JA­PAN

HOKKAIDO IS SO LAST SEASON. FOR EMPTY SLOPES AND PURER CUL­TURE TRY ONE OF THE OTHER 538 SKI RE­SORTS IN

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - TRAVEL + LEISURE -

IT FI­NALLY HAP­PENED. I wiped out, yard-sale style, on Hakuba Go­ryu’s Soft Cream course in a two-me­ter bank of snow at the Nagano re­sort. I’d been clumsy all day so had been an­tic­i­pat­ing a col­li­sion: I’d crossed skis with my flu­ent Ja­panese-speak­ing friend Nicola af­ter get­ting off the Cosmo Four lift, knock­ing us both over. I’d left my hel­met atop a vend­ing ma­chine af­ter slam­ming a hot can of Van Houten co­coa. And I’d made a pin­ball-like ob­sta­cle course of a group of hip­ster Tokyo snow­board­ers pas­sively sit­ting on their Bur­tons wait­ing for a white-out to blow over (un­like the dare­devil snow­board­ers in Eu­rope, who’d rel­ish the chance to bomb down piste in a bliz­zard). It just wasn’t my day on the slopes.

But the wipe­out was a rev­e­la­tion. Snow in this part of Ja­pan is so soft and pow­dery that fall­ing into it is like co­coon­ing in a down, baby blan­ket. Deep inside the snow bank’s em­brace, it’s warm and safe and I felt like a hi­ber­nat­ing cub. Wipe­outs are not some­thing to fear in Ja­pan. They’re a to­tal lux­ury.

There are 598 ski re­sorts in Ja­pan and I’ve skied at a hand­ful of them. Many spots in Ja­pan claim to be the snowiest place on the planet, with me­ters of “free re­fills” al­most guar­an­teed ev­ery night. While th­ese claims are hard to prove, what is true, and per­haps more im­por­tant, is that 36 of Ja­pan’s 47 pre­fec­tures have ski re­sorts, so you’re never more than an hour or two from piste. While Hokkaido gets a lot of ink for its 120 ski re­sorts in­clud­ing Niseko—Ja­pan’s cos­mopoli­tan equiv­a­lent of St. Moritz is the most pop­u­lar but ar­guably most generic of ski re­sorts in the coun­try—334 mi­cro-ski re­sorts are in Hon­shu, in­clud­ing two in sight of Mount Fuji. The is­land of Shikoku is home to five ski re­sorts and three are even found on sub­trop­i­cal dan­gling Kyushu.

I spent a week skiing in Hokkaido but was dis­ap­pointed by how un-Ja­panese it was. English is ubiq­ui­tous on the slopes, the Ja­panese eti­quette was missing, and the ra­men and karaage (Ja­panese fried chicken) was ridicu­lously over­priced and not nearly as tasty as it is in other parts of the coun­try. Like many things in the Land of the Ris­ing Sun, good things come in small pack­ages, and over the course of my five years of Ja­panese ski trips, I’ve dis­cov­ered that smaller re­sorts, in Hon­shu for ex­am­ple, are gen­er­ally more Ja­panese and more au­then­tic than the big names.

Even if they don’t of­fer as much var­ied ter­rain and on-slope ser­vices, the pay­off is that you may have the en­tire piste to your­self on a week­day and will surely get a less ex­pen­sive (and bet­ter) meal than in Niseko. And while clear-sky blue­bird days are not as com­mon in

Ja­pan as they are in the Eu­ro­pean Alps or North Amer­i­can Rock­ies, a rare sunny day is pos­si­ble. Any­way, since you can find runs so close to most ma­jor Ja­panese cities, all you re­ally need is a blue­bird hour or two.

HAKUBA,

three hours from Tokyo in Nagano pre­fec­ture, was host of the 1998 Win­ter Olympics. My visit there marked the first time I skied in Ja­pan. Nagano has a whop­ping 102 ski re­sorts, and Hakuba alone has

nine ski ar­eas, with five gon­do­las, 138 lifts and 200-plus runs. Al­ti­tude tops out at 1,800 me­ters, al­most half the height of Eu­rope and the U.S., and there are 400 hectares of ski­able ter­rain, as op­posed to France’s 26,000-hectare Trois Val­lèes or even Bri­tish Columbia’s 3,200-hectare Whistler. But there was no short­age of space on the moun­tain dur­ing my visit.

