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Skiing in Japan

by Rachel Farnay, photos Anatol Filin.

ski-glider-2 Ever since the infamous 'Bubble economy' of the 1980's skiing has been the sport for fashionable Japanese. This newly prosperous country poured finances into the rebuilding and expansion of the old and traditional ski areas, while entirely new areas were developed. The result is an abundance of sleek, world-class resorts with every facility imaginable and sleek new trams, gondolas and quad lifts which glide up the slopes in minutes past runs groomed with state-of-the-art equipment.

Think about skiing and Japan is probably one of the last places that comes to mind. But with Japan set to host the 1998 Winter Olympics it's clear that this is a ski destination worth considering. Forget ski slopes thick with crowds, prohibitive prices and language barriers, there are solutions.

Ever since the infamous 'Bubble economy' of the 1980's skiing has been the sport for fashionable Japanese. This newly prosperous country poured finances into the rebuilding and expansion of the old and traditional ski areas, while entirely new areas were developed. The result is an abundance of sleek, world-class resorts with every facility imaginable and sleek new trams, gondolas and quad lifts which glide up the slopes in minutes past runs groomed with state-of-the-art equipment.

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Rating equally with tennis as the number one sport for young Japanese, the ultimate holiday is a weekend on the slopes clad in the latest techni-coloured designer ski suit. Unfortunately this popularity has resulted in enormous crowds and difficulties in obtaining hotel and transport reservations. To avoid these inconveniences don't go skiing on weekends and public holidays if you can help it. The end of December and New Year holidays are unbelievably busy. During the week, however you could have the slopes to yourself. Other options include going to ski areas further away or less popular areas, none of the choices listed below are overly crowded. Always book well in advance.

Despite the crowds, plentiful ski lifts ensure there are never long lift lines, instead the crowds converge at the top on the slope. A good idea is to take a slope that has only one lift servicing it, thus reducing the amount of traffic being ferried up. The run may be marked 'advanced', but in Japan these ratings are frequently exaggerated.

Holiday packages are the ideal way to book your ski trip. These go on sale end of November and are put out by airlines and major travel companies JTB, Kinki, Nihon Ryoku and American Express. The very best sell out quickly, but any package will undoubtedly prove better value than arranging the trip yourself. Typically a two-day Shiga Kohgen package including transport, accommodation, lift pass and breakfast costs Y24,000.

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As for language barriers, Japanese go out of their way to try to understand foreigners. Most resorts have someone who speaks a little English. For English-language ski lessons Sahoro and Madarao Kohgen are considered the best. While in terms of English-language ski signs and maps Hunter Mountain and Kiroro are the easiest to negotiate. Belltop Travel Service (03-3454-6331) will handle in English your travel arrangements with any of the tour companies, they can also organize rentals and side trips.

Of Japan's four main islands, only northern-most island Hokkaido and Honshu, where Tokyo is situated, have ski slopes. Hokkaido is the coldest and with its dramatic mountains looks more like Montana than Asia. The major ski areas here are located in the centre of the island, forming a rough circle around the big city of Sapporo. Sapporo is famous for its salmon, hairy crabs, beer and the wonderful Snow Festival which takes place the first week of February. A highlight on the ski season calendar, this fabulous display of larger-than-life ice sculptures lasts one week and fills Sapporo's main boulevard with ice sculptures of people, famous buildings and mythological figures. The quickest way to Sapporo from Tokyo is by air, a 90 minute flight, although there are overnight rail and ferry services. The ski season here runs from late November to May.

Niseko is a huge ski area with consistently good snow, some of Japan's longest, most challenging runs and soaring dramatically in front of Mt. Niseko Annupuri's slopes, the majestic volcano Mt. Yotei.

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The skiing here is ideal for intermediate and advanced skiers with long, steep bumpy runs guaranteed to exhaust and exhilarate. Excellent powder meadows can be found at the top of the lifts and there are fine beginner's slopes. Snowboards are banned. Niseko's enormous ski area and extensive lift facilities are actually four resorts which unfortunately, refuse to have a common lift pass, an expensive inconvenience. The most economical way to ski all the resorts, is to buy a packet of 15 single-ride tickets for Y3,700, interchangeable wherever you buy it.

In addition to great skiing and scenery there is a busy spa town at the base of the mountain which provides an extensive range of accommodation from Western-style hotels to countless lodges, pensions and ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). Log House Shiroi Koya (Tel: 0136-22-2681) is a pension on the slopes with its own beautiful outdoor, hot-spring bath nestled right on the mountainside.

