Skiing has turned into a fun spring break tradition for our family, and skiing in Japan was certainly no exception. I’ve been a skier for most of my life, but Carrie had only skied once in high school. Now that we’ve been three times as a family, I’m calling it now – we’re officially a ski family! I think skiing in Japan with kids seals the deal…
Normally, we ski in the Rockies. We go for a week in March when school is out, and then I spend the next several months dreaming up our next ski trip. Carrie doesn’t really care for the cold or the ill-fitting ski boots, but I’ve convinced her (barely) that it’s fun. So, this is how we usually spend our spring breaks. I’ve converted everyone to skiers (mission accomplished!).
This year, however, was unique. Because of some unlikely events and some dumb luck, we were able to ski in the Japanese Alps, and it was AMAZING! This is what wanderlust will do to you. It makes you dream a little bigger and dig a little deeper to put together something awesome, and when you’re able to take the kids along, it’s pure magic.
If you’re not familiar, there are many great ski resorts in Japan. It’s arguable who has the best skiing in Japan, but in our experience, I don’t think you could go wrong with any of them. Read on to find out how it turned out!
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Although this was primarily a ski trip, we couldn’t let our first trip to Japan go to waste, so we only skied two days. We decided to break the trip up into two parts: The mountains in Hakuba and Nagano areas, and then Tokyo.
Exploring Nagano and Skiing in Japan with Kids
Snow Monkey Park
We decided that our first day was best spent touring and not skiing. We wanted to let everyone adjust to the new timezone and be a little bit fresher for skiing. As anyone who travels with kids understands, being rested=being happy.
We decided to start off by visiting the Japanese Macaques at the Snow Monkey Park. We took the Alpico Highland Express bus from Happo bus terminal to Nagano Station where we caught another bus to the Park. It’s about an hour’s drive from Nagano Station, and while there are tours that are more formal, they were cancelled for this day, so we decided to do it on our own. We bought our bus tickets at the Happo Bus Terminal for both legs of the trip.
Hiking in the Monkey Forest to the Hot Springs
Once you figure out where you’re going, it’s about a 30 minute walk/hike up the mountain and through a forest to get to the hot springs where the monkeys roam. The walk is really picturesque, and well marked paths ensure that you won’t get lost. The trees were heavy with new snow which made for a pretty hike. Boots or other shoes with treads is recommended for this adventure, though. Some of the areas are muddy or icy.
At the end of the walk is the ticket office. You purchase your tickets, and then you are free to walk around while you take pictures and enjoy the monkeys. It’s one of the only places in the world where they run wild. It was definitely a highlight of our trip, and the kids were enthralled. If you are in the area, don’t miss doing this!
After visiting the monkeys, we made our way back to Nagano and walked from the train station about twenty minutes to the famous Zenkō-ji Temple. This is a 7th century Buddhist temple that was full of statues, shrines, and fascinating architecture. If you want to throw a little culture in with your fun, this is a great place to do it. There are also lots of shops and eateries along the street from the train station to grab a bite or pick up a souvenir.
Many times it’s more comfortable for families to leave the logistics to someone else, so if you don’t want to put together your own tour like we did here, you can use our partner Viator to book your tour ahead of time. They have this exact itinerary available that leaves from Nagano station or Tokyo.
Skiing the Japanese Alps at Tsugaike Kogen Resort
Our home base for skiing was Hakuba Japan, part of the Nagano prefecture. Hakuba is home to some of the best ski resorts in Japan, including some that hosted Olympic events during the Nagano Games.
The next two days we spent skiing at Tsugaike Kogen resort. This is the mountain that is closest to the hotel and has the shortest shuttle ride which is why we chose it. There was also a ‘Hakuba Valley’ ticket which is basically a Hakuba ski pass that allows you to ski at any of the other local resorts if you wished. We chose to stay at Tsugaike out of convenience and easier terrain.
The snow was heavy and got slushy towards the end of the day, but they still had plenty of it. This was a great mountain for beginner and intermediate skiers and for families like ours. There were lots of wide open greens for cruising with the family, plenty of food options for lunch (including a Burger King!), and the tickets were cheap. As in, Whistler-should-be-ashamed cheap.
