Ski Japan - Skiing in Central Japan - Part 2

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). This is Part 2 of a trip way back in 2011. Part 1 is here if you missed it a few weeks ago.
The road to Pension Currants

Ski Japan 2011 - Skiing in Central Japan - Part 2

Little Pension Currants is hidden nestled at the end of a long, winding road at 1400m altitude. Our stay was to be a very different type of stay compared to the luxuriousness of Sierra Resort.

The European-style Currants is owned by a lovely Japanese couple and has only a few small bedrooms. But we had a spacious cosy lounge and dining room to ourselves.

We had full room and board here and had lots of attention and lovely food lavished on just the two of us. I don't think anyone else visited while we were there!

The snow hadn't stopped falling since we had been driving up the day before and we woke to half a metre of snow on the car, clearing it off before a hearty breakfast.

Snow on the car after just 3 hours skiing
The nearest ski area, Malnuma (Marunuma) Kogen, is only a few hundred metres from the Pension but it was worth driving as close to the gondola lift as we could get in the snowy, cold conditions!

We skied the powdery snow that had settled on all the runs since they groomed them early in the morning. It was just so deep in places and kept getting filled in.

The gondola ride took us up to 2000m altitude where it was bitterly cold and windy. There aren't many places at this altitude in Japan skiing but there were no opportunities for scenic photos in the blizzard!

We had a great, tasty lunch of ebi fry kare reisu (crumbed tempura prawn on rice with Japanese curry sauce). When we got back to the car, another 30cms had fallen just while we were skiing!

Oze Iwakura ski resort
The next morning there was only 10cms of snow on the car. I almost felt robbed! We drove the 30 or so minutes down the hill to another ski resort in the Oze/Katashina area, Oze Iwakura.

Not knowing what to expect, we were greeted by a rather sizeable ski area with some challenging terrain, including some quite steep stuff and several ungroomed powder runs that saw you disappear a metre or so into the snow.

There were a few sunny spells, and it was thankfully a lot warmer and less windy.

Iwakura turned out to be a very nice ski area with some good wide, long and steep intermediate runs.

Lunch was a delicious tempura soba noodle soup with beautiful woodland mushrooms.

There were no Westerners anywhere and I doubt many Australians have ever visited this ski resort. I should have brought a flag... maybe not!

Iwakura had its own cool little Shinto (I think) shrine in a stand of conifers at the base area where all the hotels and restaurants were.

After a tough day's skiing and digging ourselves out of powder runs we deserved some soothing hot springs medicine!

We'd asked our hosts about a good place to go and bathe and soak in the area, but we were still a little nervous having only experienced the Sierra private spa baths without many other people around.

Our hosts recommended Hanasaku Onsen as one of the most splendid in the area and we hesitantly dropped in to try it out on the way back to the Pension.

Hanasaku Onsen
The onsen had indoor and outdoor baths. The indoor ones had soothing jets, but were extremely hot.

Outdoors, the various jacuzzis were perfect, with a beautiful view of the mountains as the light snowflakes fell around the coloured baby pine trees in the surrounding garden.

After what felt like a brief three-night stay in our comfy and cosy Pension it was too soon time to leave and move on again.

After our final breakfast we said sayonara to our lovely Japanese hosts.

We had had a lovely time being welcomed home like family members each evening from skiing. We had had a lovely time being waited on and catered for personally. We had enjoyed teaching our host English phrases and sharing information about Australia.

After saying our goodbyes we headed down the mountain once more and, after a quick ski at a place called "Ca et La", we made our way through the valleys as if heading for Tokyo.

Once again, instead of turning towards the sunny, dry plains around the Tokyo metro area, we switched back into the mountains. Through the long, freeway tunnel. Through Yuzawa Town, which you can get an idea of what its like to drive through in this video!

The depth of snow had increased so much since we had left Yuzawa Town a few days earlier. From Yuzawa we crossed the hills into the next valley. After a few hours we were at our next destination.

