TEN years ago few Australian skiers would have considered Japan for a winter holiday.
Now we’re heading there in record numbers, lured by reliable snow – lots of it – the choice of 600-plus resorts, ranging across the country from the northern island of Hokkaido to Kyushu in the south, and lift tickets at about half what they cost at home.
Some of the ski areas are vast, made up of multiple resorts; others are more modest affairs run by tiny villages with accommodation in traditional ryokan.
When visitors need a break from the slopes there are always hot springs to take away the chill (and in some places even snow monkeys can be found having a warming soak).
Niseko in Hokkaido, with deep powder, challenging runs and a whopping 16m of snow in an average season (early December to early May) is the favoured destination for many Australians, and not just skiers and boarders.
Resort staff often speak English with an Australian accent, too.
Niseko is actually four areas – Annupuri, Higashiyama, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono – on the west coast of Hokkaido, about two hours from Sapporo, the island’s gateway. All are linked by 37 shared lifts – four of them gondolas – and can be skied on one pass. Ski lifts open at 8.30am and at Grand Hirafu the action on the slopes continues to 9pm.
Grand Hirafu is also the place for apres ski action – there’s considerable Australian investment here – with numerous bars, restaurants and ski-in, ski-out accommodation options to suit any budget.
World Cup downhill races are often staged at Furano, in the centre of Hokkaido, and it is becoming increasingly popular with international skiers. It’s actually two mountains that can be skied on one lift ticket, opening up some of the longest and steepest runs in the country with spectacular views of the peak of Mt Furano.
There’s a wide variety of terrain for all levels and, at the base, a good choice of accommodation.
The ski-in, ski-out Prince Hotel (next to the cable car, which takes skiers to the top of the mountain) is the most upmarket.
How Furano measures up. Vertical rise: 974m; lifts: 18; terrain: beginner 40 per cent, intermediate 40 per cent, advanced 20 per cent.
Rusutsu, Hokkaido’s third big resort, about 80km west of Sapporo, has extensive facilities and a lift network spreading over three peaks. It’s bustling with restaurants, cafes, bars, shopping mall and entertainment complex.
The Resort and Tower hotels are good accommodation options. How Rusutsu measures up. Vertical rise: 594m; lifts: 18; terrain: beginner 30 per cent, intermediate 40 per cent, advanced 30 per cent.
Shiga Kogen, 1 1/2 hours from Nagano, on the main island of Honshu, is one of the giants of Japanese skiing with 21 resorts linked by a single lift ticket.
Yakebitaiyama is the most modern and, along with the adjoining village of Ichinose, offers ski-in, ski-out accommodation, extensive facilities, fast lifts and great snow. This area is also the home of the famous, camera-friendly Japanese snow monkeys, which live at Jigokudani hot springs. How Shiga Kogen measures up. Vertical rise: 980m; lifts: 70; terrain: beginner 30 per cent, intermediate 40 per cent, advanced 30 per cent.
Sahoro is a small resort popular with international visitors largely because the only Club Med in Japan is situated at its base.
The lift network provides fast access with the gondola making the journey to the top of the mountain in less than 10 minutes. Hotel Sahoro and Club Med are the best accommodation choices. How Sahoro measures up. Vertical rise: 610m; lifts: 8; terrain: beginner 30 per cent, intermediate 40 per cent, advanced 30 per cent.
Tomamu has lots of variety, from off-piste skiing, heli-skiing and cat-skiing to huge indoor wave pool, outdoor pool, saunas, spas and ice-dome village. How Tomamu measures up. Vertical rise: 670m; lifts: 11; terrain: beginner 30 per cent, intermediate 40 per cent, advanced 30 per cent.
Hakuba Valley, billed as Japan’s skiing mecca, is a huge expanse of 10 resorts and 200-plus runs on a 30km stretch of the alps. It’s about a 2 1/2 hour bullet train ride from Tokyo. Rugged peaks tower above the town, where the majority of the skiers and boarders stay. There’s an extensive range of accommodation and a wide selection of dining and entertainment options as well as natural hot springs to relax in after a hard day on the slopes.
Happo-One is the most popular with the locals. A Happy Seven lift pass can be bought which is valid at, you guessed, seven of the 10 resorts. How Hakuba Valley measures up. Vertical rise: 1081m; lifts: 135; terrain: beginner 30 per cent, intermediate 40 per cent, advanced 30 per cent.
Nozawa Onsen combines great skiing and boarding with a traditional Japanese experience staying at authentic ryokan with natural hot springs and lantern-lit cobblestone streets. How Nozawa Onsen measures up. Vertical rise: 1065m; lifts: 21; terrain: beginner 40 per cent, intermediate 30 per cent, advanced 30 per cent.
Mt Naeba is one of the biggest interlinked resorts in the country. Naeba, Tashiro, Kagura and Mitsumata make up this huge and diverse area.rtfgv4
Accommodation is at the Naeba Prince Hotel, a ski-in, ski-out 1000-plus room grand-style resort with more than 20 restaurants, shopping mall, indoor swimming pool and hot springs. How Mt Naeba measures up. Vertical rise: 889m; lifts: 50; terrain: beginner 30 per cent, intermediate 40 per cent, advanced 30 per cent.
Myoko Kogen is a large-scale resort with great snow, numerous runs and a fast, efficient lift and gondola system. The village is connected to three linked resorts: Suginohara, Akakura and Ikenotaira. Akakura is the main area with a good selection of hotels and entertainment. There are natural hot springs in the area.
How Myoko Kogen measures up. Vertical rise: 1124m; lifts: 41; terrain: beginner 25 per cent, intermediate 53 per cent, advanced 22 per cent.
Zao has maintained its traditional heritage and is brimming with hot springs and local character. It’s known for its so-called snow monsters; during the ride to the summit, visitors pass thousands of these snow-covered pines.
How Zao measures up. Vertical rise: 881m; lifts: 42; terrain: beginner 40 per cent, intermediate 40 per cent, advanced 20 per cent.
By Barry Oliver
September 30, 2007
Visit www.skijapan.com and www.snowjapan.com for more information.