The release of the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) winter forecast has become an annual reminder for us that the ski season is just around the corner. And after last year’s envy-inducing winter season (watch this video), and the tantalising prospect that maybe, just maybe, Japan will open its border, interest has never been higher.

To make things even more interesting, there’s also the chance of a La Niña event occurring for the second winter running, which is typically a good thing for ski resorts in Japan.

Japan winter forecast: December–January

JMA’s winter forecast covers the months of December, January and February, looking at the probability of normal, above-normal and below-normal occurrences for snowfall, temperature, sunshine and rain.

Snowfall

Based on the map below below, we can see that Hokkaido and the northern parts of Honshu, shaded white, are looking at normal levels of snowfall, while for everything from Niigata to the south, there’s a slightly higher probability of above average snowfalls.

For Niigata, for example, in the lightest shade of blue, JMA is saying that there is a 30% chance of below-normal snowfall, a 30% chance of near-normal snowfall, and a 40% chance of above-normal snowfall. Not a particularly bold forecast, but we’ll take it!

It’s also worth pointing out that this is not an indication of how much snow a region is getting, but simply whether there’s likely to be more or less than usual. So a below average season in Hokkaido, for example, would still likely yield far more snow than a bumper season in Japan’s Kansai region further south.

Snowfall forecast: Japan winter 2021/22

Snowfall forecast

Temperature

Temperature predictions are also more favourable the further south you look. Above normal temperatures are the most likely outcome for Hokkaido (30% below normal; 30% normal; 40% above normal), in Tohoku things are looking normal, while in the Hokuriku, Tokai and Kanto Koshin regions there’s a slightly higher chance of below normal temperatures – important, because some of Japan’s best skiing falls in this part of Japan, including Hakuba, Shiga Kogen and Myoko Kogen.

Temperature forecast (winter 2021/22)

Temperature forecast (winter 2021/22)

Sunshine

Anyone who likes their bluebird days should look away now. For most of Japan’s top ski regions, JMA has decided that below-normal sunshine is the most likely outcome through winter. Those of us who visit Japan for the powder, however, know that snow doesn’t fall from sunny skies, so let’s mark this down as a win.

Sunshine forecast (winter 2021/22)

Sunshine forecast (winter 2021/22)

Should you base your travel plans on these forecasts?

The short answer: no.

Long-term seasonal forecasts are difficult at the best of times due to the number of variables at play, and we certainly wouldn’t recommend basing your travel plans on them. Last year’s report is a case in point, with Hokkaido deemed most likely to have below average or average snowfall for this season. And we know how that worked out… (again, watch this video).

We asked Rising Sun Guides owner and ACMG splitboard guide Andrew Spragg for his thoughts on long-range forecasts, and he echoed the sentiment.

In general I don’t put a lot of stock in the long-term forecasts, with the exception of the general overriding trends, like the El Niño or La Niña systems and how those play out. At the same time, it’s always interesting to see what the forecasts are.

“At the end of the day, I’m far more interested in what’s happening this week. And I always tell people that too: you can have an amazing season or a terrible season, but what matters is what happens when you’re there – with the exception of the early season stuff. But once the base is down, then all that really matters is what happens during your week there.”

Local insight

Of course, forecasts from the Japan Meteorological Agency are just one way of predicting winter snowfall. If you listen to the locals in Japan, they’ll tell you that the presence of lots of kamemushi (stink bugs) in Autumn is a sign that there’s a big winter ahead.

“This year there are more kamemushi than anyone has seen in years”, says Andrew, who runs his business out of Niseko.

“So everyone here is saying it’s going to be a big winter with lots of snow.”

“Regardless, we always have really good skiing here in the winter. Even in a low snow year, there’s still a lot of snow.”