains with 30 lifts, and a very international (i.e. non-Japanese) feel. Turnkey home base for weeklong stays, with access to nearby mountains as well.


Rusutsu: In the same area as Niseko¸ Rusutsu is the largest ski resort in Japan, with even more skiing and several large ski-in/ski-out hotels but less village/ski town infrastructure.

Kiroro: For experts, true powder junkies, and backcountry skiers, this is the one featured in all the ski movies, famed for its extensive network of gates accessing side-country. Transceivers and other avalanche gear are required to enjoy this aspect of the resort. No village per se, but a couple of good full-service hotels and several restaurants, though most visitors come for the day from Niseko or Rusutsu.

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WHERE TO STAY

Ki Niseko: A modern full-service mid-sized hotel with a perfect location for both town and skiing at the foot of the main gondola with a mix of hotel rooms and one- to three-bedroom apartments, Ki Niseko has true onsen baths with its own hot springs, spa, slopeside ski valet, shuttle service around town, and an English-speaking staff. Western and Eastern breakfasts are included. 183-43 Yamada, +81-136-21-2565


A traditional Japanese onsen (natural hot springs bath) near Niseko

AYA Niseko: A new luxury condo hotel with very well-equipped residences with full luxury kitchens, plus onsen, spa, craft beer pub, AYA Niseko includes very extensive Western and Eastern buffet breakfasts. Ski-in/ski out. 195-1 Aza Yamada, +81-136-23-1280

Hilton Niseko/Green Leaf Niseko: The Hilton is the largest and most full-service resort here, tucked in a small on-mountain village, with excellent ski-in/out slope access but a shuttle ride from the main resort village. It featured indoor and outdoor onsens, a large activity center, fitness center, spa, bar, and six restaurants. Hilton also manages the smaller and more residential Green Leaf next door, with its own spa, onsen, bar, and restaurant. There is a small connected pedestrian village with additional shopping and dining options. 048-1592 Abuta-Gun, +81-136-44-1111

It’s got the world’s best snow and the world’s best food and it’s a ton of fun. Why wouldn't you go there?

The Kiroro, A Tribute Portfolio Hotel: Easily the top choice at Kiroro, this large self-contained luxury resort has a mix of Western and Japanese style rooms, stores, six varied restaurants, spa, fitness center, and Hokkaido’s most extensive onsen complex with a variety of indoor, outdoor, and specialty baths. 128-1 Aza-Tokiwa, +81-135-34-7111

Westin Rusutsu: Built in 2016, this ski-in/out 23-story high rise hotel at base of Japan’s largest ski resort has 210 oversized modern guest rooms featuring international outlets and lots of charging stations, a spa, hot springs baths, two restaurants, and branded Westin amenities including beds, workout gear, and showers. It's located in the small Rusutsu Village, with additional eateries and shops. 133 Izumikawa Rusutsu-mura, +81-136-46-2111

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WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

Boyo-So: The highlight of Niseko’s on-mountain dining, this mom-and-pop spot serves heaping portions of Japanese comfort food including ramen and chicken katsu in a mountain hut. It’s elbow-to-elbow at lunch, and you order at counter, try to grab table space, and wait for your order to be called. It's located a third of the way up the mountain right under the Hirafu Gondola and just above the top of the Holiday Pair Lift.


Hirafu Village and Mt. Yotei

Izakaya Bang Bang: Izakaya means Japanese style pub, and the specialty here is yakitori skewers grilled over hardwood charcoal, with nearly three dozen varieties. It's in the heart of Niseko’s main Hirafu Village. Hirafu-Zaka Street, +81-136-22-4292

Kamimura: Considered the resort’s finest restaurant, this Michelin-starred, Japanese-influenced French eatery specializes in lengthy tasting menus and requires reservations far in advance. Located in the Shiki Niseko hotel. Aza-Yamada 190-4, +81-136-221-2288

Snow Castle: This is oddly one of the few higher-end Japanese restaurants in Niseko, which has more Western eateries. Specialties include multi course omakase (chef’s choice) sushi and sashimi tasting dinners and modern Japanese cuisine. Reservations highly recommended, located in the Chalet Ivy Hotel. 188-19 Aza Yamada, +81-136-22-1124


An ice bar in Niseko

LOCAL GUIDE/ORGANIZER

Japan Powder Connection: American expat Jen Veilleux and her bilingual crew of locals can do everything from organizing hotel reservations to extreme backcountry guiding. Services include full ski school instructional programs, daily guided excursions to nearby resorts such as Rusutsu with hotel pick-up and transfers, and even cultural and dining tours of Hokkaido. You can tour the famed Nikka Whisky Distillery in Sapporo, or just book an informed local insider to ski with. +81-505-806-5509 or local from the U.S. 970-642-3080, [email protected]

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HOW TO GET HERE

Sapporo has a major international airport, New Chitose International (CTS), though flying from the States requires changing in, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Taipei, or elsewhere. Last year Japan extended its famous Shinkansen bullet train system to Sapporo, now just over four hours by rail from Tokyo, comparable to going from the city center to the airport and flying. It is about a two-hour drive from Sapporo to Niseko and there are regularly scheduled bus transfers, the most popular options with the Hokkaido Access Network Resort Liner or Good Sports White Liner. Some guests rent cars for easier access to nearby resorts and attractions, though given the frequent whiteouts, winding mountain roads, foreign language signage and driving on the left side, this is not for the faint of heart. By far the easiest option is to arrange a private door to door transfer in a sedan, van, or SUV from Sky Express.

