Skiing in Japan Is Back Again—and the Powder Was Worth the Wait
“I love a run that makes your ears pop,” my friend Paul says, a smile splitting his face. We’re at Japan’s Nozawa Ski Resort, having just finished a 3,000-vertical-foot side country run of steep glades to the valley floor far below. Ear equalization comes with the territory when skiing in Japan.
At the bottom, we dump onto a groomer that leads to an old-school, two-person chair, which carries us up to a more modern gondola for lap two. But first, a quick stop to refuel at a private slopeside restaurant—one of five in a row, and a welcome change from the corporate-owned cafeterias at stateside resorts. On the menu: katsudon (chicken cutlet over noodles with an egg), miso soup, yakitori (chicken skewers) and large bottles of Kirin beer.
After a few side country runs through a forest of low-angle beech trees and one more lap down pillow-hopping Nozawa Bowl, we traverse the site of the 1998 Olympic Nordic Combined events and re-group at Lot C. There, we change out of our ski clothes and head to an après-ski onsen, or natural hot spring, which are just as much a part of skiing in Japan as its powder. Separated by gender, we strip down, squat onto tiny stools next to other naked men to wash off, then plunge in, letting its soothing waters replenish our souls and sore muscles.
Back outside, seemingly guarding the spring, stand two Nozawa Onsen statues, a man and a woman, carved and painted onto wooden poles from the same beech trees we skied through. They’re called dosojin, shinto guardian spirits that protect travelers. Watching the snow come down hard and knowing we have another five days on the slopes, we chime the gong beneath them three times for good fortune.
We grab the rest of our party at a fireside après bar—whose flames foretell the upcoming Nozawa Fire Festival, which takes place every January 15. We make our way to dinner at Jon Nobi, dodging rivulets of water let loose from canals to flood the streets and melt the snow. Course after course of yakiniku, Japanese barbecue with Wagyu beef, arrive for us to cook on tabletop griddles. Then we head back to the nearby Togari Inn and settle into a deep sleep on tatami mats to rest up for the next day.
Powder, sushi, sake, and hot springs—what’s not to love about skiing in Japan? Fully reopened this fall for the first time since early 2020, these incredible slopes are back, but skiing here is nothing new. Japan’s first resort dates back to 1937. Nagano, in the heart of the Japanese Alps, hosted the ’98 Winter Olympics. Lately, skiing and snowboarding in Japan has gained more international attention thanks to the country’s prized dry snow (or shin-setsu, meaning “new snow”), ski terrain, and culture.
After training our gear from Narita to Tokyo, then onto the bullet train to Iiyama, we’re whisked to the ski-in/ski-out Togari Inn, run by former English teachers Sam and Lianne Stansbury. Falling in love with the region after discovering 30 ski areas within a 30-minute drive, they set down roots, buying the hotel on the slopes of Togari Onsen. While it’s small and quaint, it’s still equipped with Japanese toilets, complete with privacy settings (i.e. noise makers), heated seats and bidets, as well as his and hers indoor onsens. Buchanan gives us a quick onsen etiquette lesson: scrub first, squatting on the stool; be quiet; don’t splash; and note it’s perfectly acceptable to help wash your friend.
“In the U.S. you’re just a lift ticket number,” Buchanan says, outlining why he loves the region. “Here, the resorts are small and family-run, and the skiing is way more intimate—with soul and community. And the mountains are alive with a long history of people taking care of them. You feel like you’re communicating with them every time you ski.”
On day two, we head to Myoko, passing ripples of snow-covered rice patties on the drive. First stop is the office of backcountry guide Bill Ross of Dancing Snow for some beta on the Akakura Kanko resort, Japan’s oldest. A storm is brewing, he says, with his barometer “crashing from 936 to 915 in the past two hours.” He tells us to be mindful not to ski to the adjacent resort of Akakura Onsen, and that the lifts can be confusing. For example, we’ll take lift numbers 1, 2, 3 and 5, but there’s no 4. After a four-lift trek up, we noodle around trees before stopping at a mid-mountain restaurant for ramen and milk tea. And then it comes. The storm.
Back outside, a complete whiteout has transformed the mountain. It drops 10 inches in a few hours, creating a new canvas every run. Careful to avoid creek beds—the valleys aren’t glaciated, instead forming steep “Vs”—we lap knee-high shin-setsu through the trees, feeling our way back down to the base. Rather than indulge in sake and onsen, we opt to beat the storm back to Togari and avoid the night drive. Even still, we pass snowplow after snowplow, at one point backtracking after a berm closes the road. Stopping for take-home Japanese food at a supermarket, we have to dodge sprinklers that have popped out of the parking lot to thwart the snow.
With the fresh snow, we stay close and hit 64-year-old Togari Onsen the next day, dodging nearly 100 beginner students in matching uniforms at the base. Here, Buchanan’s “intimate” comment strikes home. The resort is run by local farmers, with a monk working as its head ski patroller (you can see his temple from the chair), and a snowcat driver who owns the Guinness record for growing the world’s most expensive rice.