Maybe the best part was that it wasn’t spring break in Japan like back in the States, so there were no lift lines. None. You just skied up and got back on with no wait. Ten or fifteen chairs would go by sometimes before you would see anyone on the lift. I (almost) pity the poor, jealous souls at Vail and Whistler…
As far as Japan ski resorts go, Tsugaike Kogen was fantastic and I would return in a heartbeat.
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Based on good reviews over at TripAdvisor, I booked a Jr. Suite at the Sierra Resort Hotel Hakuba. They came highly recommended for families, and were one of the few hotels that had enough beds for everyone without being cramped. I found that booking with Agoda saved us a couple of hundred dollars over booking with another U.S. site like Travelocity or Expedia. I even checked on Black Friday/Cyber Monday, and Agoda was the way to go for us. Fortunately, HotelsCombined.com will do a comparison search that includes Agoda along with several others so you can be sure you’re getting the best deal. We stayed at the Sierra for four nights and used it as home base for skiing and touring Nagano.
Each evening, the hotel had complimentary soup, curry, rice, and dumplings set out for hungry skiers. Inside, they had complimentary wine and hot tea, as well as snacks for the kids. Lift tickets can be purchased at the front desk at a discount, and there is a rental shop right out front to take care of your equipment. Complimentary lockers are offered to stow your gear at the end of the day, so you don’t have to lug it all back to your room. They have an onsen (traditional Japanese hot spring), but we did not make use of it.
Sierra Hakuba Resort is Perfect for Families
The Sierra understands families and lived up to expectations. Service was outstanding, the room was comfortable, and the staff was warm and welcoming. This all made for a family-friendly experience that we would recommend to anyone with kids.
After our stay in Hakuba, we made our way back to Tokyo via the Shinkansen and took a cab to our hotel. Normally, we would try to navigate the subway system, but because we were short on time and had lots of luggage, we thought a cab would be best.
We really only had a handful objectives for Tokyo as we were short on time: take in some culture, eat some good food, and pick up some souvenirs at the Hard Rock Cafe (an oasis for weary Americans, and a fun tradition for the kids).
Out and About in Tokyo
After a bowl of Ramen and some dumplings for lunch, our first stop was an owl cafe. You may have heard of dog or cat cafes, but when we heard that Tokyo had owl cafes, we had to see for ourselves.
Looking back, we felt a little sorry for them, but they seemed well taken care of. They were tied to posts most of the time, and I probably wouldn’t visit again, simply because I don’t want to support that kind of life for an owl. They are fascinating animals, though, and incredibly beautiful. We used the help of our hotel concierge to track down a cafe, but if you’d like, Viator has an owl cafe experience you can book ahead of time.
Taking in More of Tokyo
After the owl cafe, we were able to walk around the city a bit. The weather was comfortable and we popped into some department stores and shopping malls, just trying to soak it all in.
Next, we were off to the HRC Tokyo for a burger and the kids’ favorite drink, a “Groupie Grind”.
With the Tokyo HRC ticked off the list, it was back to our hotel.
We decided to splurge and spend the one night we had at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. This is the one made famous in the movie Lost in Translation. I was able to use a combination of cash and points along with a suite upgrade to make this stay really memorable.
The Park Hyatt occupies the top 14 floors of Shinjuku Park Tower in Tokyo which makes it pretty cool to begin with. Add the fact that they are one of the few hotels in Tokyo with a pool and a gorgeous view of the city from the 52nd floor, and it makes this hotel score super high with the kids. They are also one of the few hotels that I found that will accommodate 2 adults and 2 kids in the same room which is obviously important to us.
We enjoyed the pool…
And the views…
And the lounge…
And breakfast in the room…
It was an unforgettable stay. The attention to detail is amazing. They gave the kids journals to write in that featured prints of the artwork around the hotel. They also provided kid-sized terry robes, and pajamas for the entire family. I can’t say enough about how great it was staying here and how well they treated us. My only regret is that we couldn’t spend more time there.
Sayonara Japan. We’ll be back!
