The 5 Best Places for Backcountry Skiing in Japan
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A ski trip to Japan is strikingly different from what you’ll experience anywhere else in the world. Japan is the place for powder hungry skiers. Mountains in Japan are relatively low compared to the European Alps or the Rocky Mountains. Yet, Japan has the snowiest winter on the planet thanks to the Sea of Japan providing the relatively warm moisture that can be transformed into deep, light, fluffy, one-of-a kind powder thanks to the arctic temperatures of the Siberian winds. You won’t find many steep couloirs like those in Chamonix or Jackson Hole, but how many places can you do laps in and out of a volcano’s crater? And, you should always end a day of skiing in an onsen, a hot-spring full of mineral rich water to relax those overworked ski muscles. If you want to know where to head to experience #japow at it’s best, here are the top spots for backcountry skiing in Japan.
From the US to Chamonix to JapanBefore I get to the best ski spots, let me tell you a little about myself. I am from the United States, and spent most of my formative years in the Midwest. After graduating college, I found a job in Japan where I had spent a year as an exchange student. After working in Tokyo, I moved to Europe, and this is where I realized my passion for climbing and backcountry skiing. A friend of mine from Japan came to Europe, and we rode our motorcycles all over until we stumbled upon Chamonix. That moment was something else, looking up at Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi, my mind was just going in circles trying to grasp what I was seeing. I had heard of Chamonix in passing, but actually being there was breathtaking. At that point, I lived in Amsterdam, but started visiting Chamonix more often, doing alpine climbing on my own. I felt a real affinity with the community of alpinists and skiers. If you say you’re an alpinist in Chamonix, virtually everyone can relate, but in Amsterdam and Tokyo, it’s a concept far removed from peoples’ everyday lives. My experiences in Chamonix helped me realize that this is what I wanted to be doing with my life. I ended up back in Japan for work and discovered the blossoming powder mecca of Niseko. Since the altitude is fairly low (the highest peak on Hokkaido, Asahi-dake, is 7,516 feet), when you hike to earn your turns, there is no acclimatizing, and the terrain is more gentle meaning that the earning part of the equation isn’t as tiring (well, breaking through 50cm of fresh powder is tiring, but you manage), yet the reward is exceptional.
Becoming an AMGA guideIn Chamonix, I had entered into the Mountain Guide program of the Ecole Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme which has a competitive entrance exam for the 40 or so spaces a year; in 2007 I believe there were approximately 150 applicants. After submitting my portfolio and going through a rigorous interview I was invited to participate in the ski probatoire. Going up against Chamoniards who learned to ski at the same time they learned to walk, and many on their second and third attempts to get into the program, it was no surprise when I did not earn a spot to continue on to the next probatoire; I had started skiing 18 months prior to my exam. The experience positively shaped my thinking about the mountains and the professionals who live to guide. I knew I wanted to become a guide so after moving back to Japan I found a ski coach and skied every chance I got. After a few seasons of hard training, my guide friends from Chamonix reassured me that I was a much better skier now and would pass the ski exam. Reassuring certainly, but I decided on entering the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Mountain Guide program. By working towards IFMGA certification through the AMGA’s Mountain Guide curriculum you stay abreast of both traditional and the latest techniques that enable you to provide the highest level of guest satisfaction. I consider risk management and communicating to be the biggest parts of my job. They both come in the form of how to best serve my clients, how to assess their abilities and desires, and to deliver on that. It is my responsibility to know when it’s appropriate to push ourselves in the backcountry, but also when it’s time to turn around. I consider myself to be in a perpetual state of situational awareness and always pushing myself to become better at what I do. Hands down, this is the greatest job I can imagine. People often tell me, “Tracy, that’s a pretty nice office you have,” to which I usually respond with a paraphrase of Shane McConkey, “It does not suck!” Needless to say, guiding both in America and Japan has brought me immense joy, and it is with pleasure that I share with you some of my favorite places to backcountry ski in this country where I make my home.
1. Niseko, Hokkaido
While the mountains of Honshu are known for their steep lines, Hokkaido is famous for the deep, light powder that has become synonymous with skiing in Japan. The ski resorts and the surrounding side and backcountry of Niseko has terrain appropriate for different skill levels, making it a great option if you’re skiing with a group that has a wide range of abilities. The terrain of Niseko United is mellower than what you’ll find skiing in Jackson Hole or Chamonix for example, but there are many groomed runs that are perfect for beginners and intermediate skiers. For backcountry enthusiasts, it’s pure gold.
