In February this year, myself, Andrea and Victoria were delighted to travel to Hakuba, Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen and Myoko on the mainland, before Andrea made the short hop north for another powder hit in Furano.
Our trip followed on from last year’s to the Hokkaido resorts of Niseko, Rusutsu and Kiroro and means that between us we’ve skied every destination in our Japan programme in the past two winters, including one resort that we don’t even feature yet!
While Asia Product Manager Andrea and Japan Country Manager Kenji have skied all the resorts before, this trip allowed more of our team to have first-hand experience of our exciting Far East destinations.
The difference between the two islands is striking and makes the choice of where to visit a tough one. Rest assured though, whichever you choose you’ll find many wonderful reasons to return to either, or both!
Watch the highlights from our trip and then take a look at the 13 things we loved about Nagano.
1. Cortina in Hakuba
With most of its visitors being locals, Cortina is wonderfully quiet (especially in the mornings) and has plenty of fun, steep tree terrain. We were treated to bright sunshine and blue skies, and even days after the last snowfall there were still fresh lines to be found.
The snow was so deep our guide Muta San actually lost a ski and had to ski back on just the one after half an hour of fruitless digging! He said he would look again in the spring – we’ll keep you posted…
Hakuba Valley is home to a number of resorts, all accessed on the same lift pass. Cortina is about a 30 minute drive from where most people stay at Happo-one and is well worth a visit. There are more mellow pistes over in Tsugaike and the larger ski areas of Happo-one and Hakuba Goryu.
Happo-one was a little busier, this was Chinese New Year after all, but the slopes are wide-open so not crowded even with the extra visitors. The conditions were lovely, soft and grippy, very fun.
2. Powder in Shiga Kogen
Shiga Kogen is a resort we’ll be adding to our program soon. Arriving here was an experience - it's like a moonscape, remote and with huge snow banks lining the roads, empty of cars and people, so very white everywhere.
It snowed our first night which made riding the next day huge fun, even more so because it was Victoria’s very first powder experience! Our guide said it was a 'baby powder day' and went on to tell us that the snow in Nagano, and especially Shiga Kogen, where he has lived for 25 years, is the most frequent and best (no small claim from someone originally from Aspen, Colorado). It’s so dry and soft you can go over the same, tracked snow and just glide, no bumps.
Actually one of the largest resorts in Japan, Shiga Kogen is made up of 17 smaller inter-connected areas that share a lift ticket. Our favourite was the farthest and quietest resort of Okushigakogen, which has 80kms of runs, perfect for a couple of days. The tree skiing is open to skiers and boarders equipped with avalanche safety equipment, but for proper backcountry we would recommend a guide to get the best of it.
3. Snow Monkeys
A visit to see these gorgeous, tactile creatures is breathtaking. Their nurturing rituals are mesmerising; babies grooming their mothers, their little hands, the blissed-out looks on their faces (I had yet to step into the public onsens at this point but I soon worked out why!). I love the way they completely ignored us, humbling.
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is situated half way between Shiga Kogen and Nozawa Onsen. The walk to where the monkeys bathe is beautiful, the track winds through a wood with huge snow-covered trees and steaming vents from the underground springs casting a fine mist.
4. No Shoes Please, We’re Japanese!
Victoria made the faux pas of attempting to sit down in a restaurant prior to removing her shoes... “The requirement of taking shoes off and changing into slippers is a memory I’ve taken away with me from Japan. We found there were sometimes as many as three different kinds as part of the etiquette - one for walking around the lobby, another for inside hotel rooms, and the grand finale - just to be used in the toilet. To avoid any confusion these were often branded with the words ‘Toilet Slippers’.”
In Shiga Kogen, our guide had a novel way of dealing with the constant on/off of ski boots during the course of his day - he had inners that he kept on while removing his ski boot outers. Genius!
5. It's The Epitome of Politeness
As possibly the most polite member of the Ski Safari team, Victoria in particular was impressed by this aspect of Japanese culture.
“I admired the devotion to queuing, to the extent that this went one step further than the famous British version - commuters even formed a line to get on the tube! I was apologised to on my first day for my tardy arrival to a meeting (due to a mix up with time zones). I warmed to their constant bowing and convivial exchange of business cards, their genuine friendliness, easy smiles and eagerness to please.”
6. Easy(er) Access Powder
The rules in Nagano are strict when it comes to ducking ropes, it’s just not something you do here and if caught it means losing your pass. But if anywhere is slightly more relaxed it’s Nozawa Onsen. I loved the steep trees accessed from the side of the reds from the top of Yamabiko, untracked even a couple of days after snowfall.
But it wasn’t just the off-piste that provided the fun. The skiing here is marvellously scenic with a little bit of everything thrown in for fun. The Skyline run was lovely, very fast with incredible views all the way down. There were a fair few wide sweeping pistes so even the blacks felt like a breeze.
7. Traditional Japanese Interior Design
Nozawa Onsen was my first experience of a Wa-Yo room, kind of a halfway commitment between traditional Japanese sleeping and western style bedding. Of course, for the more adventurous, every hotel offers tatami rooms with no western influence.
