Head to Niseko and Hakuba these days and you’re more likely to hear an Aussie accent sitting next to you on the chairlift than any other. Which can be welcoming if you’re feeling homesick, but annoying when you feel like you haven’t even left Australia.
Luckily for those of us looking for the lesser-known resorts, there are still hundreds of ski resorts to be found across Japan that are fun, authentic and skied (almost) only by the locals.
Here are some of our favourites.
North Hokkaido, Hokkaido
Asahi-dake will score you serious brownie points among the ‘serious’ skiers of Hokkaido. On a powder day, there’s nothing better than the terrain to be found on this volcano, accessible only by a ropeway that leaves the main station every 20 minutes or so.
Be warned that you’ll need a full set of backcountry gear to explore here, including a shovel, beacon and probe, and bring a splitboard or touring set-up for your skis if you want to hike up beyond the top of the ropeway.
Better yet, take a guide. A number of western tour companies do lead small groups of intrepid powder hounds looking for virgin turns with day trips or overnight trips.
Prefer to go it alone? We don’t recommend it but if you must, then stay in Asahikawa for well-priced accommodation and drive the hour to the mountain for a day trip or two, or opt to stay at one of the accommodation options at the foot of the mountain.
Gunma prefecture, Honshu
Tanigawadake Tenjindaira is another one for those who are confident in the backcountry and carrying the right gear. Known by those in the know as ‘Tenjin’ this is one kick ass resort in the Gunma Prefecture (bordered by Nagano and Niigata prefectures) for those who take the ropeway to the top and explore the chutes and steeps on offer.
Truth is, the rewards are high for those with avi equipment (that know how to use it) and an understanding of the risks that come with the amount of snow fall (a lot) and the steep pitch of the terrain found at this resort. You’re best (and we recommend) taking a local guide that knows what they’re doing, and knows the high consequence terrain.
Stay at the Australian owned Tenjin Lodge and have the host, Kieren, guide you. Or try one of the local ryokans (a traditional Japanese inn, complete with tatami mats on the floor and futons to sleep on) in the surrounding region and make sure you finish the day with an onsen.
Akita Prefecture, Honshu
To well and truly get off the beaten track, hire a car and head out for a road trip of the Akita prefecture’s Tohoku region and Tazawako Ski Resort in the north west of the main island.
While the lifts are slow and the weather days can be gnarly, you’ll also have the powder lines all to yourself – and a pretty incredible view of the local lake that is famous for being the deepest in Japan. Like so many resorts in Japan, the pitch is not super steep but unlike many resorts in Japan they leave many pistes natural, meaning more untouched powder.
But best of all is from February to April the resort offers a cat to take backcountry enthusiasts to the snow goods.
Iwate Prefecture, Honshu
Terrain park lovers on the main island of Honshu, this one’s for you. Enjoy not just one but two terrain parks at Shizukuisi, which offers up 13 different runs over 700m vertical and serious views over Mt Iwate, the highest mountain in the north east prefecture. The resort is split between 20% advanced and 40% intermediate and 40% beginners so there’s terrain for everyone.
For the adrenaline junkies, you can even opt for a snowmobile night tour under the stars. Powder junkies, go for a cat skiing tour, or take a snowmobile to the summit at sunrise and then ski back down again. Ski into the Prince Hotel at the base for a hot spring onsen.
Sorachi District, Hokkaido
Get ready to feel those legs burning. There are no lifts in Tokachidake, so you’ll have to bring your splitboard or touring skis, know how to use them and know how to read avalanche terrain. We recommend going with a guide.
It’ll be well worth it – being located in central Hokkaido, the Siberian winds carry over the ocean and bring huge amounts of powder with them. The active volcano is one of the 100 famous mountains of Japan and is located in the Daisetsuzan National Park just north of Furano. Think Niseko-quality snow on north facing slopes but without any crowds whatsoever – and you’re bound to meet some very cool, like-minded people climbing up the mountain with you.
For an authentic local experience bed down in a ryokan in Tokachidake Onsen or take a day trip from Furano. Many tour operators in the region also run guided ski trips for those with some skinning experience.
The ascent can take a couple of hours so be prepared.
6. Alts Bandai
Aizu region, Honshu
Alts Bandai is the perfect spot for families who want to get off the beaten track, but still enjoy a resort that offers up the conveniences of modern resorts – including ski-in, ski-out accommodation, a ski school that offers lessons in English, a fun terrain park, 30km worth of groomed ski runs and even night skiing than runs until 11pm on the weekends.
7. Appi Kogen
This one is also perfect for families, with a variety of terrain covering everything from fresh powder to a bunny hill to a mogul run – plus an entire snow park for the kids, with tubing and a dedicated snow activity area.
Head to Appi Kogen if you’re keen to cruise along some longer runs than what Japanese resorts generally have to offer, along with some fun sidecountry spots, this resort is the one for you. Bunk down at the Appi Grand Hotel for ski-in, ski-out accommodation that you genuinely can’t miss thanks to its bright yellow paint.
Their website is English and user friendly so it’s easy to navigate to make your plans.
Aomori Prefecture, Honshu
Snow. Snow. Snow. Snow. Expect a whole lot of snow here, and then re-adjust your expectations and get ready for even more snow at Hakkoda on the northern tip of Honshu.
This resort is accessible from Tokyo via bullet train and bus, offers up ropeway access and little to do beyond skiing or snowboarding. But what skiing and boarding it has with what some call the best deep powder skiing in Japan.
Warning: The off piste area is not for the feint hearted as it is avalanche prone so please, take a guide who knows where to go, how and when.
Shiribeshi Prefecture, Hokkaido
Ok, Rusutsu may no longer be a secret, thanks to its proximity to Niseko, but it’s still some of the best fun you can have while skiing in Japan. The hotel at the base of the resort is a full dedication to Japanese weirdness, including a singing tree, a robot that checks you into your hotel room and an indoor merry-go-round and arcade.
Head outside to enjoy the reindeer farm or ski and snowboard past a rollercoaster that’s covered in snow during the winter months (which is a pretty cool sight in itself). Then, of course, enjoy some of the deepest, untouched powder of your life while remaining in-bounds, with minimal lift lines and endless good times plus some epic tree skiing.
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