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Rsutsu Resort is an impressive resort of grandiose proportions. With a shopping mall, European-style amusement park complete with merry-go-round, supermarket, a wave pool with water slide, hot springs, children's playroom, snow mobiles plus four bars, seven restaurants and four lounges it would be easy to forget the reason you came here was to ski. But that would be a shame because the skiing is wonderful with long wide runs that are always covered in good snow and some incredible scenery.

There are three mountains to ski in total, all connected by ski lifts and one lift pass. The highest peak is Mt. Izola at 994 metres where from you can ski across black diamond runs to East Mountain. These runs offer stunning ski scenery - ocean views of the Pacific, Lake Toya, the graceful volcano Mt. Yotei and the rugged Mt. Niseko Annupuri in the distance. For beginners and intermediate skiers there are also excellent runs, perfect snow boarding terrain and even good mogul fields with views.

Aside from the resort's hotel tower, group accommodation is available in log houses and cottages.

Skiing Honshu island is no less superb but the season is slightly shorter, December to April. Crowds can be more of a problem here.

Goryu Toomi may only be a medium size resort but its numerous claims to fame include one of the most challenging runs, the longest ski season of any major resort and Japan's most beautiful ski area and base lodge.

Nestled in a great open bowl with soaring mountain walls on either side and Mt. Goryudake jutting up from behind, Goryu Toomi's location is spectacular. The highest, most panoramic run is laid out along a glorious mountain plateau overlooking the sprawling Japan Alps and Himegawa River on one side and jagged peaks on the other. Renowned among experts is the 35 degree angle Champion Expert slope, a long bumpy, exhausting run. Untamed powder runs and wide-open beginner's runs complement it. Plans are underway to link up with Hakuba 47 the resort next door which will add considerable terrain. Snowboards are banned.

The wonderful Escal Plaza has deluxe accommodation with a large sunny cafeteria overlooking the slopes, nice restaurants, ski shops, an indoor "Water Park" with pool, sauna and Jacuzzi and an outdoor hot tub on the slopes. There's even a 'bargain basement dormitory' with clean showers, where you can sleep on the floor for Y1,000. The season here lasts from late November to mid-May.

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Shiga Kohgen is the giant of Japanese skiing. This enormous area with 22 resorts, 1500 acres of terrain, 72 lifts and 64 km of ski runs is twice the size of Vail, USA and may be the biggest ski area in the world. Chosen to host several of the 1998 Winter Olympic events it will be able to absorb Olympians, their entourage and spectators while still allowing local skiers to enjoy the snow without interference. Despite its size all 22 resorts accept the one lift pass, excellent value at Y13,000 for three days skiing. Situated within a national park the area is pretty all year round with mountain lakes, lush forests and a range of onsen baths to sink into.

The skiing, as to be expected in such a large area, offers a great variety of terrain and atmosphere. Some parts are old and charming, others are deluxe and modern. Sun Valley is a quaint village with traditional ryokans and an old-world feel. Unfortunately the lifts also tend to be a bit old-world, but with many short runs this is a good area for beginners. For long runs, fast lifts and the sight of the 1998 Olympic slalom runs try the Yakebitai Yama area with its Prince Hotel. Or nearby Okushiga, the Okushiga Kogen Hotel is an attractive, modern hotel with great restaurants overlooking the slopes and an indoor pool. In the centre of Shiga is a section called Higashitateyama with a fun advanced course and what will be the women's downhill and Super-Giant slalom at the Olympics. Snowboards are banned.

Nozawa Onsen is a big, world class ski area but with the lovely atmosphere of a small mountain village. Generally considered the "birthplace" of Japanese skiing, it was here Austrian Hannes Schneider arrived 75 years ago to teach the Japanese European-style skiing. It also hosted the 1995 InterSki International Championships recently.

Unlike many Japanese ski resorts, Nozawa has some truly terrifying, challenging skiing for advanced skiers. At the same time it has broad easy runs for beginners with pretty views of the Chikuma Valley and rugged mountains. There is some excellent powder skiing through the forest inhabited by a family of raccoons, a small cross country course and even a slope for snowboarders.

As there is no base lodge, skiers are required to walk from their hotel to the lifts in their boots or wait for the shuttle bus. Staying in one of the hotels beside the lifts, either Lodge Futaba, Lodge Schnee, Schanze Hotel or Hotel Schneider, eliminates this problem

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Tangram Ski Circus is another deluxe resort, located at the base of Mt. Madarao. It consists of a Western-style hotel, sunny cafeteria with big windows overlooking the slopes, snow mobile track, an indoor swimming pool and spa, a health club and games arcade.

