Do you dream of being waist-deep in powder, shredding down some of the world's best ski slopes? Or perhaps you're just longing for a magical winter holiday, soaking in an onsen while enjoying breathtaking mountain scenery. Whatever your fantasy, Japan has it all. From unparalleled powder snow to amazing restaurants and luxurious ski chalets, there's no reason why you shouldn't be planning your winter getaway to Japan this coming season. Not sure where to start? Our friends at TheLuxeNomad.com give us the insider look at what you need to know about planning a ski trip to Japan.
1. Where to? Niseko vs. Hakuba
Japan's most popular ski destinations are Niseko and Hakuba, whose dream-like snow earns them a place amongst the world's best. Both destinations are certainly worth a visit, and there's more to them than just world-class skiing. Deciding between Niseko and Hakuba is no easy task, but we'll try to make it as simple as possible as we take a look at each destination.
Niseko is located on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan and is well-known among professional skiers for its pristine and fluffy powder snow that can only be described as magical. The area is also known for its pulsing town life, offering a great selection of aprés-ski bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. In terms of accommodation, Niseko has a huge variety of luxurious apartments and family-friendly ski chalets, many of which are newly-built and offer guests modern amenities as well as ski-in-ski-out access to the slopes, spa experiences, and majestic views of Mt. Yotei. Niseko is also famed for its traditional Japanese onsens and hot springs, perfect for relaxing your muscles after a day in the cold.
Powder. While both destinations boast unparalleled snow, Niseko is known to have lighter and fluffier powder than Hakuba, with more consistent snowfall.
Luxury. Niseko offers a bigger selection of modern and luxurious accommodation with western amenities, conveniently located right in the village.
Ease. With English widely spoken and local businesses commonly owned by foreigners, Niseko is generally more tourist-friendly.
Jibs. For terrain park junkies, Niseko offers bigger parks with more features than Hakuba.
Nightlife. Niseko is the place to go for the best bar and nightlife scene.
Hakuba is nestled at the base of the breathtaking Northern Japanese Alps, which is on Japan's main island just four hours away from Tokyo. Host to the 1998 Winter Olypmic Games, Hakuba is home to more than 10 ski resorts offering diverse terrain, from beginner runs for ski bunnies to backcountry steeps for the seasoned expert. In addition to world-class skiing and snowboarding, Hakuba offers an intriguing town life that gives tourists a true taste of small-town Japanese culture. When you're not skiing you can experience authentic Japanese cuisine and sake, try out a soba noodle making or origami folding class, visit traditional Japanese temples, or grab a drink at an izakaya, a little Japanese bar with a casual ambiance.
Adrenaline. Hakuba offers steeper terrain and a greater vertical drop than Niseko, as well as off-piste skiing with a local (English-speaking) guide.
Variety. With more than 10 ski resorts to choose from, Hakuba offers something for everyone from green groomers to double black diamonds, and everything in between.
Location. Hakuba is just a bullet train ride away from Tokyo, making it relatively accessible and affordable for international travellers.
Culture. Hakuba offers the traditional small-town Japanese feel you simply cannot get in Niseko.
Monkeys. Hakuba is home to the famed Jigokudani Monkey Park (pictured above) where you can see wild monkeys soaking in a natural hot spring.
2. When to get away?
The best time to ski Japan all depends on your preferences. Niseko and Hakuba's ski season generally begins in late November and continues through early May. You can escape the crowds by planning your trip for early December, but there's no guarantee for adequate snow espeically on beginner and intermediate runs. Christmas and New Years is a great time for snow but is also peak season, so expect to pay a premium price for accommodation and much longer lift lines. You have the best chance to score freshies from mid-January to late February, but keep in mind that Chinese New Year is one of the busiest times to go. March brings beautiful weather, less crowds, but fewer powder days and a decline in off-piste skiing. Discounts on accommodation and lift tickets start to pop up the end of March, and while you probably won't get any powder in April, it's a great time for beginners to enjoy decent snow and lots of bluebird days.
3. Where to stay?
You generally have two choices for accommodation when booking a ski trip to Japan: private chalets and hotels. Private chalets are great because they offer you the comforts of home. You get all the living space you need, a kitchen to cook your own meals, and often unique features such as private onsens, heated ski drying rooms, and cosy fireplaces. Although it is more difficult to find chalets that are within walking distance of the chairlifts, many are situated close to a free ski shuttle for your convenience, and several even come with an on-site concierge to help you plan the details of your stay. Hotels will generally not be as spacious as chalets, but you do get extra benefits such as an on-site spa, dining, and daily cleaning. Many hotels offer private onsens for guests, ski valet, concierge, and some are even situated for ski-in-ski-out access to the slopes.
Niseko is known for its huge selection of luxury hotels designed by renowned architects. One of our favourite stays is Ki Niseko, an award-winning luxury retreat and one of the few offering ski-in-ski-out access. New luxury hotels pop up every year in Niseko, and we're looking forward to the opening of AYA Niseko and Kamui Niseko this December. One of the most notable private chalets in Niseko is Glasshouse, a state-of-the-art lodge featuring floor-to-ceiling glass windows for unrestricted views of Mt. Yotei.
Hakuba stays tend to be a bit more traditional than Niseko, but there is certainly no shortage of luxury chalets and hotels. We love Phoenix One, a highly sought-after private chalet offering designer furniture, underfloor heating, a granite Japanese hot tub, and ski drying room with boot dryer. The chalet is located in the heart of Wadano Forest and comes with exclusive use of an 8-seat, 4-wheel drive vehicle. If you're looking for ski-in-ski-out accommodation, Marillen Hotel is an affordable choice at the base of Nakiyama Slope with the panoramic views of the Japanese Alps.
4. What to pack?
No matter which month you are planning your trip, be prepared for the cold! The weather can change rapidly throughout the day, and it will be colder at higher elevations on the mountain, so layering is key. Even when you are not skiing or snowboarding you will want to dress warmly. Bring multiple layers of fleece, sweaters, and thermals with a water-resistant ski jacket and snow pants. Make sure you pack thick socks and well-insulated boots. Most ski and snowboard shops carry rental googles, gloves, and helmets you can rent. Of course, don't forget a bathing suit for the onsens.
5. Lift passes, lessons, and more
Booking lift passes, lessons, and rental equipment is fairly straightforward, but the easiest way is to book your trip with a travel agent or a hotel that offers a complimentary concierge service to help you sort these details. Many hotels in Niseko and Hakuba offer this service, and TheLuxeNomad.com will even assist you with aspects such as transfers and you restaurant reservations. All you have to do is show up.