Before the 1990s, skiing in Japan was almost totally unknown to skiers outside of Japan but over the years, word quickly spread that Japan and its mountain covered country, was the place to be. Japan is now recognized as the powder capital of the world, and for avid riders who haven’t already visited, it is at the top of their list. Let’s take a look at the top reasons to ski in Japan.
Skiing In Japan – The Snow
One of the best things about skiing in Japan is the immense amounts of light, dry, powder snow. Japan’s famous snow is a result of large weather systems that form over Russia; frigid and dry winds from Siberia that absorb moisture from the Sea of Japan, before dropping huge amounts of snow on the mountains of Japan. Most resorts across the nation average roughly 15 meters of snow per year, with some getting even more. The country is also blessed with modest temperatures in comparison to European and North American resorts, with it hovering around a very manageable -8 degrees Celsius for the majority of winter.
What makes Japan even more special in terms of snow, is its unparalleled quality. When the snow is as light and as dry as it is here in Japan, the experience is enhanced. Also, because the snow is so light there is very little resistance as there is little to no moisture in the snow, it is easy on the legs which means even those with sore knees can ride all day long. However, skiing in Japan’s powder does require good balance and some core strength, so a moderate level of fitness is recommended. If you’re planning on skiing in Japan on stunning groomed runs, the snow is soft and amazingly forgiving.
For a lot of people, Japanese food might be an even better reason to visit the land of the rising sun. From convenience stores to Michelin star restaurants, the amount of delicious food is endless. Here are some of the most popular meals when skiing in Japan:
A popular pan-fried dish that is essentially a savory pancake whose base ingredients are batter and cabbage. “Okonomi” translates to “to one’s liking”, this is reflected in the range of toppings that accompany the dish, and you pick and choose what yours will contain. Similar to a pizza party. In the majority of restaurants that specialize in this dish, the table comes equipped with a hot plate, and the ingredients come out in separate bowls, you then build and cook them yourselves! Dining at an okonomiyaki restaurant is always a fun and memorable experience and one we highly recommend.
Japan’s favourite deep-fried delight comes in the form of tempura. It is most commonly prepared by lightly battering a range of seafood and vegetables deep-fried in oil that consists of around 10% sesame oil for an authentic Japanese taste. It can be found in almost every Japanese restaurant and can be served as a main dish, side dish or topping for rice and noodle bowls. Popular tempura items are ebi (prawn), sakana (fish), nasu (eggplant), kinoko (mushrooms), kabocha (pumpkin) satsumaimo (sweet potato), shiso (perilla) and kariage (a patty consisting of seafood and julienned vegetables). You can learn to cook tempura from master chef Masato Murata
Originally an import from China, ramen plays a vital role in the Japanese diet. There are over 30,000 ramen restaurants in Japan, with styles and specialties varying from region to region. The four main bases are; shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), miso (soybean paste), and tonkotsu (pork bone). Ramen noodles are made from wheat and are long and elastic in nature and restaurants may serve either thin or thick noodles. Each restaurant is different as far as the standard toppings that are included. In most cases, chashu (fatty slices of roasted or braised pork) will sit on top with a tamago (hard-boiled/soft/marinated egg). For a small additional cost, you can also add things such as extra pork, corn or butter to add creaminess and depth.
Another dish initially from China, gyoza has been adopted and modified by the Japanese. The most common gyoza is yaki gyoza. Differentiating from the common soft boiled dumplings found in China, yaki gyoza is pan-fried before corn starch and water are added. This method of cooking steams the filling of pork, vegetables, or both, as well as creating a crispy layer on the outside. The most common place to find these is ramen restaurants as they make the perfect accompaniment to the soup.
The most internationally recognised Japanese dish is certainly sushi. It is widely found in all parts of the country and is exceptionally cheap to eat. The quality of the sushi, especially at sushi trains, continues to improve and also showcases the chef’s techniques. There are several variations of sushi available at all sushi restaurants. Nigiri; these are small rice balls with a topping laying across the top such as fish, shellfish, tuna, eel, squid, octopus and many more. Gunkan; small cups of dried seaweed are formed and filled with rice and a filling, the most popular being sea urchin and various kinds of fish eggs. Norimaki; the most commonly recognised variation of sushi internationally, it is sushi rice and filling wrapped up in dried seaweed sheets. Inari; inexpensive and straightforward, inari is small bags of deep-fried tofu stuffed with sushi rice, usually dipped in soy sauce or wasabi.
