Home to 9 of the 12 tallest mountains in Japan, the region of Nagano is no stranger to snow sports. It hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, and now, even the Freeride World Tour makes a stop here. This is also where I bury myself waist deep in pow - its broken two of my ribs but I come back for more every year! Here's my top five resorts:
- Higher snowfall than other mountains in the valley
- Most of the resort is covered with steep tree lines
- Quick access to off-piste from the lifts and mountain ridge
- Plenty of pillows and drops in the backcountry
- Best family-friendly night skiing in the valley
- Lift links and ski access between Cortina and Norikuna
- Much of the terrain here is best suited for advanced skiers
- Powder days see crowds arrive from all over Hakuba Valley
- There’s just one hotel here with a few restaurants to choose from
- It’s an isolated resort that’s far from the closest village
Once a hidden gem in Hakuba Valley, the secret of Cortina is now most certainly out, so get your piece of the action while you still can! Being the northernmost resort in Hakuba Valley means fresh snow coming from the Sea of Japan falls here first, making it home to some of the deepest powder in the region. The resort ski area is akin to a natural bowl, with trees lining the slopes from the top ridge to the base area. Advanced skiers will especially love this place, and after a dump it’s a true powder junkie’s dream, just be prepared to share!
Unmatched Family Night Skiing
Cortina has to be one of the best resorts in Hakuba Valley, if not the whole of Nagano, for family-friendly night skiing. The long, wide, and gentle beginner course Ikenota Gelande can be a bit of fun for skiers of all abilities, and there are no connecting trails to get lost on. The slope ends by the hotel at the bottom, and the bar makes for an ideal place to sit and enjoy a drink while keeping an eye on the kids as they schuss down the mountain!
A Top Hotel & Resort
There’s no ski town at Cortina, just the Hotel Green Plaza, an enormous resort that is the base area. Luckily the facilities here are top notch so you shouldn’t get bored, with the onsen being especially excellent. In fact the onsen overlooks the slopes, so you can enjoy a warm soak and watch skiers tear down the mountain whether it’s day or night. After that head to the gourmet buffet restaurant and get stuck into an indulgent all-you-can-eat feast that caters for every taste. You can even upgrade to all-you-can-drink if you fancy a night on the sauce!
Try Nagano’s Famous Apples
Cortina’s convenience store is well stocked with the big tasty apples that Nagano is renowned for, and in plenty of different forms. Whether you want a jar of apple jam, a bottle of apple juice, or just a straight-up fresh apple, you’ll find it here. Nearby in the hotel lobby, Tea Lounge Lyrics serves up delicious cakes and amazing coffee art, plus they let you build your own pizza before cooking it for you!
Trails: Beginner 40% / Intermediate 30% / Advanced 30%
- Consistent powder and terrain for all abilities
- Large off-piste tree area at the summit is lift-served
- Slopes are never crowded and there’s high-alpine beginner runs
- Two gondolas provide access to almost every trail
- Dedicated area reserved for high-speed racing
- Village is jam-packed with onsens (hot springs)
- Many off-piste areas don’t allow skiing
- Flat areas can be hard to cross unless you keep your speed up
- You could find yourself walking along sections of the mountain
- Mountain dining can be frustrating, the slopeside restaurants get very busy
Nozawa Onsenis an ancient mountain town that became famous for its healing hot springs long before its spectacular skiing, but now the combination of the two make this a ski destination not to be missed! Speed demons will love the dedicated race area for testing their limits, where there won’t be a ski school snake in sight, but there’s something here every skier can enjoy. Save some energy for the last lift because you’ll be facing the sunset, which makes for a stunning view as you make your final descent!
Get a Taste for Backcountry Skiing
If you’re ready to step up your game and ski real off-piste tree-lined terrain, Nozawa Onsen has the perfect introduction for you. At the top of Mount Kenashi, you’ll have access to swatches of natural powder-filled mountainside that’s as close to backcountry skiing as you can get while staying within resort boundaries. Use the Yamabiko Four chairlift to get a good look over the Yamabiko area and pick out your line, it’s a great way to learn about keeping safe while you shred! Just be aware that there are some off-piste areas that don’t allow skiing.
