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Downhill all the way


Masaaki Takahashi

Ski buff Matt Cox gets the lowdown on Naeba in Niigata. One of Japan' coolest winter resorts already sports a 900x15m artificial slope for folks who want to get a jump on the ski season.

While Niseko may take the title of being powder heaven and Shiga and Hakuba are famous for their Olympic runs, Naeba is the kakkoii (cool) resort that has been a symbol of the scene for years to many Japanese. Although skiing has a long and sordid history in Japan, one major complaint outsiders have about Nippon's unique version of the world's most popular winter sport is the distinctive lack of après ski activities. Not so at Naeba. Attracting over two million skiers and snowboarders each season, this mammoth resort in Niigata is one of the biggest and most popular in the country. With this volume of guests, you might expect the resort to be one big mass of people queuing for lifts, and a few years ago that may have been true. But things have changed. In recent years the slopes have become much less crowded with improved lift services, and skiing at Naeba is now a more pleasurable experience.

Today the resort has a lot more to offer ski and snowboard buffs: over 30 lifts (including two gondolas and nine highspeed quad lifts), a 4000m course and a top to bottom drop of nearly 900m. Add entertainment and concerts at the resort's Prince Hotel to the top-rate facilities and you have one of the more lively and enjoyable winter resort areas.

The mountain has 28 official slopes to choose from, and a classical resort layout, with the wide beginner slopes at the bottom and the harder, advanced runs and mogul runs towards the narrower top area. It's worth taking a trip right to the top of the mountain for the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains of Niigata, Gunma and Nagano, but those without the confidence to come back down should be wary before heading up.

Board with skiing?
While Naeba still attracts more skiers than snowboarders, as do most resorts, the resort has some great boarding facilities that are becoming increasingly popular with snowboarders. In addition to the half-pipes on the main Naeba slopes, one of the more recent attractions is the Asagai Snowboarding Area on a different hill to the principal Naeba mountain and a 10 minute walk from the main resort. This snowboarder's paradise has all the boarding toys you'd ever ask for, including two half-pipes (108m and 50m), a quarter pipe, a straight jump, a wall, a mound, a rail-slide, one make and more.

The Wakuwaku Family Snowland is another recent addition to Naeba's attractions (located at the bottom of the number 4 quad lift). The area offers "Snow Mobile Land," "Snow Carousel," "Snow Train" (long sausage-like inflatables dragged across the snow) and "Snow Tubing" (racing down a snow course on a rubber tube) and other attractions for children and adults alike. Ski and snowboard schools abound, offering lessons to children and adults-lessons in English are difficult to come by.

Naeba after dark
Many resorts in Japan get quiet in the evening as everyone gets a good sleep before the next day's action on the slopes. But with its lively atmosphere and nightlife Naeba is different. As well as the usual J-Pop piped out of the loudspeakers wherever you go-yes, you even get Kinki Kids at 1800m-Naeba is a lively and genki place. Since most of the ski contingent stay in the huge Naeba Prince Hotel (and the surrounding pensions), the nightlife is much livelier and concentrated than most other resorts once the slopes shut down at 10pm. There are numerous restaurants and bars and a big concert hall with several events lined up each weekend-usually a club night, movie showing or concert. Japanese comedy stars Tunnels and the singer Yuming (the princess of the Naeba Prince Hotel, with eight concerts lined up for the season) are some of the regular performers you can catch while you're in the area.

For ski and snowboard aficionados who are looking for that big resort feel without spending their slope time waiting in lift lines, Naeba is the ticket.

Where to stay:
The large and lively Naeba Prince Hotel (0257-89-2211) is located at the bottom of the slopes and is a popular place not only to stay, but also to get entertained. There are also a large number of pensions and small hotels in the Naeba village area.

Getting there:
By car, you can either get off the Kanetsu Expressway at the Tsukiyono I.C. (131km from Nerima I.C., costing JY3550) and head north on Route 17 for 33km, or continue on the Expressway until you get to the Yuzawa I.C. (167km from Nerima I.C., costing JY4600), and head south on Route 17 to Naeba, a journey of 21km which should take you about 40 min. Otherwise, take the Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno stns, get off at Echigo Yuzawa stn (about 80 min from Tokyo), and take one of the Naeba Shuttle buses to the resort from the west exit-the journey takes about 50 min and costs JY650. Be wary of taking taxis from the station-a one way trip to Naeba will cost you upwards of JY7000! If you are staying at the Naeba Prince Hotel, there is also a hotel Express Bus that you can use.

More information:
For daily updates on weather, conditions and reservations and resort information, check out www.skijapanguide.com 

NAEBA FACTS
Season : November 3, 2000-May 6, 2001
Lifts : 2 Gondolas, 9 quad lifts, 17 pair lifts
Lift capacity (per hour): 46,200 people per hour
Lift Passes: 1 day JY5000, 2 day JY2200, Night Skiing JY2200
Steepest slope : 32 degrees
Number of courses : 28
Longest course : 4000 meters
Mix of skiers/boarders : 75% / 25% (last season)
1 day lift ticket : JY5000
Half day lift ticket : JY3500
Night skiing ticket : JY2200
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