It has been universally acknowledged that the winter of 2015-16 is a lot milder than in previous years. Some industries such as ‘nori’ seaweed farming and ice fishing tourism have suffered due to this, and if you are one of those sorts of people who craves the wintery beauty of ice and snow, you too may be feeling the bite.
However, one place at which snow is not in short supply (partially thanks to organisers having it shipped in by the truck load) is the Sapporo Snow Festival.
One of Japan’s most popular winter events, and perhaps the world’s most famous snow festival, the Sapporo Snow Festival is a two week long event that takes place every February and showcases some of the most staggering displays of snow archetecture that you are likely to see.
It began back in 1950 when six groups of High school students each created a snow statues for competition. Encouraged by a surprising 25,000 visitors on that first outing, it has grown- partially due to the recognition it received during the 1970 Winter Olympics in the city – exponentially. Today it is contested by participants from all over the world creating some 400 statues in all and is so internationally renowned that it attracts over 2 million visitors from Japan and abroad.
The Sapporo festival has three main sites. The main bulk of the snow and ice sculptures, some measuring up to 25 meters wide and 15 meters high, are in the Odori Park site. The 1.5km park is open between February 5 and 11, and one of last year’s highlights included a Star Wars sculpture authorized by Lucas Film, the only one in the word to be credited with that honor. The sculptures are lit up at night, a great view of which can be seen from the Sapporo TV Tower at the end of the park. There is also a skating rink and a puppet show, as well as projection mapping held every day during the festival from 17:30 to 22:00.
At the Susikino Site, also open from February 5 to 11, there are around 60 ice sculptures that you can actually touch and, in some cases like a magnificent bear, ride. If you find yourself getting a little on the chilly side – and who wouldn’t sitting around on ice sculputes, -there is an ice bar selling warm drinks. In the evening the whole area glows as the sculptures are lit up by neon lights.
The Tsudome Site is also known as the community site as it houses the community dome. There are a wide variety of attractions there, including various statues there is a bob-sled slide and a zipline. Should the weather be poor, there is also an indoor skating rink and a 10m high bouncy slide. This is the only site open from Feb 5 to 18.
The Odori and Susukino Sites are in central Sapporo and are thus easy to access, however the Tsudome Site is la little bit outside. You can get there by a 100 JPY shuttle bus from Sakaemachi Station on the Toho subway line, or if you are feeling energetic, it is a 15 minute walk. Otherwise it is a 250 JPY bus ride from Sapporo Station. There are also shuttle buses to the Tsudome Site from the Odori Site and from Sapporo Station every 15-30 minutes.
If the Sapporo snow festival doesn’t sate your desire for the white stuff, then why not head out on a skiing trip. While Japan does not traditionally come to mind when you think of skiing, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of ski resorts, and many have become increasingly more well known and popular internationally. If powder, cold, and speed are what you seek, you can find it here, no matter where in the country you may be!
Hokkaido is said to offer the best powder in the world, and with a winter that lasts from September until the official end of ski season in MAY, you have ample opportunity to make it there. Besides skiing, there are a variety of famous winter festivals that may be of interest as well. When you think Hokkaido, think winter paradise.
From mainland Japan you will generally need to fly to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido to enjoy these ski areas. From Hokkaido, there will be additional distances to cover to reach the individual areas themselves. See this post on Japan Guide for more details on getting to Hokkaido.
Niseko United offers one mountain and four resorts.
Niigata is one of the main skiing and snowboarding destination areas of Japan, and features over 50 operational ski resorts which are located mostly in the Myoko area and the Yuzawa area of the region. Niigata itself is located about 200 km north of Tokyo on the Sea of Japan.
From Tokyo you will need to drive or take a bus (at least 3 hours), or ride the train (2 hours on the shinkansen, longer on JR) to enjoy these ski areas. The journey from Nagoya takes about five hours. From Nigata there will be additional distances to cover to reach the individual areas.
Gala Yuzawa Ski Resort is located in the town of Echigo Yuzawa, in an area famous for its impressive snowfalls. This resort offers skiing from 1,181m down to 358m in excellent snow conditions. They offer a variety of slopes, with some for kids. The coolest part about GALA Yuzawa is its own bullet train station; right at the base of the resort. Step off the train, pick up your pass and gear and you’re ready to go! It couldn’t be easier. You can wake up in Tokyo and be on the slopes by 8 am!
From Tokyo you will need to drive or take a bus (at least 3 hours), or ride the train (2 hours on the shinkansen, longer on JR) to enjoy these ski areas. From Nagano, there will be additional distances to cover to reach the individual areas. See this post on Japan Guide for more details on getting to Nagano.
Tateshina Tokyu Ski Resort is focused on fun on skis for kids. You will not find a lot, if any, advanced or dangerous ski runs here. 10% are supposed to be for absolute beginners, and 60% of the remaining for intermediate level. Click through and look at the advertising pictures; good spot to take your kids skiing.
Karuizawa Prince Hotel and Resort offers ten runs that break down as beginner 50% , intermediate 30%, advanced 20%. There is a little something here for the whole family, and the amenities as described seem nearly posh. One selling point; they claim to be “one of the few ski resorts in Japan to offer both hotel rooms and individual cottages,” so they have that going for them.
