Myoko-Kogen

We picked Myoko-Kogen as our ski destination this year mainly because we patronise Tomi Sushi a lot and their walls are filled with posters of monster snow capped mountains advertising Myoko-Kogen. And we were not disappointed! Snow was definitely not an issue, the slopes were dusted with new powder snow everyday!

Myoko-Kogen is made up of 4 ski areas: Suginosawa, Ikenotaira, Akakura Kanko & Akakura Onsen. The last 2 are connected by a small trail and there is a free shuttle bus linking each mountain. You can buy separate lift passes for each, a Big-4 pass for all or the Shin-Akakura Onsen pass which gives access to the last 2 mountains. We skied 3 days in Shin-Akakura and 1 day in Suginosawa. Though it looks close on the map, the shuttle bus took 30min to get to Suginosawa from Akakura Onsen, so set off early to make sure you have enough time to ski. Also, most of the bus time tables are in Japanese, it’s important to check the route as well as the correct departure and arrival venues. The shuttle bus we took went on a 15min loop around town, went back to the same place where we boarded before heading off to Suginosawa! At least we had a seat!

Most of the slopes are beginner to intermediate level – however Akakura Onsen is home to the steepest ski run in central Japan “The Wall” at 38° and getting down is a real challenge for an intermediate skier like me. H on the other hand is an expert and conquered it like a pro. The runs are generally very wide and on a clear sunny day, the 8.5km trip down the longest ski run in Japan on Suginohara’s mountain is extremely rewarding – the views are amazing!

Akakura Onsen is where the main village is, so that is the best bet for restaurants and hotels. Getting a hotel was not easy – I think alot of the hotels open their doors to students on school ski holidays so book early to secure something decent. Food wise I found the village offerings were rather basic when compared to our trip last year to Nozawa Onsen.

Getting there
Take the Shinkansen Asama from Tokyo to Nagano (90min) and change to a local JR line (JR Shinetsu) to Myoko-Kogen (40min). Train timings can be found at Hyperdia and it’s best to plan the best timings to avoid having to make more than 1 transfer.

Restaurants
Food is generally very basic and it is not that expensive to fill your stomach. Most places don’t speak much English, but should have an English menu. The point and order method always worked for us. A few things we enjoyed were Koyama’s yakiniku don, the udon at Udon no Fu, and the 2 crêperies we enjoyed were Parfait Crepe and Gelato Okura. Don’t forget to try the home made ice cream at Gelato Okura as well… Oishi!!

Where we stayed
We stayed at Refre Akakura, who only recently opened their doors this season. We had to book through Japan Snow Access and according to them, the Refre used to be a resort house of one of the biggest foodstuff company, but closed the business last season. They are off the main road and having only 9 rooms here guarantees that it is very quiet. There are indoor and outdoor onsens which were great if you didn’t managed to book one of the en-suite rooms. Their Japanese breakfast was a great way to fuel up for the day and their keiseki dinner though not extravagant was very warm and heartfelt. Yoshi and Reika were extremely helpful and friendly and made our stay very enjoyable. There is a short cut up the slope to get on the run down to the Chuo Triple lifts. There were 2 days where it snowed so much in the day that it was possible to ski right back down the slope to our front door! Ski in but not ski out!
¥9,400 per person a night for the combination en-suite room.

Refre Akakura
549-23 Akakura, Myoko-shi, Niigata-ken
Tel:+81(0)255-75-1230

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Niseko

Niseko is probably the most touristy area in Hokkaido. A few years ago a couple of Australian developers arrived and started to build modern hotels and lodges so now it’s known as a mini “good day mate land”. Lots of tourist from Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, so that jacks up the prices of the accommodation/ food. The words ski holiday and cheap usually do not go in the same sentence but I found skiing in Niseko as expensive as skiing in Zermatt.

We spent a week in the beginning of 2010 in Niseko, Grand Hirafu area. The powder snow was such a welcome relief to the icy slopes of Zermatt which gave me so many bruises. I finally learnt how to ski here as I wasn’t scared of falling in the soft snow. H shipped me off to half day ski lessons while he went off alone to explore the mountains.

It is a small village so the minimart Seico Mart is the central focus of the town and most shop’s location are in relation to Seico Mart. You will meet everyone you’ve met on the slopes at the minimart in the evenings buying groceries. Supplies can run out quite fast, so load up when u can.

