You’ve seen the videos. The impossibly deep snow flowing around pro skiers. Slicing through the New England-style trees with lanes as wide as a semi-truck. Is it really that deep? Or perhaps you’ve questioned if Japan is similar to North American ski resorts where you often hear people saying, “We should have been here last week.” As a born skeptic, I couldn’t quite believe that a place like this existed, a place so consistently and profoundly deep in snow. However, last winter, we had the opportunity to experience skiing Japan powder. The answer we found? All those incredible stories are absolutely true!
Why It’s So Mysterious
Anyone that has attempted to research skiing Japan and experiencing it will quickly notice something unique. The annual numbers don’t match the actual snowfall. Speaking to the long-time residents, those numbers aren’t that important for Japan ski areas. All you know is if it’s snowing and a rough estimate of how much more snow is expected. If anything, they UNDER REPORT how much it snowed overnight or any information on how MUCH it snowed period. It’s refreshing. It emphasizes the importance of living in the moment and not getting caught up in whether it snowed six inches or sixty. After all, you’re here to ski, so why not relish every minute of it?
What I Consider A Powder Day
Living in Tahoe, surrounded by the Sierra Snow Hype train, it takes a lot to impress me and declare it a legitimate “powder day.” Over nearly three decades, I can pinpoint my top 10 days on snow, and interestingly, only one is in Tahoe. Like Goldilocks, it has to be just right. First off, it can’t be a powder frenzy. A crowded scene ruins the experience. Secondly, no Sierra cement or Cascade concrete. It has to be soft and dry. Third, it needs to be bottomless or close to it. I want to surf the mountain, not carve it. Lastly, and undoubtedly the most challenging criterion, it needs to last bell to bell, or at least until the afternoon. This isn’t just a powder run. It’s a powder day!
Aomori Spring – My First Taste Of The “Good Stuff”
I’ve had great days, but right off the bullet train on our first day on skis, it was at another level. It wasn’t just about skiing Japan powder, affectionately nicknamed “Japow”, but the anticipation the night before. As we arrived, the snow started falling straight out of the heavens and didn’t let up. Big, thick flakes descended from the sky, creating a mesmerizing scene that continued into the next morning.
Snow That Would Be On Mars
I’ve sampled the Powder Highway goodness. Imbibed on the classic Champagne snow in Colorado. Feasted on the “Greatest Snow on Earth.” But what I encountered on this particular day was truly otherworldly. The type of snow I rode was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. With each turn, a massive plume of snow erupted behind me, reminiscent of a howitzer shell narrowly missing its mark. The snow hung in the air, floating for seconds before delicately twinkling back down to the ground, almost like a scene from Mars rather than Earth. It was deep powder—bottomless, yet if you maintained your speed, the snow had enough buoyancy to let you effortlessly float on its surface.
The Glorious Birch Trees
Another distinguishing factor of Japan’s ski resorts is the tree skiing. Slicing through the trees feels less like skiing and more like a spiritual journey. The twisted branches and lichen-covered bark, set against the backdrop of a cold, foggy snowfall, create an eerie atmosphere that seems more like a dream than reality. In many mountainous regions worldwide, glade skiing involves navigating through different species of evergreens. Even in the Northeast, deciduous trees are either tightly spaced or managed by the ski area. However, in Japan the birch trees are naturally, perfectly spaced. According to locals, this unique arrangement is due to the presence of bamboo glades in between the trees, which are flattened to the ground from the snowfall.
Our Own Private Ski Area
Lap after lap, our crew devoured the snow like Pac-Man, yet the snow showed no signs of surrender. It effortlessly filled in our tracks as quickly as we carved them. Despite being within bounds, the sensation was akin to having our own private ski area. The chairs on the lifts both behind and in front of us sat empty, and the only faces we encountered on the mountain were those of our close-knit group of friends.
Was It The Best Or Just Losing Our Virginity to Japow?
Throughout our trip, we enjoyed incredible days of Japan powder skiing, but none quite matched the awe of our first day. Remarkably, out of the ten days we skied, only one was snow-free. Was it truly the best day of the trip? Perhaps. Or maybe it was the novelty of our first encounter with the legendary Japanese powder snow.
Japan’s Magic Sauce To Create Its Magical Snow
Having experienced it firsthand, I was determined to uncover the WHY behind this phenomenon. As a self-proclaimed chinophile, I needed answers. The magical potion, it turns out, is a combination of several factors. To start, the Sea of Japan to the west is a WARM ocean, with temperatures often exceeding 70 degrees in the summer. As fall shifts to winter, the cold arctic air descends into Russia, particularly Siberia to the northwest of Japan. When this cold wind blows from Siberia over the warm Sea of Japan waters, it picks up moisture from the ocean and collides with the mountains along the west coast of Japan. The result is a perfect storm of some of the coldest air on the planet, warm moisture from the Sea of Japan, and lift created when the wind meets Japan’s mountains. And voila, JAPOW! The closest comparison I’ve experienced would be lake effect in the Upper Peninsula, but here it’s a unique “Sea Effect.”
