How We Learnt To Plan A Ski Trip To Japan – The Hard Way!

Japan, Snow, Travel Tips   /  

How to plan a ski trip to Japan - look outside the main resorts



Bare trees iced with snow 

Powder like icing sugar

Idyllic Japan


skiing at hanazono resort niseko

how to plan a ski trip to japan


Without a doubt, Japan is our new favourite destination in the world.

We were fortunate to spend two weeks in Japan during the winter to discover Tokyo and the Hokkaido region. The skiing and snowboarding in Hokkaido was unlike anything we had experienced in New Zealand.

We had four consecutive powder days on arrival, the first decent snowfall in Niseko for some months. Perfect timing!

But the journey was hardly straight forward.

We realised a few tricks of what to do and what not to do when trying to plan a ski trip to Japan.

Here’s what we learnt – and the advice we have for others.




Sometimes you can’t plan what’s going to happen.

Like how John would end up suffering a terrible accident in Fiji, two months out from Japan, requiring an emergency flight to NZ, two surgeries on his leg and his broken wrist to be still in a cast ONE WEEK before our flight to Tokyo.

Honestly, you can’t even make that stuff up.



Sigatoka Caves Adventure Gone Wrong


So much for pre-season training and getting snow-fit.

While I had retained a reasonable fitness level, John spent the last week before departure running everyday, squatting and lunging like he’d never lunged before.

Lesson: you’re not invincible. Take it easy before your ski trip.



Tree skiing and powder.

That pretty much sums up our trip. Skiing in fresh powder is like gliding across a velvet blanket.

We were fortunate to have big fluffy piles of snow each morning, lining the trees and their branches with inches of the good stuff. Freshies everywhere!


Kiroro Trees


From the top of the ski field, on our final day, we had a perfect view out to Mt Yotei.

I had just purchased a new DSLR in Tokyo and was still trying to figure it out for most of the time in Niseko.

I also had purchased a new zoom, and on our one bluebird day, I didn’t have my standard zoom on the mountain.

It meant I could only capture a close-up view of Mt Yotei and had to rely on my iPhone SE to capture the total picture.


Mt Yotei, taken with my new Nikon D7200

Mt Yotei, taken with my new Nikon D7200

Mt Yotei Bluebird

Mt Yotei, taken with my trusty iPhone SE.


I had ordered a fantastic Dakine ski camera backpack set to arrive before our departure, which would have made carrying gear up the mountain 100 times easier with padded sections for the camera body, lenses and straps for my tripod as well as any backcountry gear required.

Unfortunately, it arrived two days AFTER we had already left so I was left with limited space to carry my usual camera set-up on the mountain. Sigh.

Lesson: don’t leave gear purchases to the last minute.


RELATED: Ultimate Guide To Travel Photography Resources + Tips

Japan Ski Trip Travel Photography



Some people would say we were mad going from a tropical island to the depths of a northern Japan winter.

In fact, we also thought we were mad, enduring a 45ºC DROP in temperature, going from 30ºC to -15ºC in Niseko.

Both of us suffered a few sniffles in Tokyo due to the sudden change in climate, although the fresh mountain air in Hokkaido helped.

We also didn’t have any winter clothing in Fiji, so we needed to fly back to NZ to pick up our thermals & skiing and snowboarding gear, adding extra travel time (and expenses).

Lesson: try a more gentle introduction to the cold.

Niseko Ski Field




Boasting over 500 ski fields, how do you choose a ski resort in Japan?

Because neither of us speak much Japanese, (none whatsoever) we felt it was best to head to a resort where there would be lots of English speakers for our first ski trip to Japan.

Niseko is basically full of Australians, New Zealanders and Brits.

Now, as much as I love all you Aussies, Kiwis and Poms, when on holiday in a foreign country, I usually prefer not to hang out with you because I can see you anytime back home. 

However, on this occasion, we were more than happy to go where the mass tourists were, purely based on our lack of Japanese.

If you’re going to plan a ski trip to Japan, you don’t need to be fluent in Japanese, but a few words will help. Our one regret was not learning the language as it would have assisted us greatly rather than mostly relying on wild hand gestures and lots of random bowing.

We would have also chosen a less-touristy ski resort.

