The backcountry skiing around the major Honshu resorts is world class with acres of untracked powder to explore. Many of these areas can be accessed off the lifts with varying degrees of official permission, so always check the signs or find a local ski guide to take you out for the day.
We trawled the internet for decent maps to use ourselves on a recent trip and managed to find a great online topo map service for all of Japan. From these, we’ve created detailed topo maps for the following ski areas around Nagano and Yuzawa:
- Hakuba (Goryu, Hakuba 47, Happo One, Iwatake, Tsugaike and Cortina)
- Myoko (Suginohara, Ikenotaira, Akakura Kanko, Akakura Onsen and Seki Onsen)
- Kagura & Naeba
These maps were accurate in 2018, but bear in mind details may change that aren’t reflected in these versions. You can download them to your phone or print them out to plan your trips.
Heading off piste in Japan is considered very differently to other parts of the world. Some resorts have designated off-piste areas or gates to exit, others turn a blind eye to powder seekers whilst others have a very strict pass confiscation policies. Make sure you’re aware of the local quirks in each area before heading out.
Another consideration is ski patrol teams consider the resort boundary as the limit of their responsibility and there’s usually no avalanche control out of bounds. There’s also very few areas that publish avalanche risk forecasts, so you need to be able to safely assess conditions yourself.
If you do get lost you’re likely to need someone to alert the police to mount a rescue effort that may not commence until the following day. There’s many anecdotal stories of people dying close to the resort boundary because ski patrol have refused to lift a finger to help (“Hey, you broke the rules!”). Any rescue effort will be at the lost party’s own cost (Helicopters are expensive) and unlikely to be covered by any available travel insurance policies – even ones that permit backcountry skiing. The fine print on these policies usually stipulates that backcountry skiing is only covered if you’re in a permitted area or with a certified guide.
Finally, it goes without saying that there’s very significant avalanche risk in Japan with all that powder snow. You only need to see the 20m high steel barriers they put in valleys to save entire towns from being wiped out to get a sense of the potential destruction. If you do head out, make sure all members of your group have AST, AIARE or equivalent training certification and a full avy kit (Transceiver, probe and shovel). Risk mitigation is what will save your life, not that $1000 airbag on your back.
Be safe and have fun!