“It’s a very humble place,” Buchanan says, leading us on laps of virgin snow. “It’s not run by multi-millionaires but by people who grew up here. For a lot of them, it’s all they know.”
On one run off the Rabbit chair, 14 of us track powder side-by-side, party-wave-style for its entirety. For our last run, Buchanan directs us to boot hike off the top lift and ski off the back, where we can catch a bus home. We do so, emptying out at an adjacent resort that’s now closed. It’s like skiing into the Twilight Zone, with shuttered restaurants and other buildings blocked by snowdrifts.
We street segment J.P. Auclair-style until it flattens out and, like bullet train clockwork, an old man in a white van quickly swoops over to pick us up. We disembark at an outdoor onsen—this one complete with a hot spring waterfall—just a block from our hotel.
The next morning, the snow report says 85 centimeters in 18 hours—about 40 inches—so we head back to Nozawa, this time for a markedly different and deeper experience. We lap tree line after tree line, including two runs down the side country of Nozawa Bowl, one for each ear. It’s hard to tell what hurts more, our legs or cheeks from ear-to-popped-ear grins.
By now we realize there are a few things to get used to when skiing in Japan. First, there are no ropes separating lift lines. You’re left to your own mayhem to alternate. Such a system would never fly in step-on-your-skis Europe. Luckily, the lines are relatively sparse and the Japanese overly polite. Confusingly, all the quad chairlifts only have three ticket turnstiles, which also messes up alternations. And the chair seats are as low as the onsen stools (do your yoga). But some things are the same, including tailgating. At the parking lot afterward, we see revelers complete with a Hibachi grill and low table.
With the snow still falling, the next day we hit the backcountry, climbing and skiing the nearby Nabekura volcano. It’s a dream zone for touring, with a 2,400-foot climb leading to views of the Sea of Japan on a clear day followed by infinite thigh-deep lines through a 200-year-old beech tree forest, or buna, guarding the goods like sentries. While the tree means “useless” in Japanese—it’s too pliable for building—here they’re anything but, holding moisture in their roots, which preserves the snow. Plus, they’re perfectly spaced for effortless skiing all the way to the valley floor.
That afternoon, a dreadlocked Aussie named Jimmie buses us two hours north to the town of Otari, with a pit stop at the local 7-11 (wasabi beef chips, anyone?). Otari and its Tsugaike ski area regularly receive twice the snow as nearby Hakuba, Jimmie tells us. That’s why his boss, British Columbia avalanche expert Dave Enright, bases his Evergreen Backcountry Guides here. We pull up just as an R2D2-looking robotic salt machine spews salt onto the road outside of his ski-in/ski-out Alp’s View Lodge. It might not be five star, but it’s as core as a skier’s lodge gets—complete with a drying/changing room leading to the slopes, a full bar and kitchen that serves sushi, gyoza, yaki soba, and more. The hotel also hosts kids’ groups from Tokyo, including night walks for those who’ve never seen stars.
Enright loves it here because “the peaks are big, just under 3,000 meters, the snow is awesome, and the runs are long.” Plus, he adds, with the tree line at about 2,000 meters, there’s another 1,000 meters or so of high alpine terrain for touring above the resorts—including 2,696-meter Mt. Karamatsu-Dake and 2,932-meter Mt. Shirouma-Dake. Nearby Happo, in fact, hosted both the Super G and Downhill events at the 1998 Olympics as well as the Freeride World Tour. “They’re steep, alpine-style mountains with a lot of vertical,” Dave says of the region’s 10 remaining resorts (there used to be 14). “You have the resorts, which are awesome, plus a lot more vertical above for high alpine touring.”
As with Buchanan and Stansbury, Enright—who also runs biking, hiking, rock climbing, and rafting tours in the summer—saw a void that needed to be filled.
“The local Japanese weren’t experiencing these areas, but they had it all right in their own backyards,” he says.
Right now, those backyards are buried. With our snowfall total for the week now at 200 cm (79 inches), he’s calling today “the best day of the season.” We explore Tsugaike with guides, stopping at the mid-mountain lodge to watch a video for venturing out of bounds, sign a form, and receive an armband reading “DBD” (Double Black Diamond) qualifying us to explore beyond the resort’s boundaries. Then we schuss incessant pow in the steep buna trees, occasionally dodging buried, ankle-grabbing wisteria vines. We also milk multiple inbounds shots, following our guides’ cues to avoid the creek beds.
We end the day with another home-cooked Japanese meal at the lodge, followed by an 18-person Taiko drum ceremony, led by an elderly gentleman and Jimmie’s 12-year-old son. “You don’t come to Japan just for the skiing,” says Dave, clinking his beer glass with mine. “There’s so much more here to take in.”
Soon the rhythmic thumping reverberates off the lodge’s windows showing the snowstorm outside and jiggling our beers. Like Paul put it, you gotta love a ski trip that makes your eardrums pop.
For more information about skiing the Japanese Alps visit go-nagano.net and classic-resorts.jp.