Fortunately we had one day skiing and snowboarding at a gorgeous little ski field called Kiroro about an hour from Niseko – possibly the highlight of our 7 days on the slopes as there were hardly any other skiers or boarders around.

Lesson: learn some basic Japanese.

Trees at Kiroro Ski Resort

A winter scene at Kiroro ski field



Winter is obviously high season for ski areas, and within winter there are naturally some peak times.

We had considered Christmas and New Year and decided against it due to it probably being waaaay busier and more expensive than other times in the winter season.

So we ended up looking at the end of January/start of February. We found some great flight deals and booked without considering what else might have been going on at that time.

As we struggled to find any affordable accommodation, we soon learnt that we had booked over Chinese New Year and thousands of skiers and snowboarders from places such as Singapore had descended on Niseko that week – leaving very few accommodation options for us.

Lesson: avoid peak travel times.




We tried to be smart – or so we thought – by booking flights separately and attempting to book accommodation directly ourselves, rather than through a ski travel company.

Had we gone directly through a ski travel company, we probably would have saved some moolah. They would have been able to advise us to delay our trip or go earlier due to Chinese New Year.

We ended up booking through Mint Tours – an Australian based company that was absolutely fantastic to deal with – but we should have gone through with them first.

It would have saved us a lot of stress and they probably would have got us a better package deal.

Lesson: ski travel companies are your friend, not your enemy.




Speaking of package deals, there are ALWAYS deals available. But you need to be flexible with your dates and be prepared to either book in advance to get an early bird special, or leave it until closer to winter when another round of deals come through.

Unfortunately for us, we booked our trip at neither of these times so were locked in on our flight dates for Chinese New Year. Our accommodation at Always Niseko was absolutely gorgeous, but it was more expensive than what we had initially budgeted for.

But we did get to wake up this lovely snow fort outside our window which got progressively higher each morning…

View from Always Niseko

Lesson: book early for the best deals.



Our best day skiing was at Kiroro Ski Resort, on the recommendation of a local Japanese guide.

It was the prettiest winter scenery we had ever seen and there were NO queues. None whatsoever. We’d rock up to the gondola and walk straight in and have it to ourselves every time.


Kiroro empty ski field


Lesson: locals know best.




It’s one thing to drop your ski pass on your first day snowboarding; it’s quite ridiculous to lose it a second time in as many days.

Any guesses who that was? Hint – I’m a skier, not a snowboarder.

As if getting two replacement cards wasn’t enough, when I went to use my pass one morning, it had been CANCELLED thanks to a miscommunication by the people in charge wrongly believing MY pass was one of the lost ones.

Yep, John managed to lose two ski passes and in the process accidentally get mine cancelled.

Lesson: guard your ski pass with your life! I always keep mine in a completely separate pocket in my jacket sleeve so there’s no risk of it falling out while taking anything else out of my pocket.




Despite all these hiccups along the way, we had the time of our lives in Niseko. Sure, it cost us a bit more than we had initially budgeted for, and we definitely could have done without the hospital visit 6 weeks prior to departure, but we have some awesome memories and some great new skills and experience on the slopes.

We can’t wait to share more of our Japan experience with you from both on and off the slopes!




DISCUSS: What lessons have you learnt – the hard way – from planning an overseas trip?


Planning a ski trip to Japan? Don't make the same mistakes we made!

Life in Wanderlust


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  • Els Mahieu

    Haha, seems like you had quite the adventure! But it makes for good conversations and blog posts afterwards 🙂 I never associated Japan with skiing but those landscapes are absolutely gorgeous!

    • Well we like to stay positive about our misadventures and at least turn them into entertaining stories! Japan’s winter landscape is truly stunning.

  • Travelling Dany

    I never manage to plan a trip to Japan because I can’t take too many days off during the working months. Yet this seems perfect: we could go to chill on the snow when here it’s unbearably hot, during our Summer vacations. Thank you SO much for this post!

  • Not only did you have a great trip, you also had a good story! And Japan in winter looks gorgeous.

  • Denzil Walton

    That was quite an experience, both before and after. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

  • wherejogoes

    Oh No what a terrible start to the trip! What wonderful photos it is absolutely beautiful, love your haiku! Japan is somewhere I would love to visit.

