Guide to Skiing Japan

Published 2023-11-27

By MYSTERY RANCH Outdoor Ambassadors, Carston Oliver and Eric Balken

So you want to ski Japan huh? You’re not the only one who’s been lured into travel by images of impossibly deep snow followed by hot spring soaks and steaming noodle bowls. Japan had several pandemic-related visitor restrictions for the past few years, but it’s now open for business. Before you book your tickets to the land of the rising sun, here’s some background information and a few tips to help you make the most of your experience.

The Place

With 80% of the islands covered in mountains, its geography is perfectly situated for massive, consistent snowfall; arguably one of the snowiest places on the planet. Cold fronts moving east from the Eurasian Steppe pick up a ton of water as they cross the Sea of Japan, only to slam into the Japanese mountains, where all of that moisture drops out before they get over the islands, typically as cold, fluffy powder.

That said, keep your expectations in check. It’s not uncommon to get a warm spell at some point in a trip that brings rain and marginal conditions, but do not fear! It usually doesn’t last long, and if it does, you’re in one of the most pleasant places imaginable to just play tourist and explore the culture. Take downdays as an opportunity to learn and experience one of the most complex and interesting cultures in the world. Make time for it even if the snowglobe never turns off.

Where and When

Japan experienced an economic boom in the 1980’s that expanded into the ski industry. During that era, the country built over 700 ski resorts. Most are small, local ski hills with just a few chairs or a central tram, but there are some mega resorts comparable to what you might see in North America and Europe. In the decades since, many Japanese ski areas went belly up, but around 570 are still in operation. While some offer discounts connected to an Ikon, Epic, or other multi-area pass, don’t base your trip solely around those locations. Make sure to explore other areas, especially if you want to get away from the crowds. Lift tickets in Japan are much more affordable than in the States, as most areas only charge $30 to $40 for a day pass, and offer cheap one-ride tickets if you just want a lift bump to gain some vert for a backcountry tour.

  • In general, the north island of Hokkaido has colder weather and much more consistent snowfall. Honshu, the main island, has bigger mountains, with many of the tallest peaks lying in the southern Japanese Alps, but warmer temperatures the further south you go and can make for trickier weather and higher chance of rain and warm spells.
  • Go in January for the most consistent cold temps and snowfall; you might not see the sun. February you’ll still get lots of snow, but you’ll start to get more sunny weather windows to potentially get into the alpine and have a chance at riding bigger lines in pow, though a bit more risk of rain events. March or April if you want to tag bigger peaks in more springtime conditions.
  • Lodging: there are tons of options all over the country, ranging from super cheap hostels and travelers hotels, to all inclusive options that have amazing traditional kaiseki dinners and hot springs on site. Most major travel sites make booking your stay pretty darn easy, and many hotels can pick you up from the nearest train station.
  • Guides: If you prefer that route, there are plenty of Japanese and foreign guide operations, with packages ranging from straight ski touring, to resort based or a mix, to all inclusive that handle lodging, food, and logistics too.

Japan Ski Culture

The Japanese love skiing, but you can expect much less of the “powder panic” that we can see here. Riding on snow is more about connection with nature; your line choice and turns are a conversation with the terrain, and your tracks leave a signature that speaks about who you are. Get your fill, have lots of fun, but don’t stress it; there’s plenty of snow for everyone. Politeness and respect for others’ experience is held in high regard across all of Japanese culture, including skiing.


Japan is littered with amazing onsen (hot springs), and they are an absolute must after each day of skiing. Most only charge about $6 for access, and offer small towels for a few dollars if you need them. Typically they are divided into mens and womens baths, though a rare handful of them have coed pools. You have to bathe fully naked, and must completely wash/rinse before entering the public bath. Long hair should be tied up, and tattoos may need to be covered. Be calm/respectful, no food, drink, or extra stuff in the onsen, and no towels or bathing suits in the water. Take your time, relax, and soak it in.


Outside of big cities and touristy areas, very little English is spoken. The Japanese are welcoming and often go out of their way to be helpful, but you can expect a lot of communication to happen via hand gestures, smiles, and Google Translate. Take the time to learn some basic phrases: the more Japanese you know the easier things will be. Tons of courses and tools are available, just find one that works for you. Duolingo is simple and gamelike, and has great in depth content, as well as a huge database of other Japanese learning resources.

Bonus points: Learn to read Hiragana and Katakana. It only takes a few weeks if you practice every day, and is well worth the effort. Not only will you be able to read some Japanese words on signs, menus, etc. but you’ll be able to sound out the thousand plus borrowed English words that are regularly used in Japan. It also gives you a “cheat code,” since it helps you understand Japanese phonology. With practice you’ll start to recognize the “katakanized” English that some helpful locals are speaking to you, and be able to similarly break your English into Japanese syllables when you don’t know the right Japanese word… certainly not foolproof, but it works more often than you’d think. Triple bonus points multiplier: Learn Kanji, but that is a much more substantial undertaking and you’ll need Hiragana first.