Essentials for Backcountry Skiing in Japan
Since we were venturing out-of-bounds in the Japanese Alps, we wanted to be equipped with the best gear around. Here’s what we brought with us.
1. Avi Gear
For an avalanche transceiver, we tested the BCA Tracker S ($299.95), whose streamlined features make searching simple and fast. Thankfully, we never had to put it to the test beyond practice sessions. While it includes a multiple burial indicator and mute and auto-revert modes, its real advantage is its simplicity. Switch to search mode and it instantly dials you into the closest signal, with distance reading and directional arrows. A close-proximity indicator lets you know when you’re closing in, and a temperature-resistant LED display works well during cold fronts. It’s one of the most affordable beacons around to boot.
To complete our kit, we brought the BCA Dozer 1T-UL shovel ($79.97) for lightweight touring. Incorporating a big blade with cutouts to decrease weight, the shovel barely took up any room in the pack.
The Stealth 270 probe ($64.95), with quick-lock hardware for easy packability and deployment, provides a 270-cm length that eclipsed the 200 cm of new snow we received.
2. Touring Bag
To carry our gear on sidecountry stashes, as well as up and down the Nobekura Volcano, BCA’s new 22-liter Stash Pro Pack fit everything with Japanese efficiency, including our triangle-shaped, seaweed-wrapped onigiri rice snacks. Designed for everything from full-day tours to quick laps, the pack’s new side stash pocket lets you store skins easily without taking off the pack, while its other compartments makes accessing other gear, layers, snacks, and safety tools a snap. Its coated ripstop material fended off beech branches whenever we got a hair too close.
3. Ski Kit
Skiing in Japan guarantees one thing: deep snow. That means you need bibs to keep it out and a jacket to deflect it back onto the slopes. We put our faith in RAB’s Khroma Latok GTX Jacket ($650), a breathable ski mountaineering shell built with dual-weight, three-layer, recycled GORE-TEX Pro Most Breathable fabric. Four external pockets kept items handy (like those mochi balls for quick energy), while two-way vented pit zips cooled us down on the climbs. It also features a helmet-compatible hood and a longer length for deep snow—to the tune of 80 inches.
Made from a three-layer polyamide/elastane combo, RAB’s Khroma Kinetic Bib ($365) is a soft hardshell ski mountaineering design that breathes and is lightweight and waterproof, with stretch for those errant tumbles off hucks you didn’t quite see in time. Four pockets (two thigh, one rear and one bib) carried everything from tickets to maps and yen. Zipped thigh vents kept the air flowing on our ascent of the Nubekura volcano, while ski boot-specific cuffs helped them slip off easily for onsens.
4. Skis and Bindings
Dynafit’s new Free 107 skis ($749.95) provided float for Japow (sidecut: 134-107-124) and weight savings for the up. Playful and stable, they’re Dynafit’s widest, yet still light at 1,540 grams (173cm) with a 100 percent poplar wood core and carbon stringers. Add tip and tail rocker for additional float and you’re schmearing those 80 inches of fluff like wasabi on your sashimi. Bonus: There are full sidewalls for power transfer in the odd chance you ever hit firm snow while skiing in Japan.
Dynafit’s new ST Rotation 10 binding ($599.95) weighs just 599 grams for easy transport through bullet trains and touring. They’re built beefy for downhill performance with a TÜV-certified release safety of 4-10 DIN, thanks to a pivoting toe piece that evens out impacts, plus 10 mm forward pressure for constant release value. Its heel locks firmly while step-in side towers make toe-piece entry 30 percent easier. Two heel lift settings help you nail that special stash. We love the 45 mm of length adjustment, fitting different soles in case your friends want to try it (like ours).
5. Ski Boots
The easy-flexing K2 Mindbender freeride boot is ideal for both resort and backcountry skiing in Japan. A tech toe offers compatibility with touring bindings like Dynafit Rotation. It comes with a heat-moldable Powerlite Shell with Pebax cuff—utilizing different shell wall thickness and four TPU types for light weight and responsiveness—as well as softer instep TPU for easy entry. Its walk mode served up a friction-free cuff pivot and 50-degree range of motion for touring the ridges above Tsugaike, while a Powerlock Spyne dialed in downhill descents. The GripWalk outsole came in handy when those weird sprinklers weren’t on in the streets.
6. The Ski Bag
Of course you have to schlep all that gear to go skiing in Japan. For us, that included going from the Narita airport to two trains with a paltry 50-second door-opening window. We relied on the new DB Snowroller ski and snowboard bag ($348.95), the world’s first length-adjustable, compressible, rib-protected bag of its kind. New to this year’s gear-hauler are: burly 90-mm off-road wheels; increased size to accommodate wider powder boards; integrated boot-changing mat; a beefier 360-degree ABS rib cage to protect the goods inside; and a hook-up system that integrates with backpacks and duffels (like its 50-liter Hytta Split Duffel), turning it into one wheelable package. Plus, its adjustable length fits any ski size and compresses small when not in use.
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