Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2006
January’s record snowfall overwhelmed“Snow Country,” disarming even locals used to harsh winters. The ski resorts must be happy, though. After all, surely a ski resort wants as much snow as possible.
Not quite! Many resorts struggled to keep their slopes in order, while the risk of avalanches rose sharply. It took several weeks to return to situation normal and now, with decent amounts of fresh snow still falling on a regular basis, conditions are unbeatable.
As for avalanches, if you keep to the courses there should be nothing to worry about, but if you’re venturing off, be sensible and adhere to avalanche patrol warnings. Here are three resort areas recommended by Snow Japan (see Travelogue) that offer different experiences but good times for all.
Shiga Kogen, Nagano Prefecture
Unlike most resorts in Japan, Shiga Kogen comprises about 20 resorts that are all connected—mostly skiable, although you need to take a bus to get to one part—and you can buy a lift ticket that is valid for the entire region. This is the kind of place that takes three days to ride, rather than just three hours. You approach the area on the winding Route 292 with spectacular views of Nagano and beyond. After the first resort, Sun Valley, you must choose either to go south to Kumanoyu and Yokoteyama (both skiers-only resorts) or to the central and northern parts of Ichinose, Yakebitaiyama and Okushiga Kogen. Shiga Kogen offers a huge selection of runs, is not usually crowded, has excellent snow right up until spring, and on a clear day you will be rewarded with truly spectacular views.
Experienced riders: Yakebitaiyama, Okushiga Kogen
Olympic slalom course: Yakebitaiyama
Skiers-only areas: Okushiga Kogen, Kumanoyu, Yokoteyama
Spectacular viewpoints: Yokoteyama
Yuzawa Town, Niigata Prefecture
At 80 minutes on the Joetsu Shinkansen and only about three hours by car, Yuzawa is possibly the easiest ski town to get to from Tokyo. Popular picks among the nearby resorts include Iwappara, GALA Yuzawa, Ishiuchi Maruyama and Kandatsu. A little further afield is the popular Kagura resort (20 minutes by car or bus from Echigo Yuzawa station) or Naeba (40 minutes). There’s plenty of choice, but unlike Shiga Kogen all of the resorts are not connected.
Experienced riders: Kagura, Naeba, Kandatsu
Families, young children: NASPA Ski Garden, Yuzawa Park
Spectacular viewpoints: GALA Yuzawa, Iwappara, Naeba
Skiers-only areas: NASPA Ski Garden
Northern Gunma Prefecture
It may not be as famous as Niigata and Nagano, but Gunma has some excellent resorts, predominantly in the Minakami and Katashina regions to the north. Kawaba is one of the area’s most interesting resorts. Located deep in the mountains, the first thing you notice is the incongruous multi-story car park, which also houses Kawaba City. This is the base of the resort, with rental facilities, shops and restaurants. Exit the building on the top floor and find yourself at the bottom of the slopes. The base is at an altitude of around 1,300 meters, and with the top at over 2,000 meters snow conditions at Kawaba are often excellent. Compared to better-known resorts, Kawaba is not crowded and worth checking out, and on a fine day you can see Mt. Fuji from the top. Marunuma Kogen is another popular resort that has a long season and good conditions. This year they plan to remain open until about May 7.