Japan's mountainous terrain means skiing and hiking are big draws, but the country's signature activity is, of course, its steaming hot-spring baths. There are also cycling tours both rural and urban, plenty of opportunities for scenic strolls, cooking courses and traditional craft workshops.
Skiing in Japan
With its 500 ski resorts, Japan is not the skiing and snowboarding world's best-kept secret anymore. Those in the know come from around the globe to make the most of regular snowfall, stunning mountain vistas, reasonable costs, friendly locals and great variety of après-ski options.
Where to Ski
Japan's best-known ski resorts are found in the Japan Alps and on the northern island of Hokkaidō. The former lays claim to the highest mountains, while the latter boasts the deepest and most regular snowfall in the country.
While the ski resorts of Northern Honshū have seen tough times since the Great East Japan Earthquake, they offer up some wonderful options. And don't forget the Niigata mountains, easily accessed by shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo.
There are some 500 ski areas in Japan – do you homework before you go to find the right place for you. Here is our pick of the best:
Niseko As far as most foreign skiers are concerned, Niseko is how you say 'powder' in Japanese. This is understandable, as Niseko receives an average snowfall of 15m annually. Located on Hokkaidō, Niseko is actually four interconnected ski areas: Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Village (also known as Higashiyama), Grand Hirafu and Hanazono.
Furano More or less in the centre of Hokkaidō (the town also hosts a belly-button festival, Heso Matsuri, to celebrate being in the middle!), Furano shot to world fame after hosting FIS World Ski and Snowboarding Cup events. Relatively undiscovered in comparison to Niseko, Furano rewards savvy powder fiends with polished runs through pristine birch forests.
Sapporo Teine It's so close to Sapporo, Hokkaidō's capital, that buses run from downtown hotels to Sapporo Teine. You can swish down slopes used in the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics by day and enjoy the raucous restaurants, bars and clubs of Susukino by night.
Hakuba The quintessential Japan Alps ski resort, Hakuba offers eye-popping views in addition to excellent and varied skiing in six resorts. Hakuba hosted Winter Olympic events in 1998 and is led by the legendary Happō-One Ski Resort (pronounced 'hah-poh-oh-neh').
Shiga Kōgen Also in the Japan Alps, Shiga Kōgen is one of the largest ski resorts in the world, with an incredible 19 different areas, all interconnected by trails and lifts and accessible with one lift ticket. With such a variety of terrain on offer, there is something for everyone here.
Nozawa Onsen This quaint little village is tucked high up in the Japan Alps. It offers a good variety of runs, including some challenging mogul courses. Snowboarders will enjoy the terrain park and half-pipe, and there's even a cross-country skiing course that traverses the peaks.
Echigo-Yuzawa Onsen Talk about easy to get to! Echigo-Yuzawa Onsen has its own shinkansen station on the Jōetsu line to Niigata and you can literally go skiing as a day trip from Tokyo (77 minutes one way by the fastest service!). Gala Yuzawa is the resort to head to here.
Naeba Home to Dragondola, reportedly the longest gondola in the world (5.5km), Naeba has two massive ski areas, centred around the Prince Hotel Naeba, that cater to your every whim and fancy.
Myōkō Kōgen Much less developed than the other resorts listed here, Myōkō Kōgen is directly north of Nagano city and close to the Sea of Japan. Head here for an off-the-beaten-path ski holiday in the powder-rich Myōkō mountain range.
Zaō Onsen Ski Resort Arguably the top ski slopes in Northern Honshū, Zaō has a huge selection of beginner and intermediate runs, broad winding courses and, of course, excellent après-ski onsen options.
Tazawako Ski Park Akita Prefecture's largest winter sports destination, Tazawako Ski Park has slopes that wind down Akita Komaga-take and overlook the shores of Tazawa-ko. Expect fewer foreigners but a friendly welcome.
Daisen This is our wildcard! Offering the best skiing in western Japan, this stand-alone exposed volcano (1729m) is only 10km from the Sea of Japan in Tottori Prefecture and catches heavy snowfall in winter. Daisen White Resort is where it's at.
Some excellent options for backcountry skiing exist in Japan, particularly in Hokkaidō, though this is a relatively new sphere of adventure tourism (most Japanese skiers stick to the mainstream places).
Asahi-dake An extreme experience on a smoking volcano in Daisetsuzan National Park. Hokkaidō's highest mountain, Asahi-dake offers one ropeway (500 vertical metres), dry powder and scenic views, but is not for beginners.
Kuro-dake At Sōunkyō Onsen on the northeastern side of Daisetsuzan National Park in Hokkaidō, Kuro-dake has one ropeway and lift and is becoming popular with those who like vertical and challenging terrain.
Rishiri-tō Extreme skiing is possible on Rishiri-zan, a classic volcanic cone on its own remote island off the coast of northern Hokkaidō. No lifts and plenty of walking. You'll need a guide from Rishiri Nature Guide Service. Book early!
Accommodation & Food
Many people unfamiliar with skiing in Japan often assume that it will cost an arm and a leg to ski here. But, even after factoring in the international air ticket, it might actually be cheaper to ski for a week in Japan than in your home country. Are we mad? Let's check the numbers.
Lift Tickets & Equipment Rental A full-day lift ticket at most ski areas in Japan still costs between ¥4000 and ¥6000, although Niseko is up to ¥7400. This is significantly less than a full day at large resorts in North America or Europe. Full equipment rental is typically no more than ¥5000 per day (both ski and snowboard sets are available). The Japanese tend to be connoisseurs of quality, which means that you need not worry about getting stuck with shabby and/or outdated gear.
Accommodation You can find plenty of decent accommodation in the ¥6500 to ¥10,000 range at major ski areas in Japan, and this price will often include one or two meals. This is well under what you'd expect to pay for similar accommodation in North America or Europe. The budget traveller will find a variety of backpacker-type hostels near most resorts, and families will be glad to know that young children (under six years of age) can usually stay for free or at a significant discount.
Food On-slope meals mostly top out at around ¥1000, cheaper than what you'd pay in North America or Europe. The restaurant selection anywhere you go is also varied, including the likes of ramen (egg noodles), udon (wheat noodles), karē-raisu (curry rice) and gyūdon (sliced beef on rice), as well as more familiar fast-food options including sandwiches, pizza, burgers and kebabs.
Transport Airport-to-resort transport in Japan costs no more than in other countries, and is usually faster and more efficient (and, unlike in North America, you don't need to rent a car).
That's right: it's 'ski' (all right, it's pronounced more like 'sukee'), but the point is that communication won't be much of a problem on your Japan ski trip.
Tackling the language barrier has never been easier: most of the better-known resorts employ a number of English-speaking foreigners and Japanese who have spent time overseas. They work the lifts and in the cafeterias, and often find employment in the hotels or guesthouses that are most popular with foreign guests.
All major signs and maps are translated into English, and provided you have some experience of large resorts back home, you'll find the layout and organisation of Japanese resorts to be pretty intuitive.
The information counter at the base of the mountain always has helpful and polite staff available to answer questions.
Snow is snow, skis are skis – right? How different can it be to ski in Japan? Not very much, but keep the following in mind:
- Lift-line management can be surprisingly poor in Japan.
- Not all resorts use the green/blue/black coding system for difficulty.
- The majority of Japanese skiers start skiing at 9am, have lunch exactly at noon, and get off the hill by 3pm. If you work on a slightly different schedule, you will avoid a lot of the crowds.
- Off-piste and out-of-bounds skiing is often high quality but also illegal at many ski areas, resulting in the confiscation of your lift pass if you're caught by the ski patrol. Check out local policies.
- Interest is growing in backcountry skiing, but most Japanese still want to play on well-groomed slopes.
Did You Know?
- The first Winter Olympics held outside Europe or North America was at Sapporo in 1972.
- Snowboarding first debuted as an Olympic sport at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.
Hiking in Japan
Blessed with a geography that is more than two-thirds mountain terrain, Japan offers outdoors enthusiasts the most diverse climate in all of Asia. From the rugged shores and wind-weathered peaks of Hokkaidō in the north, to the tropical island jungles of Okinawa in the south, this country has it all.
Where to Hike
Mt Fuji & Around Tokyo
Mt Fuji Japan's highest and best-known mountain, at 3776m. A gruelling climb that more than 300,000 people make each summer, many hiking overnight to be at the peak at sunrise.
