MYOKO KOGEN – Nigata

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Backcountry skiing in one of Japan’s greatest snowy regions.

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Just over the border from Nagano prefecture into neighboring Niigata prefecture is Myoko Kogen, a skiing area known for its heavy snowfalls. This area, comprised of three main skiing areas, has seen a large boom in visitors from overseas in recent years. There is the Suginohara skiing area that offers a change in elevation of over 1,100m and a skiing route up to 8,500m in length, the Akakura area comprised of the Akakura Kanko Resort Ski Area, and the Akakura Onsen Ski Area set amidst the backdrop of a hot spring town, and the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area that has seen a recent boom in park facilities and is popular to snowboarders that can be found in between.

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Another area seeing a boost in popularity spread through word-ofmouth from the overseas skiers who have visited recently is the Seki Onsen Ski Area. The course itself at the skiing area here is extremely small, but enjoys great popularity due to its easy access to backcountry skiing areas that let you ski to your heart’s content out on the powder snow.

This time, after my trip to Echigo Yuzawa, I chose to venture forth to the skiing areas in the Akakura area and to the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area. The reason for my choice was to see the longstanding Akakura Kanko Hotel on the skiing fields of the Akakura Kanko Resort Ski Area, which has recently been refurbished and affords amazing views out over the surrounding countryside.

AKAKURA IS KNOWN FOR BEING A HOT SPRING TOWN, AND HERE THE TOWNSHIP’S HISTORY ALLOWS YOU TO ENJOY DELICIOUS TRADITIONAL COUNTRYSIDE CUISINE.

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On my trip to Echigo Yuzawa and Myoko Kogen, I was joined by travel editor of the popular skiing magazine Snow Action, David Windsor.

Here, David shares a few impressions on his trip to the area.
The Niigata prefecture of Japan is such a rewarding adventure. The snow’s out of this world and makes for awesome days on the speedy Yuzawa “gelandes”, with over 12 resorts to choose from just 75 minutes from Tokyo; or smashing through pow in the trees and out the side and back country of Myoko. The adventure continues off slope with a relaxing peaceful onsen in our hotel or ryokan before hitting the boisterous bars and rowdy restaurants full of happy folk sharing their experiences and loud shouts of ‘kanpai’ over frosty beers, hot sake and an awesome array of shochu. As for the food, the adventure begins with fish, an omelette and pickled veg for breakfast; an amazing bowl of squid ink with mozzarella cheese udon noodles for lunch at “Udon-no-Fu” in Akakura Onsen; and for a super fun dinner I loved the okonomiyaki savory pancakes and yakisoba made in front of us on our table top hot plate at the “Lumber Jack” or the yakitori at “Asagao”, also in Akakura Onsen. None of that could top a magnificent 10 course kaiseki banquet at the NASPA New Otani Resort in Yuzawa. All up, Yuzawa and Myoko is a wonderfully happy, unique and cultural ski adventure that should be experienced with an open mind and a “try everything” attitude.

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The timing of my trip couldn’t have been better. Even though it was late March, the ground was thick with snow, with a further snowfall later in the night that turned the skiing fields into a heaven of powder snow by the morning. The cold was nothing like that of the harsh winter months, however, allowing me to enjoy a powder run out on the slopes. This is its facilities, most notably the newly established Aqua Terrace, were a sight to behold. Some rooms come complete with an outdoor hot spring bath, and the layout of the rooms that afford a view out over the skiing fields is the very picture of luxury. Your choice in dining ranges from French to Japanese cuisine, bakeries and more, offering a wide variety of options. The spa facilities are a hit with female guests, and you could certainly find no better hotel for a stay in Akakura. I look forward to a stay there someday, but alas my time had come to make my descent back down the mountain.

My goal for my next destination – the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area – was the tree run, an area to which entry was previously prohibited, yet opened up in response to popular demand. Heading straight for the course, I could see that the treeline in the middle of the slopes as you come down from the peak was open to entry, offering a satisfying change of pace as you ski through the trees on powder snows on just the right decline. Such easy access to sidecountry areas such as these is a true delight.

