Time To Hit The Slopes!

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

It’s peak skiing and snowboarding season and if you are in Japan you couldn’t be in a better place!

With two Winter Olympic Games under its belt – Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998 – skiing and snowboarding are very popular activities in Japan. More than 800 resorts help make these pastimes both relatively affordable and easy to access.

Ski resorts from the northernmost island of Hokkaido to the south of the main island of Kyushu ensure that almost everyone in these regions can find a ski lift no more than a couple of hours away from where they reside.

“In addition to accessibility, ski resorts in Japan have many other assets,” says Hiroshi Fujisaki, managing director of the Association of Japan Ski Promotion. “Japan boasts large consistent amounts of snowfall, often excellent powder, and challenging varied terrains with well-equipped facilities. And many resorts have natural hot springs in or near their facilities so you can enjoy a hot soak after a chilly day on the slopes.”

Japan’s 821 resorts, according to a 2008 government tally, range from small facilities with one or two lifts and short runs to large popular haunts such as Niseko, in Hokkaido; Hakkoda, in Aomori Prefecture; and Hakuba and Nozawa in Nagano Prefecture.

These major resorts have their own instructors for beginners and guides for adventurous skiers, boarders and snow trekkers. Hakkoda near Misawa Air Base, for example, is one of the most popular snow trekking spots in Japan.

Rental gear of every ilk is readily available at shops in or near most resorts, with knowledgeable staff on hand to offer advice and assistance. Nearby towns or villages usually offer an abundance and variety of accommodations, including rooms at a fairly reasonable price for as long as a month.

Although large ski resorts are concentrated in Hokkaido and northern and central Honshu, there are many that meet international standards in Western Japan – especially in Hiroshima and Tottori prefectures near Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni.

Of southern Kyushu’s three resorts, Tenzan in Saga Prefecture – near Sasebo Naval Base – is very popular for its well-equipped shop and restaurants, although smaller than its counterparts in Hakuba and Niseko.

Package tours to major resorts in Hokkaido and Honshu are available from anywhere throughout Japan. One major drawback, however, is the crowds, especially on weekends and holidays. The slopes, along with trains and highways leading to them, can be packed with more people than snow.

“The three-day holiday with Coming of Age Day (Jan. 11) is the most crowded time,” says Fujisaki. “Try to avoid going during that period and go on a weekday.”

He added that the best time to take to Japan’s slopes is from late January to early February.  

Ski enthusiast Jun Asukabe recommends avoiding slopes near the Sea of Japan such as in Niigata and Nagano prefectures after that period.

“Yellow sands, called ‘kosa,’ start blowing over from China in mid to late February, making the surface of snow dirty, rough and harder to ski,” he says, adding that it’s important to stay abreast of snow conditions.

“You can check the snow conditions on the homepage of each ski resort,” Asukabe says. “Choose a resort with one meter (about 3 feet) of snow or more; if there isn’t enough snow, rocks and soil on the ground can damage your gear.”

Siting numerous accident every year, Fujisaki encourages skiers and snowboarders to wear hardhats.

“It is not a regulation,” he says, “but I hope they will wear hardhats to protect against serious injury.”

So now that it is peak skiing and snowboarding season in Japan, why not check out all the powder, pristine vistas and hot springs the Land of the Rising Sun has to offer?

Popular Ski Resorts

1. Niseko Annupri International Ski Area (Hokkaido)
Blessed with Yotei mountain ranges rising majestically across the Shiribetsu River, Niseko is internationally recognized top ski area with quality powder snow. Runs are spacious enough to accommodate beginners and the seasoned alike. Number of Courses: 13, Maximum length: 4,000 meters (2.5 miles), Maximum tilt angle: 34 degree. 485 Niseko, Niseko Town, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido (15 minutes by taxi from JR Niseko Station, or 1 hour and a half drive from the center of Sapporo City)
URL: nnupuri.info/winter/english
Tel: 0136-58-2080

2. Hakkoda International Ski Area (near Misawa)
Mount Hakkoda has the heaviest snow falling in Japan. With a guide, you can cross country ski to enjoy pristine powder amid breathtaking vistas of the Hakkoda mountain range. Number of Courses: 5, Maximum length: 1,100 meters, Maximum tilt angle: 30 degree 1-58 Samumizusawa, Arakawa, Aomori City (40-minute drive from the center of Aomori City)
URL: www.hakkouda-p.com/cn21/pg110.html
Tel: 017-738-8591

3. Hakuba Happo-One Winter Resort, Nagano (four hours from the Kanto Plain)
Used as the site of the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, from the summit you can enjoy panoramic vistas of Japan’s Northern Alps. Happo Hakuba-mura, Kitaazumi-gun, Nagano Prefecture. Number of Courses: 13, Maximum length: 8,000 meters (5 miles), Maximum tilt angle: 35 degree
URL: www.happo-one.jp/english
Tel: 0261-72-3066

4. Geihoku Kokusai Ski Area, Hiroshima (near Iwakuni)
As the largest ski resort in Western Japan, this facility has three areas and 11 courses for anyone from beginners to the advanced skiers and snowboarders to enjoy. It boasts Japan’s first high-speed six-seater lift. 19 Nakaso, Kita Hiroshima, Yamagata-gun, Hiroshima Prefecture. Number of Courses: 11
URL: geihokukokusai.jp
Tel: 0826-35-0250

5. Tenzan Resort, Saga (near Sasebo)
Although the snow is artificial, this resort is highly rated for its well-equipped shops and restaurants. The latest models of gear and wear are available. 2338-6 Ichikawa, Fujimicho, Saga City, Saga Prefecture (one-hour drive from center of Fukuoka City). Number of courses: 3
URL: www.tenzan-resort.co.jp
Tel: 0952-58-2336

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