The Joys of a Huge, Popular Resort Little-known Outside Japan
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.
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.
“In winter the popular Snow Monkey area is just a 30-minute shuttle bus ride away.
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.
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.
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.
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.