Central Honshu’s Nagano and Niigata Prefectures offer a treasure trove of options for all types of skiers. Powder? Of course there is powder! How about Japan’s oldest chairlift…Steepest run…Longest run…and onsens to soak away the day’s muscle soreness. With a base in Madarao (Iiyama) there are 10 great resorts that can be accessed by shuttle bus (free if staying at Active Life properties).
One of the largest resorts in Japan with almost 300 hectares boasting 36 runs suitable for all levels. A vertical drop of 1085 metres means the legs will get a good workout on some very long runs. One of the runs for beginner to intermediate levels is 10 kilometres long! Snowboarders and skiers have a lot of choices and going off-piste is really popular with daredevil skiers finding great powder lines off Skyline Course.
There are 13 public bathing “onsens” in Nozawa called “Soto no yu”. All of them are maintained by the local community. It is important to know how to have an onsen with strict rituals and etiquette. You must be completely nude and clean thoroughly before entering the water.
Try to time your visit for the Dosojin Fire Festival is held every year in January. The story of the festival revolves around 25-year-old and 42-year-old men, believed to be the unlucky ages according to Shinto beliefs. After building a wooden shrine, the 42-year-olds then climb the shrine and sit there with their sake. They sing songs as they try and protect the shrine from the marauding 25 year-olds who try to knock down the shrine and use torches to burn it down. This serves to ward off bad luck and to ensure a good harvest for the year.
As Japan’s largest ski area (boasting 21 ski resorts with more than 50 lifts and 5 gondolas) Shiga is bigger, higher, and has terrain covering more than 600 hectares, higher elevation including Japan’s highest lifted-accessed point at 2,307 meters. This elevation (almost 1000 metres higher than some other resorts in the region) means Shiga can stay open longer, maintaining the quality of the 11 metres of snow per season.
Some areas of note include Okushigakogen which has a great terrain park, nice groomers and some of the best views of the surrounding Alps. Ichinose is a great spot for families to cruise and improve together. Yakebitaiyama is amongst the largest ski areas Shiga, famous for its role in the Nagano Olympics, so you also know it offers some of the steeper pitches in the area. Perhaps the best feature of Shiga is the 18 inter-connected resorts run on the same lift ticket.
Having a day off the slopes? The Snow Monkeys are a very popular attraction. The Jigokudani Yaenkoen park on the way from Nagano to Shiga Kogen is a great place to observe the lifestyle of the Japanese Macaque, native to northern Japan, and is the most northern-living primate. They are so human-like and enjoy a soak in the natural hot pools just like we do!
(Suginohara, Akakura Kanko, Akakura Onsen, Seki Onsen)
Sitting under the magnificent peak of Mt Myoko are 5 resorts each with something different to offer. Myokokogen gets sooooo much snow. How much? 13 metres is the season average with some years getting much more!
The variety at Myoko means you can really dial in day by day what you want. For newbies and intermediates looking to cruise Akakura Onsen is your best bet. For the next step up (and hosting one of Japan’s longest groomed ski runs at 8.5km) is, Suginohara or “Sugi”. For those wanting trees, park, groomers, backcountry, Sugi has it all. There are even some great spots where (on a clear day) you can get a glimpse of Mt Fuji. Lift tickets for adults are 4500 yen. Akakura Kanko or “Akakan” has a great mix of advanced terrain with great tree runs as well as some long groomers.
Ikenotaira Onsen Ski Resort is ideal for beginners to intermediates because the slopes are mellow, there’s plenty of powder, and there is little competition for the freshies because most riders are there for the terrain parks and pipe. The downside of the mellow terrain with deep snow is that it is easy to get stuck when you lose speed.
At Suginohara, Under 13s ski free!
If you are lucky enough to score a big powder day, advanced skiers and boarders will love Seki Onsen. If you can find it and get a ride up there you will be rewarded with short laps of powdery heaven. Seki has some impressively steep tree areas and with a little hiking (avi gear essential) there are some longer runs to be found. Seki is home to Japan’s oldest chairlift, a single seater “pizza box” that is one of only 2 chairs. There is 1 groomed run from the first chair to a restaurant on the hill and continuing down to the base. Seki’s downfall is its size – tiny. If there is no abundance pow then there is really not much to offer unless you like hiking.
Have a lunch break at the family-run restaurant half way down the groomed slope. The Katsu-don is awesome!
Kijimadaira ski area is reasonably small with only 7 lifts and 10 runs. With 796 metres of vertical it offers 40% beginner, 40% intermediate and 20% advanced. The terrain is beginner-friendly tending towards intermediate with a small number of groomed red runs. The main attraction of Kijimadaira is the famous top slope that has a maximum gradient of 45 degrees.
The steep mountain peak has limited opening days so check before you go.
Ryuoo Ski Park
Ryuoo has 3 distinct sections. The Valley base area is home to beginner snowboarders (skiing seems not to be as popular here). The middle “Kiotoshi” area is the steepest sections and opens at specific time for amazing powder runs without the crowds. The top “Skyland” area offers spectacular views thanks to an elevation of almost 2000m. The official trail stats are beginner 35%, intermediate 40%, and advanced 25%. There are also a couple of terrain parks that are suitable for beginner and intermediate riders. Getting from the valley up to the top of the Kiotoshi area is done via a ropeway that only runs every 20 minutes with two cabins alternating up/down each cycle. This is the only way down from the top section for non-advanced skiers/riders or when the Kiotoshi area is closed.
The Skyland area is much colder than the valley. It is very flat and there is no easy way to ski down (just downloading the ropeway = boring!). If you aren’t going to hit up the Kiotoshi area – don’t bother with Ryuoo. Also, Ryuoo offers a seniors deal with lift ticket and lunch.
When a Korean company buys a ski resort in Japan and spends tens of millions of dollars, you know it is going to impress! At 7000 yen for a day ticket, Arai is the Japan’s most expensive resort. Being so close to the ocean Arai gets smashed with 15m of snowfall per season. Avalanche controlled ungroomed zones of powder-heaven await those who have the skills (and perhaps avalanche gear). When you have had your fill of powder laps it’s time for the onsen. Not just any onsen. This is the most luxurious facility you have seen.
1000 yen refunded for the return of your ski pass card can be used to access the swimming pool or onsen. Also, if you are trying to be frugal, don’t expect to get any cheap eats at this palace. Hit up Lawson or 7 Eleven and fill a backpack on the way.
Resort Snapshot (figures subject to change)
Resort Name Adult Lift Kids (u13) Lift Suited to
|Akakura Onsen||4300||3000||Beginner to Intermediate|
|Seki Onsen||3500||2800||Very Advanced|
|Ryuoo Ski Park||4600||3000||Everyone|