Category Archives: Japan

First time JaPOW: the only question is Hakuba or Madarao? Why not both?

Our legion of followers have been very busy recently, traveling the world, experiencing some of the best snow on offer.   Here, guest reporter, Hamish Macphee, gives us the low down on his first trip to Japan, taking in the popular resort of Hakuba and up-and-coming ski area, Madarao (or MadaPOW as it’s known affectionately).

Madarao has been hitting the media a lot in 2018, with articles from Powderhounds, Miss Snow it All and the Snow Gauge, to name a few.  As a matter of interest, we too visited Madarao in late February 2018 with the kids in tow.  Find our review of this fantastic family destination here.

So you’ve been hearing a lot about skiing in Japan? There’s good reason for that. You’ve heard about the powder, so light, so dry. You’ve heard about forbidden tree skiing. And yes…..you’ve heard about the snow monkeys. Perhaps you have already done the Canada thing……bloody long flight! You’ve probably tried New Zealand when the Aussie snow is not at it’s peak. The next step has got to be the now famed Japow!

Let me give you a snapshot of what it means to have a snow holiday in Japan:

1. One to Two-hour time difference = no jetlag

2. Nine-to thirteen hour flight time versus 16-20 for Canada/US = fresh arrival

3. Easy public transport Bullet-trains = WOW!

4. Affordable accommodation walking distance from chairlifts, shops and restaurants.

5. Lift tickets for less than half what it cost back home

6. The BEST snow you will see in your entire life!, and

7. Accessible (and legal) tree-sking (yes, they’ve lightened up in many resorts)

Great food, great people, great ski-schools, beer from vending machines, noodles noodles noodles and a real taste of a very different culture. Oh yeah…and whisky!

Now that you’ve decided Japan is for you, the hard choices need to be made. Which resort(s) do you visit?

For us there are two great options for the first time trip to Japan’s snowfields: Hakuba or Madarao. If you have the time then, porque no los dos? Give both a try! Access is simple. From Tokyo get the Narita Express from the airport to Tokyo Station for about $50 return $25 for kids 6-11 years old. From Tokyo Station you get the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Nagano in approx. 1 hour, or to Iiyama, a short 10-20 mins further along.

Hakuba

If Hakuba is your chosen destination then a bus will take you the remaining hour in to the Hakuba Valley and the 9 resorts it has to offer. Goryu, 47, Happo-one (oohhh-ney), Iwatake, Tsugiake, Norikura, Cortina being the larger areas as well as Kashimayari and Jiigatake for the less adventurous. There is so much terrain that you need a month to see everything.

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Some of the accommodation options in Hakuba, Cortina

Families coming to Hakuba for the first time will love the Goryu/Hakuba47/Iimori area. With ski school at Iimori for the little ones, Hakuba’s best terrain park at 47 and some super groomers at Goryu, this little pocket of the valley represents exceptional value for both money (with the Hakuba Valley Pass) and time with everything so close.

For an introduction to tree skiing Hakuba 47 has done it right. Some resorts are known to outlaw tree skiing and take your pass if you are caught in the trees. At 47 they allow it, but safety comes first.

In order to access the “tree zones” skiers and boarders need to do a short induction, sign a waiver and collect a bib to be worn over the ski jacket. These bibs are then to be returned by 3pm to the office. Failure to do so will result in a search party being sent out to look for you. There are significant hazards like cliffs and tree-wells so this safety procedure puts the mind at ease somewhat. Just don’t forget to return the bib when you duck in for a quick beer at day’s end!

While the youngest is making new mates in ski school and the teenager is honing park skills and progressing to bigger jumps, mum and dad are cruising the groomers and enjoying the breathtaking views of Happo-one and the vast valley below. After lunch and lessons the more advanced in the family might check out some bibs are explore the trees.

After the days snow action and perhaps a relaxing onsen Hakuba has many dining options. Booking is highly recommended and waiting for a table is commonplace.

