by Nicholas Klar (with many thanks to the Myoko Kogen ski website)
Winner of the "Best Travel Story" - Asia! Magazine (May 2006)
As the weather up north begins to take a turn for the worst many folk begin to get the itch to flee the slopes of their local indoor ski centre and get in amongst the real white stuff. For those stranded in warmer Asian climes there are generally three choices – freezing your backside off in an open chairlift in the new developing ski areas of northern China, taking the short flight to Korea or Japan, or heading further afield to Europe or North America. For those wanting to get on the slopes quickly, minus some chill-blains, discomforts and jet lag, then the middle two are definitely the way to go.
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With the bursting of the economic bubble about ten years ago, along with steady deflation, Japan now provides an attractive choice cost-wise. With slopes sometimes open anywhere between November to April there are plenty of options to choose from once in the country. Three-day packages to famous resorts like Niseko in Hokkaido (ex Tokyo or Osaka ) can be had for around US$400. Even cheaper deals can be found if you’re internet savvy and/or have someone who can negotiate for you in the local lingo. The last Winter Olympics in Asia were held in Nagano in 1998 and this area, along with neighbouring Niigata, has been a regular snow haunt for the author for some time. Nagano City is approximately one and a half hours by shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo.
Nagano is a very cool place to visit, especially in winter, but it is better to be based at one of the nearby ski towns. The best and most straightforward choices would be Hakuba (site of the 1998 downhill and slalom races) which is about one hour by bus from Nagano, and Myoko-kogen - and I usually plump for the latter. Myoko-kogen is located just over the border from Nagano in Niigata Prefecture and is about forty minutes by local train from Nagano. It was recently voted one of Japan's best ski resorts. It lies at the base of Mt. Myoko in beautiful mountain surroundings near the historical entrance to the Echigo Plains. The ‘Snow Country’ of Niigata is famous throughout Japan and has inspired countless writers, poets and artists. In nearby Shinano-machi lies the home of the revered Japanese poet, Issa.
Myoko-kogen also incorporates the local ski villages of Suginosawa, Akakura, Tsubame and several others. It is not unusual for the area to have more than a metre of snow in one night, especially during the current records of 2006, and the skiing options are almost endless with twenty-five ski grounds all within forty five minutes travel. The most famous of these are Akakura, Ikenotaira, Madarao, Seki Onsen and Suginohara (which boasts the longest ski run in Japan at 8.5 kilometres). The area was the site for some of the first ski lifts in Japan and there are also numerous onsen (hot springs) scattered amongst the resorts.
It’s a lot quieter in these parts since the economy faltered in the 1990’s. The upside for skiers and boarders is that the while local resorts are still surviving many are less than busy (especially on weekdays) and there is little waiting, if any, for your next chairlift or gondola ride.
Sports shops in Japan can often begin offering heavy discounts on gear even before the season starts and if spending a few days or more at a Japanese resort it will be cheaper to buy than rent. Complete ski or snowboard packages can start around ¥20,000 whilst rental can be around ¥5,000 per day. Even cheaper deals are available at second-hand stores like “Off House” in neighbouring Joetsu.
The first morning I spent a lazy half day boarding at nearby Kumado, then onto a soaking onsen with an old friend. In the evening some friends from Shanghai arrived from disparate locations on their travels for a two-day stay at the ‘Green Bell’ log cabins near Akakura. We can highly recommend these cabins and the owners are particularly nice people - constantly shuttling us around in their van and even refunding some money to after realising there was a mistake in the total they had charged. The cabin was well equipped – even possessing a karaoke machine.
The first day spent skiing/snowboarding at nearby Ikenotaira was excellent. The snow was fresh and the weather was only slightly crisp. A full day ticket here is hardly expensive at ¥3,500 (roughly US$40). They do need to fine-tune some of the speeds on the chairlifts though as they felt like a slingshot coming off, as shown by the imprints of skiers on the opposite snowbank. There was plenty of virgin powder to conquer as the crowds were small and the locals do not like to venture off the beaten path. One wag suggested to me that this was only because then no-one would be able to see the newest latest fashion that everyone seems to sport and wants to show off.
