If you’re used to ski trips where you stay in the same resort for a week or more, usually at a ski-in, ski-out hotel, organising a multi-resort ski trip can be daunting, especially in a place like Japan, where information in English can be hard to find. But if you’re happy to self-plan trips, Japan is no different from any other destination. Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, when not so many people spoke English and many hotels and ryokans weren’t available on western booking sites, it’s much easier now. You can book everything online and travel without worry.

One of the big plus points of a multi-resort trip is that you can stay in a city and enjoy an authentic Japanese experience. Japan’s geography means you can stay in a city (not a ski town) and be 20 minutes away from unbelievable skiing. Morioka, the capital of the Iwate prefecture in northern Honshu, is the perfect place to choose. Spend a week here, and you’ll experience deserted ski resorts, deep powder, and friendly locals who will be glad to see you.

Pros of a multi-resort trip to Morioka:

  • Visit a variety of smaller resorts that you wouldn’t stay at for a week but are less busy with low competition for powder
  • Avoid the problem of expensive in-resort restaurants, lack of nightlife and early closing times
  • It feels like a longer trip
  • See more of Japan and local culture
  • Stay in a city or town, so you get the nightlife and range of restaurants
  • Can stay in high-quality hotels, with bigger rooms and short-notice cancellation at a very low price
  • Can change plans at the last minute and chase storms or avoid rain
  • The fun of the road trip, exploring, getting lost, feeling like you’ve discovered something
  • You don’t feel like you’re part of the crowd or over-tourism in Japan’s hotspots


  • Public transport isn’t the best, so you will have to drive to do it properly and visit the hidden gem resorts
  • If you want to get first lift, you have to factor in the driving times of between 30 mins – 90 mins
  • You have to plan where you are going each day

Driving in Japan

Depending on your choice of destination, a multi-resort trip usually means driving. In Australia, Europe, and the US, driving and parking can be a massive headache and can easily ruin your day. In Japan, the roads are empty, the car parks are huge and often free, and drivers are polite. Of course, the roads are snowy and can be icy, and driving in a snowstorm in Japan can be scary, but if you are used to driving in the winter, it’s not as difficult as you might think. The Japanese are the best in the world at clearing snow; the roads are well marked, and with a 4WD vehicle and snow tyres, driving on compacted snow is very grippy. Just drive slowly! If you’re worried about driving in the winter in Japan, start by hiring a car near a train station for a couple of days to visit a nearby ski resort.

On the road in Northern Honshu, Japan

On the road in Northern Honshu, Japan. Image: Jamie O’Brien

You also need to be careful about hiring the right size vehicle. A seven- or eight-seater people carrier can only fit four adults with all your gear and equipment. Ski racks are available from some rental companies, or an inflatable roof rack like the HandiRack can give you more space inside a car or SUV.

It would be better for the planet to take the train, but the Shinkansen has become very expensive in recent years. The ¥30,000 JR East Pass (Tohoku Area) covers a trip from Tokyo to Morioka, but the pass now only lasts for five consecutive days rather than any five days within a longer period. Any trip to Japan lasting more than five days would mean you need to buy two passes or get the more expensive passes that last longer. A return from Tokyo to Morioka without a pass also costs around ¥30,000. If you book early, you can easily rent a vehicle for four people for ten days for less than four return tickets. Once you’re in Morioka, you would still need to rent a car or take the bus to the various resorts.

You can book online at most major car hire websites, but I find booking.com and tocoo.jp to offer the best value. Samurai is also excellent value for hires longer than two weeks. Book early, as cancellation is usually free, but prices will go up quickly, and vehicles will sell out even six months before departure.

