Baffled at the numerous ski resorts in Japan? Just because you have “heard of it” does not make it the right choice for you. Here are some things to think about before picking a ski resort in Japan.
Japan has hundreds of ski resorts and it can be difficult trying to narrow down the options, especially if it’s your first time skiing or first time visiting Japan. Unlike the typical ski website which just describes each ski resort, this post will help you understand the various aspects of Japanese ski resorts a bit better. I have included some examples but these are not exhaustive by any measure.
Do you want to ski/snowboard (for real, over multiple days), or just have a snow experience?
If you just want to see snow / play snow, you DO NOT need to go all the way to a large or “famous” ski resort as these require more time and effort to access. There are less well-known ski resorts close to city centres, some of which can even be visited on a day trip. Sapporo Teine is only 1h drive from Sapporo and has a tubing park for kids and wallet-friendly day trip packages, while GALA Yuzawa is a seamless 90-minute train ride from Tokyo (See my somewhat negative trip report here). If you are visiting Sapporo and just want to do a day trip to see snow, check out these 6 ski resorts near Sapporo.
Popular ski resorts in Japan
If you just want a snow experience without any skiing, snowmobile is a very popular family activity which does not require any prior experience. Again, you do not have to go to a ski resort for this. In fact not all ski resorts have snowmobile nearby. Hokkaido has many snowmobile areas including North Safari Sapporo and 10pound (both in Central Hokkaido near Sapporo) and Snowmobile Land Shibetsu (North Hokkaido).
Are you all first-timers ?
Again, you do not have to go to a “famous” ski resort if you are all first timers. Many are “famous” because they are large, or have a wide variety of terrain for intermediate and advanced skiers. As a first-timer, you will not be able to fully enjoy size and variety *yet*, especially if your ski trip does not exceed three ski days. You can consider visiting a less popular resort with nice empty runs, so that you can build up your confidence and level up more quickly instead of spending your time trying to avoid collisions. Not all ski resorts have a magic carpet / learner areas.
“magic carpet”/learners area in Hanazono, Niseko
(First timers usually learn on these very gentle slopes,
with conveyor belts to get you to the top)
Do you need group lessons in English?
Examples of ski resorts with English group lessons: Club Med Sahoro (Hokkaido), Niseko (Hokkaido), Furano- sort of (Hokkaido), Nozawa Onsen, Nagano (Honshu), Hakuba Happo-one, Nagano (Honshu)
Don’t take for granted that every ski resort has a ski school and rental shop with English speaking staff! Some just have counters to purchase lift tickets, and cater more to experienced skiers who have their own gear. Also, not all resorts offer group lessons in English. Such services are usually found only at the more commercialized / Westernized ski resorts. Of course, you can always get private lessons from an English-speaking instructor at most resorts, but they are MUCH dearer than group lessons (especially if you are travelling solo or as a couple), and may be limited in availability.
Daily English group lessons at Club Med Sahoro
Accommodation considerations #1: Are you a fan of all-inclusive resort-hotels ? – Hint: Choose this if you prefer Nusa Dua or Jimbaran in Bali
Examples: Hilton Niseko (Hokkaido), Rusutsu (Hokkaido), Tomamu resort (Hokkaido), Prince Hotel, Naeba (Honshu), Hakuba Cortina (Honshu), Karuizawa (Honshu)
There are a number of ski resorts in Japan that are serviced by only one or two large resort-hotels (typically established names and in the mid to luxury range). Accommodation usually include meal plans as there are no nearby villages/towns you can walk to, and may include lift tickets as a package, so may be more costly upfront. The upside is that there will seldom be rowdy drunk backpackers to ruin your zen, or gross tourists from a certain country who don’t shower before they use the onsen.
Families with young children may also prefer this option as it is more family friendly- all facilities are located within the hotel so you do not have to walk around in the cold to find a restaurant, it is easier to return to your room multiple times a day to rest/change/eat, and older kids can even wander around by themselves.
Also suitable for first-time skiers / Japan noobs as this option is generally hassle-free- you only have a choice of the hotel’s restaurant(s), rental shop and ski school. Read about my hassle-free trip to Club Med Sahoro in Hokkaido and my review of the very family-friendly Rusutsu resort which also caters well to non-skiers.