For those with the Epic Australia Pass (Perisher) the Hakuba Valley Pass is included. If not, a 7-day (out of 11) ticket will cost about $450 for Adults and $250 for 6 to 12 years old. This pass also includes shuttle bus to any of the 9 resorts.

Madarao

If Madarao is your choice you can get the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station all the way to Iiyama. From the Iiyama station the bus up to the resort (20mins) will cost you less than $10 per person.

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Beautiful Iiyama

Madarao is the sleepy cousin of Hakuba. There are many resorts within an hour including Myoko Kogen, Shiga Kogen, and Nozawa Onsen. If you are coming for your first Japanese snow holiday, Madarao and neighbour Tangram Ski Circus (yes, that’s really what they call it) is all you need. At $60 for a day lift ticket for both resorts…what more could you ask for?

To say that Madarao was untouched by Aussies would be a lie. The last 10 real-estate acquisitions on the mountain were purchased by Australians…but you wouldn’t know it. Unlike places like Niseko and Hakuba, the Australians have moved in quietly and respectfully. They are creating a family friendly resort that is easy for Australian guests to navigate.

We stayed at Aya Lodge. This well renovated guest house offers comfortable rooms and great amenities within few hundred metres of the slopes. The beds are comfy (not always a given in Japan) and the included breakfast goes well above the expected. There are also other great options in the Active Life choice of hotels, Active Life Madarao and Hakken by Active Life (both really kid friendly).

Once out on the slopes the resort and it’s network of 15 lifts opens up in front of you. Mt Madarao looms above and attracts great snowfall (Between 10m and 14m per season). On a good vis day views across to Mt Myoko set a magical backdrop…but the foreground is what you come for.

Madarao is building a reputation as THE resort for tree skiing. On a day when MadaPOW delivers the goods, there is nowhere else you want to be. The trees at the top of the resort are perfectly spaced and the pitch is perfectly steep to satisfy the cautious thrill seeker.

For the daredevils the trees between Madarao and Tangram Ski Circus (known by the seasoners as Tangram Trees) offer untracked lines through steep terrain after the bowls like Powderwave I and II have been skied out. There are gates to enter the tree area between the two resorts and ski patrol are around. Having said that there are many opportunities for those who dare…enough said.

If you are very lucky you may come across a Kamoshika or Japanese Serow while skiing the trees. The most accurate description I have heard is that Kamoshika looks like a snow bear goat dog…having seen one myself……I totally agree. But, please keep your distance as they are wild animals.

If you need a a few lessons, or are seeking adventure beyond the resort boundary, try Action Snow Sports, run by Aussie Peter  Hillman, or Nagano Outdoor Sports run by local legend Aki (who also has a great pizza joint on the slopes).  Otherwise, the Active Life Group of Hotels offer complimentary lessons for guests.  All offer English speaking instructors.  For a short hike the back of Mt Madarao offers endless lines of superb skiing days after the in-bounds pow has been smashed.

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The pizza at Aki’s

We recommend the Hotel Tangram for lunch with a great view of just about all the smaller resort has to offer. Plan your next laps while chowing down your ramen or katsu-don. For dinner this small town is bustling with options: burgers at Unjaune, or try the devine Okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) at Sakura. The top of the must-do list for food and drinks in Madarao is the Lazy Yak. This oversized tent (Yurt actually) plays host to a restaurant and bar that also sells and hires snowboards and backcountry equipment. The fried  chicken (Karage) is amazing and the tofu is like no tofu you have ever had before. They have a great selection of whisky and some cool gin cocktails, as well as a fine collection of hand-made jewellery…of course.

On the way home it is well worth spending few nights exploring the amazing metropolis that is Tokyo. There are endless options for shopping and dining limited only by your budget. For electronics head to Akihabara, Ueno Zoo, or for toys, you cant go past the Hakuhinkan Toy Park in Ginza, a 5 story specialist toy store (the kids will love it). Shibuya Crossing is a right of passage, especially at night. You can give the statue of Hachi the most loyal dog a pat. The Government Building’s South Tower offers amazing views of the city all the way to Mt Fuji on a clear day. The North Tower is not a good.