Which was lucky for me, be­cause I quickly learned that skiing in Ja­pan takes some get­ting used to. It started with the equip­ment: Hakuba had ski boots in my size, but most other re­sorts didn’t cater to gai­jin feet. Nat­u­rally, then, I shouldn’t have been sur­prised to find that lifts are de­signed for shorter skiers and re­quire more ab­dom­i­nal might to hurl your­self out of. Tall skiers like me (189 cen­time­ters) should also take care to not dan­gle their sticks from the lift dur­ing take-off be­cause snow­banks pile up fast and you could eas­ily snag your ski on one. Oc­ca­sion­ally, un­like in the West, there’s a lift at­ten­dant dust­ing off the seat and bow­ing to you as you get on, to help you avoid th­ese er­rors.

And the piste it­self? It’s gen­er­ally much tamer in Ja­pan, a re­minder of the coun­try’s “safety first” cul­ture—though there are in­creas­ingly more chal­leng­ing black trails and a slowly growing tolerance for off-piste skiing, in­clud­ing free-rid­ing, slack­coun­try, and split-board­ing. Amus­ingly, the skier-snow­boarder dy­namic is flipped in Ja­pan. Here, it’s the skiers who shred the cat­walks and make chow­der of the moguls, while blue trails are pep­pered with overly cau­tious new board­ers, like the ones I pin­balled through dur­ing my wipe­out. Ja­pan, like Switzer­land, val­ues safety over speed. But un­like in Switzer­land, the slopes here are filled with Thais, Hong Kongers, Sin­ga­pore­ans and main­land Chi­nese who may be en­coun­ter­ing snow for the first time. Once dur­ing a near-col­li­sion, Nicola yelled out to a hel­meted boarder, who an­swered her per­fect Ja­panese warn­ing call with a tonal Can­tonese yelp. While the new­bies might ham­per slope traf­fic, they of­fered me one up­side: In Switzer­land, I’m used to be­ing the slow steady skier. But here in Ja­pan, I was down­right ad­vanced. Lit­tle tri­umphs are ev­ery­thing.

Over­all, the pros of skiing here far out­weigh any cons, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to aprés-ski op­tions. Just out­side of Hakuba, I spent a glo­ri­ous few nights soak­ing in an onsen in woodsy Karuizawa, the for­mer haunt of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and cur­rent sum­mer es­cape for Bill Gates and the Ja­panese royal fam­ily. Karuizawa is also home to a boom­let of new ho­tels in­clud­ing the ski-in/ ski-out Karuizawa Prince Ho­tel East, part of a con­stel­la­tion of five lo­cal Prince ho­tels, and the To­bira Onsen My­o­jinkan, a di­vine 44-room room Re­lais & Château ryokan where I soaked in onsen baths that elicited deep sighs of envy from those who know the his­toric 1931 prop­erty. I also made a brisk win­ter walk to Ku­mano Ko­tai Jinja Shrine. I found a nest of musasabi (gi­ant fly­ing squir­rels) dur­ing a woodsy stroll. I tried and won sev­eral ends of curl­ing at the lo­cal ice rink’s curl­ing hall (be­gin­ners luck!). And I made a pil­grim­age to the nearby Jigoku­dani Yaen-Koen Na­tional Park, where I

