With so many ski resorts in Hokkaido, Japan's northern island is a dream destination for skiers and snowboarders!
The snow quality, season length, and airport accessibility are major factors in attracting winter sports enthusiasts.
So what do you need to know to really enjoy snowboarding and skiing in Hokkaido? We interviewed Mr. Masaji Ueda of the Hokkaido Tourism Promotion Organization’s Adventure Travel Promotion Headquarters, who’s an expert on Hokkaido tourism. In our conversation, we learned about choosing a Hokkaido ski resort and preparing for your trip.
We’ve also compiled a list of recommended ski resorts in Hokkaido to help you make the best of Japan's north! Let's dive right in.
- Table of Contents
- Why skiers and snowboarders love Hokkaido ski resorts
- Two secrets to enjoying Hokkaido powder
- Getting to popular Hokkaido ski resort
- Important tips on ski or snowboard rentals
- What to bring for your Hokkaido ski trip
- Buying accident insurance in Japan
- Other fun and photo-worthy activities!
- How much do Hokkaido ski packages and tours cost?
- List of recommended Hokkaido ski resorts
Why skiers and snowboarders love Hokkaido ski resorts
The biggest reason skiers and snowboarders from around the globe come to ski resorts in Hokkaido is for the fantastic snow quality. Snow in Hokkaido contains almost no water and is characterized by its silky feel.
Hokkaido's powder is exactly the kind of snow skiers, and snowboarders love it because it’s easy to gain speed and turn in it. The powder is very soft, so it doesn’t hurt as much when you fall, which is a bonus for novice skiers and boarders.
Mr. Ueda, who lived in Kansai and Tokai for many years and has experience skiing in Japan's Nagano and Gifu prefectures, says he was very surprised by Hokkaido's snow quality.
"In Hokkaido, you can keep skiing even if the snow is piled up to your knees or if the slope isn't very steep. Since the snow in Honshu contains a lot of water, even when it's fresh, you can get stuck. I was really impressed when I realized this difference."
Two secrets to enjoying Hokkaido powder
Hokkaido ski resorts are highly regarded the world over for their superb snow - often nicknamed "Japow (Japanese Powder)".
Many have been nominated for the World Ski Awards (founded in 2013), and Hokkaido's Rusutsu Resort has won the highest award.
There are many snowy areas in Japan, but why does Hokkaido have such fine powder? The secret lies in two environmental factors.
The first factor involves the conditions needed for powder snow to fall -- low temperature and low humidity. Hokkaido is located in the northernmost part of Japan, and is a very cold region with freezing temperatures throughout winter.
Additionally, the northwest monsoon winds from the Eurasian continent blow across Japan in winter. After crossing the sea of Japan, it causes a large amount of moist snowfall in Hokkaido's coastal areas.
The monsoon winds then form snow clouds further inland in areas like Niseko, Furano, and Tokachi, that cover surrounding mountains with dry powdery snow.
The second factor is the number of snowy days. The average annual snowfall in Kutchan, where the world-leading Niseko Ski Resort is located, is 137.4 days -- more than a third of the year! Fresh daily snowfall keeps the slopes in good condition at all times.
Mr. Ueda said, "People living in Niseko seem to enjoy skiing in the morning before going to work. I think skiing in the morning with fresh snow is the best way to enjoy skiing."
Another excellent feature is the long Hokkaido ski season. Many resorts open in mid-November and operate until early May, making it possible to have fun on the slopes for nearly half the year.
Getting to popular Hokkaido ski resort
Another of the attractive points of skiing in Hokkaido is the short distance between the airport and the slopes.
Elsewhere, it can take 3 to 4 hours to drive from the airport to the nearest ski resort, but in Hokkaido, the trip can be as little as 1 to 3 hours. Yubari's Mount Racey Ski Resort, which is the closest to New Chitose Airport, is only an hour from the airport.
Even areas that are a little further away, such as Niseko and Furano, can be reached in about two and a half hours. Also, Hokkaido's regional airports like Asahikawa and Obihiro can be easily reached from other airports throughout Japan (Kanto, Kansai, Chubu, etc.).
