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Friday, Jan. 20, 2006

Hitting the ski slopes in class

Experience fun, relaxation of Japan's snow country

For city-dwelling snow lovers, winter can be an especially bleak time of year. Bare, gray streets feel all the colder without a dusting of white. Outdoor fun is limited -- no beach parties, no beer gardens, no leisurely walks in the park. The initial glow of the after-work pub grows dim and so does going nowhere fast on the treadmill at the gym.

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The view from the slopes of Niigata's Mt. Ogenashi is truly a sight for sore eyes.

What winter calls for is a bit of nature, mountain vistas, and snow, the more the better, and this year is looking to break all records. Having fun in the winter is about weaving your way down a ski slope with the rush of wind in your ears, springing over moguls and riding a half pipe. Winter fun is about a soak in an outdoor bath, a relaxing massage, and long hours of pampering that will put the sun back into your soul.

Though it sounds like you'll be needing a trip to the Rockies or Swiss Alps to find what you want, it can all be had but a few hours by car or train from Tokyo. There'll be no tiring crowds, no antiquated lifts, icy slopes or language problems, and no one will be baffled by your request for coffee and toast, not green tea and rice at breakfast. There's a resort practically in Tokyoites' backyard, on the other side of the "snow screen" of mountains that keeps the snows of the Japan Sea coast out of Tokyo. It's a resort that combines the best of all worlds -- Arai Mountain & Spa.

Even getting there is part of the fun. Speeding out of Tokyo on a bullet train puts you in the city of Nagano, site of the '98 Winter Olympics, in just under two hours. Already the world outside is a different one, having changed magically to white. The hectic pace of the city is shrugged off the moment you step on a slow local train bound for the tiny station of Arai, about an hour away in neighboring Niigata Prefecture. Or you can reach the resort only 3 1/2 hours from downtown Tokyo by car.

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Aerials and moguls are part of the fun.

The town of Arai, with a population just under 28,000, prides itself, as do many Niigata towns, on its rice and rice wine. There is no bustle to be found here, but you are greeted by a quaint main street lined with small shops. Hop a taxi or shuttle bus and take a quick look around. In 20 minutes, you'll be in yet another world.

The sudden luxury of the resort "village" comes in striking contrast to the humble neighboring towns. The buildings of Arai Mountain & Spa, which have as their conceptual model a European piazza, are centered around a huge heated plaza, the only such plaza of its kind.

Sweeping up from the village of hotels, restaurants and spas, is the resort's backbone -- Mount Ogenashi, just under 1,500 meters in height. The woods covering the mountain are home to a variety of wildlife -- deer, rabbit, raccoon dog, fox, even bear -- though at season peak, when even the treetops are covered, there is likely to be no sign of life other than human. From mountain top you can look out to the Japan Sea and Sado Island, home of one of Japan's most famed taiko drum troupes.

Arai resort is now in its 13th season and has seen a marked increase in popularity among the foreign community in Japan since 2001. Word of the resort's good points and user-friendliness for the non-Japanese crowd have gotten around largely by word of mouth. Arai prides itself on its "universal access" -- bilingual signs and maps and English-speaking staff -- which takes the guesswork out of things for the non-Japanese-speaking guest. Though it would seem a given, English is still not prevalent at the vast majority of ski slopes in Japan.

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At the peak of the season, even the treetops will be covered with snow.

Twelve courses run off Ogenashi, from long ambling beginners' slopes to steep drops for the advanced skier and snowboarder. There is something for everyone on the 1,000 hectares of slope. One of the resort's biggest attractions is its offering of off-piste courses, where skiers and snowboarders can enjoy challenging runs and the virgin powder of ungroomed slopes. Conditional Zones, open when the weather permits, are spread over 55 hectares of the upper slopes and offer skiers and boarders an experience that is extremely rare in Japan.

Even the uninitiated can enjoy Arai resort. Lessons are available for adults and children in skiing and snowboarding and people with disabilities can also take advantage of special ski chairs and mono-skis. Instructors are well-versed in their use. Indeed, the resort was host to the Japan Paralympics for a number of seasons. There are also areas to get in on the snow fun riding a sled or just plunking down to make a couple of angels or build a snowman. Children can be left in care of instructors or play on their own in a specially supervised area while parents take to the slopes. Night tours under the stars are also available by snowmobile.

Arai is also unique is its offering of not just one type of lodging, but three. Three levels of luxury, from 3-star to 5, are to be had at the resort. There are the standard rooms of The Inn, which average 26 sq. meters and rates as low as 10,000 yen a night per person for room shares. Moving up, one finds The Lodge, with spacious rooms of 41 sq. meters. At the upper end of the spectrum are the ultimate in luxury rooms and service at The Club, with rooms of 38 to 118 sq. meters supported by such facilities as a guest lounge, club bar, fitness room, full-service ski cloak, executive lounge and a Jacuzzi. Club guests also enjoy perks such as valet service and priority access to the slopes.

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Sleds and snow games keep the kids happy.

At Arai, even if you choose to stay indoors for most of your stay, you can revel in the facilities. An aesthetics spa, Manna, has 16 therapy rooms, and offers British and Taiwanese-style reflexology, aroma massages, bead walking, and three pools, including a "Dead Sea" salt pool and outdoor Jacuzzis. There is also a nail and hair salon and beauty shop. Arai Mountain & Spa is fast becoming known as one of the best, if not the best resort, in Japan. Yet, when returning to the basics, its biggest attraction is simple -- snow, lots of it. The amount of snow at the resort for the white season of 2004-'05 broke all previous records since Arai's opening in 1993. Last season went until the end of May, with over 6.5 meters of snow at the peak in March, over 3 meters at the base.

It is presently looking like another record year at Arai, where slopes opened Dec. 9 and all slopes were open in time for Christmas. The current snow depth is just under 6 meters at the peak. With more snow expected, this could just be the year to break 7 meters.

Check out Arai Mountain & Spa's extensive Web site -- in both English and Japanese -- for all the details.

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