Eastern Promises

The Land of the Rising Sun holds a bounty of winter delights, from Olympic peaks to hot springs—and at prices that don't break the bank.
Summit Marker Horiz
ICE MARKS THE SPOT: The summit marker atop Niseko's 4,295-foot Mount Annapuri (Nathan Borchelt)

The real shock of skiing in Japan isn't that you can actually ski there. After all, the country hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 and 1998—in separate locales. The real surprise is the cost—unlike most of Japan, which typically carries a price tag comparable to the States, resort skiing and snowboarding can be had at a fraction of the cost typically endured while skiing in the West. We're talking $40 lift tickets on peaks that hosted the Super-G event; inexpensive, one-pass access to three resorts, each with 3,000 feet of vertical; snow-capped volcanoes; glade skiing through tooth-white birch trees; mountains that groan under 500 inches each year; and an eternally gregarious mountain vibe. Pair that with Japan's renowned cuisine, efficient infrastructure, easy-going locals, and après options that border on the sublime, and the only concern is that the rest of the world will soon catch on and cause the prices to skyrocket.

Follow the gold and visit either Nagano (host of the 1998 Olympics) or Niseko (the ski area near Sapporo, home of the 1972 Winter Games).

Only about an hour outside of Tokyo, Nagano is arguably the easier spot to reach. Of the many resort hubs in the region, we recommend hitting Hakuba, a small town that offers easy access to 12 resorts that collectively boast over 200 runs across 2,600 skiable acres, accessed by 135 lifts. A series of buses connect all the resorts, and make frequent stops throughout Hakuba's snow-lined one-way roads. Expect slight crowds in peak times, as daytrippers make the drive up from Tokyo and a number of local companies offer discount package trips from major cities throughout the country. (The latter makes for a good option if skiing is only part of your country-wide exploration--packages that include overnight transportation from Kyoto, lift tickets, and lodging can be had for around $100 a day.)
Hakuba Ski Resort Profile

Snow aficionados—that rare breed of powderhead who dream of Champaign pow—likely already know that Hokkaido is the place. One of Japan's northern islands, Hokkaido sits on the confluence of two major volcanic belts and gets pounded by storms that originate in Siberia, build up moisture over the Sea of Japan, and then literally pour snow on its 4,000-foot peaks. The result? Over 500 inches, annually, of the lightest powder on the planet. After arriving at the Sapporo airport, your best bet is to head to Niseko, which hosts five different resorts. Once there you can divide and conquer, though I'm partial to the small resort town of Hirafu, where three resorts dominate 4,295-foot Mount Annapuri. An all-mountain pass runs around $50, and it gives you free transport between base-level resorts—though you can ski among the resorts by yo-yoing across the mountain or making a 20-minute hike to the summit. Niskeo also offers easy access to off-piste terrain, and guides can be found in Hirafu pretty easily.
Niseko Ski Resort Profile

On-Mountain Logistics
While airfare to Japan can be costly, seasoned skiers know that lower-cost lift tickets move the needle pretty significantly, especially if you look for package deals that combine passes, lodging, and base transportation. Accommodations run the gamut, from dormitory-style hostels to fancier digs, with corresponding costs, while the lift tickets and high-quality gear rental costs less than at U.S. resorts. One costly item: soft goods. So don't hope for a late-season discount on that Sypder jacket.

On-mountain, the resorts operate much like in the United States, though expect less signage, and know that on the trail maps, red trails are the equivalent of blue (intermediate) runs.

On-slope cuisine is one of Japan's best commodities. Low-cost Raman or miso soup prove fortifying and filling, while beer vending machines simplify grabbing that midday brew. But most mountains also have more traditional fare, including McDonalds.

Après Options
After one visit to an onsen you'll never think of après hot-tubbing the same way. The literal translation—bath houses—don't do the experience justice. Think all-natural hot springs funneled into large stone-lined tubs filled with water of various temperatures gracefully constructed in open-air realms with views of snow-capped mountains, manicured plum and cherry trees, the downy sprinkle of snow that melts on the hot stones…

Yes, they're segregated by sex. And yes, you're naked, with just a small towel—a modest gesture to fulfill any lingering bashfulness. But try to forget your Westernized reservations and start by bathing in the dressing room; small stools typically line the walls alongside buckets and a water tap. Then regale in the easy calm of a long soak in the indoor and outdoor pools before rinsing a second time.

When picking an onsen, you can go traditional or modern, elaborate or bare bones. A few of the more tourist-oriented places even offer co-ed onsens, where you can reserve a private room and wear bathing suits. If there isn't an onsen in your hotel, ask the concierge for a recommendation

Post-soak, forego the Western tradition of the meat-and-potato meals and upgrade your predictable obsession for chicken wings by hitting one of Japan's izakayas. Part bar, part restaurant, these inspired establishments are basically an Asian take on the traditional tapas bar. Expect a casual, convivial atmosphere; kitschy Japanese decor; warm sake in chipped, mismatched cups; and a long list of small plate dishes like honey-grilled avocado, miso-marinated tofu, fresh sushi, small bowls of delectable miso soup, and balls of miso-glazed mozzarella. Izakayas are all over Japan—and vary from modern, American-influence dishes to traditional Japanese cuisine to things solely cooked on skewers, but in ski towns, these establishments really come into their own. Share a table with soon-to-be friends or elbow up to the bar and chat with the staff and you'll find that the hours will dissolve faster than the aches did while soaking at the onsen.

Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 11 Feb 2009 | Last Updated: 19 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Best Hotels in Nagano


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