I have been skiing since I was three. I have skied in North America, South America, New Zealand, and Europe. I can honestly say that the best, the truly most consistently good snow conditions I have found are in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island. While Japan has 100s of ski resorts there is a huge difference in the quality of the snow (and also the crowds and lift lines) in Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu. In Hokkaido, it is typical to get 10-15cm of fresh snow fall on 3 or 4 days each week of the season from December to March. The snow that falls is light and dry, a kind of “Siberian Lake Effect” snow in which cold air blasts from Siberia come across the northern reaches of the Sea of Japan, pick up the moisture, and then dump it again over Hokkaido.
I have lived in Japan for 8 years now, and spend 2-3 weekends each month in Hokkaido skiing. It is simply that good. I like to joke among friends that “snorkel days” when there is so much powder on the mountain the only way to breathe is with a snorkel. The other great thing about Hokkaido skiing is that for more advanced skiers off piste terrain is outstanding and not forbidden skiing in these areas is actually encouraged.
By far the best and most foreigner friendly mountain in Hokkaido is Niseko. Roughly 25,000 Aussies visit in the winter, which has created a critical mass of lodges, restaurants, and other services catering for foreign visitors. Niseko is actually four inter-connected resorts, with lots of terrain. Perhaps the only negative things I can say about skiing at Niseko (and Japan generally) are that the mountains are rather small. And most “resorts” lack a lot of services (think: apres ski
bar with live music in a base village) that we take for granted in the West, But Niseko comes the closest, and for my time and money I think the skiing at Niseko tops the experience at the leading mountains in the Rockies. Plus, where else can you have views of a volcano like Youtei-san? There are other notable resorts in Hokkaido that are also very good: Rusutsu, Kiroro, and Furano are probably the best. Kokusai, Sahoro, and Tomamu are also pretty good. From the hub city of Sapporo there are also decent ski hills within the city limits, which I like to hit when I do not have time to leave the city: Bankei, Teine, and Moiwayama are all very accessible from the city center by bus or taxi.
Charles in action
Outside of Hokkaido, there is also skiing to be had. But it is vastly inferior to Hokkaido. The northern Tohoku area has three interesting mountains. Zao is located between Sendai and Yamagata and is actually two resorts (not connected) on opposite sides of the mountain. Appi is a bit further north in Iwate, and is a very large mountain. At the northern tip of Honshu is Hakkoda-san, a true “beast” of a mountain. They have a single ropeway and some of the most rugged terrain you’ll find anywhere. Snow here is very plentiful, but the conditions are often very harsh. It’s best to not think of Hakkoda-san as a resort, but rather a rugged mountain that happens to be accessible to skiers.
For those looking to ski from Tokyo, the most accessible region is in Niigata. It is also the most crowded. There are a half dozen resorts in the Echigo-Yuzawa area, which has frequent bullet trains from Tokyo. About a 40 minute bus ride from Echigo Yuzawa lies Naeba, which also plays host in the summer to the Fuji Rock Festival. One of the coolest ski experiences in Japan is to take one of the special bullet trains from Tokyo direct to Gala Yuzawa. JR, the rail company, owns the resort, and integrated the station into the lift complex. It’s a 75-80 minute ride from Tokyo, and many skiers put their boots on in the train, and then walk about 100m to board the gondola up the mountain.
There are numerous other areas that are accessible from Tokyo: Gunma and Nagano are probably the best known and each has several resorts. Further to the west, one can find numerous ski resorts as far away as Hiroshima Prefecture, but I would not recommend them to anyone looking for a world class skiing experience. As I said at the top, I heartily recommend Hokkaido’s ski experience as being among the very best in the world.
The best resource for online info in English on skiing in Japan is the Snow Japan web site: http://www.snowjapan.com/e/index.php