This is a short article by Jim McElwaine and Jonas Olsson for the European Union research fellows in Japan
Yes, we know that the snow sport season is over, but since maybe none of us will be here the next season we prefer to take this opportunity to write a few words about one of our favorite leisure time activities, skiing. Skiing may not be the first that comes to mind when considering how to spend your time in Japan, but if you are a skier there are in fact good possibilities to satisfy your addiction while staying in Nippon. In the following we would like to share some of our thoughts and experiences on skiing in Japan so tighten your boots and get ready to join us down the moguls.
So, do the Japanese ski at all? Well no one can have failed to notice the success of the Japanese ski jumpers in the Nagano Olympics. In fact skiing in Japan dates back to the 30's and they were supposed to hold the ill-fated 1940 winter olympics. Some people date the recent boom in Japanese skiing to the 1986 movie "watashi wo sukii ni tsuretette" - Take me skiing with you - which is about a young salaryman and OL girlfriend who live for skiing weekends. While not the greatest ski movie ever made - which is off ocurse "Hot Dog" - skiing became kakko ii and the Japanese ski boom started. Billions of yen from the bubble years was funneled into the construction of ski resorts and Japan now has over 700.
So, skiing is a known phenomenon in this country. But I didn't bring any skiing equipment? No problem, you can either rent or buy it here in Japan. At the resorts, it is generally possible to rent everything, not only boots and skis but also skiwear. A problem for us Europeans may be the sizes, boots of size 9 are for example rare (and if available they are seriously deformed by feet of size larger than 9 squeezed into them ). The quality of rental stuff appears to vary widely from nearly new to ridiculously old. Thus, renting is a somewhat risky business, and it may be safer to buy the equipment you need. If you are in Tokyo, the area to visit for this purpose is the 'ski city' located close to the Kanda district. Here you will find blocks and blocks consisting of only ski shops, it has never been easier to compare prices. Be sure to check out also the side streets, apparently last years' models are sometimes sold (or more or less given away) directly on the street.
OK, I got the stuff. But where should I go? There are many good resorts in Nagano prefecture north-west of Tokyo. The easiest (big) resort from Tokyo is Gala Yuzawa. JR built the resort and it has its own Shinkansen station only one hour and twenty minutes from Tokyo. You can even get a special ticket (a Skippu) that includes lunch, shinkansen and lift pass. It's designed expressly for Tokyo daytrippers and its unique design combines train station, ticket counter, ski rental, dressing room, and lift station all under one roof. If you leave from Ikebukuro at 6am you can be out skiing well before 9am. The system is quite big and varied, and although we were there a sunny Sunday in the peak season it was not too crowded. The biggest resort in Japan (and one of the biggest in then world) is Shiga Kogen which is about three hours away from Tokyo by train and bus (shinkansen to Nagano 1:30hr, train to Yudanaka 30min, then bus 30min). And this place is really big, the system extends over countless mountains and has 72 lifts, and 1,500 acres of pistes. Shiga is in fact twice the size of Vail, the largest ski area in North America. Shiga held slalom and some snow boarding events while the other Alpine events were held in Happo-one in the Hakuba valley. It's not as big as Shiga but has a lot more difficult terrain and mogul fields that will leave you desperate for an onsen. Further north is for example Zao, which is the ski resort in Japan with the longest tradition and thus has a somewhat more original atmosphere about it than the other, more modern resorts. The lift system is not awfully big, and after three days or so you know the slopes quite well. Zao is famous for its 'snow monsters', curious ice formations in trees and bushes. From Tokyo, the trip to Zao is perhaps most conveniently done in an overnight bus. These resorts are all famous and some claim the best in Japan but Dousanko (People born and brought up in Hokkaido) know better. The 1970 winter olympics were held in Sapporo and resorts such as Teine Highland (30min), Niseko (2:30hr), Rusutsu(2hr), Furano(2:30hr) offer miles of challenging skiing and fantastic powder. For those not lucky enough to be living in Hokkaido all the airlines offer special packages including flights, buses and hotels at big dicsounts. Skiing in Hokkaido runs from November and continues until June for the central ski resorts around Taisetsusan. Honshu resorts are normally open until Golden week.
Well, it seems like there are a lot of places worth trying out, but can I, a poorly paid EU-fellow, afford it? Yes, you can. Package tours includi ng both trip and hotel appears to be a rather reasonably priced alternative if you are going for more than one day. Concerning the cost of ski rental and lift pass, this is usually comparable to European levels - and with the yen sinking faster than Titanic getting cheaper (relatively) everyday. Caution should be exercized when buying the ski pass since it is not certain that it will cover the entire system (even if it is not very big). Sometimes different lifts are run by different companies, and it can be a bit annoying to find that your pass is not valid for some 'key lift'. Anyway, this is usually not a problem, but worth keeping in mind. As in Europe, the mountain restaurants charge about twice that of restaurants elsewhere for the opportunity to eat overbolied spaghetti surrounded by sweaty bodies, cigarette smoke, and the sound of tramping boots.
Finally, what is skiing in Japan really like? Due to the popularity of skiing in Japan and the combination of large population and small number of big resorts, one may expect the slopes to be seriously crowded. And some times they are. Lift queues may occasionally get overly long during good-weather holidays in the peak season, but at other times, despite what everyone will tell you, overcrowding is not a problem. The lifts are generally modern with a high capacity, apparently design d with the optimistic view that skiing is not just a short-lived trend in this country. In connection with crowdedness, the ski schools must be mentioned. The members, sometimes groups of 30-40 people, are typically dressed identically in very characteristic ski wear. Since they also ski nearly identically, often in one looong line, you may find yourself wondering whether Japan has made the first successful attempt to clone a skier. Similar thoughts arise when you see all the snowboarders (and there are lots of them!) in their knitted caps and baggy trousers. Though lift queues are normaly short good skiers are a rarity and easy runs can be very crowded. If you're agressive all the moving slalom poles add to the excitement but for more nervous skiers choose a resort with a lot of easy runs.
This all sounds great so get out than and ski, but there are also disadvantages. Most Japanese ski resorts have nothing except hotels - Tomomu for example has only two 20 story skyscapers and the nearest town is 30 kilometers away. So if you looking for nightlife stick to Roppongi. Another problem is the lack of offpiste skiing. Most resorts are below the tree line and only the very thin can fit in between the trees. Even if you find some where to go piste boundaries are strictly enforced and skiing under the lifts or off the pistes will soon result in request for gaijin-san to behave. Pretending not to understand Japanese can be effective...
There are lots of books and magazines with more information about skiing in Japan but for those of us who haven't quite managed to pass 1kyu yet there is an English book "Ski Japan" by T.R. Reid published by Kodansha full of useful infomation.
Shiga Kohgen is one of the biggest ski resorts in the world and is hosting the 97 winter olympics with Happo One. There are 72 lifts and 1500 acres of pistes scattered over a huge area. There is no town only small clusters of Hotels the biggest of which is Ichinose - probably the best place to stay at it is fairly central. Most of the runs long cruising runs but there are also half a dozen very challenging runs including the Giants course (long and steep) and a very tough mogul run at the top of gondola number 1 in Yakebitai Yama. I stayed for days over Christmas and though the snow wasn't great that early in the year all the runs were open. I went by train which to Nagano (3hrs) then to Yudanka (1hr) and then bus to the hotel (another (1hr). With an early start from Tokyo you can be skiing by 2. It's probaly more convenient to do it all by bus. More English information here
Four very challenging mogul runs. More hard runs than any other resort I've been to. Nozawa Onsen