Takao-san A popular day hike less than an hour west of Shinjuku. Can be walked year-round, has a high point of 599m and is good for families.
Oku-Tama Region One of Tokyo's top hiking getaway spots, with mountains, waterfalls, woodlands and walking trails. Head to Mitake-san for the day.
Kamakura The 3km Daibutsu hiking course winds its way past ancient temples and shrines in Japan’s medieval capital to the giant Buddha statue at Hase.
The Japan Alps & Central Honshū
Home to the North, Central and South Alps, central Honshū is a hiking hot spot for Japan.
North Alps Excellent high-mountain trails. From Kamikōchi, climb Yariga-take (3180m) and Oku-Hotaka-dake (3190m). From Murodō on the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, climb Tateyama (3015m) and Tsurugi-dake (2999m). From Hakuba, take the gondola and chairlifts to climb Karamatsu-dake (2695m).
Hakusan A sacred peak in Hakusan National Park, the 'white mountain' is criss-crossed with great hiking trails.
Nakasendō Walk the 8km hike from Magome to Tsumago in the historic and attractive Kiso Valley.
Kyoto may be known for its temples and shrines, but it is also surrounded by mountains.
Fushimi Inari-Taisha A 4km pathway up Inari-yama in southeast Kyoto is lined with thousands of red torii (shrine gates) and hundreds of stone foxes.
Kurama & Kibune Only 30 minutes north of Kyoto, two tranquil valleys are linked by a trail over the ridge between them. A peaceful escape from the city.
Daimonji-yama There is no finer walk in the city than the 30-minute climb to the viewpoint above Ginkaku-ji in Northern Higashiyama.
Kumano Kodō Walk on ancient pilgrimage routes in the wilds of the Kii Peninsula. Or go the whole way and walk the 500km 33 Sacred Temples of the Kannon Pilgrimage.
Rokku Gaaden Starting at Ashiya, between Kōbe and Osaka, hike up through sandstone badlands and peaceful forest for spectacular urban views.
Yama-no-be-no-michi Ramble through the Nara countryside among farming villages, 1300-year-old emperors’ tombs and a rich mix of rural sights.
Hiroshima & Western Honshū
Daisen A five-hour return climb of this 1729m stand-alone volcano affords excellent views of the San-in region.
Sandan Gorge An 11km ravine about 50km northwest of Hiroshima, Sandan-kyō gives access to waterfalls, forests and fresh air.
Miyajima There's good walking to be had on this well-known island not far from Hiroshima. Climb the high point of Misen (530m).
Kuniga Coast The coastal romp from Matengai Cliff to Kuniga Beach offers jaw-dropping scenery on the sleepy island of Nishino-shima, in the Oki Islands Geopark.
Northern Honshū (Tōhoku)
Dewa Sanzan The collective name for three sacred peaks – Haguro-san, Gas-san and Yudono-san – which represent birth, death and rebirth respectively. The climb up Gas-san (1984m) is a good challenge.
Bandai-san There are great tracks to climb this 1819m peak in Fukushima Prefecture.
Hakkōda-san Wildflower-filled marshes, a ridge trail and peaks in Aomori Prefecture.
Sapporo & Hokkaidō
There's so much hiking here that you could spend weeks in the northern wilds.
Daisetsuzan National Park Pick your walks in this massive park in in the centre of Hokkaidō, with day trips to a week-long challenge the length of the park.
Shiretoko National Park This World Heritage Site offers day walks of up to three days, plenty of hot springs and higuma (brown bears!).
Rishiri-zan A standalone volcano (1721m) on its own island off the northern coast of Hokkaidō.
Ishizuchi-san At 1982m, the highest peak in western Japan. Great day and overnight hikes in Ehime Prefecture.
Tsurugi-san Shikoku's second-highest peak (1955m) provides both easy walks and multiday hiking opportunities.
88 Temple Pilgrimage 2015 was the 1200th birthday of Kōbō Daishi's legendary 1400km 88-temple pilgrimage around Shikoku.
Kirishima-Yaku National Park Excellent options including climbing Karakuni-dake (1700m), Kirishima's highest peak.
Kaimon-dake This beautifully symmetrical 924m cone on the Satsuma Peninsula is a brilliant day walk.