Small Village Keeps Things Simple
One of Nozawa Onsen’s most convenient features is that everything in the village is clustered together and a short walk away. The majority of accommodation is either on the mountain or just a few minutes’ stroll from the lifts, while restaurants, bars, and shopping is literally on your doorstep no matter where you stay. Even if you are on the outskirts of town or just have aching legs, the local shuttle buses are always ready to ferry you around!
Unforgettable Fire Festival & Beautiful Onsens
Time your visit for when the Dosojin Fire Festival takes place and you’ll experience a celebration quite unlike any other. The next one takes place on January 15th 2018, and it’s a local tradition that’s been taking place since 1863, something that’s sure to be completely different to anything you’ve seen before. For something you can enjoy every day, a trip to the grand O-Yu onsen in the centre of the village is essential for every visitor.
Trails: Beginner 40% / Intermediate 30% / Advanced 30%
- High elevation ensures colder temperatures and some of the best snow in Nagano
- Majority of off-piste tree areas are open for skiing
- Quiet slopes and terrain for all skiing abilities
- Lifts and trails connect you to many neighbouring resorts
- Ski-in/ski-out accommodation is the norm, some hotels even have a gondola leaving the lobby!
- The upper mountain can suffer from closures as it’s extremely exposed to the wind
- There’s no real ski village at the base area so dining and drinking venues are limited
- It can be difficult to get around the resort and surrounding area without your own transport
- Walking through the smoking areas set up right outside the gondolas isn’t particularly pleasant
Offering up the biggest ski area amongst the 19 stand-alone ski resorts that make up Shiga Kogen, Yakebitaiyama is the jewel in the crown of Japan’s king-size snow sports region. There’s plenty to keep you skiing all day at Yakebitaiyama, but a quick upgrade of your ski pass opens up Japan’s largest connected ski area to play in. There are even shuttle buses to bring you back to your hotel if you want to ski from one end of Shiga Kogen to the other but not ski back!
High Elevation Equals Stellar Snow
What sets Yakebitaiyama apart from other ski resorts across Japan is its high elevation. In fact, the summit here stands at 2,008 m, taller than all of the ski resorts in this list. It’s home to excellent quality snow and some of the biggest snowfalls across the whole of Nagano Prefecture. Being way up high also makes for amazing views, and the resort has set up handy viewing spots around the mountain to help you get that perfect mountain photo! Although you might not be able to grab a photo from the upper mountain when high winds close it off.
Empty Groomer Cruisers & Excellent Off-Piste
Trail grooming is taken to the level of an art form at Yakebitaiyama, where each and every day the piste bashers create clean corduroy lines for your carving pleasure. The resort also does a fantastic job of making off-piste skiing safe and convenient. Gates are set up to guide you in the right direction so you’ll end up back at the resort when you reach the bottom. All in all, Yakebitaiyama showcases Japanese perfection at its finest!
Snow Monkeys are Just Around the Corner
If the lack of a ski village puts you off, don’t worry you won’t have to stay cooped up in your hotel room, instead book up a trip to the famous Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. Buses leave for the park daily and it takes no more than an hour to reach this nature preserve. It’s the only place in the world you can watch monkeys soak in a natural hot spring high up in snow-covered mountains!
Trails: Beginner 45% / Intermediate 35% / Advanced 20%
- Super consistent powder and perfect for ski touring across resorts
- Home to the best terrain park in Nagano and an open gate for backcountry skiing
- Top-notch slopes for ski and snowboard lessons no matter what your ability
- High-speed lifts throughout the resort and quiet slopes on weekdays
- A very family-friendly resort
- Very limited accommodation at base areas
- On-mountain dining lack variety and the few slope side restaurants can get very busy around lunchtime
- Lack of après ski
Combining two stand-out mountains into one top-notch ski area, Hakuba 47 & Goryu quite literally serves up a little of everything to keep every type of skier and snowboarder happy. Fancy a mogul run? You got it. Want to hit a kicker for some big air? Check. How about getting up to your eyeballs in pristine backcountry powder? Of course. There’s even delicious hot chocolate and frozen yogurt to enjoy at the Escal Plaza base area! What you won’t find here is much base accommodation and après ski. Additionally, it doesn’t have the most skiable acres or the steepest slopes from my list, but what it does have is awesome variety!
