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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Hokkaido Powder Belt Magical Places

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Photo:Takahiro Nakanishi

Skiing has always dictated my life. Personal decisions have never been made without first researching the mountains and counselling how good the tunes were going to be The first time I cam to Japan was on an English teaching program where I was given three choices as to my placement. There were rumours that you were lucky to get any of your choices. A friend from a small town in New Zealand chose Tokyo, only to be posted to the smallest fishing village in Japan. My choices were made based on the merit of the skiing and luckily found myself in the mountainous region of northern Honshu.

But it wasn’t my first choice. That was actually Hokkaido. My interest in the northern island was piqued back at university and video nights with fellow members of the ski club, watching snowboarding videos of pro American snowboarders in Niseko. These guys were some of the first foreign professionals to Hokkaido to ride some of the mystical powder that the island is now famous for. Fast forward several years and at the time living in Tokyo. Tow northern hemisphere winters had come and gone and the only snow I had seen was a brief flurry. I was a fish out of water. I had a goal of starting a ski guiding business on the northern island, and persuaded my wife that a life living the dream was better then anything we had found in Tokyo. In October of 2003, bags were packed into a small van, ferry boarded, and after a night sailing over the Sea of Japan, we were driving to the Central Hokkaido town of Furano.

At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information on the web about Central Hokkaido or Furano, at least not in English. It was better known as a summer destination and for the numerous lavender farms which are dotted around the valley. But the pieces of information regarding the mountains and skiing seemed compelling. The Daisetsuzan National Park and its volcanoes loom large over the landscape, 2,000 meter peaks with both alpine and tree skiing, lodges with thermal hot springs nestled within, and a deep, deep snowpack. It ticked all the boxes for what you would want from a ski trip in Japan, and a guiding business.

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Photo:Masahiro Nakanishi

“I remember sitting in one of the outdoor hot springs after a particularly good day skiing and being mesmerised by the falling snow. It almost looked as though there were feathers falling from the sky, like a giant pillow fight had taken place above us.”

The town of Furano is serviced by the local airport of Asahikawa. For anyone who flies here, the descent into Asahikawa gives a great bird’s eye view of the mountains. On one side there is the Daisetsuzan Range which stretches 60 kilometres from north to south and 30 kilometres east to west. On the other side of the valley are the smaller mountains and the resorts of Kamui Ski Links, Furano and also Tomamu. Furano is the centre of it all. A plaque embeded on a rock in the centre of the town states it is actually the ‘geographic center of Hokkaido.’

My first season here was an exploratory one to assess the area’s potential for good skiing. On backcountry days at the southern end of the national park, I was joined by a fellow Australian whose job was to clear the roads into the hot spring lodges. A big undertaking, but not his particular task. He would sit in an idling vehicle with a heater on full blast at the bottom of the hill, book in one hand and a cell phone in the other, ready to warn the snow clearers of an approaching vehicle. Once the roads were cleared, he would set off after my ski track and we would spend the rest of the day riding the powder. And what powder it was.

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I remember sitting in one of the outdoor hot springs after a particularly good day skiing and being mesmerised by the falling snow. It almost looked as though there were feathers falling from the sky, like a giant pillow fight had taken place above us. The flakes seemed to float as if suspended in the air forever before making a soft descent.

Asahidake is one of the magical places in the area where there is lift access to this amazing snow. I have had days there where our tracks would be covered on each run down, big deep twenty centimetre trenches gone after only 40 minutes. All but vanished, as if someone was playing tricks on us. Deep days are the days where the snow flies over your head, and those aren’t rare. One only needs to ski through the old growth spruce and see the giant blocks of snow resting on the branches to realise that this is a very high snowfall area.

Hokkaido is covered in volcanoes. There are 13 active volcanoes on the island and two of them are in the Daisetsuzan National Park, one of those being Asahidake. When the skies do finally clear and you see this volcano, it is quite breathtaking. Active enough to let you know you are standing on something live, in both sight and smell. Smoke billows from multiple vents and fissures and noxious sulphurous gases plaster parts of the snowpack in shades of green and yellow.

On the days that are too stormy in the national park, I am happy to be riding the lifts at one of the three ski fields. They definitely feel more local than resorts around Sapporo or
of course Niseko. There are days, especially mid-week where it feels you are one of only a handful riding the lifts.

The spread of the ski fields and the varying microclimates of Central Hokkaido contribute
to skiing consistently good snow conditions, as long as you know which resort to go to depending on the storm directions. Five centimetres at one field could be over a foot at another. That is probably how the area acquired the name, ‘Hokkaido’s Powder Belt.’ It is an apt description.

So it has been over ten years now and we are still here. In that time we have skied a lot of powder and had many ‘days of our lives’ in powder terms. Word has spread through the internet where there is now a lot more information in English now. In this age of global warming and diminishing snowfalls, it is good to know that there is an island on this planet where it still snows and snows.

