Deep powder, sustained snowfall and sunny days making skiing in Japan a perfect active family holiday. The trip to Asia from North America certainly requires families to be “all in,” but the welcoming people, delicious food, local culture and, of course, fantastic ski and snowboard options are the reason people continue to flock to ski resorts in Japan year after year.
From the dizzying array of ski areas and resorts within the country, we have chosen two that rise to the top for CB! readers based on their amenities, ability to cater to families and location: Niseko on the northern island of Hokkaido and Hakuba on the main island of Honshu.
The northern island of Hokkaido is tremendously popular with winter sports-loving visitors, especially those from abroad. Visitors rave about reliable deep and dry powder, a result of the Arctic winds that blow down and across the Sea of Japan. The winds pick up moisture as they travel across the sea — which, incidentally does not freeze — thereby providing a constant source of snow.
Niseko is the most popular Hokkaido ski destination, with three major resorts on Mount Niseko-Annapuri: Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annapuri. It’s known for being fairly international and has a mixed Japanese and Australian vibe, so there is definitely no need to speak Japanese. Grand Hirafu Village, the main ski village in Niseko, makes a fantastic home base. Or try Niseko Village, accessible by foot or gondola.
Niseko is reached by a 2 1/2-hour drive from the Sapporo airport. There are buses running to Niseko from the airport every hour, or you can hire a private car or even rent a car. You can easily make your home base in Niseko and explore and ski around areas farther afield, such as Rusustu and Kiroro, if you choose.
Grand Hirafu Village is small and walkable, but there is also a free shuttle bus that runs throughout the day, plus shuttles to the other mountains in the area. The Niseko area is extremely family-friendly, with plentiful shops, cafes, restaurants and even grocery stores. Grand Hirafu offers accommodation options that include apartments, chalets and luxury hotels.
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Restaurants in Niseko range from fine dining to food trucks with all types of cuisine. Ramen is a hearty and filling choice that suits many palates, and yakitori (think various meats and veggies on a stick) and Korean BBQ are also staple offerings. Most restaurants cater to families with children and some even have dedicated play spaces. Many families rave about Niseko Pizza. Restaurants do book up quickly, especially during school breaks, so you will want to make reservations well in advance.
GoSnow is the main ski/snowboard school in Grand Hirafu and they have group and private classes for kids and adults. You can also arrange for activities including snowshoeing and hiking. A popular family choice for equipment rental is Rhythm Niseko.
The AYA Niseko Hotel draws families looking for high-end amenities, such as a kids’ club and ski-in/ski-out luxury. They also have an onsen (natural geothermal hot spring) that is a huge après-ski draw as well as indoor/outdoor pools. Families looking for more privacy will be interested in the three private onsen that can be booked for family use.
TIP: Bathing at an onsen is a huge cultural experience in Japan and there are many places to try it out. Many onsen are single-gender, but there are a few spots that offer mixed-gender onsen (where families can be together), including the one at the Niseko Grand Hotel. If you are really feeling adventurous, you can purchase the Yumeguri Onsen pass, which will allow you to visit three different onsen of the more than 15 in the Niseko area. Passes can be bought in Niseko at the Ski Japan office.
The area around Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics, is known as the Hakuba Valley and is a hugely popular ski destination. Often referred to the as the Japanese Alps, the Hakuba Valley features more than 10 well-established ski resorts. Located on the main island of Honshu, the Hakuba Valley is the closest true ski destination to Tokyo, offering a low-stress family holiday.
Foreigners, in particular, are loyal to the Hakuba Valley for its ease of access. There is direct flight service from many countries to Tokyo and then shinkansen bullet train service to whisk you straight to Nagano in 90 minutes with a quick change there to reach Hakuba. The Hakuba Valley is also a great choice for families who would like to combine some sightseeing in Tokyo and/or Kyoto with a ski vacation.
Within the valley, Hakuba itself is the most popular resort. Hakuba draws raves for its quaint village feel, consistent snowfall and easy entrée to more than 85 miles of skiing with more than 200 trails and 137 ski lifts. While the resorts are not interconnected via chairlift, they are available to ski on one lift ticket, which is different than on Hokkaido.
Hakuba Valley Ski Note: If you are specifically looking for tree skiing, Hakuba Cortina is the place to go. Hakuba backcountry provides some amazing deep powder skiing, but we strongly advise that you hire a guide; our Family Travel Advisors can help you source one who’s good for all ages.
There are plenty of restaurants to please everyone in Hakuba. Kikyo-ya is a favorite for sushi and Zen is famous for its soba noodles — only a certain amount are made each day, so arrive in time to slurp some before they run out! Izakaya-Hie is a lively pub spot for Japanese sharing plates and if you are looking for nightlife, the Happo-One Resort and Echoland are the places to be. During the day, check out Happo One’s Pilar restaurant for panoramic ski-in/ski-out views.
Hakuba also offers plenty of cultural day trip options for when you are not out on the slopes. Jigokudani snow monkey park is an absolute must as well as a visit to Matsumoto Castle. Japanese for Hell Valley, Jigokudani is famous for its wild macaque (snow) monkeys who frolic and bathe in the natural hot springs — tailor-made for Insta! Awe-inspiring Matsumoto Castle, known as Crow Castle for its black color, is one of the oldest Samurai-era castles in Japan and is thought to be the best-preserved site with a wooden interior. Yet another local standout is a visit to Zenkoji Temple. Found in the center of Nagano, Zenkoji was built in the 7th century and houses Japan’s first-ever Buddhist statue. This beautiful temple is located along a tree-lined street filled with souvenir shops and cafes, making it a day trip to remember.
TIP: Yamato is a hugely popular company in Japan, providing a simple way to check in your ski gear at Narita airport (Tokyo) and have it delivered straight to your home base in the Nagano area. For families traveling with their own gear, this is a fantastic option, particularly if you are spending any time in Tokyo beforehand.
There are many other excellent resorts in these regions, including Tomamu and Furano located east of Sapporo’s airport on Hokkaido; and Myoko, Shiga Kogen and Nozawaonsen on Honshu.
Tomamu is a supremely luxurious Hokkaido ski destination. It has contemporary tower hotels, 5-star restaurants, an ice village and an indoor wave pool.
Furano, located farther east on Hokkaido, is a friendly resort with high quality English-language ski instruction and a focus on family fun.
For varied ski areas away from the crowds, easy access and beginner and intermediate friendly terrain, consider Myoko. This quaint village has authentic charm and offers good value.
Shiga Kogen is located very close to the snow monkey park and is home to the women’s downhill, slalom and Super G. There are 19 ski areas on one lift ticket. Shiga Kogen caters to all abilities, but no off-piste tree skiing is allowed. Mogul lovers will enjoy this resort.
Nozawaonsen is found in the northern part of the Nagano prefecture. While still offering great skiing, Nozawaonsen is known for its authentic Japanese ambiance. Founded in the 8th century when hot springs were discovered in the area, it has quaint streets and a traditional vibe. Western lodging is harder to find here, with traditional tatami-mat ryokans being the norm.
A Japanese ski vacation is guaranteed to deliver on snow, runs and fun and is sure to delight any ski-loving family. For help planning your ideal ski holiday in Japan, whether you are new to the slopes or have been skiing for years, contact us!
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