Ski Japan - Skiing in Central Japan - Part 1

Many of you will know I wrote two big ski trip reports from Japan in 2012 (Ski Japan 2012 - Snow, Onsen, Sushi) and 2013 (Ski Japan 2013 - Powder, Onsen, Sake). Little did you know there was actually a trip back in 2011 as well, our first to Japow. That trip took in the ski resorts around Yuzawa, Gunma Prefecture (rarely visited by foreigners), and beautiful Nozawa Onsen. Well, here is that report, digitally remastered for your reading and viewing pleasure! Timely, I thought, with the fantastic snow in Japan right now.

Ski Japan 2011 - Skiing in Central Japan - Part 1

Some people say that half the fun is getting there. I’m not sure where those people were going but waiting helplessly at airports and being squashed into airplane seating isn’t the fun part of my holidays. Exciting, perhaps, with that wonderful sense of freedom and anticipation, but not enjoyable in itself. So, happily I have helped get another common saying debunked!

Arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport was when the exciting part of our journey really began. The touch-down at Tokyo’s second airport was the final step of a two-stage epic flight from Melbourne via Beijing.

I didn’t observe much about the Beijing area from the air apart from it clearly being very dry and flat and covered in very well-organised housing developments. We must have flown over North and/or South Korea from Beijing to Tokyo but weren’t party to any war games.

Haneda is much nearer to the centre of Tokyo than Narita Airport, and a bumpy, fun 20-minute trip on a monorail through the port area. Within a few hours we were on our way out of Tokyo towards the mountains via Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station.

One hour after leaving Tokyo we were extremely pleased to once more be in the snow-capped mountains, rocketing incredibly smoothly through the many pitch-black railway tunnels before arriving in no time at Yuzawa Station in the heart of “Snow Country”. The train emerged from the long tunnel into a winter wonderland blanketed in snow and surrounded by forested hills and mountains.

Path to Sierra Resort, Iwappara
Yuzawa is a hot springs town made famous by Yasunari Kawabata’s book, “Snow Country”, one of the most renowned works of Japanese literature. The book – the story of a Tokyo man who visits the mountains to see a hot springs geisha - starts: “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.”

We began our own journey in Snow Country by picking up a rental car conveniently near the train station. 

(We've always used Nippon Rent-A-Car and have found them to be very good).

The rental car man was so extremely, out-of-his-way helpful and brought us a different (better) car personally to our hotel the next day only as we had mentioned it would be a little awkward for transporting our skis without a hatchback! We hadn't booked a hatchback specifically.

View from room at Sierra Resort
Talking of the hotel, Sierra Resort is a wonderful white European resort-style building situated smack bang between two ski slopes on the side of a mountain overlooking Yuzawa Town.

A winding road bordered by walls of snow takes you to up to the car park, and then it’s an underground walk under a ski slope to get to the hotel itself.

The room we were given was absolutely huge, with a stunning picture window overlooking one ski slope and part of the town.

Naturally, as with everywhere in Japan, the bathroom was typically small given the size of the room. But the bed was huge and comfortable and we slept well.

We opted to have our dinners at Sierra Resort. That ended up being a fine choice with fine dining in the restaurant overlooking the night-time lights lower in the valley.

Our first meal set the scene – a sumptuous five-course dinner. After a few culinary issues relating to ‘what is meat’, we were finally able to enjoy a range of seafood and chicken French-style dishes.

The finale was when we were presented with a most artistic patissier’s plate with flourless tomato cake and sesame ice cream, a chocolate twist, homemade sesame tuille, steeped cherry tomatoes with gold leaf, and a raspberry glaze splashed on the edge of the plate.

Gala Yuzawa ski area
A whopping one metre of snow had fallen on the Yuzawa ski fields in the week before we arrived in Yuzawa.

The skies, however, were clear for our arrival and for the following morning and we made our way experimentally by car for the first time in Japan to a nearby ski area called Gala Yuzawa.

The very popular (with Tokyoites) Gala is also in Yuzawa Town and even has its own Shinkansen (bullet train) station!

We were greeted by a sunny first morning with great views over the town. But the weather quickly turned in the afternoon. No surprise as we could see it rolling ominously in from the Sea of Japan.

It started to snow really heavily and we found a great area with nobody around that we could ski down and get fresh tracks in the snow each time. 

But soon it got quite cold and – thanks to some aching first-day legs – we headed back via a very long 2.5kms ski run to the car park with the intention of deservedly trying out the onsen and soothing those aching legs.

The Sierra Resort has an inside onsen, or hot springs bath, for washing and soaking but we only used the outside one during our stay.

Their hot springs bath overlooks the town and it is particularly spectacular at night looking down on the lights of the town after some sake with the snow falling.

It was quiet in the hotel and we had the individual man's and lady's baths to ourselves during the midweek. A hat is available to keep the snow off while you soak, naked of course!

The next morning it was still snowing from the previous day and it had in fact been constantly snowing heavily for a good 20 hours.

Given the sheer size of the snowfall, we decided that morning to stick around the little ski area where our hotel is, called Iwappara, and take advantage of ski-in, ski-out and a refuge to a warm room should it get too much like a blizzard!

We did have to make a trip in to Yuzawa Town, however, to change some money which meant finding the new car in the car park. Not so easy when you have never seen the car before – and so only know its make - and half a metre of snow has fallen on it!

