Ski Japan 2012 - Snow, Onsen, Sushi - Part 3

Shirakawa-Go to Kanazawa

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Takasu Snow Park
Dynaland and Takasu Snow Park 
Altitude - 950-1550m
Lifts - 10
Runs - 30
Snow Depth - 240cms

A short drive from Shirakawa-Go village are the Gifu Prefecture ski areas of Dynaland (pronounced dai-na-ran-do) and Takasu Snow Park, two large neighbouring resorts that are linked on the one lift pass. Together they are one of the largest ski areas in Japan, and are among the most popular for Japanese from Nagoya and Osaka.

These two snowy places complement each other beautifully. Takasu has long cruisey skyline runs that go on forever. There are also bits of tolerated off-piste through the trees around the higher runs. Great views as well, although it was a bit overcast that day.

Dynaland has shorter runs but some of these are more challenging. It also has lots of other features like parks, including one great area in and around the trees that had lots of jumps, rails and other features amongst the powder.

More pictures from Takasu can be found here and a couple of videos from Dynaland can be found on YouTube here and here.

Lunch - At Dynaland there is a big canteen-style restaurant which had a good selection (no English menu but pictures helped!) of Japanese lunch dishes.

There was a most delicious sake sashimi don: salmon sashimi; salmon ikura (roe), nori (seaweed); wasabi; egg; a big shiso leaf; and rice. Mmmm ... hmmm! And a tasty, more-ish tempura prawn udon noodle soup. Click the picture for some close-up yummy goodness!

Ouka No Yu Onsen
Onsen - When Spring comes along, the snows at Dynaland and Takasu ski resorts will quickly melt into the many streams that run down the mountain into the valley below. Those streams will then join with the Shokawa River, which flows through a narrow gap in the mountain ranges, back past Shirakawa-Go and then into the Sea of Japan at Toyama Bay.

By the side of this wonderful river just a short drive from the skiing at Takasu is the charming Ouka No Yu onsen.

This is a large onsen complex but there are few people around this early in the afternoon. The inside is very good with its high wooden ceilings, but the outside is lovely!

After warming up and soothing ski legs inside, the cold air is so refreshing, and then I settle into the soaking hot water once more. The outside area has a water feature where the onsen water is piped up high, from where it then cascades in a waterfall. You can sit in little caves in the rocks behind the curtain of water.


Refreshed from our onsen on the banks of the Shokawa River, we have a drive now to the city of Kanazawa that takes just a few hours and delivers us out of the Gifu mountains and on to the Japan Sea coast.

Iox-Arosa Trail Map
Our accommodation in wonderful Kanazawa for three nights is the welcoming Murataya Ryokan, a centrally located inn right in the middle of the action of this larger city. We wander this thriving, cosmopolitan city and find some good Izakaya food and plum wine!

Altitude - 350-850m
Lifts - 6
Runs - 7
Snow Depth - 240cms

Iox-Arosa is a small ski area less than an hour from Kanazawa with brilliant views over the snowy plains to the Sea of Japan.

Snow conditions for our visit were fantastic, but the terrain is fairly limited at this popular ski area for the Kanazawa and Toyama area.

The positives: a gondola to the top of the resort where there are fantastic views over the surrounding countryside, and a massive, wide run all the way down to the bottom of the ski area. Glory GS turns all the way down!

The negatives: well, the main run is really the only skiing - one brilliant run! After that, there's really nothing much more to do. Oh well!

Omicho Market in Kanazawa

Back in trendy Kanazawa it is lunchtime! In this coastal centre that specialises in seafood straight out of the ocean a visit to the bustling Omicho Market is in order.

Winter is crab season and these catches are highly prized in Japan for their high quality. There is seafood of so many varieties it is mind-boggling.

Kanazawa Castle
The Omicho market has probably the freshest conveyor seafood sushi restaurant going, supplied as it is by incredible delicacies straight into the market from the fishing vessels from the Sea of Japan. We eat our fill in preparation for an afternoon's walking around the sights.

The Kanazawa Castle Park is a mix of old and new. Most of the fortresses here had burned down at some point in their history, but much of the castle has now been reconstructed, surprising recently. However, one gate dates from the 18th century, and much of the 400-year-old castle walls remain.


The wonderful Kenrokuen Garden is by far the most famous part of the city of Kanazawa. It is really what the Japanese tourists come here to see.

The formal Japanese gardens are set right next door to the Kanazawa Castle Park, and they were originally part of the castle itself, overlooking the city around them.

