Think ‘skiing in Japan’ and you might conjure up images of expert downhillers waist-deep in powder.
And while that’s certainly logical (because the country has some of the deepest, driest powder on earth), Japan is also an excellent destination for families looking for a fun, easy ski vacation.
Niseko, on the country’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, is one of the most popular destinations for mountain lovers. But there are several other resorts on the island that aren’t as well known but just as good—if not better—for families.
Located in the center of the island, Furano is Hokkaido’s second-largest ski resort. It’s perfect for families looking for a good-value, authentic Japanese experience.
The resort is based in the village of Kitanomine, which has a real sense of community—in the mornings skiers heading to the slopes share the sidewalk with children on their way to school.
Skiing here is excellent and the resort is characterized by long, wide groomed runs and a few secret powder stashes among the trees at the top of the gondola. Best of all, children under 12 ski free!
Kitanomine is home to a wide variety of accommodation, from full-service hotels to family-run pensions as well as a good selection of self-contained accommodation.
Five minutes’ drive away is the bustling town of Furano where you can find high-quality Japanese food for a fraction of the price of bigger resorts. Whatever you do, don’t miss Furano Delice—close to the Kitanomine base—for delicious cakes and out-of-this-world crème caramel: the perfect treat after a hard day of skiing!
Runs: 24 (40 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 20 percent advanced)
Annual snowfall: 29.5 feet (9 meters)
1-day lift pass: adult ¥5,200; children under 12 free; a 5–7 day lift pass at Furano also includes a 1-day pass to Kamui or Tomamu
Just a few kilometers from the coast, Kiroro is one of the first ski areas in Hokkaido to be hit when the big snowstorms come in from the Sea of Japan.
Better still, Kiroro’s slopes are uncrowded and the lifts are fast.
The resort has created a registration system for skiers wanting to enjoy some of its great tree skiing (it was previously out-of-bounds) so advanced powder-hounds will certainly be kept happy. When one of the big storms hits it’s not uncommon to get face-shots all day long.
At the base of the resort, the newly renovated Sheraton Hokkaido Kiroro Resort is a great choice for families as it offers direct access to the slopes and all of the resort’s main facilities (including ski school) are right in the building.
The ski school—Annie Kids Ski Academy—is based on a French model and is excellent, particularly for younger kids learning for the first time. Beyond the slopes are some fun activities, including a 25-meter pool, amusement arcade, climbing wall and snow park.
Runs: 21 (6 beginner, 7 intermediate, 8 advanced)
Annual snowfall: 69 feet (21 meters)
1-day lift pass: adult ¥6,000; child 7–12, ¥3,300; under 7s free
Tomamu is a favorite of many families due to its convenience and fun activities both on and off the slopes. Just 90 minutes from Sapporo Airport with six return shuttles a day, it’s one of the easiest resorts to access in Hokkaido.
Four huge hotel towers dominate the skyline, each with direct access to the slopes. The ski area is divided across two mountains, both of which offer runs for all levels.
Tomamu ski school has some great distractions to make learning fun, including adventure forests and kids-only Nipo Town, snow-play areas and skiing mascots.
The more advanced will head straight to the appropriately named Powder Heaven on Tomamu Mountain, where skiers and boarders (after registering first) get to ride an express quad chair that serves an untouched powder field with perfectly gladed trees. As they say, heaven.
One of the highlights for families is Ice Village with ice-skating, ice slides, cafes, crafts and more. Situated among the trees, it has an almost magical atmosphere when it comes alive at night with twinkling lights and music.
Slightly warmer and more relaxing is Mina-Mina Beach featuring one of Japan’s largest indoor wave pools as well as a shallow kids pool.
Runs: 29 (11 beginner, 14 intermediate, 4 advanced)
Annual snowfall: 46 feet (14 meters)
1-day lift pass: adult ¥5,400; child 7–12 ¥3,800; children under 7 free
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’re at Disneyland in the snow when you arrive at Rusutsu. The giant rollercoaster that dominates the skyline sadly doesn’t operate in winter, but there are still plenty of other theme park–style activities inside, such as the singing tree and merry-go-round.
Those attractions aside, Rusutsu is one of the best ski resorts in Hokkaido.
West Mountain is home most of the gentle skiing, plus the children’s activities and ski school. East Mountain and Mount Isola have a variety of runs for intermediates and above, including long groomers, short steep pitches (which are quite unusual for Japan) and some tight tree skiing for the more adventurous.
There are two main hotels at Rusutsu including the newly renovated Westin Rusutsu Resort (which has recently won ‘World’s Best New Ski Hotel 2016’ at the prestigious World Ski Awards).
Annual snowfall: 46 feet (14 meters)
1-day lift pass: adult ¥5,800; child 4–12 ¥2,900; children under 4 free
These four resorts are all worth exploring and while they’re great for kids, they also offer enough challenging terrain to keep mom and dad (and any advanced kids) happy for days.
It should be noted that at Tomamu, Kiroro and Rusutsu lessons in English and languages other than Japanese are only guaranteed for private bookings. All four resorts also offer night skiing, snow-play activities (such as tubing and snowmobiling) and child-minding facilities.
Photos: Alamy/Furano Ski School