Looking for bottomless powder, thermal hot springs, and delectable sashimi? Time for a ski trip to Japan.
For North Americans, a ski trip to Japan may sound excessive, but know this: you will not find anything like this country's insane snowfall, exquisite culture, and sense of understated skiing adventure anywhere else in the world. From Japow's nearly 150 days of annual snowfall to its famous hot spring onsens, Japan offers everything one could want in an epic ski getaway. Whether you're planning to hit the backcountry for days on end, or enjoy just a few runs between delectable meals of steaming noodles and fresh caught fish, Japan delivers. Here are our top 8 reasons to make the journey to Japan this season.
1. More Powder
There’s a reason they call it Japow. Hakkaido, specifically, is known as the powder capital of the world, where it’s not uncommon for snow to fall all day, every day, for weeks. Snowfall averages 147 days a year, and the quantity exceeds that of the U.S. and Switzerland combined. Hakuba and Niseko are known to receive 300 inches snowfall in January alone! While North American and European resorts have had unreliable snowfall the past few winters, Japan continues to crank out enough snorkel skiing for even the bigger powder hounds to get their fix. We’ll note here that backcountry safety becomes that much more important, and if you plan to go on a touring adventure, consider hiring a guide for the complete experience.
2. Less Crowds
Aussies especially love Japan for its (relative) close proximity, but also lack of crowds. You’ll be hard pressed to find any lift lines in resorts around Hakuba, and still very few in Hakkaido. The contrast is even greater from North American resorts like Vail and Park City, whose crowds tend to inflate tenfold at peak times. If you’re traveling with family, Japan is a great option for low key ski schools with low student-to-instructor ratio. Several resorts employee seasonal instructors from Canada and the UK, so finding English speakers is not an issue.
3. Sashimi and Sake
Japan is all about the seafood, so if you’ve been vegetarian until this point, we recommend you take a hiatus (you could be pescetarian, right?) Imagine fresh trout diced up in front of you for fresh sashimi, home-cooked plates of steaming rice noodles, and those ever-delightful specialty eats like seafood pancakes (they’re actually really good). If you have time in Tokyo before heading to the mountains, treat yourself to a traditional sake presentation at a number of izakayas – casual bars particularly suited to the rice wine. On your ski vacation you’ll find that it’s common everywhere, and certainly to be enjoyed at dinner after an onsen bath.
4. Hot Springs
In Japan, these thermal pools are called onsens: they’re the western version of the hot tub, but fed by natural spring waters from volcanoes. The water itself boasts healing qualities, and the entire onsen bathing routine is a ritual in and of itself. When you head to the mountainous regions of Japan, you’ll find that most guest houses have private onsens – one for each gender. At the end of a ski day, strip off everything (including your skivvies), give yourself a cleansing scrub, and then soak in the onsen to relieve sore muscles and warm the entire system. Some towns even have specialty foot onsens along the streets for immediate post-skiing foot soaks.
5. Japanese Culture
Whether you hang in Tokyo for a few days or venture into the more remote areas of the mountains, you’ll find kind, courteous, polite, delightful Japanese people – and a culture to match. Highly reserved and exercising a humbleness towards skiing and life that’s extremely rare in the West, locals are likely to help you fall in love with more than just Japan’s perfect powder. Then there’s the food, the festivals, the stunning temples and funky street art to take in on your off days. If you can spare a few on either end of your trip to explore cultural places, we highly encourage it.
6. Snow Monkeys
If you do an internet search for hot springs in winter, we guarantee you’ll find photos of the quirky and photogenic Japanese Macaques. A couple hours from Hakuba, some of these snow monkey troupes retreat from the mountains into hot springs, and you can visit them (along with other stunning scenery) in a day trip from the resorts. This is a great option for anyone who wants a taste of Japan’s unique wildlife scene – the kids will especially get a kick out of it.
7. Low(er) Costs
Yes, a flight to Tokyo and connection to the mountains will cost you more than one to Denver, but once you step foot on the slopes, you can expect to pay far less than you would in North America for lift tickets, gear rentals, dining and lodging. As of last year, lift tickets in Hakkaido averaged just under 50 USD a day – less than half the cost of lift access at big shots like Aspen and Jackson Hole. On-mountain dining is quite cheap: you can get traditional Japanese fare for 5 USD a meal. If you’re going out at night, expect to pay more for East/West fusion cuisine, but not more than 10 USD for a bowl of tasty noodles. The best deals can be found at family-run guesthouses, who prepare delicious home-cooked meals included in the lodging price. You won’t pay more than 100 USD per day for decent lodging and delicious meals.
8. Picture Perfect Terrain
Japan’s ski terrain is that out of a dream world – incomparable to the Rockies, the Alps, or the Andes. Venture the tiniest bit off the beaten track and you’ll find yourself cruising through powder fields dotted with birch trees, or – for the experts – spines and pillow lines fit for the gnarliest TGR films. Overall, slope aspects are mellower than most extreme skiing destinations across the globe, but this allows for an equally relaxed approach to the ski culture overall. For the really steep stuff, head to Hakuba.