Japan is little known as a ski destination for British skiers, and until recently it has been a difficult country for non-Japanese to get to know, with prices high for tourists and most signage in Japanese.
However Japan does have a long history as a ski resort and has some 600 ski areas, a total matched only by Austria. Japan is far ahead of Austria and all other ski countries in the world, in terms of the quality of its uplift, with far more chairlifts than anywhere else, and very few drag lifts. It was the Austrians who are credited with introducing downhill skiing to the country a century ago, and one of the leading ski areas Nozawa Onsen, contains a museum to Hannes Schneider who taught skiing there 80 years ago.
The Japanese ski industry grew through the first half of the twentieth century and peaked in the 1980s when ski areas were notoriously over crowded and needing to open for almost 24 hours in order to cope with demand. The new sport of snowboarding was widely banned because of this. Japanese corporations began buying ski resorts in Europe and North America including Tignes in France, Alyeska in Alaska, Heavenly in California and Steamboat in Colorado. That all changed by the early 1990s however when the Japanese economy crashed and at the same time skiing went out of fashion, losing ground to video games.
Since then many ski areas have been mothballed, and those still operating have had to fight for business. Snowboarders are now courted by resorts, their fashionability a major selling point. Lift pass prices plummeted and today have gone from some of the most expensive a decade ago, to becoming among the most affordable in the world today. For the first time non-Japanese guests were also encouraged, with the Australian and New Zealand markets particularly targeted. Japan was cheaper and closer than North America or Europe.
It was this changing trend that led to the first package tours to Japan from Europe with several big operators offering ski packages to Japan. Most of these are currently concentrated on the northern island of Hokkaido, with resorts like Rusutsu, Niseko and Furano all popular.
After the long flight, Japanese resorts do have major attractions for British skiers. The ski areas are no longer crowded and indeed virtually empty during the week. Japan has a reputation for the world’s biggest snowfalls and abundant powder which remains untracked for days after snowfalls. Prices for most aspects of the ski holiday are lower than in the Alps and the locals are very hospitable and friendly. There are also hot springs to visit and some resorts have extensive facilities besides the ski slopes.