Bigger isn’t always better

There’s no avoiding the fact that Japan’s ski resorts are small in the number of lifts and designated runs and lack steepness, but a large ski resort usually means lots of people, high prices and fully tracked out snow by 11 am. Some of my favourite places in Japan, like Geto Kogen or Amihari Onsen, only have a couple of lifts and limited on-piste courses, but the official (and unofficial) tree skiing is fantastic and competition for the powder is far lower. These are the places where those otherwise once-in-a-lifetime all day waist-deep powder days happen all the time. Smaller resorts can get repetitive after more than two or three days, but not when you have a car and can rotate between six or seven resorts.

Hotels and Flexibility

When you stay in resort, you usually have to book well in advance and last-minute cancellation isn’t possible. In-resort accommodation is generally expensive or run-down. When you choose a city like Morioka as a base, your options for accommodation and nightlife are endless. Business hotels such as the Morioka Grand Hotel Annex, Hotel Route Inn or Toyoko Inn are great options and allow free cancellation up to the day before or even on the day of check-in. This means if rain is on the way, or you decide to chase a storm elsewhere, you can do so without cost. These hotels are significantly cheaper than resort accommodation, with better, modern facilities and much larger rooms for as little as ¥5,000 per night. Some offer free parking; others charge around ¥1,000 per night. It can be beneficial to book a multi-night stay as individual nights so it’s easy to cancel if you want to make changes. booking.com, agoda.com and trip.com seem to have the most Japanese accommodation with the best prices and cancellation benefits.


You might think that a DIY road trip would be more expensive, but it can be cheaper. If you stay in Morioka, everything, including hotels, food, drinks, and equipment, is better value. And lift tickets are more affordable.

Getting to Morioka

Morioka is a destination city in itself. In 2023, it placed second on the New York Times 52 Places to Go list. Although Morioka is in northern Honshu, 540km from central Tokyo, it takes just 2 hours and 12 minutes to get there on the Shinkansen and is about six and a half hours drive.

You can fly to Hanamaki Airport in Morioka directly from Taiwan or regional airports in Japan. Just be mindful that regional flights can be cancelled in the stormy winter months. The train is much more reliable.

In the past, I’ve taken the train to Morioka and picked up my hire car at the station, but for the last two seasons, I’ve been driving up from Narita airport and stopping overnight on the way. There are two main reasons for this. As mentioned above, the structure of the Japan East rail passes has changed, so they only last for five days. Also, you can stop for a day at one of the ski resorts along the way.

After flying into Narita or after a visit to Tokyo, you can drive to any one of the many ski resorts around Koryama, Fukushima or Sendai. Minowa Ski Resort is hard to beat for ease of access, cheap accommodation, cheap lift tickets and abundant powder. You could also stop at the more prominent resorts Alts Bandai, Nekoma Mountain, or Zao Onsen, but these all require more driving.

Stopping at Minowa Ski Resort

Minowa is small, and it stays quiet even on a very busy holiday weekend. Often, there’s only one worthwhile lift running, but there’s so much to explore in the trees. You can pick your way through mellow trees in the middle area or go skiers right off the main lift through the trees to join a road that links back to the base area. If the top lift is open, anywhere off the cat track or skiers left of the lift. The pistes are limited, but the main run is wide, steep in places and good enough for a half-day warm-up and gear check.

Where to stay:

Hotel Route-Inn Nihommatsu is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Tokyo or three hours from Narita airport and is just off the E4 expressway that leads up to Morioka. – an easy drive after flying in. Minowa is a 30-minute drive from the hotel from the back exit behind the hotel. After a morning’s skiing, It’s less than 4 hours from Minowa to Morioka.

Ski resorts near Morioka

There are four resorts on Mount Iwate, within a 30-45 minute drive of Morioka.

Iwate Kogen Snow Park – 30 minutes

Iwate Kogen, the closest to Morioka, is typical of the resorts around Mount Iwate. It’s small with six chair lifts, a gondola that runs to the top (not always the case in Japan, and even having a gondola isn’t guaranteed) and ten courses. Facilities are basic, with standard rental gear, a cafeteria and little English spoken. On the plus side, there are acres of trees to explore and a relaxed attitude to finding your own route. You can easily scope out the in-bounds trees from the lifts. After a big dump, head to Iwate Kogen for all day fresh lines. A one-day adult lift ticket is ¥5,500, and children of elementary school age and below can ride the gondola for free. Night skiing is available on weekends.

