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Snow time
like the present


The Japan ski season has once again arrived. Hundreds of thousands of thrill-seekers will soon be filling up the trains on their way to resorts dotted all over the mountainous regions of Honshu and Hokkaido. Information in English on the winter sports scene has been difficult to come by, putting some foreigners off taking to the slopes. Until now. Michael James gives the definitive guide to where, when and how to get your share of the white stuff this winter.

The first resort
The Japanese long ago embraced skiing with an enthusiasm only they possess. Even longer ago, at the beginning of the century, people living in the mountainous regions on the Japan Sea coast were using primitive "skis" to get around - long pine skis with bamboo poles. Enjoyment and sport were far from these peoples' minds as they tried to survive in areas where accumulated snow of up to four or five meters was not uncommon. The idea that this form of transportation could actually become fun (not to mention big business) started when an Austrian named Schneider introduced more developed skis (lighter and with bindings) to Japan in the 1930s. Herr Schneider, complete with his fancy three-piece suit (worn on the slopes, of course) impressed all and the skiing boom took off. With no shortage of mountains to be developed, skiing areas popped up all over Honshu and Hokkaido. Some of today's best resorts have their beginnings around that time. (The Japan Ski Museum at Nozawa Onsen shows this history in pictures and is worth a visit.)

The affluent eighties saw some serious winter resort development. New resorts appeared at an astonishing rate and many of the existing resorts were expanded. Modern high-speed quad lifts, gondolas and ropeways were built, leaving Japan with some of the finest facilities in the world. With all this development and a carefully cultivated image, skiing became the thing to be seen doing. Unfortunately, this meant that the resorts became almost unbearably busy, with long lines for lifts and bottlenecks on the slopes. There were even stories of businessmen taking the first train out of Tokyo in a morning, skiing for a few hours and getting back to Tokyo in time for work.

Board to death
After the bubble, as the number of people trekking out to the mountains decreased, many of the resorts started to get nervous about their investments. Then came snowboarding. Snowboarding revived interest in the winter sports scene and is now the prime pursuit. At first, due to its radical image, resorts where you could snowboard were few and far between, but over the last few years that has changed dramatically. Many now have more snowboarders than skiers on their slopes and are preparing special snowboarding parks with halfpipes, quarter pipes and other facilities adventurous boarders look for.

The Japanese certainly take their skiing and snowboarding seriously and a good technique (rather than just enjoying yourself) seems to be the ultimate goal - don't expect many adventurous off-piste riders. Although the large amounts of alcohol consumed over lunch at a Japanese resort may shock serious European or American skiers, the apres ski in Japan is often disappointing, with the choice limited to the usual restaurants and karaoke bars. For most, the serious business is on the slopes and those looking for a bit more excitement may want to try one of the more fashionable resorts like Naeba in Niigata Prefecture. One apres ski activity that Japan does revel in is onsen. Many of the winter resorts in Japan are located in onsen towns and regions, and a long, soothing soak in the onsen is a great way to relax after a hard day on the slopes.

For people living in the city, escaping to the fresh air and beauty of the mountains is a treat, the perfect way to maximize your weekend and get out of gloomy Tokyo. It's surprisingly simple. Day trips from Tokyo are more than possible - thousands do it every day. The ultimate in convenience has to be GALA Yuzawa with its own shinkansen station (which doubles as a gondola station); you'll be on the slopes in less than 90 minutes from central Tokyo.

Be warned: All this fun does not come cheap. Expect to pay around JY4000 for a one-day lift pass, and ski or snowboard set rental at a resort usually costs JY3000-JY4000 a day. The alternative is buying the necessary equipment, probably the best choice for those planning on going to the slopes more than a couple of times. The season is only just beginning and, with most resorts open until early April and the higher locations open for "spring skiing" in May, there are many weekends ahead to look forward to. Even better, take a day or two off work and go mid-week to make most of the almost-empty slopes by yourself. Enjoy!

Snow seekers
The most hardcore skiers and snowboarders generally head up to Hokkaido, where the unbeatable snow, emptier slopes and lengthy season are the perfect recipe for a five month winter sports wonderland. (See Travel on p 8 for further Hokkaido skiing opportunities.) But it's not necessary to go so far. Areas of Honshu mere hours from Tokyo by shinkansen also offer excellent skiing from January until March, April or even, at the highest resorts, May. For those in a little more of a hurry, try one of the following resorts:

Niigata
For convenience, the Chuetsu area of southern Niigata Prefecture can't be beat. Taking the Joetsu shinkansen, you can be at Echigo Yuzawa station in as little as 66 minutes from Tokyo station. Yuzawa can act as a base for over 20 nearby resorts in the town and surrounding area, including the famous Naeba Ski Area - the venue for last August's Fuji Rock Festival and one of the most fashionable resorts - which boasts a variety of courses and good snow conditions throughout most of the season. The apres ski is also usually quite good at Naeba, especially at the weekends, with a good selection of bars and restaurants in the Prince Hotel building and in the Naeba village area. A bus from Echigo Yuzawa station to Naeba takes about 30 minutes.