Several different alcoholic beverages are commonly consumed in Japan. Shochu, derived from sweet potato and rice is similar to Vodka, and is traditionally enjoyed straight, but is more commonly served mixed with soda. Sake, in Japanese, it translated to rice wine; however, against popular belief, it is far closer to beer. Like beer, it is brewed with fermented yeast. Koji spores are dusted onto rice which convert the starch into sugar which is then consumed by the yeast to create the alcohol. It can range from dry to sweet and is served either warm or at room temperature. Whiskey is one of Japan’s modern alcohol specialties, and offers some of the highest quality and most sought after whiskeys in the world. Beer is Japan’s most commonly consumed alcohol and was first brewed in Hokkaido. Sapporo Classic is one of the most popular brands in Hokkaido, and there are many other different brands and styles in different regions across the nation.
Skiing in Japan’s deep powder, hiking around the mountains, gorging yourself in delicious food, or even simply travelling, can all take a toll on the body. A Japanese hot spring, locally known as an onsen, is the best way to combat sore muscles after a day of activities. These waters are the result of naturally occurring volcanic activity and are a source of highly beneficial minerals. Each onsen will vary in the exact mineral composition depending on factors such as the location and the path of the water before it reaches the bathes.
Below is a range of benefits these soothing waters boast:
- Sodium Bicarbonate saline – for beautifying the skin
- Chloride – retains body heat
- Sulphate – for cuts & bruises
- Ferruginous – for recovering iron levels
- Sulphur – for high blood pressure & joint pain
- Acidic Antibacterial – not recommended for people with skin sensitivities
- Carbon Dioxide – for high blood pressure and rheumatism
Japan is one of the most beautifully landscaped countries with a plethora of fabulous natural sites and breathtaking cultural sights different to anywhere in the world. If you’re looking to add a little more depth to your holiday while skiing in Japan, there are several activities we recommend you partake in immersing yourself in the rich history of Japan.
Shrines and Temples
There are two main belief systems in Japan, Buddhism and Shinto. There are both Shinto and Buddhist temples and shrines across Japan, sharing many traits, but are quite distinct from each other.
Shinto shrines are the home of the kami, the Shinto gods. The Japanese people often visit these places to pay respect to the kami and pray for good fortune. There are sacred objects that are placed in the heart of the shrine where nobody can see them and the kami are believed to reside in these objects. Shinto shrines are also commonly visited by locals during special events, no more than New Year, where they are visited to pray for forgiveness and enter the New Year cleansed.
Virtually every municipality throughout the country will have at least one temple as they are the place of worship for the Japanese people. Large cultural centers like Kyoto have several hundred. There are several common structures generally found at Buddhist temples:
- Main Hall – Statues and other sacred objects of worship are displayed here. They have several different names in Japanese being; hatto, butsudan, amidado and hondo.
- Lecture hall – Known as kodo, these halls conduct lectures and meeting are also held here.
- Pagoda – Derived from Ancient Indian Stupa, these three (sanju no to) or five (goju no to) stories, symbolizing sacred mountains, were used to hosue relics or remains of saints and kings.
- Gates – Marking the entrance to the sacred grounds, there is usually one main gate as well as several additional gates throughout.
- Bell – Used on New Year eve, it is rung 108 times in correlation with the Buddhist belief of the 108 world desires that plagues man. By the time you’ve counted the 108th bell starting at midnight, you are seen to be able to enter the New Year fresh and without burden.
- Cemetery – Almost all of the cemeteries in Japan are Buddhist and resided at these temples. Japanese people commonly visit and pray at their ancestors’ graves throughout the year.
To the untrained eye, Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples can look very similar. There are a few ways to tell them apart.
- Have a big red torii gate
- Often have statues of foxes
- Have a bell on a rope
- Have a place to throw money in
- When worshipping, people will bow twice and clap twice
- Have Buddha statues
- Roofs have tiles
- When worshipping, there is no clapping
- There is incense at the entrance
- Have komainu – two dog statues
As the residence of the emperor for over 1000 years between 794 and 1868, it is the most historically valuable city in all of Japan. So much so, during World War II, it was dropped from the list of targets of the atomic bomb. Today, it is home to hundreds of shrines, temples, castles, palaces, markets and museums.
