Winter Sports - Skiing & Snowboarding in Japan
The most popular image of the Japanese countryside is probably the stunning countryside in the spring, summer and fall months of the year - endless greenery, cherry blossoms, mountains, temples and spectacular fall foliage being the most prominent elements of the picture.
Many people seem to be almost surprised when they find out that Japan also has breathtaking winter scenes and, more importantly, some of the best (and unique) skiing and snowboard resorts in the world, which have until recently have been one of the country's best kept secrets.
But winter and the huge amount of snow that falls each season is the best part of the year for many skiers and snowboarders in Japan and an increasing number of people are visiting this country just to lay down some fresh tracks in the snow.
With resorts dotted all over the Japanese islands, from the northern island of Hokkaido right down to the main southern island of Kyushu, almost all of Japan's inhabitants live within a couple of hours of a ski resort.
Japan's population being the size it is, Japan is home to the largest number of ski and snowboard resorts in the world - over 600 of them. Added to these statistics is that fact that a fair number of them are large-scale world-class ski resorts. There are also a lot of smaller operations with just a few lifts and runs, but these ski areas can often be just as enjoyable as the major ones.
From the incredible deep powder snow of Niseko (Hokkaido), to the huge Shiga Kogen resort region of Nagano, to the quaint traditional villages of Nozawa Onsen (Nagano) and Zao Onsen (Yamagata), to the "Olympic village" of Hakuba with its superb selection of resorts and facilities, to the popular Yuzawa resort region in southern Niigata Prefecture offering many resorts within a short train ride of Tokyo... the variety and depth of choice open to snow-lovers in Japan is breathtaking and probably matched nowhere else on earth.
With so many resorts to choose from, the biggest choice that has to be made is --- where to go? There are a number of well-known regions of Japan that are home to clusters of resorts - the main ones being Hokkaido, Nagano and Niigata, and with many areas of Tohoku, Gunma, Gifu and others offering a fair number of resorts as well.
As would be expected, conditions generally tend to be better the further north you go and at resorts higher up in the mountains; but for those living in the Kansai region (the Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto conurbation) and further south, there are still opportunities to get to nearby ski slopes, and the excellent transportation network makes even the northern areas easy to get to.
Find one resort in Japan and you're almost sure to find others nearby - they always seem to come in groups. The following are three of the main regions for winter sports in Japan and are where the majority of the resorts can be found. For information on every resort in Japan, check out the Snow Japan website.
Powder hunters invariably flock to the northern island of Hokkaido in search of spectacular deep powder, off-piste runs and challenging terrain.
Hokkaido is the most northern, and therefore the coldest, Japanese island and arguably gets the best powder snow. The main resorts are to the east and west of the main city of Sapporo. With Niseko, Furano, Rusutsu, and the popular Club Med facility in Sahoro - there's a lot to choose from. Niseko is especially popular as there are many places to stay, a lively nightlife, lots of terrain to explore and - best of all - dry powder snow! There are legendary backcountry powder runs and lots of great tree runs.
Nagano is the heart of mountainous central Honshu (Japan's main island) and home to the famous Japan Alps. Nagano Prefecture has some world-class resorts within its boundaries which were used for the 1998 Winter Olympics. The main regions are Hakuba Village, Shiga Kogen and the Nozawa Onsen area all of which hosted events for the recent Olympic games.
Hakuba is arguably the most popular ski area in Honshu and is a collection of great ski areas. There are a number of ski areas lined up throughout a 30-kilometer stretch of mountains. Within the Hakuba village area are found resorts like Happo-one, Iwatake, Tsugaike, Sun Alpina, Goryu Toomi, Hakuba 47 - and the list goes on.
Hakuba may be be the heart of Japanese skiing, but Shiga Kogen is the giant of the Japanese ski areas and is one of the largest ski resort areas in the world. There are about 20 resorts in all that make up Shiga Kogen, and it may very well take you more than a week to ski every course. Shiga boasts some excellent facilities and good skiing and snowboarding late in the season.
Nearby Nozawa Onsen is the place to go if you want the feel of an old-time Japanese village while experiencing one of the best single ski resorts in Japan. If you are wondering why one of the runs is called the Schneider slope, it is in honor of the Austrian ski pioneer Hannes Schneider who came to Japan 80 years ago. Nozawa calls itself the birthplace of Japanese skiing, and the Schneider course ends up at the door of the Japan Ski Museum where you can learn about the area's rich alpine history.
Yuzawa was the setting for Kawabata's famous novel Snow Country and for convenience from Tokyo the Chuetsu area of southern Niigata Prefecture is difficult to beat.
Yuzawa can be used as a base for over 20 nearby resorts in the town and the surrounding area including Naeba, Kagura, GALA, and Ishiuchi. GALA is the ultimate in convenience, with its own shinkansen bullet train stop. You can literally step off the platform and onto the gondola that whisks you up the mountain. Other notable resorts in the area include Iwappara, Pine Ridge Resorts Kandatsu and Joetsu Kokusai: all less than 15 minutes from the station by free shuttle bus.
The other main resort region of Niigata is centered around beautiful Mt. Myoko (located in Niigata Prefecture, but easily reached from Nagano City). Although not as well known as the Yuzawa area, Myoko Kogen has some excellent ski resorts that include Akakura, Myoko Suginohara, Ikenotaira and the nearby Mt. Arai.
THE MOST SNOW IN THE WORLD
"SNOW JAPAN" - JAPANESE WINTER SPORTS PORTAL SITE
For comprehensive information on everything to do with Japanese winter sports, as well as a thriving winter sports enthusiasts' online community, check out the Snow Japan website at www.snowjapan.com and associated Forums at www.snowjapanforums.com.