Great white slopes

The first of a two-part look at the best of Japan’s winter scene checks out the resorts of Honshu

Japan undoubtedly has the best skiing and boarding in Asia. The mountains are high enough to keep the clouds dumping on them all winter and there’s more resorts than any one person could reasonably cover in a lifetime.

The two islands of Japan with the most developed ski infrastructure are not surprisingly the most northerly ones: Hokkaido, which we will leave aside until next time, and Honshu, the central and largest island of Japan.

The Japan Alps that form the backbone of Honshu are studded with resorts and festooned with gondolas and chairlifts, and there are also smaller hotspots in the high hills north of Tokyo in Tohoku. Many unheralded resorts have their charms and appeal to both beginners (less intimidating crowds and terrain) and the more experienced (sleepier ski patrol meaning easy backcountry access). But if you want a single base from which to start your sweep of the best of Honshu’s resorts, look no further than Nagano.

Previously an Olympic host city, it sits surrounded by the densest and highest concentration of peaks in the Alps and in every direction save south, there are huge resorts cashing in on the crystalline magic that gets tipped from the heavens throughout the winter.

The big five

Hakuba
A perennial favourite, Hakuba is one of the most developed valleys, with a string of resorts including the famous Happo-One, Goryu and Hakuba 47. The surrounding peaks are some of the highest and most impressive in all of Japan and there’s plenty of snow too.

There’s stacks of runs to keep you busy though a car is handy to get around in. There is a shuttle service but it can take a while as the largely pension-style accommodation here means things are quite spread out. For those who don’t mind them, there are of course the usual ski hotels closer to the lifts at the bigger resorts.

Hakuba also offers a good variety of alternate activities with snowshoeing, snowmobiles and rafting all available for days when your knees or shins need some respite. Plus the restaurant and bar mix is more varied than in more traditional places

Myoko Kogen
A little north of Nagano, the cluster of resorts in this valley are less well known outside Japan than they deserve, making them also a little cheaper. Close to the Sea of Japan, the area gets good dumps of snow from January until April and the high peaks give rise to some of the longest runs anywhere in the country, particularly in the backcountry.

Suginohara is easily the biggest resort in the valley while the three others close by contribute a handful of smaller runs each. One complicating factor that needs to be considered though is the relative lack of English spoken. One or two experiences of drawing symbols and muddling through can be quaint but this is one place where making more of an effort to pick up the lingo will reap major dividends.

Minakami/Eichigo Yuzawa
This area straddles the border of Gunma and Niigata prefectures and is more famous with foreigners during the summer when many visit to go rafting and canyoning outside Minakami (see www.canyons.jp), or join the Fuji Rock festival at the Naeba resort.

Served by the same train line, on the Gunma side there is the imposing ridge of Tanigawa-dake (often known to locals as Tenjin) while across in Niigata lies Eichigo Yuzawa, a small town which acts as a gateway for Naeba and several smaller resorts in the same valley around Kagura.

Naeba has potential for the less experienced but a big part of the appeal of the area is its backcountry. Kagura has smallish hills that mean even intermediate skiers and boarders may be able to take on some off-piste, and you can easily connect back to Naeba via the world’s longest gondola, the Dragondola.

Tenjin on the other hand has terrain that is very much for experts. The back bowl is steep and unforgiving: people have been killed here so go with the right gear and people who know it well.

Nozawa Onsen
Northeast of Nagano lies the small village (and large resort) of Nozawa, offering possibly the most original alpine experience in Honshu. Here you can stay in rustic old hotels, drink shoulder-to-shoulder with the remarkably unaffected locals and sample old fashioned Japanese hospitality. Oh, and in case that didn’t grab your attention, note that both the sake and the onsen are free. Granted a little Japanese is needed to make the most of the opportunity but no pain, no gain, right?

