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Inuits have over 50 words for snow. From frosted crystals to tempestuous blizzards, there’s no end to their love affair with the white stuff. But if you’re a keen skier, there’s only one word you want to hear… powder. Japan’s fine-as-dust flakes have put its slopes on the global ski stage. Eager ski beavers, ditch your usual alpine getaway and put Asia’s peaks at the top of your winter destination wish list.
With more snowfall than any other resort in the world (that’s an annual average of more than 15 metres), Niseko’s popularity is well deserved. Favoured by international adrenaline junkies, monolinguals can breathe a collective sigh of relief as English is spoken everywhere here. Still, a polite “arigatou” goes a long way. For luxurious lodgings stay at Zaborin’s private villas – secluded, heavenly and each with a private outdoor onsen (natural hot spring). Come nightfall, submerge in the tub overlooking the Hanazono woods. When après calls, the thirsty and curious can head to Bar Gyu+, a speakeasy hidden behind a dimly lit fridge door that specialises in Japanese whisky. If cocktails aren’t your choice of after-dark entertainment, head back to the slopes for some floodlit night skiing.
In Thailand, tourists ride banana boats. In Tobetsu, they ride snow rafts. After hosting Asia’s first Winter Olympics in 1972, Sapporo became Japan’s most-prized piste and so, much like Thailand, this isn’t the best option for escaping the crowds. Still, the atmosphere and hospitality of this Hokkaido city make the bustle worth it. In February, a wonderland laden with skating rinks, ice sculptures and night-time light shows arrives in the resort making it a magical time to visit. The annual Snow Festival pitches up for one full month, turning the city into an icy Narnia. If you want to stay outside the heart of the hubbub, travel an hour to Tobetsu where you’ll find Japan’s very first ice hotel. Ice Star Resort brings Swedish craftsmanship to Hokkaido’s slopes, complete with cheese fondues and Scandi-esque fur throws.
3. Yuzawa Onsen
With a Nobel prize-winning book tied to its name, Yuzawa is a perfect getaway choice for dreamers and skiers alike. Kawabata Yasunari’s iconic novel, Yukiguni, is a passionate love story between a geisha and lone traveller, set in the hot-spring town of Yuzawa. The title means “snow country” and it’s hard to imagine a more romantic setting for experiencing winter. In Yuzawa, many of the resorts are built around natural hot springs with Hotel Futaba offering the most striking panoramic views of Niigata’s misty mountains. As with most ski holidays, days tend to roll into each another; from slope to onsen.
Would you share a bath with a monkey? Don’t answer that. Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi is home to a unique spring where monkeys bathe and play, bobbing in the hot water with their furry foreheads crowned by snow. Make like our descendants at a number of beautiful bathing onsens in Yamanouchi’s surrounding towns. With a lot more than just snow monkeys to take in here, the highlands will keep you busy with skiing, boarding, hiking, snowmobiling and biking. Yamanouchi is surrounded by mountains and the resort boasts views of Shigakogen, Kita Shigakogen and Mount Kosha. Return to town and warm up with a broth-like mushroom soup served in a clay pot, a local specialty.
5. Zaō Onsen
When you start researching your trip to Zaō Onsen, you’ll come across reems of photographs of the extraordinary Juhyo. What Google Images is showing resembles snow monsters but they are actually alpine firs twisted from freezing winds and frozen solid with heavy snowfall. At night, these eerie tree beasts come to life, illuminated by a kaleidoscope of coloured lights. Snow bunny with an Instagram addiction? This place is your dream spot. The most gravity-defying run starts at the volcanic Mount Zaō’s summit, where ski-pros can swerve in between the aforementioned snow monsters en route to lunch. For those less experienced, the resort is suitable for skiers of every ability.
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