Kenrokuen is often cited among the top three formal gardens in Japan, spreading over 25 acres.

According to the tourist literature, the Japanese "Kenrokuen" means "having six factors" or six attributes that make up the perfect garden. They are: spaciousness, tranquility, artifice, antiquity, water courses, and magnificent views.

You will notice how the trees often need to be supported as the branches have been twisted and shaped over the years into unnatural positions that need some assistance.

In winter, the weight of the wet snow that often falls here on the coast means even more additional support is required for the tree branches. The arrays of ropes are known as "yukitsuri" and they protect the branches from snapping under the weight of a heavy winter snowfall.

The prettiest parts of the garden are where there is water - in ponds, streams or waterfalls. The reflections are magical, and the old teahouses sit prettily on the banks of two lakes.

Elsewhere there is a cherry tree grove where the trees are now bare but the buds are sitting patiently at the end of the branches waiting for Spring to arrive.

There is even a "mountain" or two to climb - one of the features of Japanese gardens are that they give the impression of larger-scale scenery in miniature. Mosses can be fields, raised ground a mountain, lakes are inland seas, and streams are roaring rivers.

Kenrokuen is truly a wonderful garden, and many more pictures from Kenrokuen, the Kanazawa Castle Park, and the market can be found in this gallery.


Ski Japan 2012 - Snow, Onsen, Sushi - Part 2

There is something about Takayama that immediately made us regret staying in this wonderful place for only two nights.

While this quaint little city was quiet in the winter season - and its not really that big (only around 100,000 inhabitants) - we found it somewhat magical in its tradition and style. Not only that - you could walk everywhere quite easily!

The city of Takayama developed during the 16th century, but its location high in the Japanese Alps ensured it was left to develop its own local quirks and culture. Now, many of the old merchant quarters are still well-preserved and, in other seasons, this is a popular tourist spot for Japanese.

The tradespeople of Takayama were known for their clever skills in carpentry and woodwork, and that is still evident today. The ancient houses in this region have wonderful wooden frontages. A ball of cedar hanging from the eaves denotes the residence is a sake brewery (many of which are still operating today).

Travellers to Japan and Takayama would be well-advised to check out Hida-Takayama's excellent Facebook page for information about local festivals, customs, culture and other activities. Along with free WiFi in the city centre, it all adds up to a very welcoming city for tourists.

Onsen - We had spoiled ourselves a little with the hotel in Takayama. It was a beauty - this hotel couldn't come more highly recommended.

Takayama Ouan Hotel is a stylish blend of old and new. With tatami floors throughout, the snow-dampened wheels of our luggage were towelled down by the concierge to dry them before touching (and damaging) the tatami!

Today's onsen experience was in the hotel itself! Takayama Ouan's five onsen are on the top-floor of the hotel with brilliant views over the city by day or by night. Three private onsen with views can also be reserved. What better way to relax after a day's skiing and sightseeing than to relax in a rooftop spa overlooking a city as its lights come on as the sun sets.

Dinner - We dined out in the Takayama city centre at a tiny tempura restaurant we had read about online. There was probably room for about eight people along the bar of Ebihachi. The husband and wife team delivered us a mouthwatering selection of tempura seafood and vegetables which we enjoyed with cold beer. What can be better than that?

Lots more pictures of Hida-Takayama and the wonderful Takayama Ouan Hotel and Onsen can be found here.

Takayama to Shirakawa-Go

Nagareha Onsen Trail Map
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Hida Nagareha Onsen
Altitude - 750-1400m
Lifts - 7
Runs - 7
Snow Depth - 220cms

After a fond farewell to Takayama and not least our hotel's awesome buffet breakfast, we headed towards our next destination.

Of course, on the way to Shirakawa-Go we stopped off for a morning ski at another of the Hida region's many ski areas.

Nagareha Onsen is a bit off the beaten track in a valley 45 minutes north from Takayama. Also known as "Star Spur", the ski station is based around one main lift.

From the top ski lift you can take a variety of "spurs" down to the base station in the valley. The first spur was a lovely, long cruisey ski run with nice views across the valley. The second was a bit challenging with an extremely steep start ... and the third was closed off because of a landslide ... interesting!

So we decided to go up the last short ski lift and see the summit which, on the piste map, is show as a small area of a few short runs and a restaurant. Well ... no! This was where all the snow was, where all the interesting terrain was, and where the powder was! Great variety of terrain and fall lines, which is sometimes unusual in Japan.

More pictures from Nagareha Onsen are here (including the landslide!), while I also have a short video clip on YouTube.