The most amusing part of that day was when one rather contrite friend came in at lunch and explained an incident that had happened during the morning. Apparently another of the party had picked him off earlier in the day with a rather juicy snowball. Later as he came skiing down one of the runs he thought he saw her face down on the slope with a Japanese guy trying to help her up. Picking up a large snow chunk he charged toward her screaming, “IT’S PAYBACK TIME......!” What a surprise as he homed in to find that it was not in fact our friend, but a poor local with a look on her face like a rabbit caught in the headlights of Mack truck. He hastily dropped the snow and skied away, trying to pretend that he had not just embarrassed the whole of western civilisation. The two locals probably still wonder the heck was going on with the crazed gaijin (foreigner).
Battling a lack of sleep the next day we struggled out of our sleeping bags to a clear blue sky and a fresh drop of deep powder snow. Akakura Kanko resort, at a similar daily cost to Ikenotaira, provided an excellent way of sweating out all the nasties and loosening up those sore muscles in the onsen afterward. Akakura is a cool little village in itself with a variety of shopping and entertainment options, though it could scarcely be compared to Hong Kong, Shanghai or Singapore. We would have loved to have completed a three-day trifecta and ‘done’ Suginohara the next day but we were running out of time and holidays.
In the morning we did some shopping for souvenirs, before heading out on the train to Tokyo. There are a number of small gift shops and eateries opposite the station and scattered throughout the town where one can find all kinds of unique local products such as sasazushi (sushi on bamboo leaves), takenoko jiru (bamboo shoots and miso soup), plus the sake (rice wine) and koshihikari rice that Niigata is famous for.
If you’re coming in on a short stay and intend to do a little extra sightseeing make sure to pick yourself up a Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrail.com) before you come. They are good for nearly unlimited train travel over seven days and are excellent value at around ¥28,300. Fourteen and twenty-day options are also available. Passes can only be purchased outside of Japan and a good starting point is your local ANA or JAL office. JR East Passes (covering eastern Japan) can be bought upon arrival and offer a little more flexibility.
Coming from Tokyo / Narita Airport
Taxi: The most convenient way directly to your lodgings in Myoko-kogen is the ‘I.M. Taxi’ service direct to or from Narita airport in Tokyo. They can be contacted on 81-(0)255-23-3188 or via the web at www.imtaxi.com The cost is ¥11,000 and bookings must be made 3-4 days in advance.
Train: This will set you back a similar sum but offers you the chance to ride one of Japan’s famous shinkansen (bullet train). From JR Tokyo or JR Ueno stations head to Nagano then swap to a local train bound for Naoetsu. Myoko-kogen is the stop after Kurohime. Total travelling time is 3-5 hours from Narita Airport depending on connections. An alternative is take a Niigata-bound shinkansen to Yuzawa, change to the ‘Hoku Hoku’ line for Naoetsu, then onto Myoko from there (see below). Of course you could always just stop in Yuzawa which also has a number of well-known resorts nearby such as Naeba and Gala Yuzawa.
By train to/from Osaka or Kyoto : Take a train to Naoetsu station (5-6 hours) then swap to a train for Nagano. Overnight trains ply the Nagano-Osaka and Nagano-Nagoya routes, and also special ski trains from Osaka to Myoko-kogen (and vice-versa) can be found during winter
Check this page for more details
For more information:
On the ground:
The Myoko Tourist Information Centre is located a hundred metres to the right as you depart the train station in Myoko-kogen. The friendly and helpful centre staff can assist with bookings, transport, maps and other general information. Phone: 81-(0)255-86-3911 or see the official site. Only Japanese is spoken so bring along your phrase book.
On the web:
The easiest place to find information in English is at the informative Myoko Kogen: Explore the Heart of Japan site. Contains loads of information, maps and directions, plus Myoko hotel booking links as well.
© 1992-2009, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA
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TAGS: Japan, Travel Writing, Myoko-kogen, Ski, Niigata, Nagano, Akakura, Ikenotaira, Madarao, Suginohara, Onsen, information, maps, directions