Come For The Snow Stay For The Culture
During our trip to Japan, we made A LOT of mistakes that we genuinely wish someone had warned us about before embarking on our journey. As a deep snow fanatic, the idea of extending our trip without skiing for a few extra days felt sacrilegious to me. In hindsight, I regret not taking the time to slow down and fully immerse myself in all the incredible experiences Japan has to offer. That’s why we’ve compiled an article titled “10 Things I Wish I Knew Ahead Of Skiing In Japan” to assist fellow first-timers in learning from our experience.
I know a lot of folks out there want to chase the good stuff out of bounds. However, be aware that certain ski areas not only frown upon off-piste skiing but also consider it illegal, and they may charge you for crossing ropes. If you choose to venture out on your own, make sure to familiarize yourself with the boundary policies of the ski area. And if you’re interested in trying some backcountry skiing, we can’t stress this enough: hire a guide. Even better, opt for a local guide who calls Japan home.
Where To Go
The popularity of skiing in Japan has dwindled significantly since its peak in 1998, witnessing a drop of over 75% in the number of Japanese skiers. However, the secret is out, and international visitors are now flocking to Japan to experience its legendary snow, with the primary influx coming from Australia and New Zealand. Despite this surge, it’s worth noting that Japan boasts nearly 500 ski resorts in a country roughly the size of California. While many foreign visitors tend to focus on the popular ones, there are numerous hidden gems where you can enjoy the entire resort virtually to yourself. Here’s what we discovered from our trip and conversations with the locals living in Japan.
The northernmost part of Japan, Hokkaido, stands as its own separate island that remains accessible via the bullet train. It is here that the legend of Japow was born. Thanks to its more northerly location and closer proximity to Siberia, Hokkaido receives the most and driest snow in Japan. And this is primarily why all the international visitors flock to. Beyond the renowned Niseko, there are other ski areas on Hokkaido waiting to be explored, such as Furano, Kiroro, Tomamu, and Sahoro.
According to locals, Niseko has evolved into the most Westernized Mountain, making it a comfortable choice for those wary of traveling in a foreign land where English isn’t widely spoken.
Alternatively, instead of basing yourself at a single ski area, you have the option to sample multiple resorts from a central base. Sapporo, the largest city on the island, situated in central Hokkaido, provides this opportunity. Unlike the mainland island of Honshu, where cities have organically grown over the centuries, Sapporo is a relatively “new” city. Planned and developed at the end of the nineteenth century, its streets are laid out in an orderly pattern.
Following Niseko on the island of Hokkaido, the second most popular ski destination for Americans is Hakuba, situated in the northern section of the Japanese Alps. Accessible via bullet train, it’s only about 1.5 hours from Tokyo. While the deepest, consistent snow is in the north, Hakuba offers more challenging terrain, with steeper slopes. Even though it may not receive as much snow, it still gets pounded with ample amounts of powder. Hakuba remains Western-friendly but has a slightly less polished feel than Niseko, offering a bit more of an authentic Japanese experience.
The Hidden Japan – Tohoku
We’re not just fanatics of powder skiing. We crave the most authentic experiences on trips hence our name Local Freshies®. When traveling such distances, our goal is to explore the untouched corners, where we’re the sole Americans in sight. We yearn for the REAL Japan, savoring cuisine untouched by Western adaptations. It was a no brainer to use our season pass to hit the Indy Pass Japan ski resorts. The ski areas we ventured into spanned the Aomori, Iwate, and Akita prefectures (similar to states in the US). The snow was deep, the competition for powder was virtually non-existent, and the culture was as authentically Japanese as you can imagine.
When To Go
November and December are a bit too early, and by Christmas, resorts are bustling as it coincides with one of the few times the Japanese have off work. Japan in January, however, is the stuff of legends, and we happened to visit during this prime time. January tends to bring consistent heavy snowfall, with generally very cold temperatures, resulting in the best powder snow quality.
One caveat is that Westernized ski resorts like Niseko and Hakuba can be particularly busy in early January due to Australian school holidays. If you’re seeking a less crowded experience, consider bringing your backcountry gear or exploring lesser-known ski areas, as we did. Another option is to visit in mid to late February when the weather pattern is similar to January but typically attracts fewer skiers and snowboarders.
Book A Guide
Even as a seasoned traveler touring rural Japan is a challenge especially in parts of the country that don’t get many Westerners if at all. Communication becomes particularly difficult once you venture beyond the Westernized resorts. To tackle this, we opted for Japan Ski Tours to guide us through the intricacies of the region, the language, ensuring we embraced the most authentic experience possible. In some of the ski areas we visited, hotel managers mentioned they only see a handful of Americans each season! The 10-day Tohoku trip proved to be an immersive journey into all things Japan, including the snow, and it unquestionably justified the price tag.