The next day we had to say goodbye. It was back to the airport and back to the USA. We happened to have a long layover and an overnight at DFW, so we made the most of it and took the DART light rail into town to visit the Hard Rock Cafe Dallas. Then, it was back to Tulsa.
Putting it all together
This was an incredible trip and with some planning, was actually pretty easy. We all wish it could’ve been longer (who doesn’t want longer vacations), but with school constraints, we could only be gone for a week. We found Japan to be quite kid-friendly. Ramen shops are everywhere, and the dumplings and gyozas are delicious and kid-approved (also cheap and portable!). If your kids are super-picky, McDonald’s and other fast food chains are pretty easy to find. We even had some cool sundaes from Baskin-Robbins.
My biggest worry about the trip was actually arriving too late in Tokyo to catch the trains and buses that we needed to. Narita ended up being the most efficient airport we’d ever been through. We were off the plane and at the train ticket window with our luggage in 10 minutes. Carrie and I couldn’t believe it. I’m sure we were just lucky, but still…
Flights and Transportation
We booked flights out of Tulsa to DFW, and then directly to Tokyo from there. The long-haul portions were on Japan Airlines. Everything about JAL was awesome, so don’t hesitate flying with them even for a second.
We arrived in Tokyo in the late afternoon which gave us just enough time to buy train tickets at the airport, catch the Narita Express train (N’EX) into Tokyo Station and from there, take the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano Station. Then it was about an hour or so by bus to the Hakuba Valley in the Japanese Alps to Happo Bus Terminal and then a short shuttle ride to the hotel. Sounds a bit difficult, but it turned out to be pretty straightforward. Make sure you have cash to pay the bus driver.
If you didn’t already know, trains in Japan run with ninja-like precision. We found the buses run with the same efficiency, and schedules are in both English and Japanese so it’s pretty easy to figure out when the next one will be along. The agents at the ticket offices speak English well and were very helpful, so don’t hesitate to ask them for help. Be sure to check out Hyperdia when planning train travel in Japan. It’s an invaluable resource.
I booked the flights with AA points and some cash to cover the fees. Lodging at the Sierra Resort was ~$300/nt and included a nice breakfast each morning, snacks, wine, and teas in the evenings, hot rice and curry, and free shuttle service around town. I felt like this was a pretty great deal. It would have been less, but I had a mishap with my booking and it accidentally got cancelled. I had to re-book at a higher rate.
Train tickets were our next biggest expense followed by ski rentals and lift tickets. We spent ~$50/pp on train travel in each direction (including N’EX) and about $10/pp on buses each direction. Two days of skiing with rentals was less than $400 and included a shuttle ride to the resort and back. Food was very reasonable – especially since we sort of picked our way though the little food stalls at the train stations, or had our meals included in the hotel rate.
Plan on getting some cash when you arrive. The 7-11 stores or Seven Bank ATM machines will accept foreign credit/debit cards for cash withdrawals and that is how we got some yen before we left the airport. There is a 7-11 immediately when you leave the arrivals hall at Narita. Credit cards are were accepted at most places we went, but having the cash was handy for several things, and I always get some so the kids will have a little bit to take home as a souvenir.
Japan with kids is awesome and is a great place to experience as a family! Getting around is really easy. Trains go everywhere in Japan, and I would discourage you from rental a car at all. Everything is spotlessly clean, and we did not feel uncomfortable anywhere we went. As with anything involving kids, give yourself some lead time, and you’ll be fine.
Skiing the Japanese Alps isn’t really that different from a ski trip in the States. A ski trip is a ski trip. You still have to manage ski rentals, lift tickets, etc. The difference was that it was considerably cheaper and less crowded which made this trip better in my mind than other ski trips.
Ski season in Japan pretty much runs the same time as the U.S. because we are both in the northern hemisphere. We were there in mid-March and it was typical spring skiing conditions. This makes deciding when to ski in Japan fairly simple.
The kids loved the culture, food, trains, and the skiing. Everyone was really friendly everywhere we went. I do wish we could’ve stayed just a few days longer to witness the cherry blossom explosion, but maybe next time. Everyone agrees that we have to return.
2020 Olympics maybe?
Hakuba Japan is a new favorite ski destination for sure. Are you a ski family? Where is your favorite place to ski?