Perfect Terrain Parks
There’s no denying it, some skiers and snowboarders visit Hakuba 47 & Goryu for no other reason than for the epic terrain parks here. They’re hands down the best in Hakuba Valley, probably even the whole of Nagano, and it’s here that pro freestylers from across Japan and beyond come to throw down their craziest tricks. There are snow parks on both sides of the mountain, more mellow at Goryu and downright gnarly at Hakuba 47, where the superpipe is world-class and there’s a dedicated lift to keep you lapping the jumps and rails all day!
Exclusive Off-Piste Zone
For the best chance of scoring your powder fix on any given day, make sure you sign up to access the exclusive off-piste zone. Do this at the Hakuba 47 ski patrol hut, easily found at the base area. Two huge areas up high on the mountain are sectioned off for pass holders only, so finding freshies is always easier here than anywhere else within the resort boundaries! What’s more, this part of the mountain is north-facing, so the shade keeps the snow here in good shape for longer.
Fantastic Learning Terrain and Excellent International Ski Schools
Experienced skiers might overlook taking lessons at Hakuba 47 & Goryu, but you shouldn’t. The incredible slopes here are perfect for learning on and the resort is also home to two of the best international ski schools in Hakuba Valley; Hakuba Ski Concierge and Hakuba Snowsports School. Everyone is well-looked after by the talented instructors, who will show you the best slopes on the mountain for your particular ability. Even if you’re an advanced skier who doesn’t want lessons, hiring a guide to help you explore the backcountry bounties on your doorstep is an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up!
Trails: Beginner 30% / Intermediate 40% / Advanced 30%
- Regular snowfall means consistent powder all through the season
- Lots of variety, from long groomed cruisers to former Olympic downhill race trails
- Easy backcountry access with a gate right next to the top lift
- Fast gondola provides quick access to the upper mountain
- Easily accessible from most resort accommodation
- Little in the way of beginner terrain for first timers
- High winds can close lifts and trails on the exposed upper mountain
- Some chairlifts are dated and run irritatingly slow
- Slopes can get very busy on weekends and holidays
Top of the list is Happo One, offering up Hakuba Valley’s largest ski area and home to some seriously snowy steeps (it’s where the Olympic Super-G event was held). The epic skiing, the international hotels, high-quality restaurants, lively bars, and unique events make this place hard to beat. It’s without a doubt one of the most well-rounded destination ski resorts in Nagano, even the whole of Japan. Guess it should come as no surprise that more skiers and snowboarders visit here than any of the other resorts in the valley!
Enjoy a Little of Everything on the Skyline Run
Out of all the diverse trails, if I had to recommend one ski trail over any other on this mountain, it has to be the Skyline Course. You could lap this run all day and still not get bored, it really does have that much variety. Ok, so you’ll have to venture into a bit of sidecountry to really make the most of this route down the mountain, but if you do, you’ll have a blast. Powder stashes and tree skiing, natural banks and mogul fields, along with some gentle groomers for you to catch your breath on!
Home to the Freeride World Tour in Asia
The challenging backcountry terrain you’ll find through the gates at Happo One has become so well-regarded that last season the first ever Freeride World Tour event in Asia took place here. It’s back again this year, with the event taking place between the 20th and 27th of January 2018, with a prise purse of ¥75,000 JPY ($1,059 AUD)! Just watching the event is enough of a thrill for some skiers and snowboarders, but if you want a pop at the same freeride lines I’d recommend hiring a local guide to keep you on the right track.
Treat Yourself at Pilar & Hang Out at Sakka
Eating, drinking, and being merry are all quite easily done at Happo One, where there are options for all tastes and budgets. For a lunchtime splurge there’s no better spot than Pilar, where you can swap your ski boots for slippers before tucking into a three-course meal served alongside spectacular mountain views. For something completely different, make a pit stop at Sakka Base when the lifts start to close. Trucks and stalls serve street food from across the world, plus there’s cold beer and good tunes to enjoy around the fire. Cheers!
Trails: Beginner 30% / Intermediate 50% / Advanced 20%