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The Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area also offers easy access to backcountry areas. Heading to the peaks by lift and trekking further out allows you to enjoy amazing backcountry skiing. The backcountry of the Myoko area is comparatively low in risk, and highly recommended. I was able to visit the backcountry this time with the help of what I was here for! The Akakura Kanko Hotel itself offered a refined, elegant atmosphere befitting its reputation, and a guide from the Dancing Snow touring company, and was met with an amazing course. My run here was very fun yet not too advanced, making it the perfect choice for all who visit. Check out the local Dancing Snow touring company for more details if you’re keen to try your hand.

Of the areas in Myoko, Akakura is known for being a hot spring town, and here the township’s history allows you to enjoy delicious traditional countryside cuisine. No matter where you go, you are met with the simple yet inspiring heritage of Japanese cuisine. One recommendation is Matagi at the foothills of the Ikenotaira skiing area. While English service is not necessarily their forte, familiar fare such as ramen is on offer and a must for any who visit, offering a window to the understated tastes of traditional Japanese cuisine.

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Made in Japan Quality OGASAKA SKI

Made in Japan Quality OGASAKA SKI

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JAPANESE SKIS FOR SNOWY MOUNTAINS IN JAPAN

Words and photography: Kazuya Baba

Have you ever heard of the ski gear brand – OGASAKA? It is a deep rooted popular brand amongst Japanese skiers, however, it is relatively unknown internationally other than in some Asian countries. A plethora of Japanese skiers swear by the brand, so there is a high chance that many travellers flying over to Japan to ski have seen the brand around before.

OGASAKA is a popular Japanese brand that has been recognised nationally for its high performance. Within the Japanese market, many are of the opinion that, “For shredding the Japanese mountains, none can beat OGASAKA’s made in Japan quality.” In fact, OGASAKA branded gear is often given outstanding reviews in ski magazines. But why is it so beloved in Japan?

OGASAKA SKI’s history walks hand in hand with the history of skiing in Japan itself, dating back approximately 106 years ago. In 1911, Major Theodor Edler von Lerch, taught young army officers from Takada in Niigata how to ski as a means of travel through snowy mountains whilst visiting Japan from Austria. This is said to be the beginnings of skiing in Japan. The following year, the ski making brand, OGASAKA , was born.

The brand got its start when prominent furniture maker at the time, Hamataro Ogasaka received a request to make skis. After much trial and error, Ogasaka finally successfully produced Japan’s first 40 pairs of skis. From then on, Ogasaka continued to improve his manufacturing techniques, increase his ski production rate and through sheer hard work and perseverance, cemented his position as a ski maker.

These days, the brand’s motto – the ability to ski to your heart’s content is precisely what makes skiing fun – is what spurs on further product development. As the motto suggests, the brand is known for its easy to maintain products which produce a smooth and flexible glide.

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We spoke to a representative of OGASAKA, Yasuo Tomii, about how meticulous the brand is about choosing the perfect materials and the amount of time and energy it takes to produce such quality products.

“Even to this day, we use natural woods which are especially light, flexible and strong to make the cores for our skis. By combining this wood with reinforcing materials which utilize the latest technology, we are able to produce the best skis possible. Also, through undertaking many processes carefully by hand, you end up with a product of such quality that is only obtainable when handmade. Most skis do not have flat ski bases when they’re sold so they recommend that you tune them up before you use them but, this is not necessary with OGASAKA skis. Much like other Japanese made products, OGASAKA skis are made very cleanly and precisely. We strive to make skis that you’ll be proud to wear.”

He also had the following to say in regards to why Japanese skiers choose OGASAKA for their snowy mountain adventures:

“I think the main and most obvious reason is because we test our skis on Japanese ski slopes. For example, European ski slopes are at high altitudes so they would probably do a lot of their testing 1500-2000 metres up on compacted, icy ski fields. However, in Japan we can get heavy snowfall at altitudes of just 200 metres high and the quality of our snow is also different. So I think it’s only natural for our skis to suit Japanese slopes because we conduct our tests under those environments.”