Nozawa Onsen is one of Japanʼs most superb and expansive winter sports areas. The resort ranks among the very top in Japan in terms of size, its history and snow quality; touting an “abundance” of 100% natural, high-quality powder snow and skiing well into early May
Tambara Ski Park is focused on fun on skis for everyone, especially kids. You will not find a lot, if any, advanced or dangerous ski runs here. 15% are supposed to be for absolute beginners, and 65% of the remaining are for intermediate level skiers.
The only slope in Aichi prefecture, Chausuyama Kogen is ideally suited for intermediate or beginner enthusiasts. It is situated on the highest mountain in the prefecture and is set within a national park. There are three slopes, the longest of which is 1km.
Getting there: If you are taking the train go to Toeie on the Iida line, then bus, or you can go by Car to Toyokawa IC on the Tomei expressway then via route 151
For those living in Nagoya, Dynaland is probably the biggest and best choice, particularly for day-trippers. There are eighteen routes of varying levels, with the more advanced routes further up the hill. For snowboarders there is a Snow Park with kickers, table tops, boxes and rails. Due to its popularity it can get pretty busy, so if you can make it on weekdays, it’s advisable.
Getting there: For day-trippers the bus leaves Nagoya at 7:30, arriving at Dynaland around 10:00 and leaving at 17:30 and costs between ¥5,800 and ¥6,900. By Train head to Mino-shirotori on the Nagaragawa railway, then bus. Drivers head for the Takasu IC on the Tokai Hokuriku expressway then 7km by local road
Although there are seven routes for all ability levels, with the longest run at 1.5km, Hirugano Kogen in Gujo is particularly aimed at the family skiing experience. With easy slopes for children and beginners, there is also a Kid’s Land in which skiing and snowboarding is prohibited, a 250-meter sled course and a snow rafting ride.
Getting there: A quick 5-minute drive from Hirugano Kogen SA(Service Area) on the Toukai-Hokuriku Highway. A Meitetsu One Day Ski Bus Tour costs between ¥4,700 and ¥6,000. It leaves Nagoya at 7:30 and arrives at Hirugano Kogen at 10:40. The bus departs Hirugano Kogen at 16:50. If you’re taking the train go to Mino-shirotori on the Nagaragawa railway, then bus.
Also in Gujo is the Meiho Ski Resort. There are four ski slopes and 12 trails, but it is the 360 degree panoramic view of the north alps that really make the trip worthwhile. And while mountain peaks tend to be the reserve of those with advanced skiing ability, even beginners are able to follow Meiho Ski Resort’s 5000m trail from the summit.
Getting there: Take the Nagaragawa railway to Gujo-hachiman, then bus 50 minutes. For drivers head to Gujo-hachiman IC on the Tokai Hokuriku expressway then 28km by route 472
As the name suggests, the resort is located on the northern slopes of Gifu’s famous Mt. Ontake. There are a few courses suited for more advanced skiers as well as plenty for beginners and intermediate riders. There are three 2km trails, and the snow is a first rate, dry powder. There is also nearby Nigorigo Onsen, complete with mixed bathing, to help soothe those aches and pains of a long day on the slopes. Lift passes for kids and elementary schoolers are free.
Getting there: On the train head to Kisofukushima on the Chuo line, then bus. By car take Nakatsugawa IC on Chuo Expressway then about 1 hour on local roads
A collection of articles and resources, including an app! Yes, you heard right. Skiing in Japan? There is an app for that!
The Japan Snow Guide contains all the info you need to get up to the mountain and enjoy winter in Japan. Enjoy reading the guide on your computer or tablet or mobile device with their easy, e-zine style on-line format.
The Japan Snow Guide has one simple goal, to help people get out and enjoy Japan’s amazing snow country, resorts and winter hospitality. Japan is blessed with a mountainous terrain that receives some of the heaviest snowfalls in the world and is dotted with natural hot springs. If you have chosen Japan for your winter holiday, you have countless ski resorts to choose from and one of the finest ski experiences in the world.
The key is to find the resorts right for you. Inside the free Japan Snow Guide iOS Mobile App, readers will find course info on some of the top resorts in Japan as well as information on featured resorts, resort services and destinations.
January and February are the peak snow months, but Japan’s ski season runs until early May. Don’t let another snow season pass you by. Regret can bury you like an avalanche. It can stop you in your tracks like a bad wax job. Know before you go because… “Knowledge means powder – think deep!”
And more … continually updated!
The best resorts and snow conditions are found in northern Japan (Hokkaido and Tohoku) and in the mountains along the Sea of Japan Coast (especially Niigata and Nagano).
SnowJapan is the resource for skiing and snowboarding in Japan. Updated daily throughout the year. Online since 1999.
Mark Guthrie and Ray Proper
Image: wikipedia.com "Sapporo Snow Festival February 2007" Materialscientist (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) – Modified
Image: flickr.com "five go skiing" by d e b u d a (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) – Modified