Hokkaido earned its name among snow sport enthusiasts for its rich snowfall and winter conditions that can last five months or more. But less renowned ski resorts in Niigata and other prefectures on the main island of Honshu deserve the attention of everyone from skiers and snowboarders of all levels, to snow-hikers and those simply in search of a wintery wonderland.
In the south of Niigata Prefecture lies Myoko Kogen (kogen means ‘highlands’), where one of Japan’s first international ski resorts opened in the 1930s. The ski area flourished and went on to become a winter retreat for Japan’s imperial family, remaining popular until 1998 when the Winter Olympic Games were held in neighbouring Nagano Prefecture and much of the world forgot about Myoko. Except the powder addicts. They return every year for the over-the-head snowfall that blankets the nine interconnected ski areas. In the 2018-2019 season, more than 17 metres of snow graced the slopes of Myoko.
Innovative world-class offerings are drawing snow sports enthusiasts back to Myoko. Readers of Ski Asia ranked Myoko’s well-appointed Lotte Arai Resort as Asia’s Best Overall Ski Resort this year, while Myoko Suginohara Ski Resort boasts an eight-and-a-half kilometre piste, which lays claim to being Japan’s longest groomed run. The award-winning Myoko Snowsports school offers lessons in Japanese and English for all ages, and provides adapted programmes for people with a wide range of disabilities, including amputees, paraplegics and the visually impaired.
Myoko is also an exceptional place for snowshoeing – hiking with special shoes designed to displace weight over a wider area. The 2020 World Snowshoe Championships will be held here on 15 and 16 February 2020. Meanwhile amateur snow hikers can enjoy tours to stunning locations, such as the 55-metre Naena Falls.
Located in the Japanese Alps, Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture is known to locals as yukiguni, which means ‘snow country’. For centuries, Yuzawa residents have lived in snow-enclosed villages where, due to heavy snowfall, many homes have winter entrances on upper floors.
Yuzawa has 12 distinct ski resorts, suited to skiers and snowboarders ranging from beginner to expert, as well as offering a playground for snowmobiles, snowrafting and snowtubing. High-elevation areas, such as Kagura at 1,800 metres, offer the best powder and are usually open from mid-November through to mid-May.
Yuzawa’s charms include festivals dedicated to the joy of snow. The Echigo Yuzawa Onsen Snow Festival takes place on the evening of the first Saturday in March, with townspeople and tourists alike parading with portable Shinto shrines and chanting. Dozens of skiers descend Nunoba’s slopes with flickering torches, followed by a fireworks display.
In February, the nearby town of Koide hosts the quirky International Snowball Fight. Teams don cosplay costumes and other fancy-dress outfits and engage in ferocious yet comical snowball fights, after which participants and attendees gather in snow huts to eat grilled trout and drink sake.
Shiga Kogen is a key winter hotspot in Honshu. Located in Nagano Prefecture, it is a large, sprawling ski destination, offering 19 different interconnected areas and more than 80 kilometres of trails. Purchase one ski pass to ride all the gondolas and lifts, and race down the very slopes where Olympic alpine slalom athletes made history during the 1998 Winter Olympic Games.
The rugged summits of Japan’s Northern Alps stand high in all directions around Shiga Kogen. Unesco designated the area a Biosphere Reserve in 1980, ensuring it retains its natural beauty and biological significance.
The only place where Japanese macaques soak in hot springs is Jigokudani Monkey Park, which is a short trip from Shiga Kogen (and also easily accessible from Myoko). Monkey infants jump and splash, while older primates recline in the warm waters, their expressions redolent of exhausted yet blissed-out skiers. To avoid the crowds, visit as early in the day as possible – the park opens at 8.30am.
Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture is one of few places where nature births snow monsters. Layer upon layer of ice and snow encase fir trees and winds carve the frozen flora into bizarre shapes resembling otherworldly creatures. Skiing among thousands of these strange forms is unforgettable.
Snow hikers discover challenging adventures amid alpine beauty, too. Above tree level, temperatures plunge far below freezing, winds are fierce and whiteouts frequent. A barely discernable path leads to a frozen lake deep in a crater and a mountain shrine encrusted with ice and buried in snow.
Come evening time, the focus turns to Zao Onsen’s relaxing hot springs. Steam billows from the multiple streams and pools of hot water, creating a sulphur-scented fog. Follow your nose to the wealth of community bath houses to chase the cold away.
Hardcore skiers love the Hakkoda Mountains of Aomori Prefecture in the north of Honshu. The range is comprised of 16 mountains including active volcanoes and, due to its relatively remote northerly location, receives few foreign tourists but plenty of snowfall.
Groomed runs for beginners and intermediate skiers are available, but ‘Japow’ – Japanese Powder – fanatics revel in the long, ungroomed slopes and the relaxed attitude towards backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. However, hiring a guide for such off-piste adventure is advisable – almost 200 Japanese soldiers froze to death in 1902 during a climbing exercise when they became lost during a blizzard, and away from the frequented runs, skiers can come into contact with poisonous volcanic gases. Yet, despite the risks, diehards reap the many rewards of embarking on the lesser-travelled trails of these magnificent mo untains.
Hakkoda Ropeway transports skiers – and in summer, hikers – up into the mountains. The closest hotel is Sukayu Onsen Ryokan with its simple, Japanese-style rooms and large natural baths that were built more than 300 years ago. The cypress-wood, mixed-sex baths are famous for their size and the curative powers of the mineral-rich waters that are perfect for post-mountain-sport soaking.