Tour buses and hotel shuttles run from the airport to the resorts. Rental cars are convenient, but accidents when driving on unfamiliar winter roads can be an issue, so public transportation is recommended if that's a concern.
Mr. Ueda says there are other points to consider besides access. "Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido, is close to the ski resort. The fact that the city is close means that it is easy to enjoy shopping and dining, and go to sightseeing spots in and around the city. That combination is rare in Japan and we can satisfy the desire to enjoy both skiing and sightseeing. Staying in Sapporo for several days, you can enjoy the slopes of Sapporo Teine and Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort and explore the city."
Important tips on ski or snowboard rentals
If you want to travel with a small amount of luggage, or if you don't have your own board, equipment rental services are convenient. At many resorts, you can rent a full set of equipment.
Of course, you can also rent individual pieces of gear too, and staff members at the rental shop can offer advice. They can professionally assess the boots and boards that suit your body type and skill level. Some resorts have equipment ranging from standard to high-end models.
For the 2020-2021 season, additional measures are being taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus so some resorts will stop renting items that come in direct contact with the skin (hats, goggles, gloves, etc.). The number of places that will adopt that policy may increase, so if you are thinking of renting, please check resort websites in advance.
What to bring for your Hokkaido ski trip
With winter temperatures around freezing, proper cold weather protection is essential for outdoor sports, and the key is to minimize exposed areas of the skin.
Bring a hat, gloves, neck warmers, and more. Wearing heat-retaining innerwear or putting a handwarmer in your pocket is also recommended. Intermediate and advanced skiers may sweat more, so they should choose an inner layer that dries quickly and has excellent breathability.
Also, be aware that on clear days, the sunlight reflects off the snow, which can cause sunburn and hurt your eyes. Wearing goggles or sunglasses and applying sunscreen are useful protection against UV rays.
Buying accident insurance in Japan
While skiing and snowboarding are fun, they are also accident-prone sports and there are other accidents unique to winter mountains, such as falls, collisions with others, and avalanches to consider.
It may be wise to purchase travel insurance and accident insurance to cover medical treatment and hospitalization should you experience an unfortunate event.
Recently, there have been many accidents among backcountry skiers. Where rivers are hidden by the snow, near high cliffs, or where avalanches are likely to occur, there are always signs to indicate "no entry." So be sure to heed those warnings and never enter danger zones.
There are some areas where you can exit groomed slopes at your own risk, but there are also caution signs and ropes to mark such courses' borders. Be careful not to enter if you have little knowledge of winter mountains or are not confident in your skiing skills.
Suppose you have an accident outside the controlled areas of a ski resort. In that case, it is often considered an accident caused by a violation of the law and may invalidate your insurance coverage.
Other fun and photo-worthy activities!
Many resorts offer other enjoyable winter-only activities. Options include snowshoeing and cross-country feel nature up close, exhilarating snowmobile rides, and banana boat rides for fun with family and friends. While it's hard to select just one best family ski resort in Hokkaido, thanks to its international flavor, Niseko is highly recommended, as is Tomamu.
If you want to try something other than skiing and snowboarding, check the resorts' official websites in advance to see what's available.
Be sure to keep an eye out for special events at resorts and nearby areas, too. At Hoshino Resort Tomamu, a fantastic "Ice Village" is on display from December to March.
If you're in the Asahikawa area in February, check out the annual Asahikawa Winter Festival and the Ice Waterfall Festival, both of which provide cool photo opportunities to showcase the beauty of snow and ice.
How much do Hokkaido ski packages and tours cost?
There are various tour packages that include round-trip airfare and resort accommodation available, but the general perception is that trips to Hokkaido tend to be a little more expensive than those to Honshu. We asked Mr. Ueda for more details.
"Actually, the cost of lift tickets and accommodation are not much different from other prefectures. The reason it feels expensive is because of the difference in the price of airline tickets, but that's unavoidable because of the length of the flight. Even I, who live in Japan, am impressed by the snow in Hokkaido, so if you come to ski or snowboard from overseas, please choose Hokkaido. The powder snow, which veteran skiers have praised as the best, is definitely recommended. Please be sure to experience it!"