This is a very pretty area for skiing with views of the Sea of Japan, the peaks of Mt. Kurohime and Myoko, Chikuma River winding through the snowy hills and the lovely lake Nojiri. For advance skiers there isn't a lot of challenge but for intermediate and beginners it's excellent with wide, open runs that are never very crowded. (Apparently everyone is taking the express train straight past to another area). Some good cross-country skiing, snowboarding and a punishing mogul run. Tangram provides an ideal base for two days of skiing after which you can explore the slopes at adjacent Madarao Kohgen or Myoko Kohgen 15 minutes away, notable for its spectacular scenery and sumptuous Akakura Kanko Hotel.

Tangram offers a package deal to lure day skiers from other resorts which for Y3,700 includes lunch, free parking, a full-day lift pass and a snow mobile ride. There is a child minding service available.


Japan's apre-skiing is unlike Europe and North America's in that it does not have all night nightclubs and discos. The bars tend to be small izakayas (local bars) which are usually sit down or karoake bars and unless you speak Japanese, your socializing will probably be pretty limited.

Organizing a ski trip with a group of friends always ensures apres activities. Ski groups are common in Japan and well catered for with rooms often able to accommodate six to eight people.

But the ultimate apres-skiing in any country is a hot tub and Japan's wonderful assortment of onsens (natural hot-spring baths) are some of the loveliest in the world. At the end of an exhausting day skiing these are the perfect way to relax. After soaking in the steamy hot water with several cups of Sake and a few cold beers, all you'll probably feel like doing anyway is having a hearty dinner and falling asleep. It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the bathing procedures first, the Japan National Tourist Organization has a useful pamphlet on this.

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Of the ski resorts with onsens Nozawa comes out on top. Apart from its charm and wonderful skiing, its other great attribute is that it sits atop several thermal springs of various curative powers. There are 13 public onsen houses dotted around the village, all are free of charge and open until midnight. Once you've finished soaking in all 13 there are restaurants, bars, karoake joints and some nice gift shops in the village to explore. The Japan Ski Museum has an interesting collection of ski memorabilia. The hotels and ryokans all have natural onsen baths, although Kawamoto-ya Hotel and, closer to the slopes, Mura-no-hoteru Sumiyoshiya are two ryokans which have received very good reports.

Niseko is also an area rich with onsens, virtually all of its hotels have an onsen bath fed by the natural hot spring of Niseko Onsen. After soaking in the hot tubs there is a long strip of fun restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and karaoke joints at the base of Niseko Kohgen resort. Shiga Kohgen is similar with numerous onsen baths, bars, restaurants and karaoke spots located around the base areas and in the hotels.

Just 10 km to the north of Goryu Toomi is Happo-one. Famous for its size and excellent ski conditions this resort is immensely popular and therefore much too crowded. But for apres-skiing it's the perfect party town with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and karaoke joints jamming the noisy colourful streets as well as an abundance of onsens at the bottom of the slopes. Happo-one will also be the focus for the 1998 Winter Olympics. The ski jump, men's downhill and Super-Giant Slalom, and the Nordic combined events will all be based here. While the cross-country events and the biathlon will wind through the foothills outside Hakuba town.

As Rsutsu Resort and Tangram Ski Circus have no busy towns nearby, their apres-skiing is limited to the bars and restaurants within the resorts. However, with Rsutsu's multitude of bars and restaurants this should not be a problem. They also have a supermarket so you can create a party in your room. Both have indoor pools and baths to soak in.

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ACCOMMODATION - Ranges from Y6,000 for a decent room with two meals, to log cabins, pensions or five star western-style accommodation at Y30,000 a night.

SKI PASSES - These are around Y4,500 for one day, Y2,500 for 12 rides or Y250 for a single trip.

EQUIPMENT - Ski equipment is available for hire at the resorts and is usually new and in good condition. Boots are priced around Y1,700, skis Y2,800 and poles Y600, or a three piece set is around Y3,500. If you have large feet, over 26.6 cm, you are advised to call ahead to make sure they have your size. Likewise for very small children sizes may be limited. Buying snow gear in Tokyo is surprisingly affordable. Oshman's in Harajuku has a good selection of ski gear with several American brands, such as Colombia, Patagonia and North Face. For the fluorescent, label encrusted, brilliant orange, purple and lime green suits that the Japanese love, the shopping street in Ogawamachi is paradise. Brands such as Nordica, Rossignol, Kneissel can also be found here. It's conveniently located at the convergence of the Chiyoda, Toei Shinjuku and Maranouchi subway lines.

LESSONS - A half-day of group lessons cost around Y3,500, a full-day Y4,500. Private lessons are usually available for around four times as much.

INDOOR SKIING - One of the strange manifestations of this popular sport. Like giant, refrigerated warehouses they are complete with hills, real snow and lifts. There are several in Japan but the two largest are in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo. The SSAWS complex is the largest while Ski in Tsudanuma is more attractive. An afternoon of skiing is around Y4,500.

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