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.


  1. Nice!
    Have you ever skiied in Hokkaido? How does Norikura Kogen Onsen compare?

  2. Hi ben. Yet to ski in Hokkaido, and you? - I hope to one day! So many ski areas in Japan :)