Don’t have time for all that? Use Google Translate, download Japanese for offline use, and be prepared to type in basic phrases when your hand gestures and limited Japanese vocabulary fail you. It’s far from perfect, but can help in a pinch. The camera view is handy for anything written: menus, parking meters, product labels, luggage shipping forms, etc. You’ll still use it after lots of Japanese practice, anyway.

The Food

Food Etiquette

Some key phrases to know for eating out:

  • Arrigato gozaimasu- thank you
  • Onegaishimasu- please (when ordering food/drinks)
  • Itadakimasu- Let’s eat
  • Konpai!- Cheers!
  • Gochisousama deshita- thanks for the meal.

Don’t rub chopsticks together (or hide it under the table if you must); don’t leave chopsticks sticking straight up in your bowl.

Must Tries

Sushi of course, but absolutely get ramen, udon, nabe, takoyaki, soba, yakiniku, and okonomiyaki: Ask about regional specialties, as there are lots of unique variations on dishes throughout the country.

Adventurous Gastronomy

You’ll encounter plenty of culinary options that you had never thought of, but don’t be intimidated, it’s all perfectly prepared, and mostly delicious:

  • Seafood on another level – every ocean creature you could imagine.
  • Fermented foods and tsukemono, or “pickled things” is an important component in Japanese cuisine; very healthy, often colorful, and a huge variety of flavors ranging from sweet, to salty, to face puckeringly sour (ume), to smells like gym socks but miraculously still tastes good (natto).
  • Mystery meats: more parts of the animal are consumed than stateside, but don’t let fear of organ meats, joints etc. scare you away… like the rest of food in Japan, it’s perfectly cooked and often deliciou

Everyday Snacks

Behold the mighty conbini (convenience store): 7-11, Lawson, Seicomart, Daily Yamazaki, etc. are your daily stop for ski touring snacks and goodies. Big variety, lots of flavors, try it all: Onigiri (rice balls with assorted fillings), daifuku (pounded sweet rice with sweet fillings ranging from red bean, to green tea, to whipped cream and a strawberry), squid jerky, karaage (fried chicken), umeboshi (salted pickled plums), potato chip flavors you’ve never dreamed of, endless varieties of hot and cold teas and coffees, premixed shochu or whiskey-sodas… it’s all there.

How to Get Around


Airport express trains, subways, local trains, and bullet trains are all seamlessly connected in Japan. They all run frequent trips, and transfers are quick and easy. You can often buy a full ticket with transfers in one go, and refillable passes are available, and most ticket machines now have an English option so it’s about as easy as can be. If you’re planning to move around a lot, or spend a long time in a big city where you’ll use subways and local trains every day, you can pre purchase unlimited 7, 14, or 21 day rail passes at a super discounted rate; you just have to do it before your trip (the discount is just for tourists, so it’s not available once you’re in Japan)


There are cheap domestic flights if you’ll be traveling between islands, but they often have smaller baggage weight limits. If you’re mostly planning to be in Hokkaido, book your international trip all the way through to Sapporo to avoid extra luggage fees.

Luggage Shipping Services

Trains often don’t have a ton of space for big ski bags, and domestic flights have steep luggage fees with small weight limits, so what are you supposed to do? Ship your luggage. Fast, reliable, and surprisingly cheap, luggage shipping services will overnight your bags straight from any airport or major train station to your hotel, and vice versa. It’s way cheaper than overweight bags if you’re flying, will save you the hassle of wrestling ski bags into small luggage zones on trains, and prevent you from getting the stink-eye from fellow travelers when your bag smacks into someone as you heave it through a crowded train station. Yamoto Transport (AKA: Kuroneko or Ta-Q-Bin) is the largest carrier, and they basically ship everywhere; just look for the yellow logo with the black cats.


If you plan to spend a lot of time exploring and ski-touring at trailheads away from ski resorts, or just storm chasing and want to be more mobile without missing a single day waiting for shipped luggage; there are lots of sweet 4-wheel drive vans available for rent. Japan drives on the left side of the road, stop signs look different, and interchanges near cities can be complex, so it can be a bit stressful for the first day until you get used to things. In addition to the rental and fuel, tolls for the expressways can rack up pretty quick, so a van makes more sense if you have at least three people in your group to split up the cost. You’ll need to get an International Driving Permit before you go, which are available for $20 at most AAA locations, and are valid for 1 year.

What to Bring

Big Puffy Coat

Winter in Japan involves large temperature contrasts, and not just going from the hot spring to the cold dip. Especially in the north, plan for bitter cold outdoors, and aggressively heated indoor spaces.

Backcountry Gear

Even if you’re just hitting the resorts, the deep snow hazards are real, and they go beyond avalanches: bottomless tree wells, glide cracks in unexpected places, and storm day snow deep enough to get legitimately stuck under just by taking a digger. Ski with a buddy and keep tabs on your friends; NARSIDs (Non Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Deaths) are a thing.

Unless you’re going to bag peaks in the spring, you can leave the sharp things like crampons and ice axes at home at home


Japan still requires masks in public spaces and has quarantine or testing requirements for unvaccinated travelers, so try to be respectful and wear one even if we stopped doing it here. Most of these restrictions were lifted in May 2023.