Kujyū-san Knock off Kyūshū's highest peak (1791m), known for its spectacular pink azaleas in spring.
Aso-san Hiking at the world's largest volcanic caldera, 128km in circumference, is on hold following a devastating earthquake.
Okinawa & the Southwest Islands
Visiting an Onsen
With thousands of onsen (hot springs) scattered across the archipelago, the Japanese have been taking the plunge for centuries. The blissful relaxation that follows a good long soak can turn a sceptic into a convert and is likely to make you an onsen fanatic.
Some locals will tell you that the only distinctively Japanese aspect of their culture – that is, the only thing that didn't ultimately originate in mainland Asia – is the bath. There are accounts of onsen bathing in Japan's earliest historical records, and over the millennia the Japanese have turned the simple act of bathing in an onsen into something like a religion.
Onsen water comes naturally heated from a hot spring and often contains a number of different minerals. Onsen are reputed to makes one’s skin sube-sube (smooth), while the chemical composition of particular waters are believed by some to help cure ailments such as high blood pressure, indigestion or poor circulation. At the very least, you will sleep very, very well after a soak.
Konyoku (mixed bathing) was the norm in Japan until the Meiji Restoration, when the country sought to align itself with more ‘civilised’ Western ideas and outlawed the practice. It's rare to encounter konyoku in Japan's urban centres, but in the countryside and on smaller islands the practice is more common. Unless stated otherwise, it's okay for a woman to enter rural, unattended baths in a swimsuit or with a 'modesty' towel.
Shy bathers take heart: many onsen ryokan (traditional hot-spring inns) offer what they call 'family baths' (家族風呂; kazoku-buro) or 'private baths' (貸切風呂; kashikiri-buro), small baths that can be used privately (solo, as a couple or as a family) for an hour. This may be free of charge or cost a few thousand yen. High-end inns might offer rooms with private hot-spring baths – the ultimate in luxury.
Bathing isn’t just a pastime, it’s a ritual – one so embedded in Japanese culture that everyone knows exactly what to do. This can be intimidating to the novice, but really all you need to know to avoid causing alarm is to wash yourself before getting into the bath. It’s also a good idea to memorise the characters for men (男) and women (女), which will be marked on the noren (curtains) hanging in front of the respective baths.
Upon entering an onsen or sentō (public bath), the first thing you’ll encounter is a row of lockers for your shoes. After you pay your admission and head to the correct changing room, you’ll find either more lockers or baskets for your clothes. Take everything off here and enter the bathing room with only the small towel.
That little towel performs a variety of functions: you can use it to wash (but make sure to give it a good rinse afterwards) or to cover yourself as you walk around. It is not supposed to touch the water though, so leave it on the side of the bath or – as the locals do – folded on top of your head.
Park yourself on a stool in front of one of the taps and give yourself a thorough wash. Make sure you rinse off all the suds. When you’re done, it’s polite to rinse off the stool for the next person. At more humble bathhouses you might have little more than a ladle to work with; in that case, crouch low and use it to scoop out water from the bath and pour over your body – taking care not to splash water into the tub – and scrub a bit with the towel.
In the baths, keep your head above the water and your splashing to a minimum. Whether or not you want to rinse off depends on you and the nature of the waters: some people want to keep the minerals on their skin; others prefer to wash.
Before heading back to the changing room, wipe yourself down with the towel to avoid dripping on the floor.
Top Onsen Destinations
Onsen Ryokan A night in a ryokan (traditional inn) with its own bathhouse is the best way to relax traditional Japanese-style. Check in early to maximise bath time.
Onsen Resorts These clusters of baths and inns, often along a river, are the ultimate onsen getaway. Guests wear yukata (light cotton kimonos) and geta (wooden sandals) as they wander the town hopping from bath to bath. Some towns encourage bath hopping with discount passes.
Onsen in the Wild Hidden in the mountains or along undeveloped coasts, these humble baths may be no more than a pool in a riverbed blocked off with stones or a tidal basin beside crashing waves. Bathing is open-air, co-ed and usually free.
