One of the best reasons to plan a winter getaway to Japan is for the incredible skiing and snowboarding locations this country has to offer. Much of the central and northern regions of Japan get significant snowfall in the winter months, and as a result some places have their ski season open all the way until early May. If you're contemplating a trip to the land of the rising sun to enjoy this time of year, here are some of the best ski slopes across the country - and what makes them worth a visit.
If you're looking for a ski slope with ease of access to Tokyo, then Gala Yuzawa is a clear winner. The resort here is a convenient 75 minute shinkansen ride directly from Tokyo Station - the Gala Yuzawa station is situated right on the mountain itself, and as soon as you head out the ticket gates you'll see the ski center straight away. Doesn't get easier than that! They've got plenty of rental gear here as well - skis, snowboards, and sleds are all available, so lugging around your own stuff isn't necessary. For ski rental (skis, ski boots and poles) and snowboard rental (board and boots) you're looking at 4900 yen a day.
There are plenty of snow based activities you can enjoy at Gala Yuzawa, but after all that fun in the cold you might be looking for a way to warm back up before you head back to Tokyo. They've also got hot springs, jacuzzis and swimming pools here if you need to thaw out. Admission to those facilities are set at 1300 yen for adults and 800 yen for children.
As well as being situated close enough to Tokyo to warrant a ski or snowboarding day trip, Niigata Prefecture produces some of Japan's best rice (and as a result they also have excellent sake). If you're looking for some to try, a really easy way to do that is to head to the neighboring Echigo Yuzawa train station. Within the station there's a place called the Ponshukan, where you can pay 500 yen and get 5 tokens and a small cup to enjoy some different sake of your choosing. They also have umeshu and locally produced wines at the neat little vending machines here - definitely worth a visit to do some taste testing if you're passing through!
The snow season at Gala Yuzawa runs from the 16th of December through to the 6th of May.
Gala Yuzawa is easily accessed by the Joetsu Shinkansen direct from Tokyo Station.
If you're old enough (like me!) to remember the 1998 Winter Olympics held in Nagano Prefecture, you might already know that some of the events were held here at Hakuba - so you know this is a world class spot to break out those skis and snowboards! Situated in the heart of the Japanese Alps, the Hakuba area boasts a total of 9 different ski resorts, as well as 135 lifts and 200 different runs - so there's no need to worry about there not being enough space to enjoy yourself at this popular destination. One of the most well known resorts here is Happo-One, where a one day ticket during the peak season will set you back 5200 yen for adults (classed as anyone 13 years or over) and 3000 yen for children aged 6 to 12 years. At Happo-One, there are multiple different runs covering everything from beginners all the way through to advanced level skiers and boarders - there's even a fenced in kids area so that little ones who aren't old enough for the slopes can enjoy building a snowman or just playing in their own winter wonderland.
There's plenty of eateries on the mountain at Happo One as well, serving up some great winter warming food like miso ramen, hot pot dishes, and pork cutlet donburi bowls. You can even get yourself a Happo Burger there if you're feeling like a taste of home.
The easiest way to reach Hakuba is by bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano, and then limited express bus from Nagano to Hakuba. More details about other methods of transport can be found at the link here.
Mt. Niseko is made up of four different resorts, so again, if you're headed to this part of Japan you've got choices about where to spend your time. A one day pass at Niseko (which covers the whole mountain) will set you back 7400 yen for adults, 4500 yen for children aged 7 to 12 years, and 5600 yen for 13 to 15 year olds. If you want to stick around for longer than the one day, they have multi day passes that work out to be more economical when averaged out. As well as the great conditions here for skiing, snowboarding and other snow based activities, it has to be one of the most photogenic spots to enjoy this time of year - you'll see Mt. Yotei from many of the resorts at Niseko, which is often known as Hokkaido's Mt. Fuji since it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Japanese icon. Also, like Fuji, Mt. Yotei is a stratovolcano - but don't worry, Yotei is inactive.
As well as having some great skiing and snowboarding here, the area is known as a bit of a foodie paradise - a must try is Sobadokoro Rakuichi, which gained some serious popularity after being featured on the American chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations. Most accommodation in the region is situated in the nearby Kutchan Town - but there's a convenient shuttle bus that runs from several different stops in Kutchan over to the resorts. Best of all, if you hold an All-Mountain pass valid for the day you're catching the shuttle, it's free. Details about the shuttle service can be found at the link here.
Niseko is around two to three hours from Sapporo's New Chitose Airport and can be accessed conveniently by either by bus or train. There are more details about access at the link here.
If your perfect trifecta in Japan would be snow, onsen, and a really cool wintertime festival, then Nozawa Onsen is somewhere that can hit the nail on the head for all of those. There are 36 different trails at the Nozawa Onsen Resort, and again they've got everything here from beginners all the way through to advanced level. One day passes at Nozawa Onsen are 4800 yen for adults, and 2200 yen for children aged 12 and under.
If you have young ones in your traveling party, then Nozawa Onsen might win you over with the array of entertainment they have for children. There's a kids park area with plenty of play equipment, slides, sleds, and even a beginner's slope where they can get some practice in. As well, Nozawa Onsen Resort offers a daycare facility for children from 1 to 6 years of age - you can either do half or full day care, and there is a cap on the number of children they can take daily to ensure that the adult to child ratio stays on track.
You may have been able to tell from the resort name, but the area here is renowned for its hot spring facilities. In the township there are thirteen different public bath houses, with the most iconic being O-yu, which is situated in a gorgeous traditional wooden building. As well as being a way to soothe those muscles after a long day on the slopes, there are also plenty of other health benefits that the onsen here are alleged to have - so get to soaking!
As for the festival side of things, the Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival is to be held on the 15th of January (it's held on the same date each year). The purpose of the festival originally was to seek a good harvest, good health, and good finances for the year to follow, but a lot of people these days also are there wishing for a good ski season as well! There are various different fire festivals held across Japan during the year, but this particular one is said to be in the top three - so it's worth a visit if you'll be in the area at that time.
The quickest way to get to Nozawa Onsen is to catch the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Iiyama Station, with a bus service there completing the journey. More details about access can be found here.
Furano is a popular ski resort smack bang in the middle of Hokkaido Prefecture - but they boast that they're a bit of a hidden gem, being fairly unknown outside of Japan itself. They get around 9 meters of snowfall a season here - and best of all, it's some of the lightest and driest powdery snow in the region. If you're concerned about your skiing or snowboarding ability, the runs at Furano are broken down into 40% beginner, 40% intermediate, and 20% advanced, so no matter your skill level there's going to be something that suits you here. As for admission costs, during peak season at Furano (which runs from the 9th of December through to the 25th of March) adult one day passes are 5500 yen, and kids 12 and under are free. One of the most enjoyable activities that Furano also has to offer is their Kan Kan Mura Snow Night Fantasy, which consists of a snow cafe and Japan's longest snow tubing course at 200 meters in length. The dates for the Kan Kan Mura are from December 23rd until March 11th, and it will cost you 300 yen - that does include your snow tube rental though!
Even if you're unable to visit Furano during Japan's winter, it warrants a stop in the summer months too - the area is known for their incredible flower fields, in particular their lavender.
From Sapporo, Furano is approximately a two hour train trip away. Details about access can be found on the website link here.
Hopefully some of these snowy spots might make your winter itinerary during your travels throughout Japan. There are plenty of other spots for skiing and snowboarding too, not just the ones on this list - so if you'll be anywhere around central/Northern Japan definitely do check to see if there are options nearby!