If you want to get a bit closer to Mt Fuji there are tours available with Tokyo Hotel pickup or you can just get the Shinkansen and local train independently. We opted for the guided option and included a tour and tasting at the Hakushu Whisky Distillery. Any whisky drinker will have heard of Suntory’s Hakushu and Yamazaki whiskys. A trip to the serine mountain environment of the Hakushu distillery means the opportunity to sample many different blends like Hibiki up to 30 years old ($30 per 15ml for a $5000 bottle). As well as recognisable labels the tasting room offers samples of the component barrel whiskys that become Hakushu, Yamazaki, and Hibiki.

Before leaving home make sure to get your International Driving Permit. Not for a car silly…for a go-cart! Maricar offer tours of Tokyo driving on the roads in go-carts, dressed up in costumes -like Ninja Turtles and Mario characters. This is an experience not for the feint-hearted, but not to be missed.

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Mario Carting in Tokyo

Now is the perfect time to start planning your first trip to Japan. Make 2019 your year of JaPOW. With a little research and some handy Japanese phrases your holiday can be stress-free.

Snow Riders Xplore Column Ad_1115x902
Xplore by Active Life are offering Snowriders Australia followers 20% off accommodation, with no blackout periods.  Accommodation includes free lessons and access to a complimentary inter-0resort shuttle bus. PM us for details.

If you’re looking for a value ski holiday with a difference, you need to read this!

Those that have followed us for a while will know that this year we are actively promoting Madarao in the Nagano Prefecture, Japan, as a family ski destination.  And before we go on, let us disclose that – yes – we are working with the resort and one of their accommodation providers, Active Life, and yes, we are receiving support to cover some of our expenses.

However, this is not your standard sponsored post about another basic accommodation provider in another standard Aussie-dominated resort; its more about the way Active Life are looking to differentiate from their competitors, in a quaint, relatively undiscovered resort.  So if you are a family looking for an alternative ski holiday, complete with FREE ALL DAY beginner skiing and snowboarding lessons and a FREE inter-resort shuttle bus, providing access to up to 6 nearby resorts, then we invite you to please read on.

Madarao Resort

But first, a little bit about Madarao. Madarao or Madarao Kogen is a smallish resort in the northern Nagano Prefecture. The resort is easily accessible thanks to the recent extension of the Shinkansen line through to Iiyama station, the whole journey from Tokyo to Iiyama taking just 110 mins.  The resort is famous for its champagne powder-snow, earning it the nickname MadaPOW, and its unassuming Japanese style. Until very recently, Madarao was very much undiscovered, and widely heralded as one of Japan’s secret resorts – largely untouched by westerners.  Although its would be a lie to say it remains this way, Madarao is still relatively quiet and on a quiet day, you can still pretty much have the mountain to yourself; and that means fresh tracks all day.  At just under 1400 m, Madarao Mountain is not big by Hakuba standards, but as a northern facing mountain it still receive around 10 m of very light, very dry snow, every year.

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Madarao Event

Madarao is an excellent all round resort with terrain for every kind of rider from first timers to advanced skiers or boarders. Madarao has a vertical of 440 m and dedicates 30% of its courses to beginners, 40% to intermediates and 30% to advanced skiers and boarders, providing plenty of options for all levels. The longest course is 2.5 km and the steepest slope is 36 degrees. Madarao is open from 8:30am until 5pm, with night skiing until 9pm, weekends and public holidays. On New Year’s Eve, you can also ski till midnight. Lift passes are also cheap at 4500 yen for the Madarao area, or 5000 yen for Madarao and the adjoining Tangram ski area.

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The tree skiing is easy in Madarao

Unlike some of the more famous Hokkaido resorts, Madarao is not a party destination, and nor does it pretend to be. People come to Madarao for the quality snow and the low key atmosphere, and although there are plenty of bars and restaurants, there are certainly no night clubs or noisy patrons. Having said that there is plenty to do in Madarao, from exploring the local architecture, the nearby town of Iiyama, or even visiting the region’s famous snow monkeys, located just a short bus trip away. As a part-time skiier, my wife commented that she just enjoyed the quiet atmosphere, reading a book by the fire, walking the cat trails and indulging in a bit of nature photography.

