Japan has been steadily gathering attention as a go-to ski destination for snow-lovers, and top on the list for most aficionados is Niseko. On Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, this powder paradise is hugely popular among skiers and snowboarders of all abilities, thanks to its great range of runs for beginners and professionals, plus excellent backcountry terrain and alpine slopes dotted with trees. There is plenty for kids and families, not to mention lively and colorful apres-ski and nightlife scenes. Perhaps most importantly, a typical season sees Niseko get more snow than any other ski destination in the world. In January, at its peak, the resort gets up to 15 feet per day, and thanks to its super-low moisture content, the powder is light and fluffy, not to mention frequently replenished.
So, while there is no denying Niseko’s popularity or the validity of it, what about those looking for something off-the-beaten track, somewhere a little less bustling, or a ski destination that offers perhaps a more personal experience – all without compromising on the world-class conditions? Allow us to take you a little off-piste with a rundown of Japan’s lesser-known alternatives to Niseko.
A Warm Welcome in Furano
Also in Hokkaido and benefitting from the very same powder for which Niseko is so beloved, Furano valley is famous for a number of other things. In summertime, it is carpeted in color thanks to its rolling fields of lavender, lilies and poppies; its alpine forest is the setting of famous Japanese soap opera, Kita no Kuni Kara, and it has played host to the snowboarding world cup for a number of years. There is a good range of runs and Furano’s ski season lasts longer than most – from December to March – with some runs staying open from November until May. At peak times, the local “winter village” offers frosty fun with hot air balloon rides, snow statues, snow rafting and snow tubing on the longest course in Japan. Meanwhile, if you have had enough action and activity after a day on the slopes, there is always the snow dome with its ice bar. The real advantage of Furano though, is its authenticity and hospitality.
The hoteliers and tourism authorities are making a concerted effort to maintain the genuine soul and culture of the town, while welcoming visitors with multilingual staff and a great range of activities and experiences. On Saturday nights there is free local music and entertainment and the town boasts a plethora of boutique shops and high-quality restaurants serving authentic Japanese cuisine.
About one hour’s drive from Niseko, Kiroro also enjoys similar snow and conditions, and as such makes for either a viable alternative ski destination, or a great day-trip for a change of scenery – away from the crowds at the better-known resort. Quiet and sedate at night, with none of the blaring music and loudspeakers, it is particularly ideal for families looking for a navigable resort with an even selection of blue, red and black runs. English-speaking instructors are on hand to put the little ones through their paces on the slopes at the fashionable French-inspired ski school, designed especially for kids. Meanwhile, if any members of your tribe are likely to want a little respite or prefer not to ski, the traditional Japanese hot springs and spa offer a relaxing and authentic alternative experience. For those in your family who are looking for some real action though, Kiroro does not disappoint. Patrollers turn a blind eye to adventurous souls who want to venture off-piste and carve up the powder among the trees. There are a small number of mogul runs if you like it bumpy, and an all-terrain park full of daredevils practicing tricks and flips.
Travel Lightweight and Lightspeed to Gala Yuzawa
The only ski resort in Japan with its own shinkansen bullet train station, Gala Yuzawa is remarkably easy to get to. Located in the mountains of the Chuetsu region in Niigata prefecture, just over an hour north of Tokyo, you can reach the resort on an extension to the main Joetsu Shinkansen line, less than two miles from Echigo Yuzawa Station. Once you arrive, everything is at your fingertips – the train station lets out in the same building as the ski gondola, so you can get on the piste immediately. Perhaps capitalizing on this, Gala Yuzawa has a reputation for excellent quality rental gear, whether you are in need of skis, snowboard or sleds. For this reason, it makes for light travel if you are touring, or even a great day-trip option from Tokyo, as you can be assured of safe and well-maintained equipment on arrival. For those who prefer to use their own kit, the resort encourages guests to courier their gear to the resort two days ahead, rather than worry about carrying it on the train, and full pick-up services are easily accessible in the main building. The convenience extends beyond the slopes too, with swimsuits available for rent in the spa, which includes a swimming pool, lazy river and kid’s pool – an easy way to relax after a day on the slopes.
For youngsters there are special SpongeBob Snow Camp lessons, and for tricksters, the snow park features a good range of jumps, banks and rails. It is worth noting that there is no accommodation within the resort itself, but nearby Yuzawa town offers plenty of options, many of which are situated near stations on the same train line, or the shuttle bus route direct to the slopes.
Action, Adventure and Activities in Rusutsu
The largest of our secret resorts is perhaps not so secret. Rusutsu in Hokkaido was awarded “Best Ski Resort in Japan” by ski enthusiasts’ website, Powderhounds, who recommend it as a day-trip from nearby Niseko but claim it is even better to base yourself there for your snowy vacation. Annual snowfall is as good as its famous neighbor and just as fluffy, luring off-piste skiers and snowboarders of all abilities with its untouched and varied runs within the trees – all of which are legal to ski. For thrill-seekers in search of even further exhilaration, Japan’s only opportunity for heli-skiing can be found on the mountain just north of Rusutsu. Take the Hokkaido Backcountry Club helicopter to the top of Shiribetsu-Dake volcano for 360 degrees of sheer drops, steep ridges and long runs. On the other hand, if you are looking for a few alternative pastimes to break up the downhill action, there are plenty of off-piste activities to be found at Rusutsu including horse riding, craft lessons, snow-shoe trekking and dog-sledding.
As the rest of the skiing world raves (quite rightly) about the virtues of Niseko, why not consider the alternatives if you are looking for something a bit different, and enjoy the adventure of taking the slope less ploughed.