POW WOW MO­MENTS

Dream­ing of hit­ting the slopes in Ja­pan but don’t know where to start? We’re here to help

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION JAPAN - KIRK OWERS

Can you feel it? It’s snow­ing in Ja­pan. Be­fore long the coun­try’s fa­mously dry pow­der snow will be pil­ing up in me­tres, bury­ing cars and send­ing skiers and snow­board­ers into a fever. While most will flock to the world-fa­mous play­grounds of Niseko or Hakuba Val­ley, oth­ers will jump bullet trains to ex­plore lesser known re­gions. With more than 500 re­sorts to choose from there’s no short­age of op­tions. We asked in­dus­try ex­perts for their tips.

POW­DER HOUNDS HOKKAIDO

Ja­pan is cov­eted for the quan­tity and con­sis­tency of its snow. Skiers rave about carv­ing first tracks through waist-deep pow­der all day long.

Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary are the snowiest months but the sea­son ex­tends well into April.

“Al­most ev­ery day is a pow­der day in Ja­pan on a good year,” says SnowsBest.com ed­i­tor Rachael Oakes-Ash, who rec­om­mends Cortina and Madarao for off-piste thrills.

But it’s the north­ern is­land of Hokkaido where the snow re­ally smoth­ers the land. Niseko av­er­ages a stag­ger­ing 15 me­tres an­nu­ally; nearby Rusutso gets al­most as much with far fewer peo­ple.

For se­ri­ous skiers and board­ers, Oakes-Ash sug­gests Asahi­dake, also on Hokkaido, for “more pow­der than you can dream of ”.

FAM­ILY FUN FURANO AND TOMAMU

Fam­i­lies tend to pri­ori­tise con­ve­nience over snow depth. Ja­pan of­fers both.

SnowAc­tion mag­a­zine ed­i­tor Owain Price has skied “around 100” re­sorts in Ja­pan and rec­om­mends self-con­tained ski in/ski out re­sorts for fam­i­lies. Ho­tel chains such as Prince Re­sorts and Club Med of­fer allinclu­sive pack­ages and slope-side ac­com­mo­da­tion elim­i­nat­ing trans­fers and stress.

Price likes Furano and Naeba for a has­sle-free snow­ca­tion. Both have plenty of begin­ner ter­rain, English­s­peak­ing in­struc­tors and lengthy snow es­ca­la­tors (magic car­pets).

And then there’s Tomamu Re­sort in Hokkaido which boasts an ice vil­lage as well as a 50m in­door wave pool (Ja­pan’s big­gest).

“If the kids get sick of the snow they can have some beach time as well,” sug­gests Price.

SOAK LIKE A SAMU­RAI ONSEN VIL­LAGES

Aus­tralians ap­pear spell­bound by the Land of the Ris­ing Sun. And while the snow is a mighty draw­card, it’s the scenery, cities, food and peo­ple that can bump a ski trip into the un­for­get­table cat­e­gory.

Au­then­tic cul­ture is in richer sup­ply away from the mega re­sorts which cater for western tastes. Onsen re­sorts dou­ble as health re­treats and are of­ten steeped in tra­di­tion.

In the vil­lage of Yu­danaka (near Shiga Ko­gen Re­sort) you can ease into a com­mu­nal hot spring used by battle-weary samu­rai 700 years ago or watch snow mon­keys en­joy­ing their own tub.

Fur­ther north, Zao Onsen is a quaint moun­tain vil­lage famed for its tra­di­tional inns (ryokans) and ope­nair hot springs (roten­buro).

The moun­tain above has a var­ied mix of ter­rain in­clud­ing a for­est of snow-cov­ered trees known as snow mon­sters. Tokyo, of course, is not to be missed.

THRILLER TER­RAIN HAKUBA VAL­LEY

Ja­panese re­sorts are small by North­ern Hemi­sphere stan­dards but ex­perts can still get their hearts ham­mer­ing.

The high­est el­e­va­tions are found in the pre­fec­tures of Ni­igata and Nagano, to the north­west of Tokyo.

