Watch any powder movie and it's unlikely that there are no shots from Japan in it. Japan is more than ever the promised powder land. The land of the rising sun became the land of the falling flake. It wasn't that long ago that it was hard to find foreigners on the slopes in Japan. Japan was a winter sports nation in decline. The aging population and stagnant economy led to low purchasing power of a shrinking population and the ski resorts suffered. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were one of the driving forces that lots of Aussies and Kiwis decided to go skiing in Japan. The hitherto unknown skiing country appeared to have a couple of hundreds of smaller ski areas. And some bigger ones. But always with a lot of snow.
Is Japan thát much better than North America or Europe? Do they have state of the art ski lifts? The best backcountry lines? The vibrant resorts? Not really. Well, the quality of the lifts is okay, the backcountry is amazing in some places and you can find some good karaoke, but that's not the rising why you travel all the way to Japan. No. You travel to Japan for the snow. Japan is blessed with one of the best, if not thé best snow climate of the world. And finally, snow is still what gets us stoked the most right? But why is the snow in Japan so exceptionally good? There are two reasons:
The quantity of the snow
Why does it snow so much in Japan?
The Japanese islands are located in the sea (that's no rocket science). In the east you'll find the Pacific and in the west the Japanese Sea. Plenty of water around to take care of moisture in the air. Then there is the dominating wind that's coming from the northwest during winter. Very cold and dry air masses coming from Siberia hit the Japanese sea, pick up moisture and hit Japan. Finally, there are the Japanese Alps on the main island with several peaks higher than 3,000 meters and the hills and volcanoes of the northern island of Hokkaido. A series of peaks and ridges which form an ideal wall to stop the clouds that develop above the relatively warm Japanese sea and force them to snow empty. The results are snowstorms called Yamayuki (bringing snow high in the mountains) or Satoyuki (bringing snow in the valleys). They look like this.
Clouds developing above the Japanese Sea
Winter monsoon in Japan
The most snow (according to measurements) falls in that part of Japan where the cold wind has the longest distance to bridge the Sea of Japan. Joetsu (上 越 市) is a city just west of the Japanese Alps, situated at an elevation slightly above sea level, that annually gets approximately 6.3 meters of snow. This is snow generated by the moisture from the sea. It is in this region, about 250 to 300 kilometers west of Tokyo, where you will find most of the ski resorts in Japan. Nagano will sound familiar to you, but perhaps you recognize resorts like Happo-One, Hakuba, Cortina or Myoko Kogen as well.
But the Joetsu miracle also has a drawback. This region is located at 37 degrees latitude. That's about the same latitude for cities like Athens, San Francisco and Seville. The result is that the temperature, even in the winter months, can sometimes rise (way above zero degrees Celsius). The most snow comes down between December and February. The temperatures rapidly rise from March.
The quality of the snow
Myoko Kogen is the region that will get the most snow, but you don't always find the best snow of Japan there. Rising temperatures can make the snow pretty humid. No, for the best snow of the Japan you'll have to travel north. Over a 1000 kilometers north to the island of Hokkaido. You can find as much snow here, but because it's much colder, the quality of the snow is much better (as in drier). According to rumors, the snow is even as dry as in Utah. Snow that consists for 8% of water and for 92% of air. Snow can't be much drier or looser.
Of course there are days that the snow on Honshu is very dry, but Hokkaido is your best bet for dry and deep powder, especially in January. The most reliable measuring station around Niseko is situated at an altitude of just 225 meters above sea level and on average they measure about four meters of snow here. Although the mountains are not the steepest in the world, but the quality of the snow makes up for it.
January is the best month to ride powder in Japan
Tips to score the best powder in Japan: