If you are a powder junky, you know why you want to ski in Japan: its reliable annual snowfall of up to 18 metres and vast expanses of easily accessible virgin slopes (no helicopters needed) are a lure to anyone who regards the piste as child’s play. For every other skier, the reasons are myriad. There are numerous resorts to choose from, scattered across the country north of Tokyo. The pistes are well-groomed and enlivened by signposts with computer-generated translations – my particular favourite: “A Skiing Area is The Place”.
But it’s the other aspects that make skiing in Japan an experience all of its own. First, there are the covetable, dinky minivans that buzz around the resorts taking you from hotel to ski lift. Then there’s the food and drink: giant bowls of nourishing ramen, which make you feel good instead of turning you into a cheese puff. To accompany them there are ice-cold local draft beers, or, if you’re thirsty on the hop, drinks-vending machines on every corner dispensing hot tea. And then, after a day on the slopes, there’s the ultimate luxury of the onsen – traditional, hot-spring-fed baths in which to soothe aching, après-ski muscles.
Added to all of this, you’ll find the level of charm and hospitality – the ski-lift attendants bow to you – greater and more sincere than you might encounter anywhere else in the world.
So important are the hot springs to this village that every house has an outside tap plumbed into this natural hot water in order to defrost its driveway. If walking around a snowy mini-Kyoto in a yukuta (cotton robe) and slippers appeals, this is the place to come – the slopes are a bonus. Although the skiing is not the most challenging in Japan – and some of the lifts are dated – the network of pistes is extensive, there is night-skiing (check the schedule for which days) and the season lasts into May. Overall the experience is authentic and utterly charming and the onsen are among the best in the country. There’s even a little footbath in the central square where you can sit on a bench, take off your ski boots and dangle your feet in the hot water. To get the authentic experience of bathing in scalding sulphurous waters alongside smiling locals, head to O-Yu, the free public onsen.
Just a couple of hours by train from Tokyo, this is the place to spend all day on a near-empty mountain making fresh tracks through deep powder. There’s almost nothing here apart from the main ropeway – or cable car – under which there are acres of virgin powder. But don’t expect much in the way of facilities or entertainments – Tenjin is all about glorious, untouched snow. You need to get your Zen head on, though – there’s no avalanche control in Japan. And if the weather is rough, the gondola is simply shut. You have to turn up every day to find out whether you can ski. The best places to stay nearby are small onsen resorts like Kusatsu and Takaragawa. (NB – to do this you’ll need a car and you can’t drive in Japan without an international licence, which needs to be issued from your country of origin.)
If the ski holiday you’re after involves off-the-wall Aussie extreme-skier dudes, reliable powder and sensational restaurants, then Niseko, in Hokkaido, the northernmost island, is the place to go. It’s the most international and family-friendly Japanese resort, with enough English speakers for you to avoid getting lost in the system. What the purpose-built village lacks in traditional charm, it makes up for in friendliness and efficiency; its huge chairlift whizzes skiers up the mountain to an extensive network of runs and off-piste skiing. There’s a good selection of restaurants, an onsen around every corner and a proper après-ski scene. Don’t miss the Gyutasu nightclub, accessed from the road through a small fridge door, which leads into a bar straight out of a Tarantino movie, complete with a mustachioed cocktail-whirling barman presiding over a counter stacked with hundreds of whiskies from around the world.