Prime powder plays

Logging some slope-time this winter? With Japan the playground of choice for most boarders and skiers, we take a quick tour of some of the biggest and best resorts to help you get the most out of your time in the frozen north.

Steve White

Niseko, Hokkaido
For some years now, Niseko has been Asia’s chicest resort area. Some lament it’s lack of Japanese flavour but there’s no faulting the top-end accommodation options, the (for Japan) wide choice of eats and ents, and, above all, the oceans of snow that stack up every winter.

Arrayed around the Annupuri mountain are three resorts: Niseko Grand Hirafu (which includes Hanazono), Niseko Village Ski Resort (previously called Higashiyama) and Niseko Annupuri.

While the three areas are a short drive from each other around the base of the mountain, they abut each other up top so very sensibly there is a unified lift ticket to give you all-mountain access.

Besides the groomed areas, there’s also plenty of off-piste to go at with Strawberry and Blueberry Fields, beside Hanazono, popular playgrounds.

The best news of all of course is that often the snowfall here is among the heaviest anywhere in the country – up to 13m – that drifts in from the direction of Siberia and can usually be relied upon to be light and dry.

All this powder means you can usually ski here from early December all the way through to early April and sometimes even later. What’s more, getting to Niseko to enjoy the bounty is straightforward with direct buses from Chitose International Airport, outside Sapporo.

Furano, Hokkaido
The kid sister to Niseko – not quite so worldly when it comes to off-piste policy or after-slope dining and entertainment but growing up fast.

Sibling rivalry is ensuring that it is adding a few of Niseko’s sophisticated attributes but it has it’s own character too. The area closest to the slopes has a more Japanese feel than Niseko, with a smattering of cozy restaurants and a limited number of drinking holes, while the town proper lies a little lower in a broad valley.

The underplayed vibe and relatively high percentage of easy and intermediate runs draws families and those who like a bit more room in which to carve their turns.

There’s no lack of powder here though: around 9m falls most years and the backcountry in the nearby Tokachi Range attracts those who have graduated beyond the runs of the two groomed areas: the Furano and Kitanomine zones.

Access is good with buses from the international airport at Chitose, and the nearest airport, Asahikawa, that is a good alternative if you are flying in on a domestic connection.

Nozawa Onsen, Nagano
With atmosphere in spades, this is perhaps Asia’s quaintest resort. The village has been a wintersports centre since skiing began in the country but Japanese guests still handily outnumber foreigners at all times and this shows in the relative lack of English – a problem to some, but great for those who like to immerse themselves.

There’s plenty of mountain to go at too, with a good spread of challenges for all levels and lots of restaurants at the stations to keep you fed and watered.

Then, wandering the streets after a day on the slopes, you are hit by wafts of steam: from the famous local bun sellers as well as the equally noted onsen (some of which are free). You should make sure to try both.

Hakuba, Nagano
The Japanese Alps are at their most rugged here and make a stunning backdrop to this valley-full of resorts to the west of Nagano that were the venue for the skiing in the 1998 Winter Olympics. The three southernmost resorts are collected under the Sun Alpina banner while a further four lie to the north, all of them within a short drive of the three central resorts: Happo-One, Goryu and Hakuba 47.
Happo-One is the showpiece, attracting big crowds. The beginners’ runs can be a bit tight but intermediates have heaps of options including an 8km monster run.

Neighbouring Goryu and 47 are a little less hectic but have a good range of facilities between them which you can enjoy using the shared lift ticket. Boarders will want to try 47’s park which is the most extensive in the valley.

Shiga Kogen, Nagano
A goliath of a resort area, Shiga encompasses a string of villages rather than having a central focal point. A shuttle bus runs continuous loops to interlink it all and giving you a chance to make use of the single lift pass valid for every slope in the area. Being high (several lifts get you over 2,000m) and quite northerly, it also gets snow until late in the year, with skiing sometimes going as late as May.

Worth considering . . .

Want to go it alone more? There?s plenty of less celebrated areas that have great snow and facilities to offer:

Hachimantai, Tohoku

An under-the-radar spot that is actually two small resorts. One, lying in Akita prefecture, is a tiny, two-lifter where freeriders cut loose in ample powder. Contrastingly, its slighter larger cousin, Hachimantai Resort Panorama, has two wide areas well set up for beginners and intermediates.

Rusutsu, Hokkaido

A clutch of three closely spaced peaks tower over the Rusutsu Resort Hotel (where most stay for the ski-in, ski-out access). Beginners have the valleys to play in while intermediates and beyond work the steep ridges and delve into the trees. Not especially long or high hills but there?s close to 40 courses and ample good snow until March or even April.

Myoko Kogen, Niigata

Close to Nozawa, Myoko is one of the oldest resort areas in Japan. The name ties together a number of resorts which between them present challenges for any level or style of skier/boarder. Myoko Suginohara boasts one of the longest run in Japan at 8.5km.

Minakami, Gunma

Relatively close to Tokyo, Minakami is popular with day trippers/weekenders. Several resorts ring the town, with Houdaigi the largest and best for snow quality. Okutone Snow Park has the rails and pipes that freestylers crave, while Tenjindaira Tanigawadake, a major summer hiking spot, is where confident backcountry types should head.