Light flakes falling, steaming onsens, a beguiling culture, this are some of the ingredients making the land of the Rising Sun sizzle – even on the cool slopes. The statistics say it all, there’s been a 335% increase in visitation in 10 years and while not all are skiers, you can say ‘Arigato’ to the forward-thinking early sliders who helped build a mountain of fans.
But which of the 600 resorts splattered across the islands like a snow-bombed windscreen is the one for you? Those original skiers have grown up and bred mini flake-followers – and the resorts are slowing growing with them. Because family ski vacations need vital elements for success – off snow action, easy access to slopes, instruction in English and the odd chicken nugget.
Are we picky? Yes. And that’s what makes this the one-stop shop to find the ultimate family ski resorts in Japan.
CLUB MED TOMAMU – Hokkaido
Best for: Future snow bunnies
Club Med is that skier who schusses down a mountain stylishly, ending with a hockey stop that spays the other resorts out of the water. Or rather, off the slope. Opened only two years ago, it’s refined the recipe that keeps Club Med at the top of their game. It’s chosen an outstandingly beautiful location, added in effervescent GOs (gentile organisteurs), mouthwatering cuisine (wagyu beef, Japanese spider crab and the best French pastries this side of Paris) and every consideration to make skiing easy for families.
When they say ’all inclusive’ they mean all with lift tickets and lessons (except rentals), meals, drinks, yoga classes, kids club and even Mina-Mina Beach, the 80 metre wave pool literally a snowball’s toss from the lobby.
But this family ski resort in Japan is not just for kids. Adults will love the architect and designer Jean Philippe Nuel’s use of natural materials (think stone and wood) bound into the stylish Japanese aesthetic and surprises like whiskey and saké tasting in The Nest Zen Bar.
As for the skiing credentials, it’s a beginner and intermediate’s happy place. The 145 hectares has 29 runs (four red, 14 blue, 10 green, one beginner). Advanced skiers may struggle after a few days (you can hire a guide for some side country outside Club Med) , but if it’s an easy luxury ski holiday in Japan you want, this is as blissfully easy as it gets.
What else? Don’t miss the Hoshino Resorts-run Ice Village, featuring a gallery of flowers froze in cubes, an Ice Chapel, Ice Hotel, a frosted Maze, ice skating rink and even a giant ice slide.
NOZAWA ONSEN – Nagano
For real-deal Japan
Ah, Nozawa Onsen, how much do we love thee? For over four hundred years this charming area has been famed for a plethora of hot springs and traditional inns that dot the compact, walk-everywhere village. Spare an afternoon for a crawl of all 13 public onsens. That’s a lot of steaming.
But while the off-snow culture is a lure, families will love the resort topography – in an anomaly, the best beginner runs are on top. The Uenotaira (which literally means ‘ flat area on top’) is a gentle 3km run accessed straight from the gondola (eliminating beginner lifts). Once they’ve nailed that, it’s a smooth 8km down the home trail to the village.
The more advanced will love regular reports of 100cm of snow overnight, and that Nozawa Onsen tends to have more bluebird days and milder temperatures than their northern neighbours in Hokkaido. Everyone’s a winner.
When skis are clicked off, there’s the Hikage Bowl at the base of the mountain with jumping castles, slides, tube runs and Daycare Center. And if separating by gender on that onsen crawl doesn’t sound familial (or getting naked with your teenager), head to Sparena Complex which has a huge outdoor onsen that is mixed and swimwear is accepted.
Don’t miss: Drinking the sweet spring water – many famous Japanese sakés use it in their brewing.
NISEKO UNITED – Hokkaido
Best for: the family who likes to roam
When we say Japan is for serious snow lovers, we don’t mean you have to be an advanced skier. But you have to really like snow. Say, 10 – 18 metres of it. Snow can fall all day. And all night. And dumping directly from Siberia it’s not just snow, it’s powder; light, dry ‘Japowder’.
This is what will steer you towards the bright lights of Niseko. As well as the Niseko United Pass accessing four interconnected ski areas (An’nupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu and Hanazono ski resorts), the easy 2.5 hour bus ride from major airport Sapporo and significantly, an endless selection of restaurants and bars. Almost anywhere else in the Japan snow world and it’s lights out at 9pm.
But let’s talk skiing and snowboarding. There are great backcountry opportunities, including side country access via boundary gates (Japanese tend to stick to the marked pistes) and a snow park with half pipes and jumps, including a small version located on the beginner slope next to the Hirafu Gondola for freestyle novices. Others will love Niseko tree runs – even on one of the beginner slopes there is the Kitsune Forest with gentle gradient runs through the trees. For everyone else? Japowder.
True, it’s not the mostly authentic, but this family ski resort in Japan has all the bells and whistles and in January and February, famous powder faceshots.
Top Tip: self-contained accommodation is a western concept adopted by only a few ski resorts like Niseko. Stay in upper Hirafu for ski-in ski-out that’s also close to the action.
HAKUBA – Nagano
Best for: Skiers who like to play the field
Just a ski tip over three hours from downtown Tokyo in the Northern Japanese Alps is Hakuba. Along with Nozawa Onsen (just on the other side of Nagano) it claims a fair share of sunshine-y days, but that doesn’t mean a shortage of snow. Oh, no. What you’ll find here is a cluster of mountains with wide ranging terrain, delicious restaurants, great bars, huge snowfalls (10-11 metres annually) and the steepest runs in the country.
But beware – while with so many family ski resorts you may expect European style ski touring, only two pairs of neighbouring resorts are connected (Hakuba 47 and Goryu plus Cortina and Norikura). There are frequent shuttle buses, and enjoying the dramatic scenery of rugged towering peaks over 3,000m means there are distractions a-plenty.
Happo One is a popular family base and is the valley’s flagship resort. For one, there are several accommodation options within walking distance of Happo One’s four ski schools (with English instructors and some with child care). If this sounds ideal, look for accommodation close to the Nakiyama Base area (Happo Village), the Kokusai lift (Lower Wadano), or the Snow Plaza Sakka (Upper Wadano).
If ski school isn’t on your radar, consider basing near the terrain park heaven of Hakuba 47, or hunt powder stashes and tree skiing at Cortina. If hunting an area with multiple possibilities, put your crosshairs on Hakuba.
Tip: day trip to see the snow monkeys soaking at Jigokudani Yaen-koen is a must.
This is a Family Travel online exclusive story. Make sure you don’t miss any exclusive digital content by subscribing to our email newsletter