Some of the famous sites you may want to visit are:
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Home to one of the most photographed locations in all of japan, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is entrance to popular mountain trails located the back of the shrine itself. The entrance is a tunnel of thousands of vermillion torii gates that straddle a network of trails behind its main building. A perfect combination of Japanese culture mixed without outdoor adventure.
Translating to “Pure Water Temple”, Kiyomizudera is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. Its magnificent wooden stage that stands 13 meters above the hillside below and gifts visitors with views of a seemingly infinite amount of maple and cherry trees below and explode with colour come spring, with the Kyoto city as a backdrop. Throughout the grounds there a number of the pre-mentioned common structures as well as a waterfall as the name suggests. This wonder of Japan was incepted into the UNSECO world heritage sites in 1994
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)
Designed to mimic the extravagance and wealthiness of the aristocrat circles of Kyoto during shogun Yoshimitsu’s reign, this Zen temple was originally his retirement villa. This remarkable building, situated on a large pond, has its top two floors completely covered in gold leaf. On a sunny day, it glows against the rising sun and makes for a spectacular view.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The imperial palace was home to the imperial family for over 1000 years and it still to this day considered one of the most iconic sites in all of Japan. It is located amongst the attractive park in the center of the city; Kyoto Gyoen. Now available to explore without the need to book a tour, it is a must see when visiting Kyoto.
One of the most famous Japanese sports is sumo wrestling. The exact of the origin of the sport is unclear, dating back 1500 years ago, it is the oldest known organized sport that is still practiced today. It is reported that it was originally practiced in Shinto shrines to entertain the gods. One legend states the gods themselves handed the sport down over 2000 years ago. Today, tournaments are predominantly held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan National Sumo Stadium with competitions running in January, May and September. This sport is highly recommended to watch while skiing in Japan.
For those who have spent time skiing in Japan before, you will be aware of the immense amount of care and detail go into the service industry throughout the country. There is a Japanese proverb “okyakusama wa kamisama” which translates to well known “the customer is always right”. However, the Japanese people consider the literal translation to be “the customer is god”. This is evident in through and through with not only the politeness and care they approach each customer with, but small acts of kindness that make it special. Taxi door’s automatically open upon arrival, Shinkansen cleaners bow to passengers before frantically cleaning them, umbrella holders in arms reach at ATM’s. These are just a few examples of what to expect of Omotenashi, and is one of the amazing things to experience when skiing in Japan.
Since ancient times fortresses were built throughout Japan. The need for castles wasn’t until the 15th century when the country had fallen into a chaotic era of warring states due to the weakening of central government. When government was re-established in the 16th century, many larger castles were built on plains and small hills to serve a military base to serve as a symbol of authority. At the end of feudal era (1868), many castles had been destroyed as relics of the past or were lost during World War II. None the less, there are many infamous castles throughout the country that are a sight to behold.
A perfect example of traditional Japanese castle architecture. Built in 1333 by samurai warrior Akamatsu Norimura, it has an astounding white exterior comprising of 83 buildings in total.
Considered the National Treasure of Japan, Matsumoto Castle is aptly named the “Crow Castle’ due to its black exterior. Residing in Nagano, easily accessible via the Shinkansen from Tokyo, it is unique in the fact that it was strategically constructed around hills and nearby rivers.
Originally a gift to the son of military governor, soon to be seized by a warlord, Nagoya is located in central Japan and during its time of completion in the 1500’s, was the most significant castle within the area. It was severely damaged from US army air raids during WWII and has had many renovations over the years.
Standing at eight stories high, it is one of Japan’s most treasured landmarks. Built on top on the site of a temple and former imperial palace, the original structures caught fire due to a lightning strike hitting the gunpowder keep and causing a massive explosion. In the late 19th century it undertook massive repairs to appear in the 1955 film, Godzilla Raids Again.
It too had been destroyed by a lightning bolt striking the gunpowder room just over after a decade of its completion. What makes Hirosaki unique is surrounded by one of the most famous cherry blossom spots in the country and comes alive during spring.