The excellent Kagura Tashiro Mitsumata Ski Area (15 minutes from the station) offers some great runs, especially for intermediates, and fantastic snow. There is also an unofficial off-piste section at the top of the resort which can only be accessed towards the end of the season. GALA Yuzawa also has a good selection of courses but its ultra-convenient location means it can get horribly busy at weekends. Other notable resorts in the area include Iwappara, Kandatsu Kogen and Ishiuchi Maruyama, which are all just ten minutes from the station by free shuttle bus. The GALA, Ishiuchi Maruyama and smaller Yuzawa Kogen resorts are all connected and a special lift ticket can be bought that allows you to use them all - a recommended option.

Nagano
Nagano is not the most convenient region to get to (southern Niigata is better) but the trip is often worth it. In the last few years the new shinkansen has made Nagano much more accessible, and from the city a local train or bus will get you to some huge, world-class resorts. The most popular and highly recommended must be the numerous resorts at Shiga Kogen, Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen which all but guarantee an excellent day on the slopes, including ex-Olympic runs. The 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic courses to look out for are at Yakebitai (Shiga Kogen), Happo-one (Hakuba) and Nozawa Onsen. Nozawa is particularly good for both beginners and advanced skiers or snowboarders, with a fine selection of gentle slopes and hair-raising mogul runs all over the wide mountainside. All are worth going to in their own right, but timing and luck are important to avoid the crowds.

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The ex-Olympic resort of Hakuba

Access all areas
The quickest way to get to both the Niigata and Nagano areas is by train, but driving is also an option using the Kanetsu expressway and Joshinetsu expressway. The Kanetsu expressway goes from the Nerima Interchange in northwest Tokyo through Yuzawa town into Niigata Prefecture, and with clear roads (by no means guaranteed on a winter weekend) the drive to Yuzawa can take under two hours. For the Nagano region, leave the Kanetsu expressway onto the Joshinetsu expressway which goes directly to Nagano City.

Other regions
Other recommended places within (fairly) easy reach of Tokyo include Zao Onsen (Yamagata Prefecture) and Hunter Mountain (Tochigi Prefecture). Zao Onsen first opened as a ski resort in the 1920s. It is an interesting mountain serviced by over 40 high-speed quad lifts, gondolas and ropeways. It can get bitterly cold, but the trip to the top is a must to see the famous snow monsters. Coatings of ice make the trees resemble "monsters" which are synonymous with Zao. There are only a few runs suited to advanced skiers, but otherwise it is highly recommended. Zao can be reached using the Yamagata shinkansen from Tokyo station in about two and a half hours.

Hunter Mountain in Tochigi Prefecture is billed as an American-style resort, inspired by the place of the same name near New York. It is perfect for a day or two - good snow, well laid-out courses and lifts and some long wide runs suitable for beginners and intermediates. Hunter Mountain is quite easy to get to by car - about 28km from the Nishinasuno Shiobara Interchange of the Tohoku expressway using route 400. By train, take the Tohoku shinkansen to Nishi Nasuno and then a bus to the resort, which takes about one hour.

Still further from Tokyo are the resorts in the northern prefecture of Iwate (Tohoku shinkansen to Morioka). Two notable resorts are Appi Kogen and Shizukuishi. Appi Kogen is a first-class resort but, again, with limited courses suited to advanced skiers and snowboarders. Shizukuishi is another good all-round resort, but don't forget your woolies as it gets very cold up there.

Information
Information on the Japanese winter sports scene in English is scarce. A few travel agencies organize tours and take bookings in English, one being Beltop Travel Service in Tokyo (03-3544-0939, www.beltop.com) which specializes in tours to Hokkaido (see Travel on p 8 for more details). Another source is the book "Ski Japan," published by Kodansha, which provides some good, if a little dated, information (it also neglects the snowboarding scene). Probably the most useful source of information for foreigners is the (unrelated) Ski Japan website (www.skijapanguide.com) which is new this season. The site has full details on the ski and snowboard season, and is updated daily with weather and snow condition reports from three of the main winter sports regions. There are extensive details on over 80 resorts all over Japan and a section recommending some good, reasonable places to stay near the main resorts, with booking information online. In addition, there are details on how to get to resort regions (even including train timetables!), and an active bulletin board where you can exchange views and read what others are saying. There is also an "interactive" section where readers can contribute by sending in stories, information and experiences from skiing and snowboarding trips around Japan.

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