Getting there

There are many daily flights from Tokyo to Sapporo ( more from Handeda than Narita) followed by a 3hr shuttle bus from Chitose airport to Niseko.  It almost took us 18hr door to door as we had flight delays from Tokyo to Sapporo because of the snow condition. Skybus provides a semi private mini van that takes you door to door for ¥9,000 return. It is best to reserve your seat prior to arrival. A private taxi, Yotei costs ¥28,000 one way.

On the return, Chitose airport has a big section of shops where you can buy frozen or fresh seafood/biscuits/cakes, so make sure your schedule allows for an hour to walk around. The shops can pack the frozen seafood for checkin. ( I would buy the snow crab legs and uni !!)

Ski Rental

You will not be short of options, many rental shops around the village with good quality skis. We rented from the NBS ski school which didn’t really have the best quality but was the most conveniently located next to the slopes. There was a shop opposite The Vale, either under J-Sekka or next door at Sun Sports Land that has better choice.

Restaurants

1) A-Bu-Cha

main street in Hirafu, behind Seico Mart

We loved the sukiyaki at this izakaya. The menu is pretty big so  you can order lots of dishes to share. They have a big sake and shochu list, and also have blue beer! The have a bakery during the day time. They also have a second branch A-bu-Cha 2, which take reservations.

2) Tozanken Asahikawa ramen

Along Hirafu- Zaka Street, next to A-Bu-Cha

The ramen portions here are huge. There are only a few seats so it’s a eat and go Japanese fast food. It is adjacent to a as a souvenir shop

3) Bang Bang

Along Hirafu- Zaka Street, after Sasayaki Ave on the left walking up to the slopes.

Yakitori place so expect to smell after coming out

4) Kaminmura

Hotel Yamashizen West 1F

It was not that far, but a 15min walk in the cold felt much longer. This restaurant is probably the only high-end place in Niseko and it serves Japanese-French fusion food. It was H’s birthday so we decided to give it a try. Food and service was good but nothing remarkable or distinctly memorable.

Where we stayed:

The Vale

This new place is marketed as a luxury apartment under Nisede properties, an Australian development.  It has an onsite restaurant and bar, indoor & outdoor onsen and outdoor heated swimming pool. Rooms are spacious but at ¥33,000/night this ski in-ski out place doesn’t come cheap.

We planned our return trip in March 2011 and unfortunately the tragic Fukushima nuclear accident occurred 1 week before our arrival. With Singapore issuing travel advisory against travelling to Japan, we decided to be safe and cancel our trip.  We had to pay in full 60 days prior to arrival and despite the unique circumstances, Nisede stuck with their cancellation policy and did not have any flexibility or goodwill to allow for some compensation. Our “donation” went straight into the pocket of the foreigner owners, it wasn’t even a donation to the Japanese people! They were trying to profit from a disaster and that left a sour taste in my mouth. Other friends who booked at a Japanese run inn had their deposits returned 100% along with a very pleasant “we hope to have your support soon”. I am boycotting Nisede and hopes karma finds them soon.

Capella Niseko is slated to open in the summer of 2013.

Nozawa Onsen

Nozawa Onsen is located in Nagano and is a very small hot spring village. It is not touristy like Niseko, and actually has a very authentic Japanese village feel to it. It is roughly a 4hr train from Tokyo, so the weekends are filled with Tokyoites. The Japanese tourists far outweighs the foreigners and it’s evident from the number of English ski instructors (there was only 1 when I was there).

We spent the Christmas of 2011 in Nozawa Onsen and it felt like any other day (Christmas is not a holiday in Japan). We walked around with our santa hats and only exchange Christmas greetings with the foreign tourist. The season started in mid Dec so by the time we got there on the 23rd Dec all the lifts were open. Very heavy snow with poor visibility on a few days and on a couple of days the higher lifts were closed due to strong winds. Some of the chair lifts are quite old and without the safety bar, so just have to be careful if you have young children. Snow quality is perfect powder – soft and fluffy, and it comes down by the buckets! The town also has a TV channel that show the live weather conditions on the different slopes so it is quite useful to check before heading out for the day.