The picture out on the slopes is rosy too. Nozawa regular gets more snow than most other resorts in Honshu, with even December being worth a go here. There’s plenty of slope to aim at, with one piste extending up to a quad-trembling 10km, but the experts will fancy a go at the great backcountry too.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to be here on January 15, you can witness the startling Dosojin Fire Festival in which a pitched, sake-fuelled battle is fought for control of a wooden shrine. It’s an old ceremony that has the village’s 25-year-olds guarding the shrine from an attacking force of the village’s 42-year-olds. Though an important annual rite, it is not for the feint-hearted and injuries are common so watch it for sure but don’t get too close.

Get more details on the village and resort at www.nozawaski.com

Shiga Kogen
A 30m in bus ride from Nagano deposits you at the doorstep of this monster resort area: one of the world’s largest with 21 resorts all on the same ticket! While the snowfall is not the equal of resorts further north, with nearly 90 slopes there is always something available from late November through to early May.

Most runs are on the short side with relatively little vertical. This is due mainly to the high base elevation with the resorts themselves already sitting at around 1,300m, higher than the highest peaks to be found in other parts of the country. What this means is that you are likely to get plenty of use out of the lift pass – great for the beginner or intermediate building their confidence, if a little limiting for stronger skiers and boarders looking for challenges.

See www.shigakogen.gr.jp/english/  to get an idea of the scope of this massive resort.

Quirky alternatives

Gassan
More a curiosity than a core destination. Gassan has a late, late season that doesn’t even start until April and can last into June. That’s down to so much snow that the road access is blocked for most of the traditional ski season of January-March. What’s left by the time you can get into the area is very variable. Still, as an option for true die-hards looking to eke out one last trip in the winter, it can be handy.

Zao
Relatively easy to reach via shinkansen from Tokyo to Yamagata, Zao has good infrastructure but ultimately is a bit limited for the hardcore skier or boarder. Its main claim to fame is its ‘snow monsters’, slopes of conifers that are blasted by blizzards and plastered in snow. They are an unusual sight which attract camera-toting locals despite the fact that the phenomenon is by no means unique to Zao.

Thanks go to Chris Chen and JNTO for their help in the preparation of this article.

When to go
There’s some pre-Christmas skiing and boarding but the snow is unreliable. The core months are January and February though it can get very busy then so the savvy often hoard their holiday time until March when the crowds thin out. Whatever the month, weekends should be avoided like the plague or, if you must, get out super early or go for the night skiing.

How to get around
Shinkansen bullet trains connect most major cities in Japan. From Tokyo the most useful are the Tohoku line serving northern Honshu, and the Joetsu line with a branch that goes to Nagano. Besides these there are other train services of varying speed and cost. In some cases you will need to change to these to get to resorts. If you are organising your own trip, you will find the timetable at www.hyperdia.com invaluable.

Another way to get around is by bus and the larger resorts are served by long distance routes from places such as Tokyo and Osaka, some of them overnight trips though they don’t always provide the fullest night’s sleep. The main complication is that there is little information available outside the country. The surest way is to try with the bus companies face-to-face and that often means speaking some Japanese.

Where to stay
Many big resorts are based around tower hotels – perfectly fine quality-wise but often with tiny rooms and definitely less appealing than the delightful chalets or condos most foreigners imagine in such mountainous surroundings. Some villages offer minshuku (pensions) and other less formal styles of accommodation and often have wider (and cheaper) dining options, though don’t expect much Western food in smaller places.

What else to do
Snowshoeing is a great way to see the backcountry. Some resorts may have snowmobiles and snowrafting too.

One Japanese experience that is a must is the onsen, or hot spring, preferably an outdoor one. Most resorts have several: sometimes unisex, mostly segregated. Try a local bar or isakaya too, where you can rub shoulders with locals, downing beers and munching on yakitori.

Further info
www.snowjapan.com is peerless. For English-speakers, it would be hard to organise any independent skiing or boarding trips without it. Japan National Tourism Organisation, www.jnto.go.jp, have plenty of maps and general info. One agency worth contacting are Ski Japan Holidays, www.japanspecialists.com