List of recommended Hokkaido ski resorts
Enjoy a variety of courses, like the ultra-long course of about 6km that extends from the summit, which is 1,000m above sea level, or the famous steep "Kita-Kabe" slope that snow groomers cannot reach. Easy to access, it's about 40 minutes by car from central Sapporo and about 7 minutes from the highway Teine IC (interchange).
Sapporo Kokusai Skiing Resort
Here you can enjoy some of the finest powder in Hokkaido. From the summit, you'll have a view of the city of Otaru and the Sea of Japan. There's a beginner's course and a snow park where you can enjoy sledding and tubing, so it's great for families. Local buses run daily during the season.
Sapporo Bankei Ski Area
It's about a 20-minute drive from central Sapporo and opens at night until 22:00. You can enjoy 17 runs, from a gentle course that even beginners and families can enjoy to one that has been the setting for international competitions where top athletes compete.
Niseko Mountain Resort Grand Hirafu
One of the largest resorts in Japan with a total of 30 courses and the finest snow quality. There are plenty of surrounding hotels, restaurants, and hot springs. Tourists come from all over the world, so you can exchange different cultures.
Niseko Hanazono Resort
Located on the northeast side of Mt. Niseko Annupuri, you can enjoy some of the world's best powder. There are long runs on compressed snow and non-compressed tree runs, as well as plenty of activities like tubing and snowmobiling.
Niseko Village Ski Resort
Located in the wilderness overlooking Mt. Yotei, you can enjoy a course that rides between virgin forests and a course that offers a long powder cruise. At the foot of the mountain, there are plenty of facilities for apres-ski fun, such as resort hotels, townhouses, and shopping and dining areas.
Niseko Annupuri International Ski Resort
There are courses for beginners, intermediate, and advanced skiers, with powder and well-maintained groomed slopes. At the nearby hot spring facilities, you can relax in an open-air bath with a view of the glistening snow.
Rusutsu Resort (Rusutsu Village)
One of the largest resorts in Hokkaido. There are 37 courses on 3 mountains, and you can ascend lifts comfortably with hooded gondolas. Enjoy a variety of courses, from those for beginners to uncompacted runs for intermediate and advanced skiers.
Yubari Resort Mount Racey Ski Area (Yubari City)
The closest resort to New Chitose Airport. It features a multi-course design suitable for beginners and advanced guests. A free shuttle bus runs from the airport exclusively for Hotel Mount Racey guests. The hotel is directly connected to the gondola platform, making it very convenient.
Snow Cruise Onze (Otaru City)
Here you can enjoy skiing and snowboarding while gazing at the ocean beyond, and night skiing is available too. It's about a 10-minute drive from the Zenibako IC (interchange) on the Sasson Expressway, and a free shuttle bus runs from Sapporo.
Kiroro Snow World (Akaigawa Village, Yoichi District)
There are vast courses on the two mountains of Asari and Nagamine, and you can experience the highest level of powder snow in Hokkaido. The 22 courses include a massive 4 km run and plenty of ungroomed runs.
Kamui Ski Links
Kamui Ski Links is the largest ski resort in Northern Hokkaido with three official FIS courses and a vast tree run area. Located about 30 minutes by car from Asahikawa City, full equipment sets can be rented, so you can easily hit the slopes even if you show up empty-handed.
Furano Ski Resort
At Furano Ski Resort, you can enjoy a magnificent view of Mt. Tokachi and the Daisetsuzan mountain range, and the high-quality snow quality unique to inland ski resorts is excellent. There are 23 courses, including a slope with a maximum length of 4km, and the resort is suitable for skiers of all skill levels.
Hoshino Resorts Tomamu Snow Park & Resort
This resort has elements to satisfy all skiers, with wide gentle slopes, steep slopes, fresh snow areas, and moderate medium slopes. There are many other winter activities on site and the fantastic "Ice Village" is another highlight.
Sahoro Resort Ski Area (Shintoku Town)
The entire mountain is wrapped in the finest powder and you can take in the magnificent scenery of Hokkaido's Tokachi Plain as you ski down the substantial uncompacted runs.
Text by: Minna no Kotobasha
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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