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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Skiing Paradise in Nagano – Hakuba

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THE POWDER SNOWS MEET THEIR MATCH WITH THE CORN SNOWS OF SPRING

When it comes to the skiing fields of Nagano popular with overseas skiers, you need look no further than the likes of Hakuba, Nozawa, or Shiga Kogen, each of which sees their greatest peak in popularity in January and February. In particular, these areas see a great boost in popularity during this time thanks to the large number of Australians who take longer holidays in January and come to visit Japan. No doubt, a great many of our readers also visit these regions around this time as well. But as the explosion in overseas skiers lasts throughout these first two months of the year only to die off suddenly in March, many Japanese skiers continue to visit these skiing regions in the weeks that follow. In fact, many schools enter their spring holidays around this time, drawing students and families out to the slopes.

Japan’s heavy snowfall means there is plenty of snow even in the spring, and the turn of the seasons brings a warm climate that creates a more pleasurable environment for skiing than the harsher winter months. In particular, the period from spring to early summer is the best time for backcountry skiing, and Japanese skiers who learn they can now enter the depths of the mountains that were previously sealed off, begin to stir as the seasons change.

Indeed, the coming of spring heralds greater daylight hours, and along with it the chance to enjoy skiing without having to change into heavy cold-weather gear. It also brings a corn snow that is a match for the powder snows, a type of snow where it is difficult to lose control and gives you the chance to try out some new techniques.

Skiing in the springtime offers a host of other highlights unavailable during the colder winter months such as the start of helicopter skiing, which is unsuited to the stronger winds of winter.

In this special feature, one of our reporters shares their experience travelling to three areas where you can enjoy the delights of skiing as only spring can offer.

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It was in March 2016 that I set out to visit three skiing areas in Nagano Prefecture. From Tokyo, I headed out by bullet train for an hour and a half to Nagano Station before changing over to a bus for just under another hour again. My destination – Hakuba. The village of Hakuba is located in the northernmost reaches of the Japanese Alps, the collective name for three ranges in the middle of mainland Japan with breathtaking views and natural scenery that have earned the village the title of the best in the country. The name Hakuba itself comes from the characters for ‘white’ and ‘horse’ in Japanese, and stories surrounding its origins abound. Some say it comes from the beautiful white line of peaks that looks like a white horse, while others say it comes from the patterns of the rocks and snow instead. Whatever the origin, you have but to lay your eyes upon the beautiful white lines of the mountains to get a sense for just how hauntingly befitting a title it is.

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Hakuba is actually the collective title for a multitude of skiing areas in the region. While advanced courses are in abundance here, the largest being the Hakuba Happoone Winter Resort that draws advanced skiers from across Japan, there are also many unique skiing areas such as the Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort and Hakuba47 that offer tree run courses, non-compacted snow courses and parks, and the Iwatake Snow Field where you can enjoy a full 360 degree view out over the northern alps and the basin between the peaks of Hakuba itself.

My destination, however, was the Hakuba Tsugaike Kogen skiing area, which is home to more beginner-friendly courses and a hit with families. What drew me here this time was the start of helicopter skiing. The unstable weather of winter puts a halt to all flights out of consideration for safety, making this one treat you cannot enjoy in the winter. Helicopter skiing here usually starts around 10 March each year, and is a popular service limited to only 400 people a day.

In the early hours of the morning, I headed out to Tsugaike Kogen and hopped on board one of the gondolas. Arriving at the other end, a part of the skiing fields had been turned into a heliport, and soon enough, the sound of rotors could be heard on the winds. Before I knew it, a dark spot in the sky gradually grew into the shape of a helicopter as it drew close, the force of the winds stirred up by the props almost palpable. I put my ski gear in the helicopter, and got on board.

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THERE AT THE PEAK, EVERYTHING WAS STILL, EVERYTHING WAS QUIET. THE VIEW OUT TO THE SEA OF JAPAN MADE FOR A BREATHTAKING SIGHT.

We were up and off the ground in an instant, gliding through the skies above the snow peaks with an uninhibited view of 360 degrees out over the alps. After a flight time of some five minutes, the helicopter began to wheel through the sky, the G-force pushing me into my seat as I gazed out over the mountains spread in front of me before coming to land at the 2,200m mark. This experience itself was well worth my visit.

While you can ski more than 14km from the landing site down to the foothills, today I chose to hike on up to make the peak of Mt. Norikura my starting destination. Fixing a protecting climbing skin to the soles of my skis, I made my ascent up the wide, open snow plains, arriving at the top in an hour and a half despite running into some challenging spots along the way.

There at the peak, everything was still, everything was quiet. The view out to the Sea of Japan made for a breathtaking sight, as there I stood on top of the world in my secluded wonderland. And now, the time had come to make my descent along the skiing fields in a spray of snow, a sensation made all the more precious for the long journey that had brought me to the top. Along the way, the snow began to give way to the start of the treeline, turning my descent into a tree run.

