Peak hour for magic moun­tain

Ja­pan’s three main ski cen­tres are wel­com­ing record num­bers of snow en­thu­si­asts

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

IT is just as well Ja­pan’s most re­cent ski sea­son was blessed with near-per­fect con­di­tions, for a ver­i­ta­ble bliz­zard of Aus­tralians had de­scended on the coun­try.

In Jan­uary alone, the num­ber ex­ceeded 30,000 — the high­est on record, ac­cord­ing to the Ja­pan National Tourism Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Book­ings are now open for the 2013-14 sea­son, and re­sorts hope to lure sim­i­lar crowds of snow-loving Aus­tralians. With most of its 600 re­sorts lo­cated in three ma­jor snow­fields — Hokkaido, Nagano-Ni­igata and To­hoku — there’s no short­age of op­tions, just the daunt­ing job of mak­ing a choice. The bone-snap­ping cold of the Siberian winds that blow across Ja­pan’s north­ern­most is­land is tem­pered by its on­sen (hot springs) and the warm wel­come ex­tended by lo­cals. This is the per­fect lo­ca­tion for ski­ing: the cold cli­mate en­sures an abun­dance of fa­mous ‘‘Hokkaido pow­der’’, which turns the moun­tain­ous land­scape into a frosted won­der­land. Win­ter is cel­e­brated dur­ing the is­land’s Sapporo Snow Fes­ti­val, the Otaru Snow Light Path and the Mon­betsu Ice Floes Fes­ti­val. Fu­rano Ski Re­sort: In the cen­tre of Hokkaido, with more than 30 ho­tels and lodges, Fu­rano is a favourite of fam­i­lies and ma­ture skiers. Ja­panese cul­ture is em­pha­sised, but properties such as Fu­rano Prince Ho­tel will help with English-speak­ing ski in­struc­tors and vol­un­teer guides. More: prince­ho­tels.com. Rusutsu Re­sort: Hokkaido’s largest sin­gle re­sort is set in a nat­u­ral high­land at the base of Mount Yotei and can ac­com­mo­date up to 3000 peo­ple. Book a Ja­pane­ses­tyle room, com­plete with tatami mat, at High­land Lodge & Travel Lodge. More: en.rusutsu.co.jp. Steep moun­tains char­ac­terise th­ese neigh­bour­ing pre­fec­tures on the main is­land of Hon­shu and re­in­force their pop­u­lar­ity among thrillseek­ers. While Nagano City hosted the 1998 Win­ter Olympics, snow sports are not the only at­trac­tion — this is where you’ll see the fa­mous snow mon­keys soak­ing in hot springs at Jigoku­dani Mon­key Park. And Ni­igata serves as head of­fice for many of Ja­pan’s lead­ing sake brands, cap­i­tal­is­ing, no doubt, on the rice wine’s apres-ski pop­u­lar­ity. Shiga Kogen: Lo­cated in the el­e­vated Joshinetsu National Park, Shiga Kogen is Ja­pan’s largest re­sort, with about 100 ho­tels, tra­di­tional Ja­panese ryokan (inns) and min­shuku (home stays). There are seven hot springs, spec­tac­u­lar views of the North Alps and a su­per­fluity of win­ter ac­tiv­i­ties to keep vis­i­tors busy. The runs around Okushiga-Kougen Ho­tel are off lim­its to snow­board­ers, mak­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence a par­adise for skiers. More: okushiga-kougen.com/eng. Myoko Ski Area: This snow­field en­com­passes nine moun­tains, en­sur­ing enough ge­o­graph­i­cal variation for even the most jaded skier. Awayfrom the runs, it’s a Ja­panese feast, with lo­cal soba noo­dles and na­tive moun­tain veg­eta­bles on the menu at Myoko’s many restau­rants. From its el­e­vated perch, the Akakura Kanko Ho­tel com­mands views of the sur­round­ing peaks, Lake No­jiri to the east and, on a clear day, even the Sea of Ja­pan. More: akr-ho­tel.com. Heavy, windswept snow­falls in Ya­m­a­gata Pre­fec­ture trans­form the re­gion’s trees into spec­tac­u­lar white shapes in win­ter known as ice mon­sters. To­hoku is in the north of Hon­shu and blessed not only with heavy pow­der falls but a mul­ti­tude of on­sen in which to warm up af­ter hit­ting the slopes. Win­ter ac­tiv­i­ties are sup­ple­mented with fes­tiv­i­ties such as the Ka­makura (snow hut) Fes­ti­val in Yokote City and the Nama­hage Sedo Fes­ti­val on New Year’s Eve in Oga City. Zao Hot Springs Ski Re­sort: Ski runs and ice mon­sters fan out across the moun­tains above the hot-springs The richly var­ied cour­ses lac­ing th­ese snow made it a snow­boarder’s mecca. Twice yea names in this in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar sport arri pete in world-class com­pe­ti­tions. Novices ar too. Weary limbs and chapped skin can be the Mount Bandai Hot Springs Ho­tel, where wal­low in the heated in­door swim­ming poo hot spring and sauna. More: alts.co.jp/english

GE

Shiga Kogen re­sort in Joshinetsu National Park is Ja­pan’s largest, with about 100 ho­tels as well as hot springs and spec­tac­u­lar views

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