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Miss the Real Winter? Try Skiing, Snowboarding in Mainland Japan

By: Chris Willson

Date Posted: 2001-01-26

Flowers in the spring, long hot summer days, the changing leaves of fall and snow in winter. A white blanket of snowflakes over the scenery is something I believe to be a mandatory part of a good winter. My Australian friends and others from tropical climes don’t agree, they can see no joy in the idea of having to wrap up warm and waiting out blizzards. However if you are already yearning to throw snowballs or hit the slopes then there are places in other parts of Japan that can satisfy your cravings.

Japan’s main areas for deep powdery snow are the Japanese Alps around Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics and the rugged mountains of Hokkaido around Sapporo, home of the 1972 Winter Olympics. Nagano is just a couple of hours from Tokyo by “shinkansen,” bullet train while direct flights from Okinawa to Sapporo make Hokkaido accessible. Of the two areas however my vote goes with Hokkaido, it is the perfect place to brush up on your parallel turns or strap on your board while still seeing Japan.

Skiing and more recently snowboarding is a passion for many of the people living in Hokkaido. Smaller ski hills can be found all over the island where you will often find the local high school’s ski team training on the steeper slopes while the beginner slope will probably have a line of tiny elementary children weaving their way down the run. There are also large ski areas comparable to ones in North America or the European Alps the most famous of which are probably Furano and Niseko.

Niseko is one of the best ski areas I have been to which includes many in North America, Europe and Australasia. In the winter months it snows enough to make everyone bar those without covered driveways happy, with plenty of powder for the boarders and adventurous skiers while the runs are groomed to corduroy perfection for those who prefer to cruise. At my last count there were 39 lifts in total although this seems to grow by the year. The ski area is divided into three main sections, Hirafu, Higashiyama and Annupuri. Separate passes can be bought for each area although I think the best bet is to buy a “Free Passport” which allows you access to all three areas. Although not “Free” the lift passes are surprisingly cheap. A day ticket from opening until 4.30pm costs around ¥4,900 for an adult but if you are staying for more than a day it’s best to buy a multi day pass. This finishes at 4.30pm on your last day and therefore gives you free access to the night skiing until 8.30pm on the previous days. An adult four-day pass costs around ¥15,800 and should keep you grinning for weeks afterwards. When on the slopes the locals are nearly always very willing to help and practice their English if your Japanese is less than fluent. Often local borders or skiers have taken me off on their favorite runs and shown me the best areas of untracked snow or gnarly runs through the trees.

ZZPICApres-ski activities in Japan are, not surprisingly, different to what you may have done at resorts before and make the Japanese ski-holiday unique. Skiers and boarders alike once the slopes have closed head straight to the “onsen,” hot baths. Here in separate male and female bathing areas you undress down to your birthday suit and then carefully wash yourself with plenty of soap and hot water. Once sparkly clean you can then immerse yourself in the hot baths. There are usually several pools of different temperatures ranging from the pleasantly warm to “will cause severe burns,” hot. After an hour in the baths your muscles are relaxed and your body cant remember the pain from doing cartwheels down the piste while attached to your board or deciding to cross the tips of your skis earlier that day.

So if you are a little tired of balmy winter’s evenings and feel the need for snow beneath your feet or down the back of your neck isn’t it time you hit the slopes this winter?

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