23 Asian ski experiences to squeeze into a lifetime of winter travel.
Japan, China and Korea. Three vastly different countries that are home to some of the best skiing experiences on the planet. We’ve done our best to compile our favorites into a single Ski Asia bucket list, and we guarantee that there will be something for everyone in our selection. Powderhounds? Most definitely. Families? Check. Adventurers? You won’t be disappointed.
Note that we have deliberately excluded wonderful ski experiences to be found in other Asian winter destinations like India or Mongolia. Our focus is solely on Japan, China and Korea – and even when we limit ourselves to these three destinations, a shortlist that does them justice is difficult.
If you think there is an experience that our list is desperately missing, let us know in the comments! If we think you’re onto something, we’ll happily add your suggestion.
1. Hike and ski Mt. Yotei
A true icon of skiing in Hokkaido, Japan. Virtually every traveller to Niseko returns home with a memory card chock-full of photos of the picturesque volcano. On the rare days that good visibility makes the 4–6 hour hike to the summit possible, it offers some of the best backcountry turns in Japan.
The highlight of any trip to the summit is dropping into the crater, which is often rewarded with the blower powder the area is renowned for.
2. Experience the Dosojin Matsui (Fire Festival) at Nozawa Onsen
For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, time your ski holiday to Nozawa Onsen to coincide with the town’s Dosojin Matsui (Fire Festival), an extraordinary display of blazing torches, mock battles and burning wooden structures – all enjoyed with liberal amounts of sake. The festival is held on January 15 each year and is a tremendously popular attraction for visitors, so book accommodation well ahead!
3. Go heli skiing on Shiribetsu-dake
Heli skiing is the ultimate bucket-list item for most serious riders, but for a country with so much great backcountry terrain, Japan is surprisingly short on quality heli operations. Hokkaido Backcountry Club is the major exception to this, and offers heli access to Hokkaido’s Shiribetsu-dake, an active volcano located just 30 minutes from Niseko, which is known for its fresh powder lines and steep ridges covered in beautiful birch forest.
Two-time Olympic champion Seth Wescott showed the world just how good it can get in the 2014 Warren Miller film “No Turning Back”, ripping top-to-bottom turns on a sublime Hokkaido powder day. Add it to the list!
4. Take a guided tour of Asahidake
Asahidake Ropeway is essentially a lift-accessed backcountry ski area rather than a ski resort, earning a mention on this list because there is perhaps no better location to ski Hokkaido’s famed powder. Located in Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido, it is a magnet for huge snowfalls which, thanks it its inland location, are some of the lightest and driest in Japan.
The ski area is serviced by a single gondola (The Asahidake Ropeway), which gives riders access to more than 400 metres of vertical and four marked runs. The marked runs are a starting point from which to explore the resort’s extensive off-piste terrain, which is mostly deep, steep and (sometimes) dangerous. We thoroughly recommend enlisting the help of a guide, as it can be very easy to get lost, particularly on low vis days.
5. Try night skiing in Niseko
Niseko’s night skiing area is reportedly the largest in Asia, with floodlights that open up a significant part of the mountain after dark. Many a powder segment has been captured after hours at Niseko, and the powder is often so good at the resort that evening fresh tracks can be earned in the same areas that were skied just hours earlier in the same day.
Better still, the slopes tend to empty at night as the day’s crowds filter into the town’s many restaurants and bars. Winding your way down the mountain under moonlit (and floodlit) skies without any noise or distractions in an experience in itself.
6. Relax with a post-ski onsen or rotenburo
There’s nothing quite like a full day of skiing followed by a rejuvenating soak in one of Japan’s natural hotspring onsen or (outdoor) rotenburo, which will be found in the hotels and villages of virtually every ski resort across the country. The mineral-rich geothermal water is the perfect antidote for sore and tired muscles, and many ski travellers to Japan enjoy the experience so much that it often becomes a part of the daily ritual (once the initial shock of nude, communal bathing has passed).
