Hokkaido, Japan is becoming one of the hottest ski destinations on the planet, offering more than 100 resorts and abundant, world-class powder. But exceptional snow quality is just the beginning. In the Land of the Rising Sun, this northern island also provides fabulous food, onsens (hot springs), and unique cultural experience with the most gracious hosts you’ll ever come across.
But back to the snow … in Hokkaido, it is so abundant, consistent, and of the best quality that it merits three of the spots in this list. Here they are – the Top 7 Reasons to Ski or Ride in Hokkaido This Year:
1. It’s the Snowiest Place on Earth
The Japanese archipelago consists of over 6.000 islands, with Hokkaido being the second largest of all of them. Located in the northernmost point of Japan, its geography is conducive to copious amounts of annual snowfall. There are two main reasons for this, it’s proximity to Asia with the icy-cold wind blowing down from Siberia and the Sea of Japan providing tons of moisture.
2. Consistent Snowfall
The typical pattern of feast or famine of powder dumps prevalent at many ski destinations does not apply to Hokkaido. This island gem offers up the highest probability of a powder day – anywhere- with annual snowfall ranges from 540 – 708 inches a year. This ocean-effect snow falls on the regular. In fact at Niseko, a popular ski destination, it has been noted:
“Nearly 15 feet of fukai yuki saiko land on the humble mountain in January alone, an average of almost six inches a day. Visit Niseko for ten days in January and you will ski nearly five feet of fresh snow—more than most resorts receive in a month. ”
Eric Hansen, Outside Magazine
3. Top Quality Powder
The geography of Hokkaido, as mentioned above, provides the perfect mix of ingredients for a steady dose of blower-light powder. The type of snow most powder hounds are seeking, the snow you float on not plow through. In terms of snow quality, this island delivers on all major fronts offering a steady dose of deep, dry powder.
4. Hokkaido Ski Resorts
Most of the ski resorts in Hokkaido are small or medium-sized compared to traditional ‘large’ resorts found in North America. One thing they all share in common is the aforementioned great snow conditions. Which resort to try first depends on what’s most important to you: snow amounts, lack of crowds, off-piste, etc. Time permitting – try a variety to get the full experience of what Hokkaido has to offer. In addition to the larger, more popular resorts, such as Niseko, there are many smaller options supplying a steady diet of fresh powder tracks.
Best overall Hokkaido ski resort: Sahoro, Niseko, Rusutsu
Best snow: Moiwa, Asahidake, Kiroro
Most uncrowded: Moiwa, Tomamu, Kamui
Best lifts: Rusutsu, Sapporo Kokusai, Furano
Piste trails: Furano, Sahoro, Niseko
Off-piste: Moiwa, Rusutsu, Sahoro
Nightlife: Niseko, Furano, Rusutsu
5. Hokkaido Backcountry and Off-Piste Skiing
Backcountry and off-piste skiing is available in Hokkaido, more than anywhere else in Japan, yet is not fully acceptable at every resort. The good news? There are still plenty of options to grab your avalanche gear and head into the desirable untracked powder. Caution is your friend here as areas not patrolled for riders who wander into the outskirts of resorts also have no one monitoring the conditions. Below is a mere sampling of the offerings. Cat and Heli-skiing are available, but still evolving.
Asahidake: Located in central Hokkaido, the backcountry in Asahidake offers an abundance of powder and minimal crowds.
Furano: Offers lots of light, dry powder, and varied terrain. Off-piste skiing is a newer option here.
Tomamu: Known for powder bowls and excellent backcountry, however, a liability waiver must first be signed and then a badge will be issued to the rider that must be worn at all times.
Niseko: Rumored to be the snow capital of the world, Niseko is Japan’s #1 snow resort. Known for its wide-open powder bowls and tree runs, it also has 11 gates across the resort providing access to off-piste skiing and powder stashes.
Moiwa: Located next to Niseko, but fewer crowds to contend with or complete with for powder runs.
Rusutsu: Selling points are its amazing powder, limited lift-lines, and access to off-piste and tree runs. In fact, you can freely ski the trees in-bounds as well at this resort.
6. Japan’s Famous Hot Springs: Onsens
Visiting an onsen – especially in winter – is a quintessential Japanese tradition not to be missed. In Japan, naturally occurring hot springs (onsens) heated geothermally and believed to have healing powers due to their various mineral content, are everywhere. After a day on the slopes, a trip to one of Hokkaido’s many onsens will provide a warm and relaxing respite. This is not just another trip to an après-ski hot tub. It’s an experience.
The culture of Hokkaido is unique and distinct from what you may experience in other parts of Japan. The capital of Hokkaido, Sapporo, was established fairly recently, by Japanese standards, and its city streets are laid out in a grid pattern, much like many modern cities of today. This layout is a stark contrast to other parts of Japan.
Throughout Hokkaido, you will find numerous opportunities to be pleasantly surprised. Beer in vending machines? Yes. In fact, the vending machines here hold many items not found elsewhere. Definitely check them out when passing by, for they hold so much more than mere drinks or snacks.
Other sites include the Shrines and Temples that dot the landscape, beautiful villages outside the perimeter of the urban centers, and perhaps the most popular culturally experience – the food. Surrounded by the sea, there is a cornucopia of fresh seafood to be found along with the ubiquitous ramen noodles, fresh vegetables and of course – hot sake. The food presentation is on another level, it’s been elevated to an art form.
Hokkaido is quickly becoming one of the favored ski destinations in the world. It’s little wonder with what all it has to offer. Embarking on an adventure in a foreign land may feel overwhelming, but there are experienced tour guides willing and able to help you make the most of it.