I spent January in Japan skiing a number of different resorts on Honshu and Hokkaido with my wife and 12 year old daughter. It was the best ski vacation - and arguably the best vacation of any kind - we've had, beating trips in recent years to Colorado (Aspen/Snowmass, repeat, repeat, and Vail/Beaver Creek), Utah (Deer Valley/Park City), Wyoming (Jackson Hole), France (Courchevel) and Switzerland/Italy (Zermatt/Cervinia) and resorts in Australia and New Zealand, which probably sounds like boasting to some people (or like nothing at all to others) but I'm just trying to give you a sense of the comparison set.
The highlights for us included the resorts around Myoko Kogen in Niigata Prefecture in western Honshu about 3 hours from Tokyo by a combination of Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Nagano and then local train to Myoko. There is a fantastic international ski school (Myoko Snowsports) in the Akakura Onsen village, which is a great base in a region that doesn't see a lot of western visitors, or not yet anyway. However, that is changing quickly as Australians especially begin to see Myoko and some of the other Honshu resort areas as more authentic alternatives to the path beaten more often by Australians to the Hokkaido resorts.
We had great sking at Akakura Onsen, Akakura Kanko and Suginohara, linked resorts that run down different sides of Mt Myoko (Myoko-San), a dormant but not extinct volcano that supplies all the thermal hot-springs in Akakura Onsen (onsen = bath = heaven at the end of a ski day, once you've absorbed the culture shock of public nudity). And we had perhaps even better skiing when our genius Myoko Snowsports instructor drove us just 20 minutes in different directions to Seki-Onsen (a crazy little two chair family-run area where the lift ticket office is a lounge-room window and we found chest-deep powder in the trees with just the three of us skiing, literally leaping into and out of pillows of snow in the boughs of trees) and to Madarao/Tangrem (a truly magical little resort just over the 'border' - the border is invisible if you don't know to look for it - in Nagano Prefecture.)
The amount of snow in these resorts is jaw-dropping. We woke on at least three mornings in a week in Myoko to more than a metre of fresh snow. And there was always at least a few inches of something new over the top of the groomers and never more than a day or two between bigger dumps which meant there were always fresh tracks to be had in the trees. Some of the more world-weary locals might tell you the snow's a little heavier on the Niigata side (as opposed to the Nagano side), but only by Japanese standards. Even the 'damp' side was deeper and dryer than any snow I've skied anywhere in the US.
- Hanging out with my own tongue in another three feet of fresh snow (every other day in Akakura Kanko)
The terrain in the western Honshu resorts (which are in the Japanese Alps) is all you could ask for - trees, bowls, bumps, steeps especially in the side country, but avalanches are a constant danger so don't go anywhere without information, preparation and ideally a local guide, and of course plenty of user-friendly groomers somewhere underneath all that snow.
And the scenery - when the weather clears - is alpine spectacular, although obviously there's a trade-off between the frequency of the snow and the quality of the light. One really interesting aspect of skiing in Honshu is the lack of crowds. You definitely get the sense that the ski industry has struggled in Japan as the economy has struggled. The resorts seem to have been built for a much larger skiing population (local skiing numbers are apparently down by 50% or more on 10 years ago), and some of the infrastructure looks a bit jaded and dated, but when you're in the right frame of mind that can be pretty charming as well.
- Ski your own piste in Myoko Kogen
Hokkaido, which I think in other respects has always been the poor cousin of Japan's islands, has by contrast a thriving ski tourism industry, thanks in part to Australian investment and the antipodean appetite for skiing in what is roughly the same timezone during the Southern Hemisphere summer. After our own quintessentially Japanese skiing experience in Myoko, I half-expected not to like Niseko, which is the resort in Hokkaido that attracts the most international visitors, a couple of hours by coach or car from Sapporo (or New Chitose airport). We'd heard it was over-run by obnoxious Australian lifties and snowboarders ;-), and that while the snow was good, the terrain was said to be less inspiring.
But in fact we loved the place and the mountain. Niseko is definitely more developed than Myoko, and there are certainly more Westerners, but you never forget that you're in Japan, and I was much less ashamed of the behaviour of my fellow Australian visitors than I feared. We had a great powderguide (Toshi from Niseko Kotobuki, a tiny ski shop in Niseko Village) who showed us around the various linked resorts and then helped us find fresh tracks in the side country even days after a storm.
- The three of us in front of Yotei-San, Niseko's mini Mt Fuji, on a bluebird day, having just come back in bounds after skiing in untracked open bowls in the terrain between An'napuri and Moiwa (less than 15 minutes bootpack)
And when there was fresh snow in Niseko, it was honestly lighter than any snow I knew fell anywhere on the planet. We were skiing in waist deep and in some places practically bottomless powder that offered no discernible resistance. We made the short hike (30 mins) above the gate to the top of Mt An'napuri after one dump and had runs that I think I will replay in my mind as I fall asleep for the rest of my life.
Many of the Japanese mountains and resorts, especially in Hokkaido are surprisingly low altitude (less than 1,500m summits!), but the vertical is still often 1,000m + because it snows right down to sea level (the views from the top of the Niseko resort(s) on a sunny day (rare) to the Sea of Japan and the frozen white coastline are breathtaking).
I couldn't recommend Myoko and Niseko more highly, and I'd be happy to retrace our steps exactly on the same trip next year. However our instructor in Myoko told us - just quietly - that his favourite resort area in Honshu is Shiga Kogen in Nagano Prefecture (not that much further from Myoko than Madarao), and that on Hokkaido there are several resorts closer to Sapporo than Niseko with even better quality snow. His suggestion was, rather than stay in a ski resort at all, stay in the cities (Nagano and Sapporo) and travel short distances each day to different resorts (each city has dozens of resorts within an hour's easy drive). He thought we might enjoy the greater range of cultural diversions in the cities, but to be honest we found ourselves completely immersed in Japan and all things Japanese in the little villages we were skiing in and around everyday and eating in every evening.
And I've really only talked about the skiing. I'd go back for the food alone, which was unbelievably good everywhere, even in the most remote villages. And for the people, who are not just unfailingly polite, but disarmingly thoughtful and charming and accomplished (our wonderful instructor in Myoko - Shimpei - was a genuine renaissance man). And for the sense of craft and care and the reverence for nature and tradition, but also for progress that is apparent in every aspect of Japanese life.
In addition to the skiing, we spent some time in Tokyo (which was mind-bogglingly good fun, manic but still somehow quaint and friendly and despite everything all still on a human scale). We didn't visit Kyoto this trip, but my wife has on a previous trip and says it offers a nice cultural counterpoint to Tokyo.
[Note. I originally posted this - or something very similar - in response to a question in the Mountain/Resort section, so apologies to anyone with feelings of deja vu all over again]
Edited by anthony17 - 2/5/11 at 4:00pm