The snow

Having grown up skiing in Australia, we spent an unhealthy amount of time worrying about the snow, hoping and praying the weather would turn in time for our holiday. You don’t need to worry about that in Madarao, or anywhere in Japan for that matter – especially if you go in the depths of winter (i.e. January and February). Madarao receives a whopping 8-10 m of snow fall annually, most of which falls between December and Late February. In 2018, January and February were big months, with near daily falls of 30-40 cm creating ideal powder conditions. Not surprisingly, the resort is a powder-hound’s paradise and tree skiing is very much encouraged in a series of dedicated off-piste areas, where the trees are thinned (or gladed) to create open powder bowls with widely spaced trees.

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Great value for families

Family rooms at Active Life (accommodating a family of four) start at Y44,446 ($AUD556) per night and a double room from Y15,489 ($AUD 193) per night.  All family rooms come with their own ensuite while cheaper double rooms have shared ablution blocks.  Each of the Active Life hotels serve breakfast (either a nice continental style breakfast, with gourmet muesli, cereal, bread and fruits, or a hot breakfast, complete with bacon and eggs).  The drying rooms are large and efficient leaving you and your children’s gear dry and toasty warm the next day.

But forget about the price for a minute

What sets Active Life apart is their offer to supply FREE ski and snowboard lessons for any guest staying four nights or more.  Active Life offers 2.5 hour lessons for adults and ALL DAY lessons for children aged 5 to 14, making the lesson structure akin to kids club in Australia.  To put this in perspective, children’s lessons in the resort start at around Y12,000 for a full day lesson and around Y10,000 for a 2.5 hrs adult lesson.  Adding it up, that represents a saving of around Y50,000-60,000 ($AUD625-750) per child over a 5 day period.  That reduces the price of a family ensuite room to around $AUD256 per night, which is great value especially in peak season.  Let us tell you, it is very difficult to find family rooms cheaper than that anywhere, even if you were intending to buy your lessons separately.

For the more adventurous riders, Active Life also offers a FREE shuttle bus to six nearby resorts, Lotte Arai, Myoko, Nozawa Onsen, Kita Shinshu-Kijimadaira, X-Jam Takaifuji and Ryuoo Ski Park.  The shuttle runs Monday to Friday (to avoid peak times) between 28 December and 5 February, and leavs Madarao at around 7 am returning around 5:30-6pm.  There’s no fixed route.  Destinations are chosen based on the forecast and the best snow conditions at the time.

Lift passes are cheap at Y4500 and Y1500 per day for adults and kids respectively, OR, cheaper again at Y4050 and Y1350 per day if you book through Active Life.

Video
Check out our 2018 family ski holiday video compilation

Like what you hear? Why not join us?

Snowriders Australia in partnership with Madarao and the Active Life Group, is this year proud to announce our inaugural club trip, Powder Seekers 2019;  the first of what we hope will be a regular series of Club Skiing and Snowboarding adventures to Japan, Australia and other snowy destinations. Powder Seekers 2019, taking in Madarao and surrounding resorts, is suited to families and powder hounds alike.

Our accommodation is Xplore and Hakken by Active Life, Australian/Kiwi owned and newly renovated hotels just minutes walk from the chairlift.  Forget catching buses and taxis, everything in Madarao is just minutes away on foot, making everything super easy, especially with kids.

Powder Seekers 2019 is a CLUB TRIP, designed for friendly, easy going, like minded riders looking to experience Japan for the first time, or those looking to experience a new area with ample off piste skiing opportunities. As it is a club trip, guests will be free to ride on their own, or if they chose, ride with our experienced guide.  Members of the SRA team will also be available to assist with resort logistics, directions and recommendations (i.e on the best places to eat!). In fact, our friends at Active Life Group have already organised a welcome dinner 🙂

Places are very limited. For further information, please don’t hesitate to send us a message via our contacts page, or send us a personal message via our Facebook page.