Getting there

It is not that complicated to get to Nozawa Onsen by JR, but we chose the lazier way, booking a Chuo taxi to take us from Narita airport direct to the hotel. It cost ¥12,000/person from Narita to our hotel’s doorstep and it took about 6 hours. Compared to the taking the JR from Narita, it is about the same time in total time (got to factor in the additional hour plus from Narita to Tokyo), and it does not cost that much more.

On the way back, we took the JR as we spent a few days in Tokyo. We took a highway bus from Nozawa Onsen to Nagano (~ 1hr 20 mins,  ¥1,400) and then a Shinkansen from Nagano to Tokyo (~ 1 hour46mins, ¥7,970). The bus stops at a few places along the main road at Nozawa Onsen, we got the bus at the terminal which was a 5min walk from our hotel. At the terminal, there are some posters in English, but realistically there’s no one speaking English. You buy the ticket from the bus driver when you get on.

Onsen

There are 13 public (free) onsens dotted around the village. It is a common sight to see the Japanese people scurrying to the onsen in their slippers and bath robe and walking back casually from it. I tried to go, but the sight of so many naked women after  I pushed through the door was overwhelming. These communal baths must be a cultural thing, I don’t think I could get used to it. If you do go, bring your own soap and shampoo to clean yourself before going into the onsen.  A small face towel is acceptable in the water, and I find that is useful to cover my face (Shy lah!)

Ski Rental

The best place to rent the skis are at St Antons at the base of the mountain. They have a locker service where you can leave your boots and skis overnight. There are not many ski-in ski-out options in Nozawa Onsen, so this is the next best option.  It was a 5min walk up to the Yu road (moving walkway) but it can be quite slippery even with normal shoes.

Restaurants

1)Daimon Soba

This was really really good, I think we ate there a couple of times and even came down from the slopes to have it 1 day for lunch. I had udon and soba both hot and cold and with tempura and onsen egg… (onsen egg is like soft boiled egg). The soup is really good after a cold day on the slopes. *must try*

2) Wakagiri

The restaurant has a big menu and the tonkatsu was really good.

3) St Anton

The ski shop is in the basement and the 1st and 2nd floors of the cottage is a café which serves pretty decent food for lunch.I like the beef bowl with onsen egg or the curry

4) Buna on the Slopes

We tried the curry for lunch… it was just soso in my opinion, and more expensive than the places at the bottom of the slopes.

Where we stayed:

Address Nozawa

9535 Nozawa Onsen, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano 389-2502

This ryokan was refurbished in 2011 to a modern style so it was very new when we stayed. We stayed in their Deluxe Studio which had a small pantry, dining area and ensuite. We had the opening offer of ¥20,160 yen per night including a daily continental breakfast pack (¥25,200 the usual price). Eggs, ham, sausages, bread, jam, fruit, and juices were provided in the mini fridge but  you do have to cook your own breakfast. Abit of a bummer since you are on holiday but was still manageable. There is an onsen in the basement in case you don’t feel like walking around the village in your bathrobe. The ryokan is close to all the 2 restaurants listed above and a 5 min walk to the Yu road.

Japan

H and I first visited Japan in Oct 2010 for 2 weeks. Tokyo-Hiroshima-Kyoto-Osaka, with day visits to Kamakura, Himeji, Miyajima and Kobe. Travel by JR is the easiest, the shinkasen is fast, reliable and clean, and the JR pass though not cheap, is the best way to do a big tour around Japan.

Our first experience in Japan was exactly like the movie Lost in translation. Everything was different – the language, the dressing, the culture, and the food! The food we had was mind blowing! Even simple hole in the wall shops, or shops under a railroad track served food that was so good that we couldn’t eat Japanese food back home for a few months. We had staple Japanese food done to perfection – soba noodles, katsu, tempura, all simple food but both the freshness of the produce and the skill of preparation shine through.

Japan also has the best snow. My opinion might not carry much weight since Zermatt was the only other place I’ve skied at, but H would know as he has skied around Europe growing up. It really is powder snow, and that is great for a clumsy skier like me. I am dead tired after a day out in the mountains and a soak in the onsen is a remedy for sore muscles.  It suits us that the apres ski scene is not that big as we both prefer to have a good meal and collapse in bed straight after. We’ve done 2 seasons in Japan so far and can’t wait to explore the other mountains in the years to come.

More on each of the cities we’ve visited

Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Niseko, Nosawa Onsen