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powder days, japanese-style


December 2014

Written by
Haley Shapley


ski photo
After you’ve cruised Crystal, sailed down Snoqualmie and weaved your way through Whistler, where do you ski next? 

Japan is now at the top of many powder enthusiasts’ bucket lists, thanks to its reputation for great snow and high adrenaline.

The country boasts more than 500 ski resorts, most notably in the north and along the Sea of Japan coast. If you’ve never skied in this Asian country, there are a few things you should know before you go. When you’re done for the day, the après scene here is not what you might find in North America or Europe. Instead of grabbing drinks with friends, you’re more likely to grab a spot in an onsen, the Japanese version of hot springs. Your muscles will love it, but your modesty may not — it’s strictly sans clothes in these bubbling waters. 

To pay for your pursuits, you’ll want to have cash on hand. Credit cards aren’t always accepted, and ATMs are few and far between. Stock up on yen before you get to the mountain so that you can concentrate on picking the best runs and not on where you’re going to run for some money.

It’s a long trip, but you’re likely to be rewarded with friendly locals, a lack of crowds, opportunities to take in the culture, and snow that just doesn’t quit. Deciding where to go can be a challenge, but that’s part of the fun. Here are a few of the country’s many options:

ski photofor the powder hound: NISEKO

On the island of Hokkaido lies Japan’s most renowned ski area: Niseko. Named one of the world’s 25 best ski towns by National Geographic, Niseko is blessed with an almost unheard-of average of 50 feet of snow a year, providing plentiful powder days. Whether it’s groomed runs, backcountry exploring, or tree skiing you’re seeking, you’ll find it here. Another nice feature: the chairlifts stay open until 9:00 p.m. for night skiing, offering a different take from the daytime. If you own an Epic Pass—which gives you unrestricted access to resorts including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Heavenly—you can now ski five free consecutive days at Niseko.

for the olympics buff: hakuba

Home of many of the events of the Nagano Winter Olympics, Hakuba gained worldwide attention in 1998. More than 15 years later, this Japanese Alps spot is still worthy of its time in the limelight, thanks to its 200-plus runs, rugged alpine scenery, and 35 feet of snow a year. If you’re interested in Olympics history, tour the Hakuba Ski Jumping Stadium and take a spin around the Hakuba Olympic Village Memorial Hall to browse memorabilia. Although the area attracts many visitors, it’s also big, leaving plenty of opportunities for fresh tracks and no shortage of terrain to conquer for all experience levels.

Japan photofor the urban explorer: gala yuzawa

Perhaps surprisingly, you can trade in the city lights for ski slopes in no time at all. Make your way from Tokyo to the mountain in under two hours on the bullet train, which has a stop right at the base of Gala Yuzawa’s slopes. It’s not the country’s biggest resort, but it is arguably the most convenient for a day trip. A SpongeBob SquarePants–themed park is the perfect place for little ones to sled and build snowmen. Gala Yuzawa also partners with nearby ski resorts Yuzawa Kogen and Ishiuchi Maruyama for a three-mountain pass.



Rental gear

is likely to be nice, but do keep in mind that if your feet run on the larger size, you might want to pack your own boots — Japanese shoe sizes don’t run as high as American sizes. On the plus side, skiing here is likely to be less expensive than other places you’ve been. While the cities can come with steep price tags for accommodations and activities, the ski resorts are a bit less expensive on average than our country’s major resorts. 

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