The bottom line [$$]

We’ve worked really hard with our partners at Active Life  to bring you the best deal possible.  Remember accommodation costs include breakfast, FREE all day children’s and 2.5 hr adult’s lessons and FREE shuttle bus transfers to nearby resorts – all in peak season!  Such a deal is rare and new for the Active Life Group.

Here’s the bottom line:

Summary

  • When: 13-19 January 2019 (7 nights).
  • Cost option 1: JPY 108,424 [*2]
  • Cost option 2: JPY 311,124 [*3]
  • Cost option 3: JPY 235,303 [*4]
  • Costs include: 7 nights, breakfasts, lessons, shuttle bus (3 days), guide (min 3 days)
  • Payment due: 26/10/2018
  • Note, if you hold a Mt Buller Season Pass, you can ski Madarao free for three days, plus score 50% off further lift passes for the rest of your trip!

Exclusions

  • Airfares (costs variable).
  • Lift passes (~JPY 4,500/day; kids <12 JPY 1,500/day)[*6];
  • Gear hire (Skis, Boots, Poles) (~JPY 5,500/day) [*7];
  • Japan Rail Pass (Adults ~JPY 17,000; kids ~JPY 8,500);
  • Lunch & Dinner (costs variable, but budget options available);
  • Insurances ($AUD 150 per person [*5])

Fine print

  • [*1] – Guided days are supplied in the spirit of a social club event. As such Snowriders Australia accepts no responsibility whatsoever for injuries that may occur either within or outside resort boundaries, or any costs incurred as a result.
  • [*2] – For singles or couples. Basic accommodation in the newly renovated Xplore Hotel, with shared ablutions; 2 x single beds. Max 2 people.
  • [*3] – Family friendly accommodation with private ensuite in the newly renovated Xplore Hotel; 1 x queen bed and 2 x single beds. Max 4 people.
  • [*4] – Deluxe accommodation with private ensuite in the Hakken by Active Life Hotel; 1 x queen bed. Max 2 people, but 3 on request (extra costs incurred).
  • [*5] – Basic insurance. Guests intending to participate in guided days are encouraged to seek off-piste cover and carefully review the insurance T&Cs.
  • [*6] – Cheaper for multi day passes (more prices) e.g. 6 day adult pass = JPY 23,800.
  • [*7] – Cheaper for multi day hire (more prices) e.g. 6 days package = JPY 26,500

 

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Hakken by Active Life
Xplore
Xplore Accomodation
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A few local sights

How to deal with a partner that doesn’t ski?

I can hear the sighs form here. Yep, turns out your dream partner doesn’t ski or snowboard after all. So much for the famous speed dating meme huh…

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Despite your best efforts, he/she doesn’t share the same passion.

However, I am here to tell you it’s not the end of the world. I’ve taken my wife skiing a few times. She didn’t hate it, nor did she love it – she’s just not a snow loving maniac like I am.

After doing three successive boy’s trips in as many years, I asked my wife if she join me on a trip to Japan, along with our two children. The whole experience – as it turned out – was pretty amazing. I went skiing with he boys, and she enjoyed a well deserved break. A win-win, so to speak.

When we returned, she asked if she could pen a few words about her most recent experience; what she enjoyed about the trip and her recommendations for other non-skiing partners. This is what she said:

“I couldn’t go on a ski holiday, I don’t ski, what would I do?”

Many of my friends have said this to me in the past. As for me, I like skiing and I’m ok at it, but it isn’t a passion for me like it is for my husband. You see, I married into the hobby. I knew before we got married that he skied. We went on a few skiing holidays early on in our relationship but I didn’t realise how much it would feature in our lives.

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Ahh, solitude

Fast forward quite a few years and a couple of kids later. The family ski holiday my husband had been dreaming of was upon us. We packed the family onto a couple of planes, trains and a bus, and headed off for the ski fields of Japan, Madarao to be exact.

