In late February 2020, when Coronavirus had not yet stopped the world, I embarked on a 10 day ski trip to Japan with Sno’n’Ski, an Australian ski wholesaler that invited thirty ski specialist travel agents to Japan to check out some different ski resorts.
I’ve previously lived and worked in Niseko, which has now become quite a popular International travel destination for skiers, so I was excited to check out some lesser known resorts on the island of Honshu.
Travelling with twenty-nine other travel agents turned out to be a lot of fun – we were all of varied abilities ranging from first timers to ex full time ski bums turned travel agents like myself.
Here’s a summary of what we got up to.
was the highlight of this trip for me resort wise. Like many resorts in Japan, at the base of the resort sits an eyesore of a hotel, box shaped with some towers and painted custard yellow. It’s efficiently run and there’s a wide range of room types depending on budget, including some that have their own private outdoor mini onsen tub which looked amazing.
First morning skiing was a classic clear bluebird day with views for miles, but the upper lifts were on wind hold which made for some long queues on the lower lifts. The hotel at the resort is quite large and there are some other pensions that can sleep more people, and we were there on a public holiday in Japan so there were a few people out.
Skip to the 12:30pm after a classic Japanese vending machine delicious hot lunch, and the wind dropped and it started dumping snow. A few of us decided to jump in line for the gondola in case it opened (and created quite the queue and hype behind us), and luckily for us it did open, right on 1pm in classic Japanese “to the minute” timing.
We were on the second gondy up, with a crew of local Japanese riders on the first gondy in front of us. With no idea where to go, and little to no visibility with the big snowflakes falling, Barb and I hastily sped off the gondola and followed the locals, figuring they’d be heading into a locals only powder stash in the trees that we would not have found otherwise.
About halfway down the run we realised our mistake – these Japanese locals were corduroy cowboys – they live for groomers here! Most of the Japanese riders have no interest in skiing powder, they love carving turns on the groomers instead. When the penny dropped, we peeled off and sniffed out some untracked trees and some incredibly deep lift lines with NO-ONE but us skiing them (the storm diminished the crowds quickly, Japanese punters are fair weather skiers it seems!). It was one of those afternoons for the memory books, lapping a small two seater chair skiing trees and lift lines, popping off pillows and consistent face-shots. The tree skiing here on a deep day is incredible, perfectly spaced trees, good pitch, minimal people and plenty of terrain to explore.
We did some laps with ‘Taks’ who runs the ski/snowboard school and he told us that unlike some resorts in Japan, the ski patrol at Appi are more relaxed about people tree skiing within the resort. Where some resorts in Japan have strict closures on these areas, at Appi you are free to ski trees at your own risk, which is a definite positive for us powder hungry Aussie skiers.
There were some great restaurants within the Appi hotel complex to make up for the closed bar, so we shared some beers and stories over a Korean Barbeque experience, some of us then went on to do Karaoke and the night continued.
was the next stop. Known as the ‘largest ski area in Japan’, Shiga has 18 ‘ski resorts’ linked together to create one mega ski area. Shiga has elevation on it’s side; at 2307 metres at it’s highest point, it is 500 metres higher than Hakuba, which means cold, dry snow and a decent base. Though our guide, hotel manger and all round legend ‘Tats’ was upset to tell us that this year was not a great season for snowfall, with the base only reaching 1.5 metres. If the skiing we had there is a bad year then I’d love to come back on a good year, as we had some great runs and fantastic cold soft snow.
Unlike at Appi, Tats was very strict on his advice that we were NOT to ski off piste in the trees, it is ‘too dangerous’. This is backed up by heavy signage within the resort of skeleton icons and ‘death’ signs with ropes sectioning off those tantalising tree runs. Back story we found out later was than an Aussie guy had died from hitting a tree here only weeks before we arrived. This restriction put a bit of a dampener on things. We did manage to find some fresh off the side of some runs but we didn’t delve too deep into the trees, not wanting to upset our host (or lose our lift passes).
We got creative in other ways finding natural hits and enjoying long snaky runs through the birches and Japanese forest as we weaved between the different ski areas.
Some of the ski areas had European style hotels that were now deserted and run down, bit of a shame as it would be great to see this area busy and thriving again. We never waited in line at any of the lifts at any of the areas, so it’s a great place to come to avoid crowds, and accommodation and lift tickets here are excellent value.
Accommodation wise, the Prince Hotel group has three buildings here at the base of the Yakebitaiyama Ski Area. We stayed in the East building, and the rooms there were clean and spacious and had a great outlook onto the snow, with easy ski in/ski out access. Food was excellent again with some lovely Japanese delicacies for dinner, Shabu Shabu cook it yourself style.
was the final stop. Definitely doesn’t fit into the “lesser-known” category of this blog, it’s now a regular haunt for skiers and snowboarders from all around the world. I have heard so much about this place but had never visited in winter before now, so I was excited to check it out and see what the fuss was about.
