Chairlift in old Japanese ski resort

The Japanese ski industry is unique. The rise and fall of the domestic ski market was significant, and has left Japan with a huge amount of ageing and abandoned infrastructure, built during the ski bubble to support visitor numbers that peaked at over double the numbers of current recent seasons.

Throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and early 90’s Japan heavily invested in the Ski Industry, and had a peak of over 18 million annual domestic visitors. An economic crash in the early 1990’s impacted Japan’s ski industry, and annual domestic visitors are now estimated at closer to 8 million. With Japan seeing a significant increase in inbound tourism, it is estimated that 10% of skiers are now international visitors.

The 500+ ski resorts in Japan are predominantly spread across Honshu, Japan’s main island, and Hokkaido, the island to the north of Honshu. Being further north, Hokkaido typically has much colder temperatures and often bears the full brunt of those famous snow storms, bringing consistently deep, cold and dry snow, however this can also bring high winds and poor visibility, sometimes presenting a challenge to access this snow. Hokkaido is also home to arguably the most famous and successful ski resort Niseko, where accommodation rates are often two or three times those of comparable options in large Honshu resorts.

Although Sapporo in Hokkaido hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, Nagano down on Honshu hosted the more recent 1998 games, and the impact of this investment is still relevant today. Famous resorts from the games like Hakuba and Shiga Kogen remain as two of the most successful and well equipped resorts in Honshu.

Unfortunately, once you start to look beyond the well known resorts things can get a little tricky, especially for a first time visitor to Japan. The vast majority of the 500+ ‘ski resorts’ are tiny, as in one or two lifts up a small hill tiny, and a not-unsubstantial number are also out of business, or on their way out, often with entire lifts that are no longer run or maintained.

But with a little bit of local knowledge, a guide, or a substantial amount of research there are still plenty of amazing resorts to be ‘discovered’. It is not unusual to ride all day without seeing another westerner, and often without seeing many other people! Unless you count the Japanese military practising their skills in deep powder and antique leather boots. If you come prepared you can even ski for free!