Source: Nagareha Onsen website
Onsen - With a name like Nagareha Onsen you'd expect there to be an onsen here to soothe sore skiing legs! And there was ...

The onsen here was very different from previous ones so far on this trip. While the onsen visited in previous days have been sedate and picturesque, Nagareha was modern, and with heaps of features. Like the smartphone of onsen! There were jacuzzi and various physiotherapy contraptions in water - none of which I knew how to operate but I felt healthier just being near them!

I shared the jacuzzi for a short time with a family of three generations - a young boy, his dad and grandfather enjoying the bubbles. I suppose this is how families bathed in earlier times. I entertained the child saying konnichi-wa.


Through winding mountain roads in the more remote wilds of northern Gifu, and then by an expressway the entire journey of which is through a tunnel, we reach our next stop - for just one night!

One night only as this is Shirakawa-Go, a preserved traditional farming village that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The village is nestled here on a rare piece of level land next to a raging river. All around the forested mountains rise up imposingly.

The huge three-storey farmhouses dotted around this village have thatched slanted roofs to keep the pressure from the heavy snow off the wooden beams. There is about a metre of snow in the fields in this area in January.

Our farmhouse and home for the night is called Kidoya and we are the only guests on this snowy winter's night. We are welcomed by an elderly lady who shows us down the central passage to a room separated from other empty rooms by sliding screen doors.

In the centre of our little tatami room is a kotatsu, a low table common in many Japanese rooms, but with a heating source underneath here. You sit at the table to warm yourself, with your legs underneath the covers while you have tea, eat, read or watch TV.

We head out into the snow to explore the historic village and take in the sights. When it becomes dark and the lights in all the farmhouses are switched on, it is very special - a bit like a more realistic (cos its so cold!) snowy fairytale perhaps.

Dinner - Dinner is served in the farmhouse tonight! We eat in the house's single dining room which is a tantalising blend of old and new. There is a traditional iriri, or hearth, but also a huge flat-screen TV!

We are provided with lots of lovely little plates of food, as well as a big hotpot bubbling away on a burner on each table.

There is fire-grilled whole river fish, soft and juicy daikon, warming miso soup, tofu, honey potatoes and various vegetables, crunchy pickles, and more, plus a milky glass of sake!

We sleep remarkably well in this huge, peaceful, old house.

More pictures from Shirakawa-Go can be found here.


Ski Japan 2012 - Snow, Onsen, Sushi - Part 1

Ueda in Nagano Prefecture is not your typical starting point for a ski tour of Japan. This fairly non-descript and functional city is little more than an hour by Shinkansen from Tokyo, and we arrive here straight from Narita Airport with our bags still tagged, tired from the unwanted stop in Cairns.

There is some sense in this madness, however. Here we can pick up a car with snow tyres (more difficult in Tokyo) and it is just the right spot for a sleep after the long flight from Australia and the perfect place to start this tour.

Ueda to Hida Takayama

It is pretty cold in the morning in Ueda, about -9c. All the same it is sunny, but it may seem unusual that there's no snow around. I think this low-lying area, like much of Nagano Prefecture, is in an area of rain shadow and, as a consequence, it is quite dry in winter.

We don't get into the snows until we pass the city of Matsumoto that morning and head from there up into the Japanese Alps.

Norikura Kogen Onsen Trail Map
Norikura Kogen Onsen
Altitude - 1490-2000m
Lifts - 8
Runs - 21
Snow Depth - 145cms

About half an hour's drive from the big provincial city of Matsumoto is Norikura Kogen Onsen, a hot springs (or spa) resort that is very popular amongst Japanese in summer for high country relaxation and hiking up to nearby Mt Norikura.

The steep drive up here from Matsumoto reminds me of the French Alps - the sheer mountainsides, road tunnels, winding roads and hydro power rivers and dams eventually giving way to the plateau with all the little pensions and tourist stores, now closed for the winter.

The Norikura Kogen Onsen ski area benefits from its very high, by Japanese standards, altitude. And it needs this benefit too, as it is unfortunate enough to be stuck in that Nagano rain shadow and so has to utilise the very cold temperatures that go with high altitude to retain whatever snow it can get during the storms that reach it.

Oden and Miso Noodle Soup
Having driven straight to the mountain resort from Ueda, we only spend an afternoon at Norikura Kogen Onsen, but it proves to be a very good ski warm-up coming just the next day after our flight to Japan from Australia.