I chose a futon and had the best sleep of the whole trip, like being in a cloud. Our room at the Nozawa Grand was lovely, spacious and dual aspect with its own little onsen on the very private balcony, with a wicker screen through which the views of the mountains were stunning.
My first experience of Japanese bathing was the private onsen I mentioned above. The water was so hot it took 10 minutes of mixing in cold with the giant wooden paddle before I could venture in - and then it’s heavenly, gently heating back up while you’re in it, a truly amazing experience and so relaxing to soak in and rejuvenate while listening to the quiet bustle going on in the village below. I was as happy as a snow monkey.
One thing I noted, particularly for us Brits - although it may feel alien to strip naked in public to wash and bathe together, it rapidly becomes completely natural. So much so that Andrea and Victoria managed to fit in five soaks in one day - definitely not something to deny yourself!
9. Stepping Back In Time
The town of Nozawa Onsen is like a time capsule, so unaffected by western influence. Quiet, rural, old, with the sulphurous steamy springs adding to the atmosphere. The hot water is also used to melt the snow and ice on the paths, so clever and simple, and essential as some of them are steep and would be difficult to negotiate if icy.
We explored Ogama where they also use the natural hot water to cook the onsen vegetables and eggs served in the hotels. It gives a real sense that nothing is wasted. Later in the week, we found onsen eggs cooking slowly in a stone bowl in one of the little streets in Myoko, with a shelf offering special spicy kimchi sauce and an honesty box. Wonderful!
10. Dinners Too Pretty To Eat
We were treated to several traditional Kaiseki dinners during our stay. Quite an experience and a particular favourite for Andrea.
“Dinner is the highlight of a Japanese ryokan stay and we would highly recommend booking dinner on one night. The meals are beautifully presented, elaborate, multi-course affairs with dishes arranged to reflect local and seasonal specialities. People often choose to wear their yukata to dinner and it’s an opportunity to try some dishes you may never experience again – but luckily everything comes in quite small dishes in case there’s something you don’t fancy!”
11. Convenience is King!
The Japanese have convenience nailed. Among our favourites:
Convenience stores are everywhere in the form of Family Mart, 7-11, Lawson and many smaller chains. They sell drinks, snacks, fresh food, coffee, toiletries and most have ATMs. Also a handy spot for the loo if you’re out and about.
Luggage delivery services are used everywhere in Japan and the main companies have desks in the arrival/departure halls of all airports. Luggage (including ski bags) can be shipped to/from your hotel for a modest fee of £15-20 per bag. Extremely useful if you plan on visiting a few cities after skiing and don’t fancy lugging your big suitcase and ski bag around - simply send them back to the airport to pick up before your return flight home.
The very handy IC cards - these can be bought for a refundable ¥500 and are the inspiration for the Oyster cards in the UK. Top them up for travel on the metro and Japan Rail lines, and you can even use them to pay at shops, restaurants and vending machines.
Vending machines are practically an art form here - dispensing both hot and cold drinks, in bottles or cans. There are even vending machines for beers located in hotels. “I felt for my teenage self, knowing underage drinking would be effortless in Japan!” - Victoria.
12. The Biggest Snowpack I’ve Ever Seen, Anywhere
Myoko is apparently having a bad snow year, but that didn’t resonate with us as they had received over 11 metres of snow by the time we visited. This is a lovely resort and well worth a visit (actually over in the next prefecture, Niigata, but close enough!). Equally as quaint as Nozawa Onsen, it has a very different feel.
After the quiet of rural Myoko, Tokyo was very nearly a sensory overload, amazing! Victoria stayed an extra day here while Andrea made her way north and I returned home.
“I made straight for the key sites: Meiji Jingu Shrine; Takeshita - a busy and colourful shopping street, with more vintage shops behind (not quite as good as Brighton!); Omotesando - a tree lined avenue filled with shops; Shibuya - the commercial district with the highly recognisable crossroads; Roppongi, where I briefly visited ‘Ms Bunny café’ where you can pet rabbits over a cup of tea; Asakusa – a beautiful Buddhist temple,;Shinjuku; Golden Gai - small alleys filled with tiny bars; and Akihabara, the electronics area which reminded me of a funfair with all the lights and cacophony, and where I accidently found myself in a sex shop. As I left, my one regret was not having had quite enough time to go-kart around the city dressed as a superhero character. This can be organised via a company called ‘Mari Car’, a blatant and unremorseful rip-off of Nintendo’s Mario Kart. What can I say? I’ll have to return…”
For the best view of the famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo we recommend the second-story window of Starbucks in the Tsutaya building, but if it's overcrowded with tourists (as it often is), then a good alternative is the Tokyu Department Store on the other side - which is where Kenji captured this timelapse. #skisafarimoment #tokyo #shibuya #shibuyacrossing #japan #travel #timelapse
To learn more about Tokyo’s many and varied sights, read our guide to 24 hours in the city.
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