Iwate Kogen Trail Map

Iwate Kogen Trail Map. Image: iwatekogen.jp

The drive up from Morioka is very straightforward, with only the last five minutes on a mountain road, which is straight and has no hairpin bends. Google Maps will take you straight there. You can park for free in front of the base area building. If you’re used to busy ski resorts, then the quietness of the roads and the empty car parks can feel a bit eerie the first time you drive up Mount Iwate.

Amahari Onsen Ski Area – 40 minutes

Amihari is just another five minutes along the road past Iwate Kogen and has ample free parking by the base area. See here for our full, in-depth review of Amihari Onsen.

An aerial view of Amihari Onsen Ski Area.

An aerial view of Amihari Onsen Ski Area. Image: qkamura.or.jp

Shizukuishi Ski Resort – 35 minutes

As a Prince Hotel resort, Shizukuishi has a bit more going for it compared to the other Mount Iwate resorts. There’s a number of well-maintained terrain parks for different skill levels and an FIS-certified downhill racecourse, a decent number of black runs and an intriguing second peak, marked in pink on the map that’s reserved for cat skiing. Going into the trees is officially banned, so there are no official tree runs, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem if you discreetly dip in and out.

Shizuikuishi Ski Resort Trail Map

Shizuikuishi Ski Resort Trail Map. Image: princehotels.com

Cat skiing has to be pre-booked by phone and is usually booked up months in advance. The downside is that you’re restricted to the disused piste – you can’t go in the untouched trees. That is unless you book a multi-day guided tour with Japan Ski Tours, who have exclusive access to the off-piste areas.

If you’re familiar with the Prince Hotel setup, you’ll know the drill: a huge slopeside complex hotel with everything in one building, including restaurants, high-quality Salomon rentals, a convenience store, a fantastic onsen, a ticket booth, and everything you could need if you’ve turned up with no equipment. There’s no town, no alternative hotels, and no nightlife. There are some traditional Japanese pensions 5-10 minutes drive from the resort, but they are very basic.

You’ll also know that Prince resorts are becoming a little neglected, with ageing lifts, shrinking resorts, a focus on getting high-spending beginners through the doors rather than looking after the advanced off-piste crowd. There are just six lifts here, and the gondola doesn’t go to the peak, so getting the three lifts that take you to the top can take some time. All that said, the powder is extremely dry and fluffy, and you can experience some of the best tree skiing in Japan if you’re careful. Shizukuishi could be so much better, but you’re still going to want to come back here once you’ve been. It rarely gets busy, and fresh lines can be found all day. The groomed blacks are also a lot of fun first thing in the morning.

Staying at the Prince Hotel for a week might be a bit much, but visiting on a day trip from Morioka means you can enjoy the untouched delights of the hill while most hotel guests stick to the green slopes.

Hachimantai Shimokura Ski Resort & Hachimantai Panorama Resort – 45 minutes

Hachimantai is where things start to get fun. A short bus ride links two separate resorts here. I’ve not spent any time at Panorama, but it looks like an excellent place for beginners and low intermediates. Shimokura, however, is a wonderfully deserted powder playground. Yes, it’s small, it doesn’t have a gondola, and the route to the top is on three exposed chairlifts with strange gaps between them, but it has wide and varied official tree runs with absolutely zero competition. If there’s fresh snow, you will have fun at Shimokura.

Hachimantai Restort Trail Map

Hachimantai Restort Trail Map. Image: hachimantai.co.jp

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve had storm days here with fewer than ten people in the resort by the afternoon. If you like the sensation of being alone on a mountain in the woods, this place is for you.