Hakuba Val­ley, con­sist­ing of 11 ski re­sorts, is a mecca for se­ri­ous skiers and board­ers. James Robb runs a back-coun­try guid­ing ser­vice, Ever­green Out­door Cen­ter, from here.

“Hakuba has enough va­ri­ety and chal­leng­ing ter­rain within 30 min­utes of the vil­lage as well as am­ple back-coun­try for ad­vanced skiers and rid­ers to ex­plore,” he says.

Many of Ja­pan’s best runs lie out­side re­sort bound­aries (back­coun­try) but are only suitable for well-equipped ex­perts or spe­cial­ist tour op­er­a­tors.

In­side the re­sorts, Robb says the best black di­a­mond runs in all of Ja­pan are among the Hie­dayama cour­ses at Cortina.

APRES PARTY NISEKO

Un­like the Aus­tralian Alps, Ja­panese ski towns don’t of­ten dou­ble as party spots when the sun sets.

Apres bars and night­clubs are no­tice­ably ab­sent from most Ja­panese moun­tain vil­lages where a naked com­mu­nal hot tub is the pre­ferred wind down.

The ex­cep­tions are the big re­sorts which cater for in­ter­na­tional guests (ie, thirsty Aussies).

Far and away the big­gest apres scene is found in Niseko Re­sort in Hokkaido. Here the vil­lage of Hi­rafu has a good se­lec­tion of restau­rants and cock­tail bars that are per­fect for an apres ses­sion.

Those who like to party can kick on at The Edge Bar, a night­club which rages un­til late. Hakuba also has some good night-life, in­clud­ing The Pub, a top spot from which to watch the Win­ter Olympics in Fe­bru­ary.

SE­CRET SPOTS GETO KO­GEN AND SHIZUKUISHI

Aus­tralians con­tinue to swoosh down Ja­panese moun­tains in in­creas­ing num­bers with the ma­jor­ity head­ing for Hakuba and Niseko, ac­cord­ing to the Ja­pan Tourist Of­fice.

To es­cape the Aussie mi­gra­tion, you need to look fur­ther afield. SnowAc­tion’s Owain Price rec­om­mends book­ing a JR East Rail To­hoku pass.

“Head­ing north from Tokyo, the Aizu re­gion west from Fukushima has some great ar­eas for mel­low ski in/ski out pow lines and, for a great stay, try Gran­deco Re­sort Ho­tel & Ski,” he says.

“Fur­ther north, Geto Ko­gen gets in­sane amounts of snow and there are bril­liant tree cour­ses by which to ac­cess it.

“Next stop up the Shinkansen line is Shizukuishi Prince Re­sort, a smaller, great value ho­tel where you can still lap the pow­der. Then up in Ao­mori (re­gion), Hakkoda is as good as any­where on its day.”

PACK­AGE DEAL OR IN­DE­PEN­DENT?

In­de­pen­dent travel is ad­ven­tur­ous and re­ward­ing but it can be in­tim­i­dat­ing for first-timers.

Eng­lish speak­ers are hard to find in re­gional Ja­pan and bullet trains don’t wait for any­one.

Book­ing with a tour group en­sures smooth trav­el­ling.

“Most tour op­er­a­tors of­fer both tra­di­tional and western-style op­tions so you can choose which works for you,” says SnowsBest.com’s Rachael Oakes-Ash. “Ski Max Hol­i­days are one of the big­gest and they know their stuff,” she says. “For a more bou­tique ex­pe­ri­ence: Liq­uid Snow Tours, Mint Tours or the spe­cialised Sk­iJa­pan.com.”

MORE INFO

SNOWAC­TION.COM.AU, SNOWSBEST.COM, SK­IJA­PAN.COM

PIC­TURES: GETTY, ISTOCK

Hokkaido has much to of­fer, such as the rolling hills of Shik­i­sai no Oka (above), ideal for rid­ing on a snow­mo­bile and snow raft­ing; or the off­beat charm of the Snow Crys­tal Mu­seum at Asahikawa; and Hakuba is for se­ri­ous skiers with plenty of chal­leng­ing ter­rain.

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