    • Wasn’t exactly ideal…but we survived! John got his cast off the week before we left! Fortunately we came back from Japan unscathed. It’s a beautiful country – worth every cent!

  • Gokul Raj

    I am keeping Japan for later as I heard it is quite expensive. Hopefully one day I will land up there.

    • For us, Japan was expensive because we were on a ski trip, which is expensive everywhere! But we actually found the prices really reasonable once you learn a few tricks. Food was surprisingly cheap. Domestic flights were cheap. And we stayed in Airbnb in Tokyo which was exceptionally reasonable.

  • I’m not much of a skier but these photos are beautiful. Although I don’t enjoy skiing, I love to snowshoe so if that was available in the area, I’d definitely check it out.

    • Yes they do snowshoeing, reindeer sledding and snowmobiling – lots of other winter activities! I really wish we had done a snowshoe tour but we were too busy skiing & snowboarding every day!

  • Japan is such an interesting country to travel. I haven’t done the snow there though. But one thing I learnt was to book EVERYTHING in advance. Japan doesn’t take to kindly to walk-ins for anything 😛

    • Japan is fascinating, isn’t it! The snowy areas are beautiful and so stunning especially with all the trees. Yes good advice about booking in advance – unless it’s a package ski deal which covers everything for you! Things book out really quickly over there.

  • Such an incredible place to ski. Outstandingly beautiful photos! Makes me want to ski there for sure. So very pleased John is on the road to recovery too. Such a nasty set of circumstances. I read every word with baited breath (even though I knew ahead of time about his accident)

    • Thanks Kerri, it was prettiest place we’ve ever been skiing and snowboarding. Ha ha we are all very relieved John is doing much better and was actually able to go! He’s paranoid about breaking his wrist again but has finally conquered his fear of wasps now!

  • Elisa Subirats

    Congratulations for your amazing postcard-like pictures. I don’t ski and I am not attired by Japan but they managed to attire my attention, wanting to know more about this place. How did he get to the hospital in that condition by the way?

    • Thanks, so glad you like them! Even if you don’t ski, the area was super gorgeous. As for John’s hospital situation – he was pumping on adrenalin and had been given local anaesthetic from the medical centre to numb his leg which helped him get through the flight back to NZ.

  • I’ve wanted to go skiing in Japan since we moved to Australia almost 5 years ago and still haven’t got there yet! The mountains look incredible! Its such a shame about the whole broken bone things – obviously not ideal and the circumstances could have been better – but these things happen, and at least he is on the mend now!

    • It’s worth the trip over – it is truly stunning and simply so picturesque. Don’t get that sort of snow in Australia or NZ! Yes it was super bad timing but fortunately we were still able to go – at one point in hospital we were being prepped for a 6-month recovery if he needed a skin graft which would have definitely thrown Japan out the window.

  • Natalie Tanner

    What gorgeous photos! I haven’t even thought of how Japan might be a great skiing spot! You live and learn. Oh, what a terrible accident and even worse timing! Once before a long awaited trip I sprained my ankle badly two weeks before we left. I scrambled to get sturdy shoes and wrappings for my ankle to allow me to mush on…. Glad it wasn’t worse!!

    • Thanks so much! It was hard to take a bad photo there when everything was so beautiful! Sorry to hear about your ankle sprain – accidents before a trip are no fun! But they do happen.

  • Maggie Alexander

    Wow, that is some gorgeous scenery! I’m not normally a snow fan but that is just stunning. So sad about the broken bone but glad he’s on the mend!

  • Torgeir Wigum Lindland

    I absolutely love Niseko. The powder snow there is fantastic. Luckily, when I went I did not have to plan anything, as my Japanese friends took care of everything. We rented our own lodge, I hardly spoke to a foreigner the entire trip. It was three amazing days 🙂

    • Great! The powder was awesome, we were so fortunate with the snow during our trip! Great that you had Japanese friends you help you – your own lodge would have been an awesome place to stay!

  • Love the haiku. Many people don’t realize that Japan is a great country for snow sports so I’m glad you wrote this post. I never skied or snowboarded in Niseko but I hear it’s a snow bunny’s mecca. There are other decent places for winter sports like Nagano and even lesser known mountains like Daisen in Tottori Prefecture.