There are a good variety of gentle, easy ski runs that help us find our ski legs again, as well as a nice long cruiser that runs down a spur served by a single lift, and some short powder runs at the top of the ski area.

The snow cover for our visit, although pretty good, was surprisingly not enough for some of the lower ski runs to be open. But the black runs that were open provided some short, technical fun near the car park. It was a weekday so there was nobody there apart from some Japanese high school groups.

Lunch - The ski area restaurant we visited was a nice, big place with good views, high up in the ski area and provides bargain lunches. No English of course, so selection of meal was by picture. We opted for a traditional Oden and a miso noodle soup, with many free pickles!

Source: Hirayu-No-Mori Website
Onsen - It may not appear immediately obvious to the reader with so much descriptive and photographic variety in this most interesting part of the world, but there are patterns of routine to this tour.

Generally speaking, if you look carefully, you may observe this pattern. Here it is: Ski ... then lunch ... then ski ... then onsen ... then dinner.

Don't underestimate the bathing in the onsen. The bathing is very important! And this article is as much about the onsen as the skiing.

Just another thirty minutes from Norikura Kogen Onsen is the pass over the mountains and a famous hot springs town called Hirayu Onsen. After our first ski, it is bathing time and the onsen here is called Hirayu-No-Mori, a top spa for weary travellers and skiers.

The snow falls as I soak in the rocky outdoor pools. Each pool is a different temperature ranging from warm to scorching! It is a beautiful setting with the forested mountains all around and the snowflakes cooling the hot spring's heat. Suitably soaked, soothed and relaxed, we drive the 40 minutes to our  next destination - Hida Takayama.

Dinner - Hida Takayama is across the border from Nagano Prefecture in neighbouring Gifu Prefecture. This tradition-filled historic town sits high up in the Hida mountain country, surrounded by peaks and it is snowbound in winter - snow tyres required.

More on Takayama later, but this evening after a long day driving and skiing and bathing we need to eat. It has been a long first day of the tour and we deserve a night out after all!

A short stroll from the hotel takes us past traditional Takayama buildings all lit up around a bridge over the town's main river. It is magical, quiet and peaceful as we search along the river for a local restaurant.

We find Agura Izakaya and it is a top place to eat and drink, Izakaya-style. We drink plum wine (sweet with ice!) and chu-hai (a Japanese cocktail of clear spirit with soda and fruit juice) and order many goodies - small plates and wotnot - and the staff are lovely and not freaked out by us gaijin and the food is extremely yummy.

Hida Takayama

After a well-earned rest in our very comfortable Takayama hotel we awoke to a lovely little city blanketed in white with clearing morning skies. Looking like a very fine day for skiing, we headed up to nearby Honouki Daira Winter Resort.

Honoki Daira Trail Map
Honoki Daira

Altitude - 1250-1550m
Lifts - 7
Runs - 16
Snow Depth - 125cms

Little Honoki is just a short drive from Takayama back up into the mountains in the direction of Matsumoto. On paper, its not that interesting as ski areas go: not a lot of vertical, smallish and the base area - while modelled on European ski resorts with its line up of chalet buildings - feels very geared to school trips.

But taking the first lift up, a vast ungroomed run of knee-deep powder reveals itself ... and its on!

Its short and sweet here compared to many Japanese ski areas where they truly love their really long cruisey runs.

But in good conditions the options open up at Honoki: a big wide ungroomed red run here; areas to the side of the groomed runs there; and steeps with tree skiing. In a country where off-piste is limited and often fenced off, Honoki seems to be relaxed enough to allow a bit more freedom.

Its quite a pretty place as well when the clouds lift and the conifer-forested hills reveal themselves. And then from the summit, a surprise - a view to a frozen waterfall where tens of meters of ice are suspended frozen above the trees.

More ski and snow pictures from Honoki here.

In the afternoon we visit the Hida Folk Village (Hida No Sato), a lovingly preserved reserve - or museum even - of traditional rural Japanese farmhouses set in a gorgeous cluster around a big lake a few kilometres from Takayama.

The ancient farmhouses scattered here have been collected and moved here from locations around the Prefecture. They date across five centuries and you can wander around inside them and see how the mountain farmers from around this region lived and worked in these huge, intricately thatched buildings.

Fires are kept burning to provide atmosphere and realism and many contain historical artifacts and interesting descriptions of life in the winter snows, silk making (silk worms were kept in the top part of the buildings; and in winter, cattle in the lower) and handicrafts in era before electricity.

A closer look at Hida No Sato and the fascinating farmhouses can be found here.