Carve Your Name in Asian Powder
When I’ve told people I’ve been skiing in Japan the usual reply is: “I didn’t even know you could do that there.” Neither did I at the end of 2014, but after a week spent sampling the slopes of the land of sushi this January I’d place it firmly at the top of my must-ski list.
I’d planned a trip to Tokyo to start my four-month tour of Asia and knew I wanted to see the weird and wonderful side of Japan, as well as the action and adventure. One search led to another and before I knew it I’d planned to ski at three different places in Japan: Nozawa Onsen, Mount Zao and Niseko. With the help of the gapyear.com message board community who I thank for inspiring my incredible Japan trip I’d narrowed it down to these three as the must-dos.
Which resort is best?
Of course if you’re going all the way to Japan to ski you want to go straight in for the kill and strap those snow boots on at the best resort the country has got.
Nozawa Onsen had great powder, was only a few hours from Tokyo and a good selection of run abilities. There was also a great vibe in the village with all the onsens (hot springs) available and the nightly karaoke at Heaven Bar. I really liked it here and on a weekend in January it was just busy enough to have some atmosphere but there was plenty of room for me to flex my skis without feeling the pressure of a compact resort either. There was so much snow here I actually ended up on a black run because they’d had to close the red runs I was planning on and I hadn’t read the signs properly. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
I wanted to see the Snow Monsters of Mount Zao AmberMarie had talked about on the gapyear.com message boards. When I found out you could fit in some skiing too I was all for it. The snow here was a lot different to Nozawa Onsen – at least when I went. It was icy and more difficult to traverse. I fell over a lot at Mount Zao! There wasn’t quite so much going on here during the day or evening in terms of après ski either. Mount Zao is a great place to go for a day on the way up to Niseko from Tokyo to see the snow monsters but I wouldn’t go back next time I go skiing in Japan.
I would definitely go back to Niseko. It’s the most famous ski resort in Japan for good reason – it’s huge and the pow pow is amazing. I was actually only planning on skiing for a day here, thanks to the budget, but that soon turned into three and a steaming credit card in my purse. The Niseko Mountain is divided into four ski resorts and once you’re at the top you can walk/ski/board across to the others, or you can take the public bus along the bottom.
The powder here is just incredible – it makes you realise what you’re missing at other resorts. I’ve skied in Canada and Slovenia and neither come close to the feeling of skiing the powder of Niseko. There were loads of different slopes, new challenges, plenty of backcountry powder to try (not for me!) and plenty of green and red runs too.
The cost of skiing in Japan
Skiing in Japan did end up being more expensive than I thought but mainly because I wasn’t prepared. Take as much equipment as you can – trousers, jackets, thermals, goggles, gloves and hats can all be found fairly cheaply from discount sports stores or TK Maxx in the UK. Even if you leave them after a few days of use it’ll still be cheaper than paying to rent. I was paying 1000¥per day just for the goggles, over 5 days that’s £25!
On average it cost around 10,000¥ per day (£60) to rent the skis, boots, trousers, jacket, goggles and helmet, and then the ski pass was on top of that. I had a hat, scarf and gloves already.
If you have your own equipment you can send it between ski resorts using the highly refined delivery service, which is great value and saves you carting it about on the busy public transport. Some of the Tokyo residents I met didn’t even bother ever having their stuff at home but just directed it between ski resorts. Accommodation near the resorts averaged £20 per night, and that was for the cheapest I could find without going too far out.
How to ski Japan
The best way to get around Japan for skiing depends on what your other plans are in the country. I had a three-week Japan Rail Pass so could use that as much as I liked to get around, although it wasn’t always the quickest and most convenient option for the resorts. I’d recommend the following:
Get a train from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Nagano and then the ski bus to Nozawa Onsen. To save money but spend a little more time you can also get a bus from Shinjuku Station to Nagano, and then jump on the same bus from there. There are plenty of ryokans available in the village near the slopes that will also provide your food while you’re there too, or there are cheaper villages nearby connected by the ski bus.
I took a train from Tokyo Station to Yamagatawhere I stayed in a decent hotel for pretty cheap (£20ish a night). From here I could get the ski bus 40 minutes to Mount Zao, which dropped me off at the bottom of the slopes.Alternatively you could look for accommodation at Mount Zao as there were plenty of guesthouses there.
I used my Japan Rail Pass to get to Chitose Airport and then picked up a ski bus from there, which took a few hours to get to Moiwa where my hotel was. On the return I took a train from Niseko to make the most of my rail pass but with the cost of the taxi I needed from the Niseko Ski Resort to the Niseko Rail Station I spent just as much as I would for the ski bus to Chitose, and it took more time. I’d recommend you choose somewhere in Hirafu as that’s where the best resort is and it’s easier to access there.
Skiing in Japan
My time skiing in Japan has been one of the main highlights of my time travelling in Asia. Sure it’s more expensive than partying on the beaches of Thailand or cruising the Mekong Delta in Vietnam but it’s worth every yen.
Any questions about skiing in Japan? Leave a comment!
And check out my gapyear.com blog @Vicky
Get Your Japanese Ticket to Ride
The best way to get around the Japanese ski resorts is by rail. You can buy a Japan Rail Pass right here that'll let you take any train you want in Japan for up to three weeks. Depending how much you travel, you can save huge sums of money.