    • Thanks Suzanne! Japan is awesome for snow sports and yes, not many people realise just how cold it is up in the north! We went to Nagano too – but that was to see the snow monkeys, we didn’t quite make it to the ski field there. Next time! There are over 500 ski fields to choose from…

  • These are beautiful photos! Don’t know how he was still able to snowboard and such while recovering from all that injury, but props to him! Definitely seems like a place I need to visit in the future, Japan has so much culture + beauty!

    • Thanks Daisy! He was very determined to get better quickly! Just glad it wasn’t more serious otherwise we would have had to cancel. Japan is amazing – you definitely have to visit one day.

  • DeafWanderlust

    Oh wow, hard to believe John got right back into skiing after his injury! I don’t know whether to call that brave or crazy haha. I haven’t seen this side of Japan nor with the snow but from seeing your pictures, it looks absolutely beautiful! It really does look like a winter wonderland there. That’s crazy how you guys went through a few hiccups but glad you still managed to have a good time on this trip! It’s something you can look back on and laugh. There were many countless of time when my travel buddy and I went through a few hiccups of our owns but in the end, we learned so much from it and laughed. Can’t wait to see more beautiful pictures of Japan!

    • I’d say it’s a healthy mix of bravery AND craziness! Northern Japan was unreal, I’ve never been in so much snow before! Definitely a winter wonderland – just beautiful.

  • Wow! Those pictures are stunning!

  • So it seems you hit just about every hurdle possible in the run up to this trip! Super unfortunate timing with the arm break too, but kudos to John for getting right back up and heading over to Japan! Your photos are absolutely stunning, I can’t get over how blindingly white the snow is. As for iPhone SE pics… well, I bought a camera, couldn’t get the hang of it and reverted back to my iPhone SE. It does the job, I can’t complain 😉

  • A vacation couldn’t be an adventure if there wasn’t for the things that don’t go the way we expect them to. The photos you have taken are really beautiful, who would have known that Japan can be such a stunning destination for winter sports. I don’t ski but I would love to go there just so that I can take photos and enjoy hot chocolate while watching the snow.

    • Well that is very true, Joanna! Thanks, Japan was truly beautiful and stunning. Would love to go back during the springtime but the winter was beautiful. So many beautiful winter scenes, perfect to look out to with a hot chocolate!

  • Sonia Sahni

    I loved how you have written this story…lose the pass….twice 🙂 I am not sure that I will ever be able to lear Japanese…tough task. I think I will learn to ski in India, cos I am so sure that I will break my bones!! 🙂 It is too expensive to get to a hospital in Japan. Once I learn it, Japan is on my list…it looks so stunning!

    • Thanks so much – yeah, hard to believe he lost it twice! Are there many ski fields in India up in the north?

  • Oh man, how is John doing? Is his arm better? I hope you guys still had a lot of fun! Glad to have you back! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday – hope to see you again this weekend! xo

    • He is doing much better! Now he just has a massive scar on his shin and his wrist gets a bit achey from time to time. But doing much better! We loved Japan though.

  • aw this looks so fun!!! I absolutely love the mountains and have heard some amazing things about Japanese mountains!! They look beautiful!!

  • put_the_kettle_0n

    We did Nozawaonsen in January this year and we have vowed to not bother skiing in oz or NZ. You are correct, it’s like skiing on a velvet blanket! Nozawaonsen is ski resort with onsens and you get to experience quaint Japanese village lifestyle. Same as Kiroro, hardly any queues. It was phenomenal!
    Try https://www.nozawaholidays.com, they are super helpful, and speak English.
    Also utilise this awesome service, takyubin, http://www.kuronekoyamato.co.jp/en/ We landed at Haneda, and couriered all our ski gear direct to nozawa, whilst we travelled other parts of Japan. All our ski gear was there waiting for us at nozawa and after we finished with skiing, we couriered it back to narita airport. So easy, so cheap, it’s the best!

    • Fantastic! Nozawaonsen sounds awesome! Next time I think that will be much more our style. Have you skied much in NZ? We have a Life Pass for Mt Ruapehu so will be hitting the slopes lots this winter. Plus it means we can ski year-round if we head to northern hemisphere ski fields in the NZ summer!

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