Pros: Hassle-free, family-friendly, usually less crowded/more exclusive ski runs, usually ski in ski out
Cons: No/limited apres-ski, no entertainment for non-skiers, may be a bit more expensive (captive audience and meal plans inclusive)
Ski in ski out Hotel Green Plaza, Hakuba Cortina
Accommodation considerations #2: Or do you prefer a village/town concept? – Hint: Choose this if you prefer Kuta or Seminyak in Bali
Examples: Niseko Hirafu (Hokkaido), Furano (Hokkaido), Nozawa Onsen, Nagano (Honshu), Hakuba Happo-one, Nagano (Honshu)
There are some ski resorts that do not have large hotels but instead have a village at the base of the mountain, with various types of accommodation for all budgets. You may prefer this option if you do not intend to ski every day, or wish to experience a deeper level of Japanese culture. There will definitely be some traditional family-owned restaurants, and bigger villages may even have souvenir shopping and nightlife (although nightlife will still be limited compared to Western ski resorts). Read about my Dec 2014 trip to Hakuba and Nozawa-onsen, where I stayed in simple village inns and alternated my ski days with traditional onsens and a trip to see the snow monkeys. Typical accommodation options found in Japanese ski villages are:
- Pensions/inns/lodges/basic hotels: For the more budget conscious. May have a small-scale onsen. Meals usually served in dining room in a standard set or buffet format. Rooms may be furnished with Western beds or tatami style with futons. Tatami rooms are generally more spacious and some inns can have large family rooms catering to big groups (e.g. school groups) or families. Usually no ensuite (older properties) or limited ensuite rooms. Typically family-owned so may not be suited to the needy traveler who is unable to operate Google.
- Onsen hotels: Larger hotels with quite large or fancy hot springs. May have one or more restaurants. Can be quite dated as many were built during the Japanese ski boom of the 1980s.
- Self-catering apartments / chalets : Good for groups and families and may work out cheaper per pax than a room at a pension/inn, with the benefit of more privacy. If your apartment has a kitchen, you can save money by cooking instead of eating out. The less commercialized resorts in Japan usually do not have self-catering apartments (in fact, such apartments are only common in Niseko at the moment).
- Small lodges : Small lodges can sometimes be rented as a whole for your group if you don’t mind sharing toilets.
The downside is that you have to self-arrange your own lift tickets, lessons, rental, and restaurant bookings. This may be stressful for first-timers and/or big groups as there can be many options for ski school and rental shops, and having to organize and dress young kids to go out to eat after a tiring day of skiing may be too troublesome for some. Note that many Japanese restaurants can be very small (four or five tables) and may not even offer English or picture menus. Less commercialized villages do not always have Western restaurants, and fussy kids or those not used to Asian food may not always want to eat traditional Japanese for every meal. If you have food allergies or require gluten free meals, your only real option is the extremely Aussie-fied Niseko.
Pros: wider range of accommodation/amenities/shops, more opportunities to experience the real Japan, more activities for non-skiers
Cons: More planning required, language barrier in less commercialized resorts, limited options for luxury accommodation
Experience traditional restaurants
Are you familiar with how Japan works ?
If this is your first trip to Japan, you may want to choose a more international ski resort where English is spoken and English menus can be found in restaurants. Many ski resorts in Japan target the domestic ski market and due to a language barrier, you may find it inconvenient at best, or in the worst case offend the locals unintentionally. Having visited many onsens in tourist-friendly Niseko, I thought I was fully cognizant of the local onsen culture until I visited the uber traditional ones in Nozawa (read about the angry obasans here). Please be sensitive to local culture and don’t be an ugly tourist. You know who you are!
Do you have lots of baggage or little people to handle?
Consider the door to door time and how many transfers it takes to get to your accommodation. Add that to an 8-hour flight and you may be a wreck by the time you get there. Worse if you are juggling multiple bags or little people. Most accessible resorts from Tokyo are probably Karuizawa and GALA Yuzawa. Resorts in Hokkaido are generally more accessible, unless you have your own wheels, in which case the world is your oyster. Read about my 4.5-hour train-train-bus journey from Narita airport to Hakuba.
Ready to plan your Japan ski trip? See:
- Sample itinerary & budgeting: 9N ski Nagano (Hakuba, Nozawa onsen)
- Sample itinerary & budgeting: 5N ski Hokkaido
- Sample itinerary & budgeting: 7N ski Niigata (Yuzawa, Myoko kogen)
- 5 Tips to save money on ski trips
Back to: Skiing for Singaporeans (FAQs)