The nations capital, world’s most populous metropolitan area, cultural hot pot; Tokyo has it all. From its grand array of shrines and temples, to the sleepless neon light littered streets of Shibuya, Tokyo has something for everyone. One of the main attractions of Tokyo is the world-famous Disneyland. Established in 1983, it became the first to be established outside of the United States. Tokyo Disneyland consists of seven themed lands and can be easily accessed by shuttle bus or rail. There are an endless amount of activities available in Tokyo and we recommend spending as much time there as possible while on a ski trip to Japan.
Coming in at Japan’s third largest city, Osaka is home to the largest seaport, leading Japanese manufactures and it’s considered as a vital economic centre in Japan. After taking a walk around Osaka Castle, consider continuing your Japanese cultural day by visiting one of the cities Shrines or Temples. Shitennoji, is a traditional Buddhist temple that’s back to the year 593 A.D. and is only a short walk from the nearest station. A more light hearted activity to immerse yourself in is Universal Studios. It is the second largest amusement park in Japan, with themed attractions including popular titles Harry Potter and Jurassic Park.
The largest city in the Chongoku region of west Honshu and is the capital of the Hiroshima Prefecture. It is a city cemented in the global history books as it became the centre of attention after the devastating attacks of WWII as the first atomic bomb ever was dropped at the city centre. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Hiroshima locals regained their strength, restored historical structures and now focus on continuing peace. The one million locals mixed with international tourists enjoy great shopping, amazing ancient gardens and castles all accessible by the Shinkansen.
Winter Tours & Events – Skiing in Japan
If you’re wanting to take a day off the mountain, most resorts offer a range of different tours and activities you can part take in. The most common activities would be guided snowshoeing tours, snowmobile tours, sledding, heliskiing, cat skiing, cooking classes and more. The best way to organise one of these while skiing in Japan is to contact the skijapan.com office with the location of your holiday, and we can recommend some popular activities you’ll be sure to enjoy when skiing in Japan.
Located in Jigokudani (Hell’s Valley), aptly named due to the volcanic origins and abundant onsens, live the world-famous snow monkeys. Located about 20 minutes’ drive from Shiga Kogen, it is an unforgettable experience not to be missed. You will embark on a beautiful 15-20 minute hike through a forest of towering evergreen trees before arriving at the hot springs. There you will see numerous macaques bathing and cleaning each other in the natural hot springs. It is also easy to access the Snow Monkey park from Hakuba via tour bus, rental car or taxi.
Sapporo Ice Festival
Established in 1950, by a small group of high school students who built a few small snow sculptures in the centre of Odori Park, it has become one of the most popular Japanese winter events. It is held across three sites; Susukino Site, Tsu Dome site and the main site, Odori Park. The event has several hundred small statues that are dwarfed by roughly twelve massive spectacles. It is not uncommon for there to be a few full-scale sized mansions, completely made out of snow, some of which are used as the sites for live entertainment. It begins in the morning and goes until late at night where the sculptures are ignited by colourful lights, making it far more picturesque. Scattered throughout the sites are a large amount of food and drink offerings to keep energy levels high while exploring this winter wonderland. This is one of the most iconic events, and is highly recommended when skiing in Japan.
For a thrilling experience like no other, snowmobiling is the perfect activity to get the heart racing. Essentially, a motorbike on snow, You can boost through snowy terrain and it is perfect for international drivers because a driver licence or experience, are not required. Depending on the ski resort, you can also hire one of these to take into the backcountry to get some untouched lines. We do recommend hiring a guide with backcountry experience for this though.
If fresh, deep powder lines are what you sought, then you simply cannot go passed cat skiing in Japan. It is an excellent way to enter controlled backcountry from experience guides to ensure you have one of the best days skiing possible; safely. What makes Japanese cat skiing unique compared to North American cat skiing, is the utilisation of abandoned resorts. During the ski resort boom of the 80’s where money was seemingly endless, a lot of ski resort were incepted throughout the country. The economic downfall saw a lot of these resorts become abandoned and now make the perfect playground for those able to access them.
Heli skiing is the ultimate way to access the mountains. Apart from getting untouched fresh lines of champagne powder from the peak of mountains, the views available from the flight deck are simply breathtaking. Heli skiing in Japan does require booking in advance as well as only being offered by some resorts, so be sure to contact your accommodation prior to your arrival to enquire.
Skiing in Japan is an experience that you will never forget. It is home to the world’s best snow and offers so much more.