The jury is out on whether it’s culturally acceptable to bring in a cold beer for the experience but, if the occasion calls for it (and it usually does), we’re all in favour!
7. Hike the Niseko peak
One of the biggest drawcards of Niseko United is the accessibility of its sidecountry and backcountry via a gate system, giving riders the chance to experience the tree runs, bowls, chutes and natural half pipes that lie to the south-east of the four resorts.
There are nine gates dispersed across the four resorts – the most famous of which is the Hirafu “Peak Gate” – accessed by a short 20 minute hike from the top of the single-seated King #4 lift.
The view from the top can only be described as sensational. The often bottomless turns to the bottom are even better!
8. Knock back an après-ski cocktail at Gyu Bar
Gyu Bar is better known to Niseko locals as the “The Fridge Door” – a description of the not-so-secret entrance that you’ll need to squeeze through to get to the tasty drinks and jazz soundtrack that await.
We suggest warming up after a night skiing session in Niseko with one of their hot cocktails or fine Japanese whiskies. And if you don’t trust us, follow the lead of Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes, who was snapped having a holiday drink at the cosy bar in February 2016!
— Jimmy Barnes (@JimmyBarnes) February 6, 2016
9. Live it up at One Happo, Hakuba
Is this the most impressive ski chalet in Asia? Almost certainly. The self-described “James Bond fantasy made real” takes luxury up a notch (or five), with a state-of-the-art gymnasium, glass-top pool table, retractable flat screen TVs, a black marble cocktail bar, private onsen and an Infra Red Lamp-heated deck (for those chilly Hakuba winter nights).
With so many features packed into a single property, it would be hard to leave place if it weren’t for the fact that Japan’s largest ski resort (Happo One – a former Olympic venue) is virtually on its doorstep.
This is alpine living, reinvented. And we like it.
10. Take in the view at Sapporo Teine Ski Resort
Skiing is sometimes as much about the surroundings as it is about the snow or terrain. When the weather is good, visitors to Sapporo Teine can enjoy stunning uninterrupted views of Ishikari Bay and downtown Sapporo as they wind their way down the mountain. The experience is comparable to Grouse Mountain’s “The Cut”, which overlooks downtown Vancouver.
With central Sapporo in striking distance, it is also the perfect opportunity to move après-ski celebrations into the city. Refuel with Hokkaido specialties Genghis Khan (grilled lamb) or a spicy soup curry, washed down with the city’s namesake – an ice cold Sapporo Draft.
11. Attend Snow Monkey Beer Live
Some combinations just work. Fish and chips, popcorn and a movie, gin and tonic. But none of these quite stand up to what we firmly believe is the best event in Asia – Snow Monkey Beer Live, an outstanding celebration of skiing (or snowboarding), fine beer, live music and snow monkeys.
The festival is held annually at Shiga Kogen, a former venue of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano known for its varied terrain and quality snow. It is also the closest ski resort to Shibu Onsen, home to Japan’s famous snow monkeys (also check out our snow monkey guide).
The event attracts some of the best craft beer brewers from around Japan and the weekend of action is mostly divided into tasting sessions, live performances and time on the mountain. Which is all irrelevant if, like us, you were hooked by the time you’d read the name.
12. Go cat skiiing at Kariba-yama
For us, Hokkaido Backcountry Club’s cat skiing trip to Kariba-yama represents everything there is to love about skiing in Japan. Phenomenal snow, culture and food, delivered without the (sometimes) unnecessary add-ons of a fancy trip ski-in ski-out holiday in Niseko or Hakuba.
Snow is justifiably focus of the trip, and there is certainly no shortage. HBC have wrapped up their first full season skiing running trips to this part of Hokkaido, and the cat skiing area is vast and largely undiscovered. Deep, dry powder is the order of the day, and the terrain is an appetizing mix of steeps, open bowls, trees and mellow glades.