Level up your ski abilities in NisekoFor those looking to head into the backcountry, but aren’t sure how their skiing abilities will hold up in Japan’s deep and fluffy snow, Niseko United offers a graduated environment, moving from the many ungroomed pistes found in the resort to the sidecountry accessed through the gates of the resort and then away from the resort altogether into the surrounding backcountry. Think of Niseko as the perfect place to gradually level up your backcountry abilities. Niseko United is made up of four different ski resorts which are all connected and easy to get from one to the other. Annupuri Resort is ideal for groomed runs suited to beginners and intermediates. There is also gated access (Gates 1, 2, 7 and 8) to some of the best sidecountry skiing on the mountain. Niseko Village also has beginner and intermediate zones with a couple of expert, non-groomed, runs sprinkled throughout. It is also where you access Gate 11 into Mizuno no Sawa, over 1500 feet of vertical off-piste skiing in an avalanche control area, one of the few in Japan to mitigate the avalanche hazard with explosives. Hirafu has a good mix of everything, kind of a best for the whole family. Hanazono is great for its tree skiing, terrain park, and it’s sidecountry access.
Think of Niseko as the perfect place to gradually level up your backcountry abilities — go from ungroomed resort runs, to the sidecountry, and then on to bigger backcountry objectives.
1. Niseko, Hokkaido - Good to Know
Niseko United has everything! It’s evenly split between beginner, intermediate, and expert.
Mid December to late April. The busiest time is around the December holidays and the Lunar New Year. The best snow is early January to late February, but expect a couple of surprisingly amazing days in March.
Top elevation: 1,308 m (4,291 ft)
The resort runs are on the mellower side, but when the sidecountry gates are open and conditions are suitable for backcountry skiing, there is a lot of terrain variety.
The average temperature in January is -6°C, which gives you plenty of snowfall.
Visit an onsen. Paying a visit to a natural hot spring is an essential daily experience in Japan and one of the best ways to relax tired skiing muscles.
Visit Ginrei Udon or Ichimura Soba for your lunch break, located opposite one another at the 7-11 stoplight approaching Hirafu. You’ll be warmed right up and be ready for more hours of skiing in the afternoon. For pizza, try B.C.C. White Rock on the road to Hanazono.
Mount Yotei. In the winter, you can do a backcountry tour and ski INSIDE the crater of the volcano!
The nearest airport to Niseko is the New Chitose International Airport which is outside of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital. Some incoming flights, like those from Hong Kong for example, do go direct to New Chitose International Airport. But most often, you will have to connect through either one of Tokyo’s two international airports or Osaka’s Kansai International Airport and get a direct flight to Hokkaido from there.
2. Kiroro Ski Resort, Hokkaido
Kiroro gets some of the most spectacular snow on Hokkaido. When Niseko is getting 20 centimeters of snow, Kiroro can be getting considerably more. If you wonder whether Japan powder skiing lives up to the hype, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” at Kiroro. The Freeride World Qualifier competition was held there in 2019 and 2020, and while working on the mountain safety team, all the riders told me that they absolutely love this place. For those looking for perfect over-the-head powder, do not miss Kiroro. Kiroro has a lot of sidecountry access, but if you really want to earn your turns, an hour’s worth of skinning can open up some sweet lines outside the resort boundaries. For longer days, a couple of hours of skinning puts you on top of Mount Yoichi or the AK Face where the FWQ comps are held.
Make Otaru your basecamp for Kiroro skiingMy reasoning for staying in Otaru but skiing in Kiroro, is that if you are coming to Japan, you owe it to yourself to experience real Japanese night-life, not just stick to the resort hotels. Kiroro Ski Resort is about 40 minutes away from Otaru, a port city about 30 minutes away from Sapporo. While here, try the ski hill with the steepest slope in Hokkaido located in the middle of Otaru, Tenguyama Ski Resort.
A great aprés ski scenePlan your rest day while staying in Otaru and visit the Yoichi Whisky Distillery, a 50 minute train or bus ride to the neighboring town of Yoichi (bonus points if you find the local fishermen’s cafeteria for lunch, main street, second floor) then head down to the Canal District for sightseeing.You can also take a short bus ride to Nishin Goten Herring House and find out why Otaru was regarded as the Wall Street of the North. Did someone say sushi? As a port city, Otaru has more than a few sushi restaurants, behind the Canal District there is a whole lane lined with them! For a scrupulously made after dinner cocktail, hit the Captain’s Bar on the second floor of the Authent Hotel. If you have brought a sports coat this is your chance to look sharp in a classy cocktail lounge. If you are more of a whisky aficionado, drop in to Taki’s Bar for a well-stocked selection of whisky. Aprés ski at this location will never be boring. It does require traveling (bus, taxi, or rental car) back and forth between the resort and Otaru, however, in my opinion, it is well worth it.
