There are a host of reasons to visit Nagano. From the Northern Japanese Alps to Matsumoto Castle, from the Jigokudani Monkey Park to the Kiso Valley, the prefecture is filled with attractions for those seeking a respite in one of the most scenic locales in a country chock-full of them. But Nagano is inarguably best known for its status as a world-class winter sports destination. And it is with that in mind that my friend and I took the 90-minute Shinkansen from Tokyo for a quick ski weekend.
Bravely bypassing the convenient - if not especially economical - ski packages offered on the internet, we pieced together our own itinerary to Shiga Kogen, the largest combined ski area in Japan, encompassing 21 ski resorts, 71 chair lifts, and 4.25 square kilometers (...I’ll take their word for it). Shiga Kogen is a 90 minute express bus ride from Nagano Station, inconvenient only in terms of the infrequency of the line. A special 9:00 pm bus on Fridays during the winter season provides the lone post-sunset option for city-dwellers seeking a weekend getaway.
We leave the bus upon reaching Ichinose, proclaimed one of the main villages in Shiga Kogen. As we soon discover, this designation does not mean much. Many of the non-resort restaurant and pub options referred to on the internet are either permanently closed or non-existent, though we are fortunate to find at least one (with local beer to boot!). My friends had experienced a similar dearth of options in Sun Valley the weekend prior. Nightlife – anything after 5 pm – is generally limited to the resort itself, with overpriced set dinners the norm.
The absence of night activity is disappointing, though ultimately a secondary concern. Besides, there are myriad benefits to the all-in-one resort, with onsen and karaoke (if you’re lucky) available via a short elevator ride. In the morning, we conveniently rent ski equipment from our hotel, walk about 50 meters to the bus stop, and catch the free shuttle to the Okushiga Kogen resort (home to two international ski and snowboard schools). Two hours with an impossibly-patient instructor reminds us of some basic techniques, and we eagerly hit the slopes thereafter.
The immenseness of Shiga Kogen - and the northern location of Okushiga Kogen - allows us some measure of solitude on the slopes even on a Saturday. An 8-10 minute chairlift ride takes us to the green beginner’s course, which provides a long and mellow piece of real estate on which to practice and get comfortable with our skis. At no point do we feel boxed in; the run is perfect for our modest skill levels. The backdrop is idyllic, the snow is perfect, and the hours go by quickly - with only an interruption for lunch at the resort’s Japanese restaurant.
We ski again Sunday morning, this time closer to our accommodations. Improbably, the trek to the Ichinose Family Ski Area is more of an ordeal than the previous day, as we have to lug our equipment about 400 meters through the streets. The change of scenery on the slopes is welcome, though lower visibility and tougher snow (thanks to an evening storm) make the experience quite challenging. As might be expected, the course is busier in Ichinose, with the mountain adorned by scores of students and teams, but still remains entirely manageable. It takes a while without our instructor, but we eventually regain our confidence… even if we never do venture beyond the green course. Well, not on purpose, but that’s another story.
By noon, we leave Shiga Kogen for the Jigokudani Monkey Park, and eventually back to Tokyo. It is a lightning-quick weekend, but altogether an incredible experience. Even we skiing novices can appreciate the winter sports mecca that is Nagano. But lest you jump on the first available train, I feel compelled to remind you that skiing is not a pastime for the faint of heart or, especially, the light in wallet. Between the Shinkansen (about 16,000 yen round-trip from Tokyo), budget accommodation (15,000 yen for two nights), ski lift tickets (9,100 yen for 1 ½ days), and ski equipment rentals (5,000 yen for two days), a ski holiday in Japan is no casual affair.