Japow, a common phrase referring to the type of snow you’ll find skiing in Japan. Japan has some of the snowiest cities in the world, which invites skiers from all over the world to its mountainous slopes in the winter. Paired with delicious food, culture, and onsens, I can’t think of a better place to head for an international ski trip.
The most common ski areas in Japan are Nagano (Hakuba) and Niseko. I have friends that skied in these areas and were also blessed with japow. Though, I prefer to go off the beaten path and had plans on skiing Tōhoku region, which translates to the northeast region of Japan on Honshu, or Japan’s largest island, is relative to the U.S.’s Pacific Northwest region. It consists of six prefectures, including two we wanted to ski: Iwate and Aomori.
Tips for skiing in Japan
Research the resort as much as you can. Some are hard to find information in English, but most of the lodges will have translated printed guides. When in doubt, ask when you’re there and if you’re having trouble with the language barrier, use Google Translate.
Some resorts in Japan require a ski guide or that you pre-register. Check in the main lodge before you try to ski the trees. Below, I mention our experience tree skiing in some of the resorts, especially if they were strict or lenient.
Some resorts with tree skiing areas will mark trees to follow to make sure you are able to get back to the base without a sidestepping or hiking out. If you’re skiing unmarked areas on the map, unmaintained brush may be hidden under the snow or may add additional obstacles.
Unexpected ski lift closures
Japan looks out for all skiers, of all levels. With that being said, the culture can be very particular with following rules. Lifts can close at a moments notice due to high winds or low visibility with little explanation. Even though I may be used to whiteout conditions and blistering winds, the resorts want to make sure everyone stays safe and can find their way back to the base.
The rolling terrain in Japan means more terrain traps are present, like gulleys. It’s good to be aware of slopes that are suspect to avalanches. If the trees are spaced far enough apart of enjoyable skiing, the terrain can avalanche.
Be sure to study the maps and monitor the terrain you’re getting into at the resort (I used Gaia GPS’s Japan GSI map layer). Terrain traps exist throughout the resort and if you get low enough, you may find yourself needing to climb out of situations. It’s helpful to bring the right gear (skins, beacon, shovel, and probe) or be knowledgeable your options.
Disclaimer: Skiing in resorts, sidecountry, and backcountry creates risk. It is important to follow the opened areas and patrol for safety. My accounts below are my own, and I take full responsibility of my group’s decision making for the conditions. This blog post is not a guide but a resource. I’m not responsible for others’ decision making in the outdoors.
Geto Kogen Ski Resort – 2 days
The first day snow was falling upper mountain and raining at the base. Without mid-mountain ski lifts, it meant we were skiing in the rain for half the runs. Fortunately, the gondola provided protection for the rain to the top of the resort. The tree runs were closed the first day, but we decided to dip in anyways. A ski patroller saw us from afar and kept an eye on us and was in line right behind us on the gondola, but he never approached us.
The second day, high winds and fresh 60 cm snowfall meant the gondola wasn’t operating. The good news: My crew had skins and were able to ride a lift and skin up a run to access some tree runs higher on the mountain. We even passed patrol while they were hiking up, waved hello, and continued on our way without a problem. Skiing some of the ungroomed runs that were closed for the day was the highlight with deep powder and untracked slopes.
Appi Kogen Ski Resort – 1 day
Appi is one of the most popular resorts in the area, you’ll wait in line for a few minutes, especially to ride the gondola.
After skiing the trees most of the morning, we hopped on a lift and noticed a bunch of people with yellow bands with numbers around their biceps. Maybe it was a race? Later, we met up with our friend that spent the morning skiing with his nephew that is stationed at a nearby Air Force base, all who had the same yellow armbands. If you plan on skiing any of the tree runs, register at the lodge. Appi isn’t the only resort in the area to require pre-registration or limited tree runs. Though, some resorts are accommodating by opening new tree areas.
The Attack Zone on Mt. Nishimori was some of the steeper tree skiing we found inbounds at any of the resorts. Unfortunately, we found it late in the day and were only able to get one good run to the base of a lower lift, and it is hard to lap the chair and better to enjoy turns down.
Shizukuishi Ski Resort – 1 day
A place where an abundance of lifts are abandoned. The trail map hides them, and we joked that old lifts were very expensive music speakers that played songs as you ride up an active chair parallel to an old one.
Turns out one of the wealthiest people of Japan years ago decided to build the ski resort and wanted to host ski competitions and invested heavily in its infrastructure. Though after years of low demand for skiing, similar to other Japanese resorts, the resort reduced its operations and left the old infrastructures in place to deteriorate.
From the top of the highest operable ski lift, an option to ski fresh tracks where most people will not go is available. Add skins, beacon, shovel, and probe (with the right training to make sure the snowpack is stable) and tour to the top of Takakurayama (or 高倉山). An old gondola station remains with broken windows and rusting exterior. We did a quick stop to discuss further plans and used it as protection from the strong winds crossing the ridge we were skinning. We followed the old lift line down and back into the boundary.
Hachimantai Resort Shimokura Ski Area – 1 day
Known as more of a family-friendly resort, Hachimantai Resort Shimokura offers one small section for tree runs and are very strict on the boundaries. Register and pick up your tree skiing armband at the base of the mountain at a table near where you buy tickets.
Off of Chair 3, we saw another group with snowshoes take off their snowboards and hike. The lift-lines were untracked and a gate was left open. Some in the group went through and the last two were being told to turn around, which we did as the others had already started their skiing.