The aprés ski is alive and well in Otaru. After a day of skiing at Kiroro, set your sights on delicious food, whiskey tasting or explore the thriving port city’s sites.
2. Kiroro Ski Resort, Hokkaido - Good to Know
Beginner and intermediate skier for resort, but there are options for everything from beginner to expert in the side and backcountry.
Similar to the rest of Japan, the ski season in Kiroro runs from mid-December to late April. The best snow is from early January to late February, with some good powder days in March.
Top Elevation: 1,488 m (4,882 ft)
The resort is meant mainly for beginner and intermediate skiers. Off piste skiing — sidecountry and backcountry that feeds back into the resort — and pure backcountry, all have varying types of terrain with lots of snow.
The closest airport to Kiroro is the New Chitose Airport. From there, you can take a hotel/airport shuttle to Kiroro or drive about an hour and a half to Otaru.
Try wine tasting at the Otaru Wine Gallery, and check out Tanaka Sake Brewery, the only sake brewery in Otaru. Nikka Whiskey Yoichi Distillery is the place to visit for hard spirits.
In Otaru, eat at Yabuhan for delicious soba and an array of traditional side-dishes. Try Bistro Koizumi for the best hayashi rice dish of your life, or spend the evening visiting the various bars and stalls of the Otaru Yatai Village.
Otaru Snow Light Path Festival happens in February and it’s a spectacular sight to see. It’s also worthing checking out the glass workshops that Otaru is known for. When the fishing industry started to decline, makers of glass buoys started making glassware and that tradition has continued.
The Kita-no-aisukurimu Yasan ice-cream is a must. Still living in the same place where it was opened in 1892, the shop offers adventurous ice cream flavors like squid ink and sea urchin.
3. Asahidake, Hokkaido
Asahidake is Hokkaido’s tallest mountain at 2,291 metres (7,516 ft) tall and is located smack dab in the middle of the island, offering radiant panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. If you think skiing in a volcano is something out of a James Bond movie where he dodges lava in his turns, it’s not quite that, but it does give off a bit of a sulphurous smell sometimes. Although it’s an active stratovolcano, it hasn’t erupted since 1739, and it doesn’t appear like there’s going to be another eruption anytime soon. The Asahidake Ropeway is the only mechanical means of getting up the mountain. It takes you up about 500 vertical meters. Here, the only appropriate way down for beginner skiers is via one of two groomed mellow trails. If you are ready for a backcountry adventure, the ropeway is the stepping off point from which you get to the rest of the area which is a backcountry jungle gym for experts.
Find dry, light powder in AsahidakeThe area is notorious for white-out conditions. It is unpredictable and often means low visibility, not a lot of sunshine, and wind. But, that’s the price you pay to have consistent, perfect dry, light powder. I’d say it’s a pretty good bargain. Compared to Niseko, which is near the ocean, the powder at Asahidake is drier and lighter since it is near the center of the island. The actual terrain varies from wide open slopes on the flanks of Asahidake and the surrounding mountains to tree skiing. The village at the base of the mountain is Asahidake Onsen, and from the name, you can already tell there are great hot spring baths for an evening of relaxation.
Where to stay in AsahidakeThere are a small number of hotels and lodges in the village (a favourite of mine is La Vista Hotel and Spa Resort). If you would rather be in a town with lots of accommodation, restaurant, and apres ski options, staying in Asahikawa (about an hour and half away by car), Hokkaido’s second largest city, may be the call. Regardless, Asahidake offers a unique backcountry experience with some of the lightest powder on Earth.
The terrain around Asahidake has everything from wide open slopes to tree skiing — and of course, skiing through the eroded crater past the fumaroles is part of the draw here!
3. Asahidake, Hokkaido - Good to Know
This area is suited to experts with a good knowledge of backcountry safety.
The ski season is mid-December to late April, but the best snow is found in early January to late February, with some good powder days in March.
Top elevation: 2,291 metres (7,516 ft)
You’ll find both alpine and tree skiing. The top of the ropeway is relatively open with steep pitches which turn into tree runs lower down.
The closest airport to Asahidake is the Asahikawa Airport, about 45 minutes away from Asahidake Onsen. Alternatively, you can fly to New Chitose Airport, near Sapporo, which has more frequent flights and then drive about 4 hours to Asahidake Onsen.
Go cross country skiing on groomed trails at Asahidake.
Asahidake has plenty of onsen, hence the name, so go try a different one each day.
Drive to Higashikawa, a small, vibrant town at the doors of the Daisetsuzan National Park and Asahidake. You’ll find an enjoyable mix of cafes and restaurants.
