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Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011

Taking a train to the snows

Just the ticket: a midweek day away on the slopes above Yuzawa


Special to The Japan Times

Tumbling down head over heels near the summit of a 2,000-meter mountain is the most fun I've had in ages. On a Monday, the sparsely peopled ski runs at Mitsumata resort in Niigata Prefecture were knee-deep in feather-soft powder snow: perfect conditions for cushioning even the nastiest of falls.

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Breathtaking: A view from high on the slopes of the Kagura ski area comprising the Mitsumata and Tashiro resorts. COURTESY OF MITSUMATA PRINCE HOTEL

An amazingly cheap weekday JR package deal that included a day-return shinkansen trip from Tokyo Station and a one-day ski pass made this trip painful on neither the pocket nor the posterior.

The only difficult thing about the experience was getting up at 5:15 a.m. in time for the 7:00 a.m. departure to Echigo-Yuzawa. The train, which takes just over 70 minutes, gobbles up track at an incredible rate, making short work of the capital's urban jumble before speeding northwest across flat plains toward the gray-blue shadow of Niigata's mountain ranges on the horizon.

For a while, the mountains appeared to retreat at the same rate the train advanced, and it felt as if we were eternally looping through the same bare wintry landscape of rice fields and electricity pylons. Then suddenly we hurtled through a series of tunnels that drill right through the center of mountains before emerging in a looking-glass world blanketed beneath a thick carpet of snow.

The spa town of Yuzawa, where we alighted, is located in the heart of Yasunori Kawabata's snow country. The novel "Yukiguni" ("Snow Country") by the 1968 Nobel laureate depicts a lonely world cut off in winter by heavy snows, which forces its melancholy citizens to hibernate indoors. Luckily, this snow now draws crowds of skiers and snowboarders, and winter in Yuzawa is no longer as lonely as it was when Kawabata (1899-1972) knew it.

The area's typically high annual snowfall, which was coming down thickly the day we visited, is caused by moist northerly winds blowing in from the Sea of Japan that rise when they hit Niigata's mountain ranges, cooling in the process and causing their moisture to condense as snow. From Yuzawa, as we took the 15-minute bus ride up the mountain to Mitsumata, the depth of snow along the sides of the road gradually rose from waist to shoulder height.

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Calorie counter: One of several simple eateries at the resort. FELICITY HUGHES PHOTO

Mitsumata is part of the Kagura ski area that comprises both the Mitsumata and Tashiro resorts, and the one-day ski pass covering the whole area gives access to a bewildering range of lifts and runs catering to all levels of skiers and snowboarders.

This area also connects to the (separate) Mount Naeba resort on the border with Nagano Prefecture via the so-called Dragondola lift, making it the largest ski resort in Japan. On our trip, however, we opted to stay in the Mitsumata area, which provided more than enough thrills and spills for one day out.

The day began with a few easy runs down Mitsumata Force Park, a nice straightforward beginners' slope that was perfect for honing our rusty snowboarding skills. Further up on the Kagura Gondola we rode down the Gondola Course, which despite enjoying thicker and fluffier snow coverage than Force Park was way too flat and littered with snowboarders who, like ourselves, had got stuck due to the lack of pace. Taking a ski lift higher still, near to the summit of the mountain, we found challenging powdery slopes on which we worked up a hearty appetite for lunch.

Restaurant Kagura is a bright white dining hall that serves simple, filling meals such as curry rice and spaghetti bolognaise. Not wanting to spend an hour digesting such hearty fare, we opted instead for a shared lunch of chicken wings (¥600) and chips (¥400). Prices on the mountain tend to be a little inflated, so it's a good idea to take a light lunch and wait to fill up when you return to Yuzawa town.

In the afternoon, the snow began to fall more heavily and the wind picked up, rocking the ski lifts at the top of the mountain so much that we had to pause mid-journey, hanging perilously in the air. Taking this as our cue to descend to the gentler slopes, we finished off the day with a few fun runs on the Force Park slope.

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Powder play: On the tops, soft fluffy snow is perfect for trying out new moves, and falling!

Though intermediate jumps on the adjacent Competition Bahn looked like fun, we gave it a miss, opting instead to take the bus back into town for a much-deserved dip at an onsen.

Yuzawa town has a wide variety of hot springs but, being literary-minded, we opted to visit Yama no Yu, which is famous for having been visited by Kawabata himself. After a nice soak it was time for dinner, and we stuffed our faces with delicious crispy margarita pizza at Vitoro. The restaurant serves a selection of fresh-baked pizzas with prices starting from ¥1,050. Conveniently located in the rotary next to the East Exit of Echigo-Yuzawa Station, it's the perfect place to grab a bite before hopping the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

The comfy seats sent me fast asleep and I dreamed of speeding down snow-covered mountains while our train whooshed us back towards the metropolis.

A weekday return shinkansen ticket from Tokyo Station to Echigo-Yuzawa, including a one-day ski pass for the Mitsumata and Tashiro ski resorts, costs ¥8,700. Tickets must be booked over the internet in Japanese via JR's eki-net site at travel.eki-net.biz.


Other tips for JR snow days

Mitsumata and Tashiro are not the only ski resorts you can visit with JR's day-return deals, so here are some others on offer — and their pros and cons.

Saku Ski Garden Parada, Nagano (¥5,300-¥5,900)

A great resort for children as there's a kids-only course with inflatable arches — and an insect museum with giant stag beetles and other creepy-crawlies. Beginner snowboarders can try out new tricks at the bottom of the Cantente course, which has a park with small boxes and rails. The downside is there's little for advanced skiers and boarders.

Karuizawa Prince Hotel Resort, Nagano (¥6,400-¥7,100)

If you're going with someone who's not too keen on snow sports, this place has a shopping center and bowling alley to keep them amused while you whiz down Karuizawa's wide slopes, after savoring stunning views of the Southern Alps from the top. However, there are often long lines for lifts and it can be crowded even midweek. A half-pipe and snow park are available for the more adventurous.

Kandatsu Kogen, Niigata (¥7,500)

Close to Echigo-Yuzawa Station, this is more compact than Mitsumata/Tashiro, but lower, so you might not be as lucky with the snow. However, there are some challenging jumps for intermediate and advanced boarders and skiers — but no half-pipe. For afterward, there's a nice warm room with kotatsu (heated tables) and futons at ¥3,000 for up to four people for three hours. The spa has an outdoor bath (not an onsen) and hot tub.

Ishiuchi Maruyama, Niigata (¥8,400)

Recommended by experienced boarders, the snow park caters to most abilities and there are two half-pipes — one of which is said to be fantastic. Wide runs allow for plenty of freedom to try out new tricks, and traffic tends to be spread out around the course. The resort can be crowded on weekends. Two hot springs are nearby, and night skiing is also available.




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