Later, we joined at the bottom of the lift, where the lift operators told us no skiing. We had registered at the lodge and had the tree skiing arm bands and asked, “Tree skiing?”
After, we rode the top of the lift and took off our skis and started to hike from the lift. The operator said not allowed but then showed us where we could hike. Since the plan was to ski a half day, none of us brought our skins with us. After postholing in an old skin track, we arrived at a transition point to start our descent. When wrapping around the knoll we hiked to, the top lift operator yelled and waved from the distance. Apparently, we didn’t understand his direction. We skied down and past the lift but skated on a cat track back to the base of the lift. A lift operator rode a snowmobile down to greet us and a patroller on another sled soon joined. We used Google Translate to try explain the top lift operator said it was ok, we saw others doing the same thing in the morning, and to understand what they were trying to advise.
Now, it was onto our third life on the mountain as we joked we’re like a cat with nine lives. We enjoyed the rest of the day by exploring other tree patches and finally found the actual short “tree run” at the resort.
Hakkōda Ski Resort – 2 days
The Hakkōda Ropeway was never supposed to be used as a ski destination but instead the tram would carry hikers to see the diverse landscape of the Hakkōda Mountains. With only two marked routes to the base, here, you can get creative with your line. Low visibility above the tree line has large orange poles to keep you on track down the mountain. Sometimes, you could barely see the one in front of you and was slow slalom skiing between the poles until the rime-covered trees appeared.
Though, what we learned after two days (and deep skinning out to avoid a terrain trap) is get the turns up high and then catch an out track. Gaia GPS app helped us mark where the out tracks were by setting waypoints when we found a track.
After spending a good chunk of a morning trying to break through 75 cm of snow with an unprepared snowboarder following us on the way out, we opted to have fun and then follow the “course” through the trees at the bottom.
Different than most ski resorts, you buy one-way or round-trip passes. You can buy a 5-pack of one-way passes and get punches each time you board the tram. The punch card can be used multiple days.
High winds above 20 meters/second will close the tram. Grab a beer or lunch to wait it out or catch a bus back into town. You can also stay on the mountain itself with various onsens to choose from which makes the commute shorter in the morning but you’ll most likely need a car to get around or use the onsen shuttle services, if available.
Where to stay
There are definitely many options on where to stay. Below is a short list of suggestions on where I stayed throughout my time or a suggestion after being on the trip.
1. Geto Kogen
With little food on the mountain, the price of the hostel includes breakfast and dinner, as well as onsen access. We booked a 4-person private dorm, which ended up costing roughly $45 per person per night. Not bad when you consider it included food!
2. Hachimantai Mountain Hotel or Morioka
I have a guide friend that was supposed to be staying at the Hachimantai Mountain Hotel. A few days before the trip, he decided to head home early. Hachimantai Mountain Hotel is a more expensive option than staying central to all the area’s resorts and food in the city of Morioka. Though, you may have to pay for parking if renting a car. Bonus if you can find a hotel shuttle that will take you to the resorts you want to ski.
3. Toyoko Inn, Aomori
Traveling with skis can be a pain, especially on public trains with little storage. Staying close to a train station relieves stress of navigating snow-covered streets and busy sidewalks with a bunch of ski bags and gear. The Toyoko Inn in Aomori was right next to the bus station and close to the shopping district where you can find restaurants within walking distance. They also include breakfast from 6:30 am through 9 am to fuel your ski days.
How to get around
Public transportation is everywhere and easy to use. Consider using the HyperDia app for train schedules.
JR East Pass – 5 Days
Save money and calculate how many days you plan on riding the trains and the area in which the train pass will cover. For this particular trip, the JR East Pass got us where we needed to go. Purchase online before your trip. You can pick up the pass at the airport by showing your passport.
Make reservations with your pass by arriving at the train station early and finding the JR East ticket office. They will issue your ticket. You’ll need to reserve your seats for trains and show your JR East Pass at the gates (or turnstyles) to access the train platforms. The staff will stamp your ticket for the day and then you can use as much JR East transportation as you want without paying extra.
The pass also works from the Narita airport into Tokyo Station.
Rent a car
The normal perks for renting a car include flexibility and changing plans to chase snow.
After arriving in Tokyo and doing one tourist day, take the train using the 5-day JR East Pass to Morioka and rent a car. Stay in the city or at Geto Kogen and drive to the nearby resorts. You always have an option to check for hotels that shuttle skiers to the resorts. After a few days in the Iwate Prefecture, consider returning the rental car and taking the train to Aomori.
At Aomori, an hour-ish long bus ride costing about $11 per person (you can also use JR East Pass if you have extra days). The first bus leaves at 8 am and the next one at 10 am. Catch the first bus and arrive just after the tram begins to operate for the day. Stash your skis in the bus cargo area under the bus. I wore my ski gear and boots on the bus to avoid any extra gear needing storage at the Hakkōda Ropeway.
Ship your skis – Black Cat
Shipping your skis is extremely easy. I arrived at the airport, picked up my luggage, and went straight to the baggage shipment desks in the airport. It costs roughly $25 USD to ship a bag that weighs 25 kg. Make sure you give 24 hours of notice for this option.
Most hotels offer shipping, if they don’t, you should be able to find one or many locations in the city you’re staying (or check with other hotels). The skis arrived at the airport. You’ll need to know what terminal to ship to or what the Japanese address is for the locations you want to ship to, but other than that, it was pretty straightforward.