spied on beet-faced snow mon­keys soak­ing in their very own hot pool. You won’t find that in Whistler or Megève. SKIING IN HIS­TORIC TO­HOKU, a re­gion made up of Hon­shu’s six north­ern­most pre­fec­tures, was an­other per­sonal high­light, with ex­cel­lent ski ter­rain and dozens of rar­efied cul­tural sites from which to cher­ryp­ick. Mount Zao Onsen, three-hours from Tokyo, may look a bit ram­shackle, but the skiing is ex­cel­lent, with skilled and friendly English-speak­ing guides, like mine, Takako from Zao Freezeit Ski and Snow­board School. Dur­ing my two ski days with her, she pointed out the sub­limely beau­ti­ful Jizo Bud­dhist statue at the top of the San­cho Rope­way and a few good-luck tem­ple bells, which I’d seen on other Ja­panese ski slopes. And dur­ing a blast of cold Siberian air that mo­men­tar­ily turned the gos­samer skies cobalt blue, we ven­tured high atop the moun­tain to see the no­to­ri­ous Snow Mon­sters. The sum­mit was fog-sacked when we first ar­rived on the lift, but slowly emerg­ing from the mist were tall creak­ing fir trees sealed in ice and coated in a lus­trous fon­dant of snow, mak­ing each re­sem­ble a sort of gi­ant gin­ger­bread bis­cuit from The Great Bri­tish Bake Off. I didn’t know if I should be scared or hun­gry. Skiing isn’t the only way to dive into win­ter here. Two hours away from Zao at the ski-in/ski-out Gran­deco Re­sort Ho­tel and Ski in Fukushima Pre­fec­ture, I took a three-hour snow­shoe hike in me­ter-high snow banks around a fra­grant pine-lined ridge to turquoise Lake Bisha­mon, one of five vol­canic lakes inside Bandai-Asahi Na­tional Park. Snow­shoe­ing is not for the thin-blooded or faint of heart. Even on flat land­scapes, it can be gru­el­ing glute work in deep snow­banks. But the re­ward is a twin­kling ice-age world un­like any­thing you’ll see on the busy, groomed slopes. Freshies here re­fer to an­i­mal tracks in the fluffy crys­talline snow, and the pierc­ing calls of birdlife are vi­brant re­minders that life goes on in this win­ter won­der­land. Un­like down­hill skiing, where grav­ity pulling you down the slopes will al­ways save you from the ex­tremes of high-al­ti­tude weather, snow­shoe­ing re­lies solely on your own power. So, as beau­ti­ful and tran­quil as it is, any ex­cur­sion for me is also pep­pered with fear­ful mo­ments of freez­ing to death. Do as I did, and warm back up over a din­ner of ten­der sukiyaki, the shi­itake, tofu and mar­bled slices of beef, sim­mer­ing in a sweet soy-and-mirin broth. The next morn­ing, the moun­tain snow-re­plen­ished as promised, I had the en­tire Laven­der B slope (one of eight named af­ter herbs) to my­self and did a few real freshies in the golden morn­ing sun­light. The To­hoku re­gion’s rich cul­tural of­fer­ings are also worth get­ting off the slope for. In Iwate pre­fec­ture I took a short boat ride through the scenic two-kilo­me­ter-long Geibikei Gorge, filled by the ice-blue Satetsu River and sur­rounded by ver­tig­i­nous 50-me­ter cliffs. In Yamagata pre­fec­ture—where those seek­ing to ex­tend the season should hit up Gas­san Glacier Ski Re­sort; it only opens in April due to thick snow block­ing its roads dur­ing its >>

ag­gres­sive win­ters, but of­fers skiing on the glacier un­til July—I as­cended the 1,000 or so snow-dusted steps to the craggy Ya­madera Tem­ple, a pil­grim­age site of the poet Basho who vis­ited in 1689. And I de­scended an­other set of steps on Mount Haguro, one of three sa­cred moun­tains that is home to Yam­abushi (a hy­brid of Bud­dhist-Shinto moun­tain monks) and Go­junoto, a 12th-cen­tury, fivestory pagoda that lays qui­etly in a snowy cedar for­est said to bring re­birth to any­one who vis­its it.

Each sub­lime ex­cur­sion was pro­found and a re­minder that Ja­pan has its own take on win­ter. It also didn’t hurt that they racked up the likes on my In­sta­gram feed. And while the an­cient sites awed, a stay nearby in the ul­tra­con­tem­po­rary Gin­zan Onsen Fu­jiya, with a soar­ing tim­ber-slat onsen con­ceived by Kengo Kuma is enough to push architecture fans over the edge into de­sign nir­vana.

CON­TRARY TO POP­U­LAR BE­LIEF,

South­ern Hon­shu is no stranger to skiing. In Shizuoka pre­fec­ture, two hours south­west of Tokyo, is Snow­town Yeti with jaw-drop­ping views of Mount Fuji. It’s the first ski slope to open ev­ery year in Ja­pan, typ­i­cally in early Oc­to­ber with the help of ar­ti­fi­cial snow groomed in cor­duroy grids through­out the season. There are two lifts and four runs, plus snow-tube routes, sled­ding ar­eas, and new ter­rain ar­eas, like Jib Park, which opened in 2017. While I’m per­son­ally con­tent with blue and green trails, ad­vanced skiers will like Yeti’s black Slope D for its 25-de­gree drop. Like many of Hon­shu’s ski re­sorts, it has been re­fur­bish­ing and re­brand­ing to draw >>

in­ter­na­tional tourists, and is even ru­mored to be tripling its night-skiing dates in 2019. A day here may not of­fer the va­ri­ety of other re­sorts, but view­ing the au­tumn fo­liage in the dis­tant moun­tains from the snowy piste is an­other “only in Ja­pan” mo­ment that’s hard to beat.

