5 of Japan’s best locations to ski and snowboard

By Philip Kendall

Treated to generous snow dumps each winter and coupled with the fact that so much of the country is mountainous, Japan is one of the best locations in the world for ski and snowboarding fun, not to mention some of the best powder snow in the world. But which resorts should you be sure to visit before the powder turns to slush? Check out this list of five of Japan’s greatest, and our favorite, places to ski and snowboard.

It’s still January, so the snow’s not going anywhere quite yet, but when the weather starts to warm up and the green begins to peek through the white we may wish we’d spent more time on the piste and less time thinking about it, so let’s get right to it.

5. Monstrous conditions: Zao, Yamagata Prefecture

Kicking us off is a resort not especially well-known outside of Japan. Zao has been described by foreign visitors as everything from “simply beautiful” to “snowboarding heaven,” and it’s not hard to see why. This place has some of the widest runs you’re likely to come across in Japan, making it perfect for those wanting learn to ski or snowboard or those who want to try out a few new tricks without having to constantly look over their shoulder, but perhaps the coolest thing about snowboarding on Mount Zao are the “snow monsters” that line the runs. As the winter wind blows and droplets of water from the nearby lake come into contact with the snow-covered trees in the area, bizarre shapes are formed and freeze solid, making the mountain look like it is covered with the frozen remains of mythical beasts. Along with the high quality snow that Yamagata Prefecture is treated to each winter, Zao pretty much guarantees good times on the piste. More info

4. Monkey business: Shiga Kougen, Nagano Prefecture

It’s probably no surprise to find a ski resort on our list situated in Nagano, the home of the 1998 Winter Olympics, but Shiga Kougen (or Shiga Highlands) is a must for those who can’t get enough of the white stuff. Spanning a whopping 21 resorts – all of which are accessible with just one ticket – Shiga Kougen occupies a massive 4.3 square kilometres (1.6 square miles) of mountain, making it one of the world’s largest resorts and packed full of variety. The snow quality is of course superb, there’s snowmobiling to enjoy when your legs eventually get tired, oh, and there are wild monkeys that enjoy taking dips in the natural hot springs dotted around the area. Monkeys! What else could you possibly want for? More info

3. Chillin’ up north: Furano, Hokkaido

Located not far from Asahikawa City (which is home to a great Fuyu Matsuri, or winter festival, each year), the Furano Ski Resort is spread over two main areas, both operated by the Prince Hotels Group. There is plenty for advanced snowboarders and skiers to enjoy at Furano, but for intermediates and those still learning the ropes especially this location is ideal, with tons of runs and some amazing powder snow. A word of warning, though: off-piste boarders will be spotted and stopped by the resort’s many hawk-eyed staff, so if you live to dodge trees while carving you’re likely going to have a hard time. More info

2. From downtown: Hakuba Happo One, Nagano Prefecture

Located in the Hakuba ski resort of Nagano Prefecture, Happo One takes our second spot thanks to its wonderful snow and usually great conditions. Just as importantly, though, it is within relatively easy reach of Tokyo, with direct links from the city and Narita Airport (through which overseas travellers usually enter the country), so if you’re visiting Japan and don’t wish to spend your entire time on a mountain, you can blend city adventures with powder fun relatively easily. Happo One boasts 13 pistes that (although lower-level snow lovers will still find suitable runs) are steeper and a little wilder than the average Japanese resort, so you won’t be disappointed, especially if you’re looking for somewhere to level up. More info

1. Powder heaven: Niseko United, Hokkaido

Our top spot, however, has to go to Niseko United. This is, in fact, four different resorts situated on the same mountain, the 1,308.5m (4,293ft) high Niseko Annupuri. Sure, this is in Hokkaido so it will require a little extra effort to get there, but the runs are as vast as they are various, and the powder you’ll find up here is considered some of, if not the best in all of Japan. The area is also incredibly accommodating to foreigners, and, along with dozens of restaurants and bars, there are hundreds of lodges, hotels and guest houses ready to take you in after a long day of snowboarding and skiing. If you only have time to hit one snow-covered mountain in Japan, make it this one. More info

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Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Sporty nerds gather in Nagano to show off their anime and manga-inspired snowboards -- Places you simply must visit: Toyama Prefecture -- Five of Japan’s most unique snow-covered hot spring bathing sites

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My criteria are, possibly in this order: 1) easy access from Tokyo, EXCEPT when I can get a longer holiday (almost) never; I don't really like to go by car (sometimes the traffic jam is horrible) or bus (bad back), so Shinkansen/bus combination is ideal for me; 2) good variety of slopes, especially intermediate and advanced ones; I like to explore as many as possible in 1-2 days; 3) lower ratio of snowborders. I apologise to the serious guys who do their stuff right, but there are just too many posers who just sit down in the middle of the slope or enter a difficult course and dangerously disturb everybody; 4) 1-2 gondolas or good connectivity of lifts; 5) This is almost impossible in weekends, but not too crowed would be ideal. And please God, good snow, no ice, no strong winds? Thanks. I really like Naeba/Kagura combination; Hakuba Happo and Shiga Kogen are great, but a bit far. Joetsu Kokusai is very close, but a it boring.

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What happened to Nozawa Onsen, the quintessential Japanese ancient ski village ranked a week ago by the New York Times as one of the top places to visit in the world?

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I enjoyed skiing at Niseko in 1980. The mountains got so much snowfall that when sitting on the ski lift, you rode up the mountainside through trenches that had been dug in the snow that had piled up almost to the level of the overhead cable. From the ski slope there was a fantastic view of "Ezo no Fuji", so called because of its uncanny resemblance to Fujisan. (In the Ainu language, Hokkaido was called Ezo)

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Jason, Nozawa Onsen is great for an overall experience: ski (snowboarding), onsen, food, old-style hotels, izakayas, old-style shopping and souvenirs. very popular with foreigners, there are more English menus than in Tokyo! I've spent there one winter holiday with my parents and it was great. But if you are talking purely about skiing, in my opinion the slopes are average (but still very good)

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