Nozawa Onsen village
It was hard to see how the skiing to date might be topped but our next destination was to do just that.

Nozawa Onsen is a mountain hot springs town in Nagano Prefecture. Like Yuzawa it had been a spa town for many years and so had developed its own distinct character well before skiing came along.

The very attractive old town sits at the base of the forested hills - now a huge ski area - and is a maze of small streets.

At Nozawa Onsen, our accommodation was a traditional Japanese ryokan, or inn. Fortunately there was a car parking space for us and a friendly welcome as the snow started on and off.

The top of the ski area,Yamabiko, is reached by either of two gondolas. The recent snows had collected on the trees here.

Public onsen
From the top, there are multiple ways to ski down ... and it takes a very long time with great views and a number of rest stops are required for burning thighs!

At the end of a hard day's skiing we arrive once again close to the town and stop for a look at the snow-covered roofs. A prettier setting is hard to imagine.

Nozawa Onsen is famous for its collection of free public onsen baths fed by hot mineral spring water. The old wooden bath-houses are dotted around town.

Brimming with confidence from our experience at the marvellous Hanasaku Onsen we went to one of the town onsen for a bath (traditionally, our room did not have its own bath or shower).

Beautiful though the buildings were in the snow with their wooden facades and temple-like structure, the baths themselves were tiny, burny hot, sulfurous, and not that well-maintained inside in terms of cleanliness.

Japanese-style room
The following night we found our hotel's own onsen which were delightful, with inside and outside baths, complementary showers and facilities, and this was our bathing place for the rest of the stay.

At the end of the day the long Skyline run takes us back to the village and, after pausing for another photo, we ski down to the car and head for a hot bath.

Eating out was great in Nozawa Onsen. we hadn't requested meals in the inn as we wanted to take advantage of the large number of restaurants within walking distance.

We found a tiny little sushi restaurant with a cheerful chatty sushi chef who prepared us lovely delicacies and a very solemn and quiet waiter who said nothing.

Another night was spent at a noisy Japanese-style pub shouting orders of the many goodies - many deep-fried - along with beer or chu-hi (a spirit called shochu with fruit flavourings).

Another evening was spent at a Japanese interpretation of a French/Italian restaurant in-between shopping for crafts and gifts.

Being very careful not to slip on ice after lots of food and wine or sake, we were always close to our inn and our traditional room with its mats and futons.

It was certainly sad to be leaving Nozawa Onsen, especially as the magic foot of powder had fallen again overnight. What a fantastic place!

There was now the little matter of getting to Tokyo which, while only a distance of 250kms, has some mountainous terrain in the way that makes he trip not so easy!

A typical road in Niigata Prefecture in winter consists of a snow-covered main road with walls built up by the constant work of snow-clearing machines. They can't get rid of the snow - it has nowhere to go.

The footpaths also have 3-metre walls of cleared and packed snow and are the only way locals can get around on foot. It was certainly an exciting drive, particularly on the narrow road linking the two valleys.

We took a video of the drive back to Yuzawa from Nozawa Onsen that has been on Youtube for a while.

After dropping off the hire car in Yuzawa Town we made our way back to Tokyo by shinkansen, or bullet train, in little over an hour.

Tokyo was like another world - it felt too warm, there were so many people, and the skyscrapers! Most telling was the lack of snow.

Our hotel room had an awesome view over the city from the 32nd floor.

We had time for a bit of shopping in the Ginza and in Kanda, where the ski gear shops are. We also managed a lunch of cold soba noodles with sushi.

In the evening, we ate out in the Ginza. One of the popular Japanese beers (Yebisu - not so well-known here) has a restaurant where you can match all the beers with different foods. Very enjoyable, as of course you need to try their whole range!

Our flight was so early the next morning we had to take a slow, local train to the airport.

From Narita we flew to Beijing. From Beijing to Shanghai. Then - for some inexplicable reason - we hugged the coastline of China almost to Hong Kong before heading to Australia.

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