Even though it was springtime, the snow was still very light. Skiing over corn snow with its featherlight coating of ice is an unusual experience that can only be enjoyed at this time of year. Nearing the bottom of the slopes, the buildings of the skiing area came into sight, and I arrived out of the forest to the base of the lifts at the top of the skiing area. Continuing on down from there to the base brings the course down from the peak to a total of 17km! When you get back from the slopes, why not settle down under the warm sun of the terrace for a beer, another pleasure of the warm spring weather.

For those who have only enjoyed Hakuba in the winter, this is one place to mark out for a visit in the spring.

ENJOY A WALK ABOUT THE TOWN OF HAKUBA AMIDST AN EXPLOSION OF NEW SHOPS

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Many new and interesting stores have opened up in the Hakuba area in the past few years. Close to the bus terminal that serves as the main hub of the village when you come to visit via bus, stores dedicated to snow-related brands such as Patagonia and The North Face have been opening up one after the other, and are causing quite the stir. The North Face also comes complete with a café space that is popular among the many Aussies who visit in the afternoons. The Australian skiing shop, Rhythm Snow Sports, can also be found here, and is also home to the company, Evergreen, that holds backcountry skiing tours, and you can find the equipment required for this type of adventure on rental. Come take a look!

Another hot spot is the recently opened brewery in the Hakuba Iwatake area that is a bustle with patrons in the evenings. My personal recommendation is the original Hakuba beer. From the skiing to the township at its foothills, Hakuba continues to grow and evolve, and will no doubt continue to draw acclaim as a popular skiing destination from here on as well.

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THE “SUPER DRY” EXPERIENCE IN AUSTRALIA

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It is said that Japanese people and Australians enjoy their beers in different ways. What is the secret to enjoying Japan’s most beloved – Asahi Beer?

6pm at night. A bustling street filled with people after a long day’s work. You duck into a back alley where the tantalising fragrance of yakitori (grilled chicken) wafts towards you from all directions. As you step into your usual izakaya (Japanese pub), a waiter’s boisterous, “Irasshai!”(“Welcome!”), echoes throughout the restaurant. This is what it’s all about. An izakaya is a Japanese person’s “oasis of the heart”.

The first word to leave most people’s mouths as they take their seat are, “I’ll start with a beer on tap”. You order an icy cold beer and what gets brought out is an ASAHI SUPER DRY. You shout, “Kampai!” (“Cheers!”), with all of your mates, clink glasses, and pour the golden beer along with its almost overflowing, creamy white head down your throat. Such a smooth, refined mouthfeel with a crisp aftertaste. A refreshing beer sure hits the spot after a hard day at the office.

One cannot overlook the small plates overflowing with edamame and yakitori, which go so well with beer. Many Australians seem to enjoy their beer on its own. The Japanese, on the other hand, much prefer a variety of side dishes to accompany their beer.

Asahi Breweries, Ltd. is a proud Japanese brand, topping beer sales in Japan for 17 consecutive years*. The ASAHI SUPER DRY brand can be found in pubs and bottles shops here in Australia as well, making it familiar amongst many Australians.

ASAHI SUPER DRY took out the gold award for the International-Style Lager category at the 2014 World Beer Cup, the USA’s prestigious international beer competition. At the Belgian international beer contest – The Brussels Beer Challenge – ASAHI SUPER DRY took out the gold medal for the Lager: International Style Pilsner, achieving the first gold medal for a Japanese brewery.

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3 brands are currently sold in the Australian market. ASAHI SUPER DRY (5.0%ABV) has a “delicate, yet rich, full-flavoured body with a refreshing dry aftertaste”. It is the topselling Asian Beer in Australia. Since its debut in Japan in 1987 as the first “KARAKUCHI” (dry) beer, ASAHI SUPER DRY has set a new de facto standard in Japanese brewing.

ASAHI SUPER DRY BLACK (5.5%ABV) is a crisp new Super Dry style lager. Bold and refreshing, it has changed the world’s perception on dark beers. Asahi successfully blended the rich aroma and flavour while maintaining the smoothness of ASAHI SUPER DRY. This beer is perfect for when you want to refresh yourself.

ASASHI SOUKAI (3.5%ABV) is an Australian market-limited brand. It delivers a clean, smooth taste that embodies the sophisticated, Japanese way of life whilst still retaining that unmistakable refreshing, crisp ASAHI SUPER DRY taste. ASAHI SOUKAI is an easy-to-drink, non-filling, sessionable beer, expertly brewed using quality Japanese brewing techniques.

Try comparing the beers yourself to experience their distinct flavours! The next time you get together with your mates, why not grab a few Asahi beers as well? Don’t forget the bowls of edamame to snack on. Bring the Japanese izakaya experience to your home by shouting out “kampai!” as you clink together your glasses of icy cold Asahi beer. *Taxable shipped units of 5 major Japanese beer makers in 1998-2014.