Japan – Land of the rising sun and home to some of the deepest powder in the world. Our Japan Ski & Ride Tour visited the Hakuba area during Japanuary 2015, one of the biggest snow years in the last decade.
With elevations up to 6,000 feet and close to the sea, the moisture funnels through during the months of December and January. This is a paradise for skiers and snowboarders looking to find that perfect powder run and experience one of the most incredible cultures on the planet.
From the high peaks of the Japanese Alps, to the powder filled birch tree runs of the northern island, Japan offers skiers and riders a lifetime of options to explore.
The Hakuba valley is near the Sea of Japan and this allows the area to get hammered by storms rolling off of Siberia and across the cold waters of the sea. The lake effect pattern sets up to deliver some of the most consistent and deepest snow for those looking to ski powder.
The island has over 600 resorts (670 vs 490 in the U.S.) and at one time well over 1,000 resorts. Not only do the Japanese people love to ski, they are also very good technical skiers. A truly one of a kind culture and winter paradise that every skier and snowboarder should visit.
Why So Much Powder?
Hakuba gets powder in abundance. It is a result of the Siberian snow stream, the largest example of lake-effect snow in the world. High pressure over Siberia and low pressure over the Western Pacific leads to a constant flow of cool air across Japan.
As this chilled, dry air flows over the Sea of Japan, it attracts moisture, while the upper air level temperatures are sometimes 40c colder than the surface. This air hits the mountain ranges of the Northern Alps and the Hakuba region and leaves tons of new powder snow.
These cyclical weather patterns last for weeks, guaranteeing regular dumps of the lightest and fluffiest powder imaginable. This snow is also consistently lighter vs. snow that comes from traditional storms. A truly unique experience that allows for some of the best powder skiing of your life!
Getting to the Hakuba area is a short journey from Tokyo-Narita airport which is typically the best place to fly into. The travel time by train is roughly 3.5-4 hours and 5 to 6 by vehicle. We like to use the rail system if possible as it allows one to relax and take some of the area in. Always note though that traveling with ski gear is a lot of work. I’ve been all around the world from Paris to the Dolomites to Chile with ski bags (2 bags x 50lbs=100lbs x 2 people=200lbs of gear) and it’s no easy task. So plan and work together as a team loading gear on to the train as it will make a huge difference. Also, going through the main Tokyo train station with ski gear is one hell of an experience!
Nagano was the host city for the 1998 Olympics and is really fun place to visit. One of the oldest Buddhist temples that you can tour in Japan is in the city. Make sure to visit the Zenkō-ji temple while you are traveling through the area as no trip is complete without diving into the culture. The area around the bus station is worth a quick stroll as you will see a variety of shops and is also a great place to do some people watching. I am still amazed at the amount of bikes we saw at the train station while it was snowing. If only more people would adapt to a lifestyle like this!
Hakuba is at the center of one of Japan’s largest winter skiing and mountain recreation areas. The village is in the Kitaazumi District, of the Nagano Prefecture with a rough population of 8,000+ that swells during the winter months with powder seekers looking to find that magical line through the Japanese trees. Upon the first morning in the valley we woke up to an amazing view of the peaks that were glistening with fresh snow.
The excitement was almost too much to contain and I think breakfast went down in a matter of minutes. One of our favorite places is the Echoland area as it offers a variety of restaurants, shops, bars and a local scene.
THE SKIING!- Where do I begin? There are so many great places to explore as well as some incredible mountains that offer over 3,000’ vertical feet of skiing. The high peaks of Mt Hakuba, Mt Yari, Mt Goryu and many others loom over the valley offering an unlimited number of lines that one can mind-surf for days. Spines, couloirs, and open bowls surround the resorts and truly offers a range of skiing options for all abilities.
This is one of the few places I have ever traveled to where you can take the forecast and multiple it by 2 to even 5 sometimes. We woke many days with double the amount of snow forecasted! Without a doubt one of the top powder days of my life was in this valley and that comes after thousands of days of skiing under my belt.
The resorts have great access to terrain on mountain and to certain locations that you can enter the backcountry from. Note that some resorts like Goryu/Hakuba 47 have closed tree runs that they expect people to obey by. There are areas that you can get a “member’s jacket”which is a way for the patrol to keep track of who is skiing in this area as well as controlling the number of people skiing. On some days you could benefit by being one of the first in line to grab the bibs they hand out.
Goryu offers great backcountry access through gates but please note you need to have experience in the backcountry, education, the equipment and most importantly know when to say no. Be humble and respect the area as there are a lot of people riding these remote areas.
Japanese Macaque aka the “Snow Monkeys”!! Snow Monkeys are native to Japan. Sometimes known as a snow monkey, as they live in areas where snow covers the ground for up to 6 months each year. In Japan you may hear people refer to them as Nihonsaru or Saru as they are very common in certain areas.
No other non-human primate is more northern-living, nor lives in a colder climate. This is a must do for everyone that is in the area as it allows us to experience the culture and something truly special. The Jigokudani Monkey Park is the best place to view the macaques and I would highly recommend stopping at the bottom for some fried sweet potatoes before the walk. If there has been a recent snow storm or warming weather keep an eye out for falling snow as you walk through the forest path.
The overhanging trees are known to release some snowballs to visitors! It’s actually pretty funny because everyone will get hit at one point and you hear people laughing as well as running along the trail to avoid the snow. If you have time stop by the Onsen that is inside the old village before you get to the main area where the monkeys will be bathing and playing.
It’s a very unique area for an onsen and a place where you can feel a very deep connection with nature. Adding a visit to the snow monkey park as well as a day around Nagano checking out the temples, some sake tasting or a warm noodle bowl, is a must do for everyone that comes over to Japan.
Of all the places I have been fortunate enough to visit, I have to say that Japan is one of my favorite top 3 ski destinations. The culture, people, hospitality, food, skiing and the POWDER sets Japan in a class of its own.
I’ve always been addicted to traveling for sports and I can not wait to get back to explore this area for some more skiing, biking and surfing along the coast. Spend some time traveling on the trains, visit Tokyo and take in a sumo wrestling match or get lost exploring the countryside.
We hope that after reading this your inspired to take your next ski trip to Japan! We would love to show you around this beautiful area of the world on one of our ski trips. Get outside and make that next epic trip for your soul happen…
Upcoming Japan Ski & Ride Tours – January 7-16, 2016 & January 17-26, 2016
If you are curious to see more, check out our SKI JAPAN VIDEO from 2015.
We hope to see you on an upcoming Japan Ski & Ride Tour!
Japan Photo Gallery
To View The Complete Photo Album On Facebook, Click The Following Blue Link: Japan 2015 Trip