View of Kagura from Iwaparra
The snow continued to fall throughout the day. At one point we waited it out and warmed up in a quaint and authentic Italian eatery on the mountain which served really really nice pizza and had a remarkable wine cellar.

When there was finally a break in the cloud we took a video. Basically we had been doing laps skiing powder that was filling in all the tracks constantly. Hard work, but a lot of fun. Time for another well-deserved onsen followed by another excellent five-course dinner!

The snow must have finally ceased sometime that night as in the morning we woke to blue skies and brilliant sun.

Top of Kagura
An amazing panorama to behold with all that pure white snow now lit up reflecting the daylight. Certainly makes everywhere look magical when fresh snow blankets the town.

The picture above shows where we were heading to ski that morning – right up in the hills there in the far centre distance.

I’d been waiting patiently for the right day to go to the Kagura/Naeba ski area, a vast area at a higher altitude that I wanted to be able to explore in the sunshine, or at least on a fine day when you could see the mountains around you.

Despite the wonderful sunshine it was a very very cold morning but fortunately not too windy. A half an hour drive to the Mitsumata Ropeway station and the temperature sat at around -7c.

View from Kagura back to Iwaparra
From here a cable car took us up into the mountains just to the base area of one of three of the Kagura/Naeba ski areas, called Mitsumata. We spent the morning traversing all three of them in the sun. While the sunshine was nice it was -12c up at the highest area!

The high altitude afforded us fantastic views of the Niigata mountains, frozen high country lakes, and back to Yuzawa Town. The long, white skifield in the distance in the photo is Iwappara where we are staying.

The feel of the area was closer to the French Alps than anywhere I have been in Japan with the extensive, cruisey runs taking you from valley to valley.

Once we reached the far side of Kagura at Tashiro we took the gondola, sorry ... the “Dragondola”, to the neighbouring ski area of Naeba.

The trip on the gondola was 5.5 kms, took 20 minutes and was a fabulous scenic rest.

At one point the gondola drops right down into a small gorge and sails over the mountain river a few metres below before riding upwards again to cross the next valley wall. I took a video of this as its beautiful to look at.

The Dragondola took us to neighbouring Naeba, a big ski area in its own right, enough to entertain for a few days.

After skiing the busier runs there, and having a good tasty lunch of salmon mayo rice, the rest of the day was spent making our way back to the Dragondola, and skiing back to where we started earlier in the day.

By the time we were skiing down from Kagura to Mitsumata the snow had started to fall again and we made our way back to our hotel for an onsen and some lovely food.

Another 20cms of snow on the car in the morning as we arrived at the car park ready for our next adventure – a trip to the historic and slightly crazy Joetsu Kokusai.

It was warmer that morning than it had been at only -1c. The wet snow at the bottom of Joetsu Kokusai made things a little uncomfortable for an hour as we sensibly headed to high ground where the snow should have been drier.

Joetsu Kokusai ski area
This turned out to be a much larger ski area than expected and it took us all day to get around it. This was partly due to the antiquated lift system which used a series of slow, 2-seater lifts around the top of the mountain to link four different parts of the ski area.

All four different areas were very distinct in flavour, but we preferred the rolling tree-lined runs on the other side of the resort. A constant, however, was the looped Michael Jackson on speakers that blasted out over the ski area. Odd!

A good place to stop for a great lunch of tempura rice bowl with massive prawns and supremely delicious tempura mushrooms. No other Westerners in this ski resort.

Finally we had made our way around in a circle or square and returned to the start and the resort’s bizarre themed hotel which, to be honest, is no weirder than the stuff Disney does.

Sierrra Resort
There was not much snow falling that evening as we headed back to the hotel, our wonderful hotel, although a lot was forecast.

Stopping for some provisions at the bottom of the mountain, the lovely shopkeepers in the 7-11 equivalent threw lollies and chocolates and some oranges into our bag for no apparent reason apart from they wanted to welcome us to their part of Japan.

We were beginning to wonder what would happen as we sat down for our final dinner at Sierra Resort. How nice the staff were there, giving us a free bottle of sake on our first night and a free bottle of French wine on our last night.

Ohhh! I had managed to mix the wine and sake and get a bit of hangover for the morning after our last meal at Sierra. During the awesome buffet breakfast the weather forecast was revealed to have been correct with a massive amount of snow on the ground (this was to become a trend!).

Iwaparra ski area
We skied the morning at Iwaparra, trying not to disappear in all the powder. When we got to the car at about lunch time there was about 40cms of snow on the roof that needed clearing.

This time we had all our luggage with us and were sadly saying goodbye to Iwappara and Sierra.

But before heading off to our next destination, first we had a trip to make to a quaint little museum in Yuzawa Town.

The town museum had a good selection of historical items showing life in the Snow Country such as primitive snow clothes, rice harvesting gear and silk weaving contraptions. There was also a tribute to author Yasunari Kawabata with personal items and a reconstruction of the room of the geisha from the story. As I read the book during our stay, many of the items brought to life scenes from the book.

Finally departing Yuzawa Town, we decided to take the tollway what with all the snow on the roads and headed towards Tokyo for half an hour.

Much of that drive was in a long road tunnel, which everyone drove through at 120km/h as in the snow they had been limited to about 80km/h by the conditions.

The skies began to clear as we came close to the foothills that marked the start of the Tokyo metropolitan area (which mainly stays sunny and dry through winter).

Then we headed back into the mountains through windy roads and the snows started again. By evening we had arrived at our next accommodation, a small pension high up in the mountains near Nikko. It was -10c when we arrived.

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