Cruise and edge are fairly mellow with widely spaced trees, undulations and natural features here and there, while Drop is surprisingly steep and can get tricky if it’s chopped up. The Fun tree run is useful for building up your confidence or if you’ve not been in the trees before. You can’t get lost in there or get into trouble. Just obey the rules and don’t duck any ropes. If you’re not planning to go into the trees, I don’t recommend Shimokura. Japan Ski Tours also offers guiding on the Hachimantai cat as an optional upgrade to their Tohoku Private Guiding Package.

It’s another easy drive, if a bit longer at 45 minutes. Google Maps will give you three routes, all of which are similar time-wise. You can’t get lost, and parking is again no issue.

Other resorts in reach from Morioka

Appi Kogen Ski Resort – 45 minutes

Appi is the biggest resort in the area and is worth an overnight stay. Although it’s a bit further away, the route follows motorways and streets. See here for our full review of Appi Kogen.

Cruise 1 tree run at Appi Kogen

An official tree run at Appi Kogen. Image: Jamie O’Brien

Tazawako Ski Area – 1h 10m

At over an hour’s drive from Morioka into neighbouring Akita prefecture, Tazawako is a bit of a stretch, but well worth it. If you like wide, steep, perfectly groomed downhill action, then the Kokutai course is for you. The views of Lake Tazawa are stunning.

Tazawako Ski Area Trail Map.

Tazawako Ski Area Trail Map. Image: tazawako-ski.com

This resort is well off the beaten track but has surprisingly good facilities and infrastructure. It has six chairlifts and 13 courses, including a designated tree run. There’s also plenty of easy access to tree skiing, as well as cat-accessed backcountry or hiking tours. And did I mention it snows absolutely buckets in Akita?

On the drive, you will definitely be getting involved with some windy, snowy mountain roads with steep hills and windswept bridges. For an experienced winter driver in a modern 4WD vehicle, it won’t be a problem, but I wouldn’t advise driving to Tazawako if you aren’t a confident driver in the snow. If a storm hits, visibility can be reduced to nothing, and it’s not uncommon to see hire cars in a ditch on your way up.

Tazawako Ski Area

“The views of Lake Tazawa are stunning.” Image: Akita Tourism Federation

Geto Kogen – 1 hour 5 minutes

Geto ticks a lot of boxes if you’re looking for a powder paradise. See our full review here. They also have a new bar and demo centre in the base area building. If you’ve ever wondered why Japanese snowboard brands are so expensive, I recommend trying out the range of Gentemstick boards on offer here. The Mantaray is a wonderful piece of equipment with a lightning-fast base.

The new bar at Geto Kogen Ski Resort

The new bar at Geto Kogen Ski Resort. Image: Jamie O’Brien

Morioka City

Morioka has too much to choose from to cover here, but there are many in-depth guides online. It’s a very walkable city with many restaurants, bars, onsen, karaoke boxes and shops. The main area to focus on is close to the business hotels and between the train station and Morioka-jo Castle. There are some excellent izakayas and sushi places, but most don’t have English menus. My trick is to put “please bring us your best food” into Google Translate, order some sake and enjoy what they bring.

Sushi-restaurant Nakai

Sushi is excellent value for money in Morioka compared to Tokyo, at Sushi-restaurant Nakai

Some small establishments will refuse a large group of foreigners, but most will be very welcoming and even phone a friend who speaks English to take your order. For shopping or winter gear, head to the Aeon Mall.

For beginners or families with young kids, staying in-resort makes sense, but for advanced skiers and riders and those who want to experience Japanese culture, a multi-resort trip to Morioka is a must. Japan has the best snow in the world, but with that comes frequent storms and variable weather. The flexibility to visit different resorts based on conditions or to avoid the weekend crowds means a better trip and makes for a wonderful adventure. I’ve been back to Morioka year after year, as it has everything you could want from a road trip base and more. You’ll enjoy the city and the people just as much as the fantastic ski resorts.


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