Competitive skiing and Japanese demonstration or exhibition skiing has been the centrepiece of the ski season in Japan for many years and OGASAKA also developed skis for such events over the years. With the increased interest of backcountry skiing in recent times, OGASAKA has also added a good selection of wide skis to their line up as well.

So have a look at some “Made in Japan” skis to accompany you on your next run down a Japanese ski slope if you get the chance!

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NOZAWA ONSEN

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Nozawa Onsen is a destination so popular with Australians and other overseas skiers that the bars and restaurants of this hot spring village are filled almost entirely with these venturers during peak season. The reason for its popularity is none other than its compact combination of skiing areas and a hot spring village.

Not only does Nozawa Onsen boast expansive skiing areas, the hot spring village that lies at the foothills offers incredible convenience with a great many stores that you can visit by foot, all set amidst the atmosphere of a traditional Japanese village. The hot spring waters of Nozawa Onsen are known for their quality, and hot spring stops can be found throughout the town, visited by people walking through the town in their traditional Japanese yukata, lending it an air of sophistication.

I visited Nozawa Onsen directly after my trip to Shiga Kogen, and was surprised to find that here in March, there were much fewer travellers from overseas than in the peak season, another sign that springtime skiing has yet to gain in popularity. The Nozawa Onsen skiing area is an expansive one that feels like a mountain in and of itself whose average elevation exceeds 1,000m, reached by taking a long gondola from the foothills. The Yamabiko area there at the topmost reaches changes dramatically in the spring.

THE SIDECOUNTRY AREAS THAT YOU CAN ENTER HERE AT THE YAMABIKO AREA ARE POPULAR FOR ALLOWING SKIERS TO ENJOY TREE RUNS OVER POWDER SNOW.

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From the peaks of the mountains, the Yamabiko area breaks out into three main courses. In between those courses, however, is a sidecountry area that skiers can enter at their own risk. In Japan, entering sidecountry areas such as these is generally prohibited out of concern for safety, but some skiing areas have recently begun to open these areas up in response to demand. Most tend not to stray too deep, but the sidecountry areas that you can enter here at the Yamabiko area are popular for allowing skiers to enjoy tree runs over powder snow on a scale available in true backcountry areas. That course, however, changes completely with the spring.

Nozawa Onsen is an area known for its heavy snowfall, so it comes as no surprise that there are heavy snows even in the spring, and the high elevation of the Yamabiko area allows the groomed barn here to retain a consistency that is perfect for carving while the sidecountry areas are covered in corn snow typical of the springtime. The amount of snow does gradually fall in comparison to the harsher winter months, however, as the days grow warmer they unveil the natural formation of the wilderness around.

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The Yamabiko area is normally well known for its natural half pipes and kickers that make for an exciting course, but the receding snows that uncover the wilds beneath bring an added layer of strategy to the slopes. Gliding down the slopes across this ever-changing terrain amidst the warm weather, the rustling sound of the wind through the trees greets you as you come to rest. It is here, in this wonderful oneness with nature, that Nozawa Onsen shines.

A HOT SPRING VILLAGE WITH A MYRIAD OF ATTRACTIONS

The village of Nozawa itself is beginning to evolve as new stores open to meet the boom in popularity among overseas skiers. One example is a new brewery that has opened up in front of the large outdoor bath that is one of the symbols of this hot spring village. Another gift shop in the center of the town has turned into a café that uses coffee beans and equipment popular in New Zealand and Australia to serve authentic espresso coffee. When I visited, there was a customer from Melbourne who was sitting down to a cup. The older soba noodle and other shops are also still alive and well. This jumble of eastern and western cultures in the midst of an old hot spring village is one of the reasons that gives the area its charm, and is sure to secure its place as a hotspot in the springtime for those that come to learn of its appeal.

Last but not least, Nozawa Onsen is a place from which many national skiing representatives have been born, some of which have gone on to become former world champions and olympic competitors. During my travels this time, I happened across a social get together between some olympians, and had the chance to join them for a drink, a rare opportunity that few other locations can provide.

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