NAGANO

WHERE TO SKI

Nozawa: The birthplace of Japanese skiing, Nozawa is a mid-sized ski resort with 44 trails and nearly 20 lifts including two gondolas. It is known for getting the heaviest snows in Nagano prefecture but the big appeal is that it is located in Nozawa Onsen, Japan’s best ski town. While most are modern purpose-built pedestrian villages or simple ski hill base areas, Nozawa Onsen is a charming hot springs resort town that dates to the Samurai era and exudes authentic, traditional Japanese charm—think of it as the Pacific Rim’s Telluride. No large hotels, no chains, no bank, one ATM, a dozen hot spring baths, and lots of great bars and restaurants, almost all of them Japanese. The main reason to ski Nozawa is because visitors want to stay in Nozawa Onsen. It also has a large Nordic center used for the Olympic cross-country events.

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Shiga Kogen: The largest ski resort on the main island of Japan, Shiga Kogen hosted several Olympic events, and offers ridiculous amounts of untouched powder. It has a several large ski-in/out hotels across its slopes, but they are secluded and self-contained, and there is no village because it's located in a National Park.

Madarao: A small resort that is so famous for its snow-filled glades, Madarao's nickname is MadaPow! For years, tree skiing was considered off limits in Japan, and at some resorts still is, but Madarao was the first to clear brush and create designated glades, and while many others have followed suit, it is still the pinnacle for tree skiing fans. Sixty percent of the terrain is left ungroomed, unusual by Japanese standards, including famed runs with apt names like Powder Theater. But it’s small, has no village, and is best experienced as a day trip from Nozawa or Shiga Kogen.


Snowy mountains in Japan

WHERE TO STAY

Ryokan Sakaya: The most upscale accommodations in Nozawa Onsen, this is a traditional ryokan, so you leave your shoes in the lobby, never wear them indoors, and can go to breakfast and dinner in a yukata robe. Rooms are simple and small, but service, food, and excellent onsen baths are high-quality. Consider it a cultural immersion in a great location on the edge of town closest to the slopes. 9329 Nozawa Onsen, +81-26-985-1230

Ryokan Jon Nobi: The sister property to Sakaya and just across the street, this is very similar but with a larger, less intimate feel and two full-service restaurants open to outside guests. It also has excellent private onsens. 9288 Nozawa Onsen, +81-26-985-1230

Shiga Kogen Prince Hotel: Prince is one of Japan’s largest upscale hotel and resort operators, and this full-service, self-contained ski-in/ski-out property sprawls across three separate wings clustered at the base of one of the lifts at Nagano’s largest ski resort. The hotel has a spa, outdoor hot spring pool, and eight bars and restaurants.

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WHERE TO EAT

Ryokans: If you stay in a ryokan, it is typical to spend one night eating at the inn’s restaurant, sometimes only for guests and typically featuring kaiseki cuisine, an array of extremely artful small plates (generally all vegetarian) with as much emphasis on beauty, variety, and presentation as taste.

Mizuo: Hidden away on the second floor of the Ryokan Jon Nobi, this small spot specializes in tempura and locally made small batch sakes and is a lot of fun. 9288 Nozawa Onsen, +81-26-985-1230

Wanryu Ramen: The ramen spot is a hole in the wall in the heart of the village that looks like you should order at the counter but has waiter service for the handful of tables. There are myriad variations of big bowls of ramen and a variety of dumplings, with hearty but delicious après-ski fare. 9258 Toyosato Yokochi, +81-269-85-2439

Libushi: This sleek, modern, tiny and fantastic brew pub has no food, but does offer a variety of standout small-batch craft beers on draught, all made on the premises, and a nice break from the standard Kirin, Suntory, and Asahi fare. It also offers a sense of secret discovery, since there is no sign and you would never find it if you did not know to look for it. With 10 taps and two hand-pulled cask pumps, it serves more beers than the number of people it can fit in the space. 9347 Toyosato (across from Ryokan Sakaya)

Local Guide/Organizer: Ski Nagano–Kaz Sekiya lived at Colorado ski resorts for years before returning home to start his private guiding/ski concierge business. He offers planning advice, assistance, and private small group day trips with door-to- door transport to all the area resorts, as well as other highlights like the region’s famous hot spring bathing snow monkeys and dining. He’s especially knowledgeable about tree skiing and where to find the best powder stashes at each resort. +81-90-7940-5188, [email protected], goskinagano.com

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HOW TO GET HERE

The Shinkansen bullet train is just two hours with no changes from Tokyo station to Iiyama, the closest to Nozawa, then a 45-minute cab ride, making it ideal to combine this ski trip with a stay in Tokyo before or after. If coming from either Tokyo airport, Narita or Haneda, it’s fastest (four hours) to take a bus or train into Tokyo and switch to this train, but it is also a real pain with luggage, especially skis, given the size and crowds of Japan’s main rail hubs and lack of luggage space on board. Slower but much more seamless is to book a van transfer directly from the airport to Nozawa: you’re met with a sign, plenty of luggage space, you go door to door, and you can sleep en route. This takes five to six hours. Chuo Taxi offers both private transfers and small shared vans for handful of skiers and makes this run several times daily.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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