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Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012
Call of the powder: sublime snow in Japan
Special to The Japan Times
There is nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of hurtling down a steep, untracked slope of knee-deep powder. It is an uncomplicated pleasure, pure and exhilarating; carving turns into the untouched snow and sending up white plumes in your wake.
Fortunately, Japan gets masses of feathery powder, and many resorts turn a blind eye to off-piste skiing and have refined the art of Zen and grooming — taking a minimalist approach on selected runs.
Having been raised on the icy slopes of New England, where deep powder runs are akin to Loch Ness monster sightings, Japan has been a revelation. In New England there are about 20 different words for icy conditions, and you get your money's worth out of your ski edges. Here, conditions are incredibly good and, unless you ski in Hokkaido, it's not nearly as cold.
In short, the skiing in Japan is amazing, accessible — and it's reasonably priced, too. The season is also long — from early December until early May. But where's best? Having skied all over Japan, that's a really hard call, because it depends a lot on each skier's preferences and priorities. My mother rated resorts by their restrooms; I focus on places where I frequently ski in the Minakami-Yuzawa area straddling Gunma and Niigata prefectures, because I know them well and they are good and easily accessible to Tokyo.
Without doubt there are many other excellent resorts in Honshu, and Snow Japan's website (www.snowjapan.com) is a good place to go for weather reports, snow conditions and access and accommodation information.
Personally, away from my "home" resorts, other favorites include Hakuba, Shiga Kogen, Madarao and Nozawa Onsen in Nagano Prefecture; Myoko Kogen in Niigata, which is superb; and the powder-hound's paradise of Tenjin Daira in Gunma. However, if I had to narrow the field to ski spots around two hours' travel time from Tokyo, the following would all make the cut.
The easiest day-return place to go for reliable snow is Gala Yuzawa in Niigata, the only resort with its own bullet train stop right at the base — Echigo-Yuzawa Station, which is about 80 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Joetsu Shinkansen Line. Ethereal it's not, but it is very convenient — and it boasts skiing from 1,181 meters down to 358 meters, an impressive 800-meter-plus drop. Right now, it has a snow base over 2.5 meters !
Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata's classic novel "Yukiguni" ("Snow Country"), first published in serial form from 1935-37, is set in this town back when it was idyllic and undeveloped. Now there is a clutter of large concrete eyesores, but it is still surrounded by beautiful countryside and large mountains blessed with lots of snow.
Near Echigo-Yuzawa there are numerous other resorts, and one of the best for families is Iwappara, another Niigata sparkler with lots of ski-out-and-in lodgings that allow much easier transitions as you make your way from bed to slope and back again for a soothing bath and beers. And in La Locande Pittore (www.pittore.jp) it has the best Italian restaurant on any ski slope in Japan, serving outstanding pizza and a full menu of superb Italian cuisine. For dinner, booking ahead is essential.
White World Oze Iwakura in Gunma Prefecture is a spectacularly beautiful resort. It is my favorite ski area because it has a number of excellent and challenging runs and it gets lots of champagne-dry powder, the lightest and most feathery grade that many skiers go to Hokkaido to find.
I'm writing this with legs stiff and sore from a day of skiing untracked powder down the steepest trails (one is 40 degrees) without even venturing off-piste. Amazingly, on a long holiday weekend with a knee-deep blanket of fresh snow, crowds were sparse. The white birch forests and the breathtaking views are entrancing, and there is endless enjoyment to be had exploring the many trails.
Oze Iwakura has a good variety of terrain for all levels, with long runs covering a large area, a good ski school and convenient lodging. It's a 90-minute bus ride from Jomo-Kogen Station, which is one stop before Echigo-Yuzawa on the Joetsu Shinkansen Line from Tokyo Station. Iwakura House offers spartan accommodations next to the gondola for a reasonable price, and there are a host of charming pensions at the base and just down the road.