Madarao is a smaller ski village, which is fast growing. There are hotels, places to eat (traditional Japanese food and Western), a few small bars, a convenience store and all things ski related (hire, instructors etc).

Most people have different definitions of a good holiday – some are ‘action people’, some are ‘relax by the pool enjoying a cocktail and reading a book kind of people’, and then there are the ‘in between’ people. I am an in between person who loves to relax with a bit of sightseeing thrown in. If you are too, then a ski holiday could also work for you.

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The kids faces were priceless

How do you enjoy a ski holiday, share the joy with your family but also enjoy yourself doing other things?

My day would begin skiing with my kids and husband, when I needed a break I would wonder back to our hotel. Along the way I enjoyed the environment around me and loved taking photos. Not necessarily professional quality photos but fun photos. With the solitude and the head space, I found myself really looking at the things around me (I just don’t get time at home). I’d then head back to the accommodation to read my book and write.

Next to me was a window through which was a most breathtaking scene of white mountains and trees, looking at it was just blissful. I’d sit at that window and feel quite inspired. I could imagine other people sitting, reflecting, painting, doing a craft, jigsaw puzzle, anything really….. gazing out over that view.

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The view from my window

At lunchtime I enjoyed walking along the snow covered cat tracks to meet up at a restaurant with my family. Along the way I really enjoyed taking photographs and just loved the solitude and serenity of my environment. When the kids and my husband finished up for the day, we’d all go to dinner together, share in the adventures of the day whilst enjoying a drink or two. The kids would then be happily occupied with the in-house pool table, fuse ball table, darts and PS4 (thanks Active Life Madarao).

Prior to Japan, I also visited larger resorts. There I also enjoyed going to the day spas, visiting book and clothing shops (mostly winter, ski related clothes). I didn’t miss the day spa or shops on this holiday, I found the quieter environment uplifting and soul filling. I loved seeing the smiling faces on my children at the end of the day as they mastered the skill of skiing. But, mostly I felt happy seeing my husband have his dream fulfilled.

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10 reasons to take your kids skiing in Madarao, Japan, this summer

In late February 2018, my family and I travelled to Madarao, a small but emerging resort in the Nagano Prefecture, where we took our kids skiing for the first time. The kids aged 6 and 8 took to skiing like ducks to water, loved the culture and generally just loved the entire experience; from the trains to the food, to the endless amount of snow. 

Our holiday to Madarao in the Nagano Prefecture was seriously awesome – perfect even – and if you were to ask me should take their kids to Japan, my answer is a resounding YES. Here are my reasons why, with just a few tips and tricks thrown in… Continue reading 10 reasons to take your kids skiing in Madarao, Japan, this summer

Niseko Weiss Powder CATS: first tracks guaranteed

There’s no doubt that CAT skiing offers great value to riders looking for a new riding experience. It offers easy access to untracked powder, without hiking and without the risks normally presented by back-country skiing. It’s perhaps these qualities that have earnt it the tag ‘poor man’s heli-skiing’.

On a recent visit to Hokkaido (February 2017), we were lucky enough to give CAT skiing a try courtesy of Niseko Weiss Powder CATs. Niseko Weiss Powder CATs is an experienced adventure company operating out of the Hanazono Ski Area, in greater Niseko United. Although a lean season by Niseko United standards (they’d only received a lazy 8m of snow instead of 12m), the powder CATs adventure was an unforgettable experience and a great alternative to the hustle and bustle of the main Niseko skiing area, located just a few minutes away.

AA_Cat4 Continue reading Niseko Weiss Powder CATS: first tracks guaranteed

Review: 5 Days in Madarao, Japan

Small crowds, a ‘local’ feel, a variety of friendly lodges, lift tickets and food priced the way it should be and tonnes of snow, translates into epic powder days centred around a true Japanese cultural experience that visitors crave – all without those regretful stares from lift-queue’s, back up to quickly-disappearing fresh tracks.

Continue reading Review: 5 Days in Madarao, Japan