For many families, spring break is a great time to take off and head to the mountains on a family ski trip. Typically, it’s a great time to ski the North American Rockies as the snow is still plentiful and there is lots of sunshine and blue-bird days. But have you ever thought about a skiing in Japan? That’s exactly what we did a few years ago, and it was amazing!
A ski trip to Japan isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Remember, Japan has hosted two winter Olympics – the first in 1972 in Sapporo and most recently in 1998 in Nagano. Once we started looking into it, we decided to give it go, and it was easily one of our most epic ski vacations ever.
Where to Ski in Japan
Skiing is popular on both of the large islands of Japan – Hokkaido in the north and the main island of Honshu. Hokkaido is well known for its deep powder and incredible snowfall, and Niseko is its most famous resort town. Getting there requires you to fly to Tokyo and then travel north to Niseko. There is train service from Tokyo to Niseko that is about an eight-hour trip each direction. Since we were limited on time, we decided to stay on Honshu.
For an easier journey, especially with kids, stay on Honshu island and head west towards the Japanese alps. It’s only about a three-hour trip from Tokyo via Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) to Nagano and then via bus service to the Hakuba Valley where there are plenty of ski hills and resorts to choose from. Consider staying at one of the many resorts that offer an onsen, or Japanese hot spring. Just be sure you know the traditional rules and customs before participating (most don’t allow bathing suits).
What to Do in Hakuba, Japan
Unlike many North American ski resorts offering an all-in-one ski experience with sprawling runs spread over several mountains, resorts in Hakuba are much smaller. You won’t find the flashy gondolas like Whistler, BC, or any luxe lodges like Deer Valley, Utah. The villages are quaint, and most of the ski lifts are pretty old, but the skiing is as good as you’ll find anywhere, and that’s fine by us.
We skied for three days at the Tsugaike Kogen mountain mostly because it was closest to our hotel, but also because it has wide open beginner slopes that were easy and fun for our family. They have some more challenging terrain, but we didn’t bother. If you wanted to try some more advanced runs or even other resorts altogether, it’s easy to do. There is a Hakuba Valley ski pass that allows for entry into several of the area resorts, with a ski shuttle that runs between them all day long. You can pay one fee and go wherever you want, which makes for an affordable option for families who want to take advantage. Check out Happo One, the largest in the valley, and nearby Hakuba 47 and Hakuba Goryu for other options.
Tsugaike is a smaller resort, but it’s big on character. The staff were eager to help the kids on and off the lift chairs, and always had a smile. There’s even a Burger King right on the slopes that made for an easy and familiar lunch. It was great! After the last run of the day, we enjoyed doing some shopping around the village for souvenirs and snacks while we waited on the shuttle. In many ways, it’s just like skiing back home. It felt comfortable, almost like we hadn’t really left the States at all. The biggest difference was the price. It’s much cheaper to ski in Japan.
After only a day, we fell hard for Japan and couldn’t get enough of it.
Après Ski in the Japanese Alps
Being a young family of four, we don’t run around with the raucous après crowd, but we do like to venture out and explore after a day on the slopes. The Sierra Resort Hakuba had a complimentary dinner shuttle that ran into town so we took advantage. The concierge desk is really helpful in recommending places to eat, and their English is excellent. Hakuba is like many other ski towns with rental shops, bars, and restaurants full of tired, sunburnt skiers looking to unwind. The kids had their first taste of authentic gyozas at a great little noodle shop called Yamagami. After we left, it was affectionately known as yummy-gami. To say it made an impression would be an understatement.
We had so much fun wandering around the streets peeking into the shops and sampling the Japanese treats here and there. We thought it would be such an adjustment trying to navigate the culture and language of Japan, but we discovered that ski towns are pretty much the same. Good snow and good company are all you really need for a great trip. Throw in some local food and flavor, and you have a recipe for success.
Things to Do Nearby for Families
Skiing is certainly the main attraction in the Hakuba Valley in winter, but nearby Nagano offers an amazing array of things to do as well. The bus from Hakuba Station to Nagano Station is about an hour, so it’s easy to visit. We visited on our first full day rather than ski just to try and overcome the jet lag from such a long journey (which turned out to be a good plan). With Nagano as a jumping off point, consider visiting the ancient Zenkō-ji Temple which is just a short walk from the station. It’s beautiful and rich with centuries-old history. There are also lots of shops and restaurants nearby. One of our favorite discoveries was the lower level of the Nagano train station. It’s full of food stalls serving up everything from kabobs and fresh dumplings, to sweet treats and ice cream. We could’ve grazed there most of the afternoon I’m sure. They even had a Baskin-Robbins which served up intricate ice cream sundaes for the kids that looked like Easter bunnies! Oh Japan…
No winter vacation to Nagano Japan would be complete without a trip to see the famous Japanese snow monkeys. Bus rides leave from Nagano station, and the trip takes about an hour. Jigokudani Monkey Park is definitely one of those experiences that have to be seen to be believed. The kids squealed with happiness when we spotted our first monkey on the path up to the hot springs and they were riveted the entire time watching them huddle in the hot water while the little ones chased each other. One even swooped by and grazed our daughter’s leg as if to say “wanna play?” It was a fantastic experience no family should miss. Guided tours are available and can be purchased at the hotel, bus station, or train station. For our visit, we simply figured out the bus schedule and bought tickets ourselves which worked out fine and saved us some money.
Japan is a country full of surprises, especially for families like ours who had never been, and we loved every second. This trip ticked all the boxes for us: new and unique culture, delicious food, wandering outside our comfort zone, and of course spring skiing. We can’t recommend this trip enough and hope you’ll consider doing the same with your family. We know you’ll love it!
Written by Carrick Buss, who travels with his family and blogs on his site, Along for the Trip.