Luke, Barb and I spent the first day with English ski instructor Aaron as our guide. We skied Goryu & Hakuba 47 resorts, and the conditions that day could best be described as ‘dust on crust’. There had been a melt freeze the night before and the skiing was challenging, with a light dusting over icy moguls, and minimal visibility (kinda like a normal day at Hotham!). Pitch here was steep though, and runs were long, something not normally found in Japan, very different to Niseko’s gentle slopes of which I had spent much ski time in my pre-travel agent ski bum life.
Aaron explained how the tree skiing works at Hakuba 47 – to ski in a designated ‘Tree Riding Zone’, you need to first become a ‘member’ by watching a safety video, and checking in on the day you’d like to ski trees to collect and wear a numbered bib. If you don’t check back in by 3pm that day, they send out a search party at your expense. Seems pretty intricate, but at least it’s allowed rather than banning it completely.
Day two at Hakuba and the skies cleared to reveal some incredible views of the Japanese Alps. The snow was soft, we could see where we were going and the hangovers weren’t as bad as we imagined so we were excited.
Aaron showed us around Happo One (pronounced o-ne, not as in numeral 1), we revelled in long, fast, soft groomers from top to bottom, and found some stashes in some (legal) tree runs along the way. The lifts here are fast and extensive, and though there were more people here than the others resorts we’d visited, everyone was spread out so we never had to wait in lines.
The afternoon was spent skiing with Jamie, an Aussie snowboarder living in Hakuba the last few seasons, he is very passionate about the place and pointed out a few of his favourite backcountry lines, right off the groomers of Happo One – the terrain looks mouth wateringly amazing, and we could see why part of the area we were looking at is used for the Freeride World Tour. Not terrain I imagined seeing in Japan, more like North American terrain with rocks, cliff drops and natural chutes that all run down to a road and a creek, from there it’s either a long walk out or a pre-organised mate with a car to collect you.
That same day Jamie had ridden one of his favourite lines in the morning and he set off a small slide, and his mate also set off a bigger slide in a different area, so avalanche danger here is real, and it would not be smart to head into those uncontrolled areas without avy gear and a guide.
We stayed at Hotel De Laile which is an older Japanese style hotel in the Wadano woods area, walkable to the Sakka lifts of Happo One which was convenient. There are shuttle buses to the other Hakuba Valley resorts too, all transport here is ever so efficient as per most places in Japan!
Happo village, which we explored at night was a hub of activity. There were tantalising smells from food trucks on street corners, underground bars, izakaya style restaurants, fancy hotels, not so fancy hotels, and finally some fun locations for those well earned Apres beers after a great day skiing!
Shoutout to the crew at Rhythm Sports in Hakuba too, I demoed a pair of K2 Mindbenders while I was in Hakuba (super fun skis), and their shop has all the latest and greatest gear if you don’t want to lug your skis on the train/plane (ski bags on the Japanese trains are not fun – very limited space to put them).
We visited the Snow Monkey park after Hakuba, it was definitely worthwhile, these guys were very interesting to watch. It wasn’t over-run with tourists either. It’s quite a walk to get up to the snow monkeys, approx. 30mins up a slippery hill so I’d recommend wearing decent boots for the trek.
This trip also took us to Shizukuishi Ski Area, which was the first stop, in the lesser visited Tohoku/Iwate region. It’s up north on Honshu which makes for consistent and constant snowfalls and great skiing. Highlight at ‘Shizu’ was their Cat Skiing option which takes a group of up to 15 people up a disused former ski run to ski a four kilometre freshly groomed, or in our case deep powder descent, we got lucky with snow there. We only had limited time to ski the resort here, but we did have a fun night skiing session to warm up the legs straight after travelling from Australia, and a couple of powder laps before cat skiing in the morning. Sunshine lift here was the highlight for me, with two black runs feeding off it, creatively named Giant Slalom trail and Slalon Bahn Trail. The runs had consistent pitch and perfectly spaced Japanese birch trees to weave through as the snow falls gently around you.
We also enjoyed a day skiing at Iwate Kogen Snow Park, which has a top elevation of 1213 metres and a vertical drop of 583 metres. This was a classic small Japanese resort, with very few foreigners, perfect to visit on a Japanese road trip, but probably not for longer stays as the terrain is not super extensive. We scored a bluebird day, no fresh snow that morning, but we were skiing fresh corduroy all day, popping off rollers and skiing hot laps from top to bottom. The lift has a gondola and a few fixed grip chairlifts to take your time and watch the world go by, accompanied by blasting Japanese music from the lift towers which is one of those questionable novelties of Japanese resorts.
This trip has put Japan back on the radar for me for my own ski trips after my last few years have been spent chasing steeps in the USA. The snow quality on a powder day in Japan really is second to none, and in general the skiing there is cruisy and relaxing through gentle trees and glades in soft snow, high fives and hollers, minimal crowds* plus a few steeper slopes to be found in between if you sniff them out. Mix in some great beer, delicious and interesting food, efficient transport and the most respectful and polite people on earth in the Japanese people and it’s definitely the perfect place for a ski holiday.
*Note minimal crowds dependent on the resort and time of year!