Kagura is a magnificent mountain in Niigata Prefecture, where deep powder-skiing is common and where, from early March, the upper lift is opened and offers even better slopes and a season that lasts until May. You often see die-hard skiers trudging up the mountain in search of untracked deep powder near the summit, well above the lift-line. But lazier skiers like myself (been there, done that, not worth the effort) find more than enough pure powder just going off-piste from the trails or cruising beneath the lifts. The lower slopes, with their nice wide trails, are ideal for beginners; while those looking for more of a challenge or craving off-piste powder-skiing through the trees have many possibilities on the upper slopes.
Basically, if you like powder, and tons of it, this is your best bet near Tokyo.
Kagura is by far the best part of a ski-resort complex that includes Naeba — one of the more famous, crowded and overrated resorts in Honshu, with its own Prince Hotel at the base. The pension village below Kagura has more character, is only a few minutes' walk from the gondola, and is incredibly good value — typically less than ¥10,000 per person for a decent room, breakfast and an all-day lift pass. Check out Pension Zion or Kagura Sanso. The closest station is Echigo-Yuzawa and a taxi from there is about ¥3,000.
Houdaigi near Minakami in Gunma Prefecture is geared toward families, but also has some good runs for those looking for it steep and deep. As it is on the Gunma side of the mountains the weather tends to be better than in Niigata and, although Houdaigi is not as big or high as either Kagura or Oze Iwakura, the skiing is very good and there's a fine range of trails for all levels. Also, skiers here are spared a long gondola ride, as all you do is walk over from the parking lot, snag a ticket and ride up a chairlift to begin skiing very quickly.
This is another beautiful resort surrounded by forest, and with great alpine views. There are some very challenging ungroomed courses where I was recently skiing in thigh-deep powder on a 40-degree trail, but it also has nice cruising groomers. Overall, Houdaigi is compact and user-friendly, with a good ski school and availability of English-speaking instructors through Canyons Adventures (www.canyons.jp/en;  72-2811), an outfit that provides a full range of snow sports services.
Meanwhile, for something different, many skiers and boarders like to don an extra layer and head for Hokkaido.
There, at Japan's international ski mecca of Niseko, bookings are down between 30 and 50 percent because of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis — even though the hottest thing about the resort is its range of jaw-dropping deep powder runs.
There are other resorts in Hokkaido, but this is the best one by far. Over the past decade there has been a huge influx of Australians, pumping up a real-estate bubble and giving the resort a major facelift. So, aside from the snow, it now features excellent accommodations, restaurants and bars. It's also easy to navigate everything in English, and there's no need to worry about getting large-size boots and other rental gear.
Niseko means great powder-skiing, fantastic backcountry, a huge variety of groomed runs — and the best apres-ski in Japan. And now there are fewer Aussie powder-hounds competing for those untracked zones, what are you waiting for? Yes, it's a hassle getting there, but flights to Sapporo are frequent and cheap and there are ample rewards justifying the 2½-hour bus ride from the airport.
Niseko is a vast complex catering to all needs, and with good connections between five mountains. Hanazono has wide, flat terrain for beginners; Grand Hirafu is the most crowded for good reason; Higashiyama has the Hilton and great trails; Annupuri features nice wide intermediate runs and some lovely off-piste; while the newest member is Moiwa, a small resort with great off-piste.
Niseko is as phenomenal as they say — and then some. This is already shaping up to be an epic season with massive dumps of snow and it's almost always great between January and March. If you like backcountry skiing, this is your Arcady — but a guide is essential.
Hirafu is where it's hopping, and it's a really good spot to be, but I prefer the laid-back vibe of Annupuri. A one-minute walk from the gondola is Annupuri Lodge (www.annupurilodge.com), with English-speaking staff who can help with trip planning, including airport transfers, and point you in the right direction for ski guides and superb food in the neighborhood. There is a 25 percent discount for February and March bookings, making this award-winning boutique lodge an incredible deal.
To ice this particular cake, I love the great Napoli-style pizzas at Del Sole across the street, and nearby, the handmade soba at Rakuichi ( 58-3170) is so good that food guru Anthony Bourdain featured it on his TV program, "No Reservations" — so now you need to reserve.