Fu­jiten Snow Re­sort, an hour away in Ya­manashi Pre­fec­ture on the other side of Fuji, is ex­pand­ing its down­hill of­fer­ings with snow­plow sa­faris, fire­works nights, fam­ily ski days, be­gin­ners’ camps, and even “lady skier” days, which I’d never heard of in Eu­rope, for the 2018/2019 season. Fu­jiten’s seven cour­ses and four lifts are enough to keep any level skier oc­cu­pied for a day.

This re­gion has also seen an uptick of new places to stay, each one giv­ing 17th-cen­tury artist Hoku­sai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji a run for its money. The el­e­gant 32-room Fufu Kawaguchiko, an­other new­comer on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi, is close to ice-caves and lava tubes, but also of­fers great ac­cess to Ja­pan’s wine coun­try, where I hiked through vine­yards and sam­pled wines made from unique Ja­panese Koshu grapes, like Mus­cat Bai­ley, a dry, fruity red in­creas­ingly found on slope-side iza­kayas and winebars. Even af­ter 10 vis­its to Ja­pan, I found it im­pos­si­ble to not be daz­zled by the priv­i­leged views of Fuji-san here. While soak­ing in var­i­ous onsen, I watched Fuji-san dis­ap­pear and reap­pear in the clouds and med­i­tated on its role in

Ja­pan’s cul­tural his­tory.

Nearby in Kana­gawa, de­sign-minded Hoshino Prop­er­ties has bol­stered its port­fo­lio with two new af­ford­able, alpine-ad­ja­cent ho­tels. This July brought Kai Sen­gokuhara, lo­cated in Fuji-Hakone-Izu Na­tional Park, with 16 rooms of­fer­ing cy­press tubs and onsen fed from min­eral-rich spring wa­ter from the Owaku­dani Val­ley. In Shizuoka Pre­fec­ture, Kai Ito Onsen will open this month, and prom­ises equal amounts of Zen and lux­ury.

Fur­ther afield is Se­touchi’s Hyogo Pre­fec­ture, home to 16 ski re­sorts less than two hours from Osaka and Ky­oto. Last De­cem­ber, it saw the open­ing of Ja­pan’s first new ski re­sort in 14 years: Mineyama Ko­gen White Peak in the town of Kamikawa, with three trails and two lifts, plus Karmin Park ded­i­cated to kids-only skiing. Make the most of a visit to the re­gion, as I did, by stay­ing in Ki­nosaki Onsen, 45 min­utes from three mi­cro-ski re­sorts in­clud­ing Oku Kannabe, Kannabe Ko­gen Ap­ple, and Manba. The charm­ing 8th-cen­tury onsen town is home to seven his­toric hot spring baths fed by the wil­low-shaded Otani-gawa River.

Much as I love skiing, I love eat­ing and soak­ing even more. It seemed all my shoosh­ing across Ja­pan earned me the right to se­ri­ously sub­merge, so don­ning my yukata and clunky, wooden geta san­dals, I onsen-hopped around Ki­nosaki for a few glo­ri­ous nights. And af­ter my thighs and calves were suf­fi­ciently re­laxed, I set­tled into one of Ja­pan’s best ryokans, Nishimu­raya Honkan. There in my spa­cious tatami mat room, I dug into ed­i­fy­ing plates of cold, briny sashimi, sim­mered se­same tofu, and crab mar­i­nated in warm sake, while out­side in the lush bam­boo forests and the en­velop­ing Ta­jima moun­tains, the free re­fills be­gan to fall yet again.

Shred­ding pow­der at Gran­deco Re­sort in Ja­pan's To­hoku re­gion, page 86.

The gin­ger­bread vil­lage known as Gin­zan Onsen, in Yamagata pre­fec­ture.

FROM ABOVE: His­toric Dogo Onsen was the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind Spir­ited Away; steamy re­plen­ish­ment at Nishimu­raya Honkan, one of the coun­try's best ryokan. OP­PO­SITE: On the slopes above ski-in/ ski-out Gran­deco Re­sort Ho­tel and Ski in Fukushima pre­fec­ture.

FROM ABOVE: Mon­keys take to the wa­ters at Jigoku­dani Yaen-Koen Na­tional Park; opened this July, Kai Sen­gokuhara re­sort in Fu­jiHakone-Izu Na­tional Park boasts onsen fed from Owaku­dani Val­ley. OP­PO­SITE: Hik­ing be­neath the tow­er­ing woods of Jigoku­dani.

FROM ABOVE: It's 1,015 snowy steps up to the Ya­madera Tem­ple in Yamagata pre­fec­ture; or­ganic French cui­sine is served with for­est views at To­bira Onsen My­o­jinka’s Na­ture French SAI restau­rant.

Snow Mon­sters take in the view from Mount Zao.

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