When you think of Japan, your mind might immediately go to densely populated cities and high-tech, neon-lit districts. Or, you could think of traditional temples and iconic cherry blossom trees. What you may not realise is that Japan offers the opportunity for some incredible ski and snowboarding experiences too.
Up until fairly recently, the winter sports scene in Japan was fairly unknown and you could be forgiven for thinking that it is relatively small. On the contrary, while many are compact, the country boasts around 600 ski resorts, spread across the entire country. Better still, the resort areas experience consistent, heavy snow to create excellent powder conditions and some enticingly challenging terrain. Although, this shouldn't be quite so surprising when you consider that three-quarters of Japan is mountainous.
From tiny micro resorts – which can be a no-frills (and no crowds) experience consisting of one-man chairlift and a hut selling tickets – through to luxury resorts with exciting après ski, Japan should be at the top of the list for your next ski destination.
Obviously, with so many resorts to choose from, it would be impractical to list them all here. So, here is just a selection...
The city of Sapporo was the first location outside of Europe to host a Winter Olympics and is also well known for its Sapporo Snow Festival, which attracts millions of visitors every February.
This makes it a great base for your skiing holiday, with the resorts of Sapporo Teine, Sapporo Kokusai, Kiroro, Asari ski resort and Tomamu based within an hour's travel and ideal for day trips. Such a selection means Saparro can cater for beginners and families or those who want challenging backcountry.
Like Sapparo, Niseko is located on the island of Hokkaido and is regarded as one of the best resorts in Japan. It is actually made up of five smaller resorts, offering visitors a range of accommodation from traditional lodges to luxury apartments and hotels.
Niseko has a wide selection of terrains, from tree runs and powder fields to groomed runs for beginners. You could also take part in an amazing night skiing experience and take to the mountains by moonlight. Niseko has reputedly the largest lit area for night skiing in the country.
Located on Honshu Island, Hakuba Valley in the Japanese Alps is an easy train ride from the capital, Tokyo. With an average of 11 meters of snow per season, little wonder Hakuba was chosen as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. The Valley consists of 11 ski resorts with a great variety of terrain, making it just as popular with novices as seasoned experts.
Hakuba also caters well to English-speaking guests and the main resort, Happo One, will be popular with families. It also has the full spectrum of accommodation, from backpacker hostels to luxury lodges. There is also vibrant après ski nightlife too.
If you are looking for a more traditional, authentic Japanese experience, Nozawa Onsen is such a charming village rich in cultural history that skiing could easily take a back seat. Especially when you factor in the abundance of hot springs (onsen), which can be used by the public, assuming proper etiquette is followed.
Understandably, Nozawa Onsen is quickly gaining in popularity and its one ski resort offers 50km of slopes and runs suitable for all levels. For better or worse, this popularity has also brought a degree of westernisation – good if you prefer sleeping in a bed (rather than the floor) and want to get by speaking English. But perhaps not so great if you want to completely immerse yourself in Japanese culture.