This Japanese ski season, we will launch a new powder ski operation. The package includes a week’s stay in a ski lodge and unlimited skiing in the Hokkaido powder belt. It is like heli-skiing in Canada, but with all the fun Hokkaido has to offer, because we will use a lodge at the foot of
a mountain which means not only the delicious meals the lodge serves, but also a hot springs, an izakaya pub, and local restaurants. Nowhere else is offering a powder package like this one; it’s completely new. Tours will depart from January to March, almost every week. Go to the Hokkaido Powder Guide website for more information.


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Shiga Kogen in Nagano

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The Joys of a Huge, Popular Resort Little-known Outside Japan

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In this skiing feature we have sought to introduce spots that are not well known to ski fans outside Japan, but that have lots of potential and that we tip will grow in popularity. Shiga Kogen is an internation- ally recognised ski destination, so would not seem to actually fit our brief, but with 19 ski areas boasting 52 gondola lifts, it is the largest in Japan. It is so big it is said it would take a week to ski all its courses, which means it has no shortage of spots little known outside Japan.

The first ski area we would like to tell you about is Yokoteyama-Shibutoge. At its highest point the area is 2,305 metres above sea level, it boasts the best qual- ity snow in Japan, and is famous as the country’s most elevated ski area equipped with a normal lift. The negative is that ac- cess is only by car or bus, as the area is quite independent from and unconnected to any other, so that even among people familiar with Shiga Kogen, many do not know about it. But it is just a short shuttle bus ride, so it is well worth giving it a try.

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The ski area we really want to tell you about is Okushiga Kogen. It is linked to other areas so is absolutely easy to get to, but as it is located right at the very back of the extensive Shiga Kogen area very few take the trouble to go there. But Okushiga Kogen offers an unspoiled natural envi- ronment exceeding any other area, and is counted among Japan’s best powder snow areas. Snow-bearing winds from the Japan Sea drop their moisture as they pass over the mountains, bringing super-lative powder snow. The ski courses are varied, with side country and tree courses to enjoy, and if you want to head deep into back country, it is possible to hire guides who are well versed in the area.


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“In winter the popular Snow Monkey area is just a 30-minute shuttle bus ride away.

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The Sugiyama Ski & Snowsports School in Okushiga Kogen has many instructors fluent in other languages, and lessons are very high quality. The school is a distinguished institution with several nationally accredited instructors from Austria in Europe, the home of skiing. One reason why excellent personnel are attracted to the school is the presence of the school’s representative, Susumu Sugi- yama. He is a former Japanese alpen ski Olympian and is a legend in Japan. His son, the principal, Kiminobu Sugiyama, is also a highly reputable instructor, nation- ally accredited in Austria. The Sugiyama Ski & Snowsports School has developed its own method of instruction, based on the world-leading skiing method devel- oped in Austria, the cradle of alpen skiing. If you are keen to learn ski techniques, go knock on their door.

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If you are going to concentrate your stay in the extensive Shiga Kogen area on Okushiga Kogen, the ideal place to stay is the Okushiga Kogen Hotel, which is directly connected to the ski area and has a lift station right in front of the lounge. It is a warm, classic hotel, featuring a design of wood-grain walls and with a popular bar with a very big fireplace. The staff are internationally diverse and friendly. The entire hotel is Wi-Fi enabled, and the restaurant serves not only Japanese food, but a variety of other cuisines, including French. There is after-ski fun in the izakaya Japanese pub at night. In Japanese spring, a terrace café in the style of a yurt is to open on the top of Okushiga Mountain.

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Good powder snow is available at Okushiga Kogen from December to early March, but snow remains for a long time, so skiing is possible into May and spring. You could avoid the busiest part of the ski season to focus on touring in other areas and still build skiing into your travel itinerary. Outside the ski season, summer on the plateau is very comfortable, with a variety of activities available, including golf, tennis, cycling and fishing. From September to October the mountains turn red and gold with autumn leaves, and in every direction from your hotel window there is beautiful scenery. We urge you to take yourself to Okushiga, a spot in Shiga Kogen attracting particular attention.

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Shiga Kogen is also close to the hot springs area of Shibu Onsen, with its cobbled streets and buildings from the late 19th to early 20th centuries that cre- ate a richly imbued Meiji and Taisho era atmosphere, and to Yudanaka Onsen. In winter the popular snow monkey area is just a 30-minute shuttle bus ride away. A further attraction of the area is the ability to taste in one go all aspects of Japan’s culture of alcoholic beverages.

There are four wineries, all of which accept tours. There are also eight sake breweries, and it is possible to tour the local brewery that produces Japan’s top-selling boutique beer.

More and more people are visiting Shiga Kogen each year, but next time you go, we encourage you to venture into the areas we have talked about here. We trust this information will add substance to your ski life.


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