The two day trip is broken up with a stay at Motta Onsen or Chihasegawa Onsen – both traditional ryokan-style lodges located near the sleepy Hokkaido fishing town of Shimamaki. Guests can soothe tired muscles with an onsen overlooking the Sea of Japan, before tucking into a traditional kaiseki meal and a few cold drinks. Is there a better way to live? We don’t think so.
13. Go big in Hakuba Valley
956 hectares of terrain, 111 lifts and 141 runs. Hakuba Valley’s 11 ski resorts will this year unite under a single lift pass to form Japan’s largest ski area (surpassing Shiga Kogen). It’s a tantalising prospect for anyone who doesn’t like skiing the same run twice, and – let’s be honest – Japan’s ski resorts are not usually known for their size. But this is big, by pretty much anyone’s standards.
The upgrade includes a complete revamp of the lift ticketing system, as well as an inter-connecting shuttle bus that will serve the entire Hakuba Valley region. It’s a move that is long overdue, but now that it’s here, we suggest cashing in ASAP.
14. Hit the road Jack
There are more than 500 ski resorts in Japan, and many are within a short drive of another. In a country known for its stunning alpine scenery and warm hospitality, there’s simply no better way to get a feel for the place and the people than on a good old fashioned road trip.
Good skiing is obviously an essential component of the trip, but not the only thing to consider. Discover Japan’s beautiful onsen hotsprings, sample regional cuisine, loosen up in the local izakayas and rest easy in traditional ryokan (Japanese-style lodging).
Need more inspiration? Check out the interactive map of Japanese ski resorts below, and get planning!
15. Ski at the Great Wall of China
If there was ever a ski experience to tick off the China bucket list, this is more certainly it. Visitors to Thaiwoo Ski Resort can take in thousands of years of history whilst engaging in one of China’s most recently adopted pastimes. The Great Wall is visible from the resort’s main gondola and appears in stark contrast to its shiny chairlifts and brand new infrastructure.
Thaiwoo Ski Resort is located in China’s Chongli District, just a 3 hour drive from Beijing, and has been announced as a venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
16. Hit the terrain park at Nanshan Ski Village
Nanshan is an incubator for China’s flourishing snowboard scene and is also home to the Red Bull Nanshan Open – now into its 14th year. It is the largest slopestyle competition in Asia on the World Snowboard Tour, and has hosted some of the world’s top riders, including Mathias Weissenbacher, Jeremy Thompson and Juuso Laivisto.
As a result of the Nanshan Open’s success, the resort has invested a lot of time and resources into its terrain park, which has become one if its major draw cards. Its features are the work of the highly accomplished MellowParks.cn crew which have helped the park become of the top training grounds for the country’s best riders. A must for any park rat with a sense of adventure.
17. Drop into the Changbaishan crater
Filmmaker Jordan Manley has circled the globe in search of adventures that are fit for his most recent project: A Skier’s Journey. He has covered locations that include Iran, Dubai, Iceland and, recently, China – where he and skiers Forest Coots and Chad Sayers head to the Changbai Mountain Range, on the North Korean border, to experience China’s one-and-only cat skiing operation.
In the video, the skiers summit Changbaishan, and active volcano, at which point we hear the following voice over:
“On top, we’re forced to contemplate not just mythology, but the consequences of skiing into the crater. It’s unclear what terrain is in and out of bounds, and what will happen if we duck a rope. If it slides [or] if we need a rescue, it will be a Chinese military helicopter landing on the border of North Korea – beamed back home on the news.”
Word of warning: this is an adventure not for the faint-of-heart, and anyone serious about taking on Changbaishan (the volcano, not the ski resort), will need to do their research. As a starting point, we suggest watching the video below.
18. Stop by the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival en route to Yabuli
Knock two of China’s top winter experiences off the list in one go, with a trip to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival en route to Yabuli ski resort. The ice festival is the biggest in the world (yes, bigger than Sapporo’s) and is on a scale that will blow your mind. 10 to 15 million visitors walk through the exhibit annually to see sculptures that reach up to 46 metres in height, and it’s said that more than 10,000 workers are employed each year to cut and haul the blocks of ice.
A 3-hour drive from Harbin is Yabuli, which is considered by some to offer China’s best skiing – particularly for advanced riders. Its location in China’s Heilongjiang province means more natural snow than many of the resorts in China, and the snow is dry and light. Powder days are rare but, on occasions, quite good.
An essential piece of advice for anyone planning to enter this part of the world: come with the warmest winter gear you can get your hands on. Temperatures in Harbin regularly drop to −30°C which will test even the most hardened winter travellers.
19. Ski YongPyong
YongPyong was an inclusion in our list of Asia’s top 5 ski resorts for good reason – it is the biggest, the oldest and best of any resort in the country. YongPyong is also a 3-time winner of Korea’s Best Ski Resort at the World Ski Awards and, not surprisingly, has been chosen to host the slalom and giant slalom skiing events at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
In other words, YongPyong is to South Korea skiing what Whistler is to skiing in Canada. There are plenty of other options to choose from, but a trip to the resort that is considered the centrepiece of the country’s skiing landscape is highly recommended.
20. Pull an all-nighter
Korean resorts are well known for their night skiing, but not in the same way you might be used to. Several offer night sessions that extend into the early hours of the next morning, and some – like Jisan Forest Resort – are open as late (or early) as 4 am, leaving you enough time for breakfast and a quick nap before heading the 7 am dawn session.
In most parts of the world, going skiing at 3:30 am requires touring gear and a headlamp, but in Korea, it’s all part of the experience. The added bonus of skiing when most of the country is asleep is that slopes are far less crowded and the lift tickets are heavily discounted. Win-win.
21. Have chimaek, a Korean après-ski special
Very few of us need another reason to gorge ourselves on deep fried chicken or drink ice cold beer, but if there was ever a better time to do so than on a ski holiday in Korea, we haven’t heard of it.
Chimaek is a compound word formed from “chicken” and “Maekju“, the Korean word for “beer”, and you’re much more likely to see the locals piling into a steamy chimaek restaurant after a long day on the slopes than into a bar – which are often non existent at Korean ski resorts.
22. Visit North Korea’s Masik ski resort
The world’s best skiing? Almost certainly not. Controversial? Definitely. But no one can deny that there’s a certain appeal to visiting what Lonely Planet refers to as “the world’s most secretive country”.
As it happens, North Korea has only recently allowed foreigners access to Masik ski resort, which is one of a number of recent tourism initiatives being relied upon to produce some “much needed hard currency” for the poverty stricken nation.
Several tour companies, including Koryo Tours, are offering trips to the resort, which is generally in the form of a two-day extension on one of their standard packages. Koryo guest Simon Cockerell had the following to say about the experience:
” I was very impressed with what I saw at Masik Pass Ski Resort when I visited on January 11th, I had been there previously in August 2012 to see the construction site and was amazed that a ski resort of this size could be done in such a time. While I’m not an accomplished skier by any understanding it was good to see that there were some local people who had access to the site and were learning this new (for North Korea) leisure activity and I’m glad that tourists are now able to visit and partake in some skiing themselves. While it remains out of the reach of most ordinary local Koreans I do hope that this will change in time and more people will have more time to pursue more leisure activities, it may be some way off but this may be a start.” Read Simon’s full account.
CHINA & KOREA
23. See the Olympics
This is perhaps the biggest no-brainer inclusion in our list. With the next two Winter Olympics scheduled for PyeongChang, South Korea (2018) and Beijing, China (2022), there has never been a more appropriate time to slot an Asian ski holiday into your plans.
Both countries are well on track to deliver superb events. Korea is already gearing up to host Olympic test events next year, while Beijing has just announced plans to construct a high-speed railway that will take visitors out to the ski slopes in under an hour … via the Great Wall!
Did we miss anything? We encourage you to let us know in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If we think you’re onto something, we’ll happily add your suggestion to the list.
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