Check out the new Asahidake Visitor Center and learn the history of the Ainu, the Indigenous people of Hokkaido. Visit the famous Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa, followed by a stroll down its “ramen village” for dinner.
4. Hakkoda, Honshu
The mountains of Hakkoda are a volcanic range consisting of a group of about a dozen low lying stratovolcanoes and lava domes on the north of Honshu. Hakkoda is assisted by a cable car, which brings you up and opens the door to a huge area of backcountry skiing. There is a perimeter road that takes about an hour to drive around, so imagine how much space you have to explore! Hakkoda is for those with a more relaxed backcountry touring mindset. If you are looking for things to do besides skiing, Hakkoda isn’t the place. Overall it’s made up of a few traditional lodges and onsens where you can get a real taste of being in Japan. Your afternoons will probably consist of soaking in an onsen and going to bed early to rest up for another tour.
Hakkoda is for those with a more relaxed backcountry touring mindset.
4. Hakkoda, Honshu - Good to Know
Hakkoda is suited to expert skiers with backcountry experience.
The ski season is mid-December to early May but the best powder snow is found in early January to late February, with some good powder days in March. March and April are usually great for ski touring!
Mount Ōdake has an elevation 1,584 m (5,197 ft).
There is plenty of terrain accessible via a short hike, but the more you hike, the father away from the crowds you will be.
The Tokyo Narita Airport has the most flights going in and out of Aomori, so the best option is to fly here and then take a shuttle bus to your destination.
Hakkoda’s “snow monsters” — pine trees draped in thick frozen ice that appear as large snowy figures guarding the backcountry. This phenomena only happens in a few places around the world.
Visit the Hachinohe Shuzo Sake Brewery in Aomori.
There is nothing to do at the end of the day other than soak in the onsen, eat, and plan the next day’s tour. Learn about the Hakkoda Incident in which 199 Japanese soldiers died while training in 1902.
Resthouse Hakkoda, located next to the ropeway station: simple ramen and onigiri (rice balls).
5. Nozawa Onsen, Honshu
Nozawa Onsen, in Nagano Prefecture, is a place where Japanese families have skied from one season to the next with standing lodge reservations for generations. It boasts a huge ski area, one of the largest in Japan. The vertical descent is 1,085 meters (3559 feet) which is a whole lot for Japan, even though it might seem small compared to Europe or North America. At the same time, you can’t find Japanese powder in Europe or North America. The snow, like everywhere else in Japan, comes in large quantities and is a fair bit heavier than what is generally found in Hokkaido.
Skiing for all stylesNozawa Onsen used to be a hidden gem, but has become increasingly more popular with the addition of the Iiyama Shinkansen station. The influx of people means the fresh powder might not stay untracked for long. The resort allows for short hikes to some powder bowls and long tours. It truly has something for all styles of skiing. While the powder and the skiing is amazing, one of the other highlights is the town itself. Since it hasn’t been turned into a huge international resort, the town offers a more traditional Japanese experience. It is known for its 13 free public hot baths, or sotoyu, so much so that while walking down the street you will be surrounded by steam.
The Nozawa Onsen Resort allows for short hikes to powder bowls and long tours. It truly has something for all styles of skiing.
5. Nozawa Onsen, Honshu - Good to Know
Nozawa has something for the entire family.
The ski season at Nozawa is mid-December to late April, but the best snow is found in early January to late February, with some good powder days in March.
The vertical descent is 1,085 metres (3559 ft). Nozawa Onsen has some long runs, but they are pretty chopped up by the easy runs that take people all the way down the mountain. There are many options for beginner skiers, and those expert backcountry skiers will find the wide variety of terrain compared to the rest of Japan impressive.
Flying into one of the Tokyo Airports is the best option. From there, you can take the Shinkansen or book a shuttle bus (much easier with luggage)
There is a rich cultural history here with plenty of public hot springs and temples. Oyu is by far the most famous of the public baths and definitely worth checking out. There is also an excellent craft beer scene, try Ribushi Tap Room, located directly across the street from Oyu!
The Dosojin Matsuri Festival, or Fire Festival, happens on January 15th and is full of fireworks and delicious sake.
Visit the Jigokudani snow monkeys! Hundreds of monkeys come to the Jigokudani Monkey Park to stay warm with the help of the hot springs while hiding from the freezing winter. This is a definite must-stop on any trip to the area!
Since it’s called the birthplace of skiing in Japan, a visit to the Japan Ski Museum is necessary. It most definitely won’t be a boring museum tour because it’s filled with historic skis.