Feature: Tattoo Warning
Many onsen, larger bathhouses with leisure facilities (called 'super sentō') and saunas refuse entry to people with tattoos because of the association of tattoos with the yakuza (Japanese mafia). Those with strict policies will have signs posted that make their stance clear. If there are no explicit signs prohibiting tattoos and yours is fairly inconspicuous it's unlikely anyone will make a fuss, but do keep it covered at reception; you can also try covering it with medical tape. Sentō, which are public bathhouses for the local community, often have no policy against tattoos.
Feature: Best Onsen in the Wild
No matter where your itinerary takes you, there's an excellent onsen experience nearby.
Tokyo Yes, even ultra-urban Tokyo has onsen! These vary from small sentō (fortunate enough to be situated on real springs) to elaborate bathing leisure complexes. The latter is an experience unto its own; try Ōedo Onsen Monogatari on Tokyo Bay.
Around Tokyo Hakone, made up of seven small onsen resorts in the mountains southwest of Tokyo, is the capital's favourite escape. There are many gorgeous inns here with baths. For onsen in the wild, venture to the Izu Islands.
The Japan Alps & Central Honshū There are numerous onsen towns tucked atmospherically in the mountains here (meaning some lovely vistas from the outdoor baths). Some favourites include Shin-Hotaka Onsen, Minakami Onsen and Nakabusa Onsen.
Kansai Kinosaki is the quintessential onsen town, with seven public baths, dozens of onsen ryokan and a long history. Ryūjin Onsen is all but hidden in the mountainous Kii Peninsula to the south of the region.
Western Honshū & the Inland Sea While not an onsen (it uses just ordinary water), Naoshima Bath "I Love YU" is Japan's coolest sentō, with an interior created by contemporary artist Ōtake Shinrō.
Northern Honshū The deep north is famous for its rustic wooden bathhouses and milky, mineral-rich waters. Remote Nyūtō Onsen is somewhere many Japanese would like to visit once in their lives.
Hokkaidō Japan's northernmost island is highly volcanic, so it has lots of onsen. There are onsen towns, like the popular resort Noboribetsu Onsen, and onsen in the wild, like Fukiage Roten-no-yu, which is just an untended pool deep in the mountains.
Shikoku Matsuyama is home to Dōgo Onsen, one of Japan's most storied onsen (literally: it famously appears in Natsume Sōseki's classic novel Botchan). Founded during 'the age of the gods', it's currently housed in a castle-style building from 1894.
Kyūshū Several of Japan's most popular onsen resorts are here, including the rather commercial but fun Beppu, more highbrow Yufuin and secluded Kurokawa Onsen. All the way in the south, at Ibusuki, you can sit neck-deep in hot sand instead.
Feature: Public Bathhouses
Known as hadaka no tsukiai (naked friendship), communal bathing has long been seen in Japan as a great social leveller. As little as 50 years ago, many private homes in Japan did not have baths, so in the evenings people headed off to the neighbourhood sentō (銭湯; public bath). More than just a place to wash oneself, the sentō served as a kind of community meeting hall, where news and gossip were traded and social ties strengthened.
Unlike onsen, the water in sentō is more often plain tap water; still, sentō are hard to beat for local experience. Some look as though they haven’t changed in decades. Others – sometimes called 'super sentō' (スーパー銭湯) – have evolved with the times, adding saunas, jet baths and more. Admission rarely costs more than ¥500 (a super sentō will cost more). You're expected to bring your own towel and toiletries; however, you can show up empty handed and rent a towel and purchase soap, shampoo etc for a small price. Most bathhouses are open from around 3pm to midnight.
Sento Guide (www.sentoguide.info) is the English-language resource about bathhouses around Japan.
Diving in Japan
Stunning both above and below the water's surface, the Southwest Islands set the scene for some excellent diving with an impressive variety of species such as whale sharks, manta rays, sea snakes, turtles and corals. Keeping it even more interesting are underwater wrecks, cavern systems and even some mysterious ruins (…or very unusual rock formations).
Costs for diving in the Southwest Islands are higher than you might pay in Southeast Asia, but equipment and guiding standards are fairly high. If you don't have a valid diving certification, many operators offer introductory diving courses. To rent equipment, you should know your weight in kilograms, your height in metres and your shoe size in centimetres.
Foriegner-friendly operators with English-speaking staff include the following: