The best ski resorts, hotels and ski schools of 2020
It has been a difficult start to the year for the entire world, and the ski industry has not eluded these challenges.
Japan began the 2019/20 season with one of the driest starts in recent memory, before coronavirus emerged as the biggest threat to tourism that many of us will live through. How our favourite resorts cope from winter 2020/21 and beyond remains to be seen, but for now we cast our eyes back and focus on the positives … and there were plenty.
Some categories were dominated by fan favourites, others were narrowly won and lost – with many separated by just a handful of votes.
We thank you for taking part in our Ski Asia Awards, now in their second year, and we hope you’ll find some value in seeing the best of Asia’s ski industry laid out in a single page. The awards were set up to recognise the top ski resorts, hotels and ski schools in the industry, and the winners are determined by votes from our readers. Nothing else.
Disagree with the consensus? We’d love you hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Japan’s best family ski resort
Japan’s best ski resort for powder
Japan’s best snowsports school
Japan’s best backcountry guiding operation
Japan’s best ski hotel
Japan’s best ski lodge/chalet
South Korea’s best ski hotel
China’s best ski resort
China’s best ski hotel
2020 Ski Asia Awards
Japan’s Best Ski Resort (Overall)
Winner: Lotte Arai Resort
There’s something about Lotte Arai that our readers clearly love, whether it’s the state-of-the-art facilities, impressive terrain or superb powder. The medium-sized resort has punched well above its weight for the second year running, picking up Japan’s Best Ski Resort over some of the bigger and better-known resorts like Niseko United or Hakuba Valley.
And this may be part of its secret. While its profile has grown very quickly since its reopening in 2017 (after sitting for 11 years in a state of abandonment), Lotte Arai is still somewhat off the radar for many international travellers, and a powder day there virtually comes with a guarantee of fresh tracks. It also boasts terrain that is steeper and more challenging than many of its regional counterparts.
Beginners and intermediates need not be worried by this description though, as there is ample terrain for all abilities, including a dedicated beginner area at the base of the resort.
See the Lotte Arai website for more information.
Highly Commended: Niseko United
One of the guarantees of the Ski Asia Awards is that there will be votes for Niseko in virtually every category, and once again it has been eclipsed in the main category by only one other resort. Niseko United has rightly earned its reputation as one of the world’s powder hot spots, but its many international visitors – who return year after year – will tell you that there’s a lot more to Niseko than the snow that falls on its slopes.
Award-winning restaurants and hotels, a plethora of retail options, spa services, English-speaking ski schools, backcountry operations … the list goes on. If there was an award for the most well-rounded resort, then Niseko may well have been on the top step. Our advice: book early, and be prepared to pay a premium for the “Japow” experience that everyone has talked about for years.
Read our comprehensive guide to Niseko United.
Japan’s Best Family Ski Resort
Winner: Lotte Arai Resort
When Lotte Arai reopened in 2017, there was a lot of talk about it as a destination for powder hunters, but less about its potential as a family resort and the features that make it perfectly primed for the younger generations.
The first of these is the presence of Myoko Snowsports as Arai’s official snowsports school. Myoko Snowsports has been a long-time family favourite, building a loyal clientele from its base in Myoko’s Akakura before extending its services to Arai for the resort’s reopening. Equally enticing is Arai’s dedicated beginner area, called “Pony” run, which is serviced by its own double chair. The run is easily accessible from the resort base, which makes getting out the door of the hotel and onto the slopes a breeze for the little ones. There’s also an adjacent tubing park that the kids will just love.
Highly Commended: Niseko United
Niseko United is impossible to go past as a destination for families, thanks to its seemingly endless menu of kids’ activities and entertainment – both on and off the slopes. As one of Japan’s largest ski resorts (technically four adjoining resorts), there’s also a diverse range of terrain, from dedicated beginner areas for absolute first-timers through to kids-specific terrain parks for the mini shredders who prefer sliding to walking.
Parents can choose from a range of international ski schools, most of which have dedicated kids programs. These include the highly regarded Hanazono-based NISS, which features a very impressive and expansive learning area, and the Hirafu-based GoSnow, which offers Ninja Kids (3–6), Yama Riders (7–15) and Teen Ski (13–17) programs.
Families seeking a truly unique experience for their children should check out the Hanazono Tube Park, Kids Land Annupuri (featuring the snow escalator!) or even kids’ snowmobiling.
Japan’s Best Ski Resort for Powder
Winner: Lotte Arai Resort
An average of 16 metres of snow a season, challenging terrain, and a powder-friendly (non) grooming policy have earned Lotte Arai the title of Japan’s Best Ski Resort for Powder for the second year running. A cursory glance at Arai’s trail map hint at why the resort has developed its reputation so rapidly, with major sections of designated free riding zones dominating the map, including the very appropriately named “Happy Place”.
Lotte Arai is one of several Japanese ski resorts working to dispel the belief that skiing off-piste in Japan is discouraged by the resorts, and in doing so has become a very worthy winner in this category.
Highly Commended: Rusutsu Resort
Rusutsu’s website boasts about an experience that they refer to as “THE DAY”, and having visited the resort on many occasions, we instinctively know what kind of day they’re referring to, because we’ve had a few of them. For a resort that gets bucket loads of powder every season, it is blessed with an unusual number of sunny days, which can culminate in the ultimate dreamy bluebird powder experience that will keep you coming back for more.
Read our comprehensive guide to Rusutsu.
Japan’s Best Snowsports School
Winner: Myoko Snowsports
Myoko Snowsports was one of the earliest internationally-focused businesses to set up in the Myoko region, operating out of Akakura for more than a decade and more recently appointed as the official snowsports school for Lotte Arai. They’ve attracted countless 5-star reviews, and have built a loyal following of return visitors.
The snow school offers the usual array of group and private lessons for all ages and abilities, but it’s their Multi Resort Program – a 1-day tour of one of eight nearby resorts – that gets us really excited. Is there a better way to see Myoko? We don’t think so.
Highly Commended: Evergreen International Snowsports School
Hakuba has changed a lot over the last two decades, and while many businesses have come and gone, Evergreen has remained one of the most reliable fixtures. Founded in 2000 (two years after the Nagano Winter Olympics), Evergreen now employs more than 130 certified international instructors each season, offering lessons for first-timers through to experienced powder seekers.
Evergreen’s reputation has seen it earn affiliations with the Canadian Ski Instructors’ Alliance, the Freeride World Tour Academy, and the Canadian Avalanche Association.
Japan’s Best Backcountry Guiding Operation
Winner: Evergreen Backcountry Guides
The Instagram snap below will give you a preview of the kind of terrain Evergreen guides have in their backyard – notably the same terrain that attracted organisers of the Freeride World Tour when they brought their event to Hakuba back in 2018, its first time in Asia.
With Hakuba offering so much variety for backcountry enthusiasts, having the local knowledge of a guide is a must for anyone serious about getting the most out of their trip. Evergreen Backcountry Guides, spearheaded by Hakuba longtimer and company owner Dave Enright, is a safe bet – a highly regarded operation with a suite of products to suit most levels of rider. In short, it’s a pro setup in what is arguably Japan’s best backcountry terrain, making it a win-win in our books.
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😎🤙We've had some absolutely stunning lines over the last few days😎🤙 It's a shame about the current weather conditions but snow IS on its way! Book a tour in advance and we'll find the best snow around!👌 #snow #backcountry #guides #ski #snowboard #splitboard #evergreen #hakuba #nagano #japan
Highly Commended: Dancing Snow: Myoko Outdoor Adventures
Dancing Snow is a backcountry guiding operation based out of Myoko’s Akakura Kanko resort. They’re the real deal, and from the handful of Dancing Snow patrons we’ve spoken with, we’ve only ever heard raving reviews of Bill and his team.
A description on their website sums up the business nicely: “We’re locals: three of us (including two Americans) were born in Japan; director Bill has been here for nearly 40 years. We’re bilingual, we know the mountains intimately, we know the history, the plants and animals—and we want to share this local experience with you!”
Japan’s Best Ski Hotel
Winner: Ki Niseko
Location, location, location. In what must be Japan’s most rapidly developing ski resort, staking claim to the best location in the resort is no easy feat. But with doorstep access to the slopes and a position on the more sparsely populated side of Hirafu – right next to the gondola – Ki Niseko is exactly where you’d want to be if you were waking up to 30 cm of fresh Niseko powder and crisp blue skies.
Stylish rooms feature gorgeous views of the resort on one side and Mt. Yotei to the other. But the surprise highlight is Ki’s in-house restaurant An Dining, which is led by the charismatic head chef Shinichi Maeda, whose creative use of local ingredients and gorgeous presentation will delight every time.
Highly Commended: Hakuba Mominoki Hotel
The Mominoki is somewhat of a Hakuba institution – a family-owned hotel that served the Hakuba area for more than 40 years. With an appealing blend of Japanese charm and Western comfort, the hotel has become known for its warm hospitality, proximity to the Happo One ski slopes and great value packages.
Visitors will also enjoy the recently refurbished onsen and (outdoor) rotenburo, which have the highest concentration of alkaline in Japan (pH 11). According to the hotel, this is effective in treating sensitivity to the cold, exhaustion, joint pain, stiff shoulders and sore backs. In other words, this is exactly where you want to be after a big day on the slopes!
Japan’s Best Ski Lodge/Chalet
Winner: Active Life Madarao
There’s a lot to like about Active Life Madarao, but there are two features that stand out above all else.
For a start, there are the free beginner ski and snowboard lessons offered to guests of the hotel staying four nights or more, as well all-day group lessons for the kids. All instructors are internationally certified and are hired exclusively for the needs of Active Life Madarao and its two sister hotels. Given Active Life’s already highly competitive pricing, this is a very attractive inclusion for beginner skiers and/or those with kids.
Another feature that really impresses us is the group’s complimentary inter-resort shuttle, which from Monday to Friday heads off to one of 10 nearby resorts – picked based on the conditions of the day. With resorts like Myoko Kogen, Lotte Arai and Myoko Akakura all within striking distance, there is no better way to get yourself around what is arguably Japan’s best powder skiing region.
Highly Commended: Redwood Inn
The phrase “hidden gem” is thrown around a lot these days, but the Redwood Inn is a place that genuinely fits the bill. The lodge is nestled at the base of Yamaboku Wild Snow Park, a lesser known ski resort close to the Kumanoyu area of Shiga Kogen, which offers lift-accessed skiing as well as dedicated areas for touring and cat skiing. The base of the resort forms part of Takayama Village, which has been officially recognised as one of the most beautiful villages in Japan.
The centrepiece of Redwood Inn is the outdoor hot-spring bath, built from a 1650-year-old hollowed out log that was imported from Sequoia National Park in the United States. The bath is 5 metres in diameter – large enough for two people – and forms the perfect setting for an après ski soak and a gaze at Takayama Village’s famously starry night sky.
South Korea’s Best Ski Resort
Winner: YongPyong Resort
Spanning 4,300 acres and 29 km of marked trails, YongPyong is South Korea’s biggest ski resort. Built in 1974, it was also Korea’s first purpose-built alpine resort, and to this day remains its most popular.
Yongpyong benefits from both its northerly latitude and high elevation, producing the cold temperatures and natural snow (up to 250 cm a season) that allow for a longer ski season than anywhere else in the country.
Read Ski Asia’s comprehensive guide to YongPyong ski resort.
Highly Commended: High1 Resort
While YongPyong is typically seen as the centrepiece of Korean skiing, High1 Resort is not far behind, offering the highest altitude (1345m) of all the Korean resorts in addition to state-of-the-art facilities and favourable snow conditions.
The resort’s ultra mellow 4.2 km beginner slope is a heavenly area for anyone nervously taking their first steps on the snow – reason alone to visit if you happen to fall into this category. High1 is also the only resort in Korea to operate three gondolas, which provide welcome respite from the cold temperatures. This is especially useful for High1’s nighttime visitors; the lifts remain spinning until 10pm throughout winter!
South Korea’s Best Ski Hotel
Winner: High1 Palace Hotel
High1 Palace Hotel was highly commended in last year’s awards but has this year climbed to the top level of the podium, cementing its place as a genuine favourite amongst our readers. It is one of six resort-operated accommodations, conveniently located just a short distance from the High1 base.
For a truly (modern) Korean après ski experience, visitors can try their hand on the virtual greens at the Birdie Buddy Screen Golf & Bar.
Highly Commended: Holiday Inn Resort Alpensia Pyeongchang
If you’re a beginner skier or snowboarder and convenience is high on your priority list, then a stay at Holiday Inn Resort Alpensia Pyeongchang may well be a perfect fit. The hotel sits directly in front of Alpensia’s ski slopes, which are admittedly not as large or extensive as the neighbouring YongPyong Resort. The hotel also caters well to children, with an ongoing “Kids Stay Free” deal for children 12 or under.
China’s Best Ski Resort
Winner: Sun Mountain Yabuli
Yabuli is considered to have the best skiing in China by many – 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 (see the photo).
Highly Commended: Genting Resort Secret Garden
Genting Resort Secret Garden is one of several ski resorts located in the rapidly developing Chongli resort cluster, and will host the freestyle skiing and snowboard events when the Olympics roll around in 2022. The resort’s Malaysian owners are constantly investing in its facilities, with plans to build more than 80 runs spanning 70 km.
China’s Best Ski Hotel
Winner: Park Hyatt Changbaishan
Located in China’s snowy north-east, Changbaishan is one of the country’s most popular winter sports destinations. The ski town is now home to a handful of luxury resorts including the Park Hyatt Changbaishan.
The 5-star luxury resort offers all that you’d expect from a Park Hyatt, plus the benefit of direct access to Changbaishan’s slopes. Facilities include indoor and outdoor heated lap and plunge pools, a fully equipped fitness area, luxury dining and a traditional Chinese spa.
Highly Commended: Club Med Beidahu
Club Med Changbaishan was a worthy winner in this category last year, but this year settles into second place behind the more luxury-oriented Park Hyatt Changbaishan. And to be fair, a comparison between the two is very difficult. Club Med’s bread and butter are the trademark hospitality and entertainment that have made the brand famous world-wide, as well as the full suite of services and inclusions that come with any room booking.
Families in particular will enjoy a stay at Club Med Beidahu, with access to (free) kids’ ski lessons and an all-day mini-club. For visitors who travel for the Club Med brand alone, the excellent skiing on offer at Beidahu – one of China’s best snowsports destinations – is simply a cherry on top.