Famed for its dry powder snow, Japan has been the darling of Australian skiers and snowboarders for more than a decade. Aussies love the natural hot springs, the traditional hotels with sliding shoji rice-paper doors and, of course, the food.
WHEN IS THE SKI SEASON IN JAPAN?
The season starts in December and runs until mid-April. Japan is famed for its snowfall, with many resorts averaging 10-18m annually.
WHAT’S IT LIKE THIS SEASON?
Sigh. It’s not going gangbusters everywhere, but the snow pack is building, and many resorts are just one storm away from top-to-bottom skiing. Check snowjapan.com/japan-daily-snow-weather-reports for the latest conditions.
WHICH ARE THE KEY RESORTS?
For simplicity, there are two main ski regions visited by Australians.
Close to Tokyo (two hours by bullet train) on Japan’s main island of Honshu are the 10 resorts of the Hakuba Valley, including Hakuba Goryu, Hakuba 47 and Happo One. Also, in this general area are the resorts of Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen and Myoko Kogen.
In the far north of the country, on the island of Hokkaido, is the ultra-popular Niseko, as well as Rusutsu, Kiroro and Furano. To get to these far-flung resorts requires extra effort, with a 95-minute flight from Tokyo to Sapporo, and then a road transfer of two to three hours.
WHY DO AUSSIES LOVE SKIING IN JAPAN SO MUCH?
It’s only a nine-hour flight from Australia to Tokyo, airfares are affordable, it’s almost in the same time zone (no jet lag), and there’s usually an abundance of dry powder snow. Oh, and don’t forget the culture, the sushi and the sake.
Ski Japan’s general manager in Australia, Marcus Williams, says 42,900 Australians went to Niseko last season, up from 33,850 the previous winter. While Skimax general manager Rodney Muller says there has been “ridiculously crazy growth” at all Japanese resorts for the past five years.
However, numbers may finally take a hit because the exchange rate between the Australian dollar and Japanese yen was less favourable than usual during the peak booking period a few months ago. “The higher costs made other destinations (hello, Canada) attractive this season,” Williams admits.
WHAT’S THE TERRAIN LIKE?
Generally, the skiing is not as steep or as long as that in North America or Europe. That’s good news if you’re not accustomed to powder snow because there’s a chance to rest tired legs during more frequent chairlift rides.
However, there are still challenges. The tree skiing through beautiful forests is superb, there are deep powder bowls, and the side-country options are enticing.
WHY IS NISEKO SO POPULAR?
It could be because of the strong Aussie presence. Homegrown developers have moved in and created a village with Western-style apartment accommodation. English is widely spoken. Plus, the skiing is pretty damn good.
Families will feel at home here. There are ski schools and clubs for kids from the age of two, plenty of child-friendly eating options, babysitting services and activities such as snow tubing and snow mobiling.
WHERE DO YOU GET AN AUTHENTIC JAPANESE EXPERIENCE?
Niseko has the authentic experience, but it also has the added attraction (to some) of its Western touches. The Hakuba cluster of resorts is perhaps more traditional. Japanese-style accommodation with woven-straw tatami mats, futon beds and sliding shoji screens are on offer.
There’s also everything from fish heads to sashimi on the menus, visits to a sake factory, excursions to see snow monkeys, temple tours or visits to hot springs at one of the many public onsens.
ANY TIPS ON SKIING ON POWDER?
Former Australian ski racer Steven Lee, who runs Hakuba Powder Tours (hakubapowdertours.com), says it’s important to have the right equipment, including fat skis and a powder board. He recommends taking a day tour with instruction or getting a lesson from any of the ski schools. “Or give it a crack on your own, which is always fun. Just have the right gear.”
ANY INSIDER TIPS?
A bunch of good new food places have opened in Hakuba this winter. He lists Kikoya for the best sashimi, Emu for great value (it has just reopened after being destroyed by fire two years ago), and Shinsu Dining for great local dishes.
On the bar scene, he recommends Mockingbird (“it’s cool”), Iwatake Brew Pub (“for local brews, food and atmosphere”) and Jack’s Sports Bar (“for good music and lots of Western crew”).
IS IT EXPENSIVE?
Skimax has a spring skiing special at Niseko from $1375 a person for seven nights in a quad-share apartment and a six-day lift pass.
Ski Japan’s Williams says that accommodation for a week in Niseko can be as low as $98 a night, twin share, in a B&B-style property.
He says it will cost $75 a day for a lift ticket and that you need to budget $40 for dinner, which includes a beer or two.