It was the winter that drew me to my mountain home in Japan. I come from the U.S. state of Minnesota, a place defined by winter. It is where an Arctic air mass will come down from the north and sit over the state, creating a week of -40° temperatures (and that’s -40° in both C and F). In Japan it was a remarkable mountain—Mt. Myoko—that called to me, with snows beyond my imagination—think two meters in three days—and much milder temperatures. Japan is a place where winter adventures don’t often mean life-threatening conditions to start with. The thrills that are there will be of your own making….
I’m now well-established in this mountain town where I guide backcountry skiing and snowshoeing tours as well as providing snow safety instruction at my guide center, Dancing Snow. I would like to present to you, dear curious and hopefully winter-loving reader, seven of the best adventures out there in the snowy months of Japan, listed here in an increasing order of intensity and demands on the participant.
Visiting the Snow Monsters: Zao Onsen, Yamagata
Let's say you like the snowy views of Japan’s winter months—but you’re just not that crazy about actually spending a lot of time out in the cold. Rather than just take a random cable car up the hill for mountain views, head up the mountain at Zao Onsen Ski Resort, Yamagata, to see the Juhyo “snow monsters.” These are unique: amazing, frost-covered trees, created by the cold, moisture-laden winds striking cold, snow-covered trees. They hardly even look like trees--more like wild, wind-shaped creatures standing sentinel all over the mountain. Visitors can walk out to see them up-close, but you won't even have to leave the cable car.
Zao Onsen Ski Resort, Yamagata
The juhyo can be found all around this area, but for a low-energy adventure Zao’s cable car is your best choice. This will be the only global-warming message of this article: juhyo used to be found as far south as Nagano, and experts say they may completely disappear in the future. Locals say they’re already not as spectacular as they appeared in the past.
“Ice” Fishing: Sakamoto-ya, Lake Nojiri, Nagano
I’m going to draw on my Minnesota heritage once again, because ice fishing is huge in my home state. The best version at home is not spent shivering outside with a fishing line dangling down an open hole. No, instead we drag a hut out onto the ice, get the generator going, watch a football game and enjoy a cool one in a heated mini-cabin with your pole set by the hole in the center of the space.
That is also what you get at Lake Nojiri as you pursue the tasty wakasagi (smelt), although the entire lake never freezes anymore and the “hut” is an enclosed boat with open sections running along both gunwales. There’s a heater, there’s a toilet, and you can bring your cooler and enjoy the day as you like. It’s also a particularly beautiful place for fishing, with hilly banks that roll right down to the lake and Mt. Kurohime and Mt. Myoko standing majestically to the west.
If you really have to get out there and rough it (at least it won’t be Minnesota -40° cold), ice fishing on Lake Abashiri in Hokkaido at least gives you a tent to sit in as you stare at the hole in the ice. Apparently the guides will also clean and fry the fish for you on the spot.
Abashiri Tourism Association
Snowshoeing: Myoko/Dancing Snow
Okay, I know I’m running a risk in promoting my own place here, but there is a reason behind this. While snowshoeing is now offered almost anywhere the snow falls, we offer a tour-like snowshoe day that goes like this: We hike up (and it can be some steep slopes, depending on the guests), dig out a snow table and have a hot lunch. Wine may appear out of the backpack. Then we enjoy downhill snowshoeing. It’s an old Myoko style of sport that the telemark skiers were doing 30 years ago, and we’ve tried to keep going. As I said, though, besides Myoko, there will snowshoeing options most anywhere there is snow!
Almost every tourist organization and related groups, many ski schools and lots of guides offer snowshoeing, at nearly every resort. Many are taiken courses—a quick “experiential” tour that might even be on a ski slope—so make sure that you choose the right provider for the kind of snowshoeing you want to do.
Dog sledding: Mushing Works, Tokachi, Hokkaido
I am told by a fellow guide and friend that this Tokachi operation is the place for genuine dog sledding in Japan (and I trust her because she is a musher, and the real thing). Mushing Works has a team of Alaskan huskies running on a scenic 12-kilometer course. Owner Takeshi Takita is both welcoming and passionate about introducing the fun of sledding (and dog-pulled bike-joring in summer) with the dogs, which he has been raising and sledding with for some 20 years.
Moonlight Ladies Dog Sledding. Also in Hokkaido, they run a seven-kilometer course in Asahikawa. There may or may not be a provider in Minakami, Gunma, but in these post-covid days it’s hard to know for sure.
Snow Bicycling: Togari Onsen Ski Resort, Nagano
I got a fatbike a few years ago, with its oversized wheels and big fat tires, and I’m not ever going back to the skinny. Not to push the Minnesota connection again—but you probably don’t even know where my state is, so it needs promotional assistance—but the first mass-produced fatbikes are from there, where people access cross-country ski trails in winter on the big-wheel bikes. Yes, you can probably get away with sneaking onto a ski run with your fat bike, but if you don’t have a bike, or you’d like a more structured fatbike experience, the place to do this in Japan is at Togari Onsen Ski Resort in Nagano. They have the bikes, you and the bike get to ride the lifts, and then you experience the weird joy of riding a bicycle on the snow. An open downhill run, and a more technical tree run are both available.
Snow Park Togari
Bicycle Tours JP also has a half-day, guided snow biking experience. The experience includes a gondola ride up, and a pretty mellow ride down (they just get reduced points for claiming to be the only show in Japan….they aren’t, and more options are likely to open up as the country does, too).
Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding: Hakuba/Evergreen, Nagano
As much as I’d like to blow more own horn for Myoko, there’s probably nowhere in the backcountry world in Japan as diverse as Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture. The man to contact is Dave Enright at Evergreen, one of the biggest operations in all of Japan, in the spectacular Hakuba mountains. Evergreen has a variety of tour options for varying experience levels. Dave also provides snow safety training.
The semi-controlled backcountry gate access system of Hokkaido's resort area of Niseko makes it a relatively safe place for self-guided backcountry skiing and boarding, without the need to climb (conditions such as cracks or potential trouble areas are listed in the daily bulletin released by the area). Most major mountain resorts will also have individual guides or guide centers, and there is more online information today to help make the decision of who to choose out there.
Niseko United (The official website of the Niseko Resort)
Ice climbing: Niseko, Hokkaido
This is something I have never done (at least not with twin ice axes) but it looks both extremely cool and totally insane (for skiers, ice is for cocktails). There are few places in Japan where there’s enough cold and a suitable waterfall that freezes, but the big climbs in Hokkaido look amazing. To do it in English, go out with Tracy Lenard at Niseko Mountain Guides.
Niseko Mountain Guides
The Akadake Onsen area of Yatsugatake, Nagano is famous for its artificial ice climbing facilities. Reassuring because the ice has been created to be safe, with fixed rope points on top, making it a good choice for beginners; not so sure about English possibilities, as most English-language websites seem to have stopped two years ago with the spread of Covid. A good place to start is at akadakekousen.jp.