Although this winter has been a mild one, we can still enjoy skiing and snowboarding activities.
Japan is a skiing paradise, the quality of snow is really good despite the not so high mountains...the highest one is Fuji, and even Fuji doesn't compare with the mountain ranges in central Europe or United States. Somehow, this country is geographically in a great spot where the warm tropical winds meet the cold Russian ones right along the mountainous backbone of Japan, gifting us with lots and lots of snow every season.
It is possible to choose between mainly three travel options, depending on what you feel most comfortable with:
1) Join a group
There are several organized bus tours available that will ensure you won't worry about any details except how you are going to spend your weekend in the mountains. The flow is same for all, search the groups' web pages, find a tour you fancy, register, pay and go. Usually those tours depart on Friday night from Shinjuku and return on Sunday night. The pros are to meet a lot of new people, spend relatively little money and no planning stress. The cons are traffic jams (especially on return), lack of sleep in case you happen to share a room with noisy people.
2) Buy a train package
The Japan Railways company offers good deals during snow season, that cover the train ticket price and the cost of the ski lift. The range of packages is endless, you can go for one day, for a weekend, or for longer. If going for more than one day, packages including hotel stay can be purchased. The advantages of this choice are no risk of delays due to traffic, ride the super fast bullet train (shinkansen), convenience. But on the other hand, you should go to the ticket office and talk your way through the booking process, and costs are generally higher than tours by bus.
3) Rent a car
Let's say you have a valid driving license and some more friends who want to go with you. You could then organize a car, and just go. Of course, this option requires a bit of thinking, planning, booking of hotels and figure out the route, but the cost cutting is effective, already starting with a group of four people. Also, planning to drive on non-weekend days takes away the traffic issues.
So, where to go, snow lovers?
Luckily for us living in central Japan, there are tens of ski resorts easily reachable from Tokyo. The absolute most convenient one is Gala ski resort in Niigata prefecture. This resort is connected to the shinkansen train station of Gala Yuzawa, which means that as soon as you get off the train, you can go change and take the lifts up to the slopes. This resort tends to be crowded on weekends, but it is the best destination for those who want to go back on the same day.
All around Gala there are many other ski resorts that can be reached by a short bus ride from the station.
The station after Gala, Echigo Yuzawa is also another popular destination. From there, buses take you to Naeba and Kagura ski resorts. Those two resorts are sitting on two separate mountains, but are connected by a super long gondola. The view of the gorge, while going from one resort to the other, is very pretty.
In the Nagano prefecture, the most popular resort is Shiga Kogen. This one is not ideal for a one day trip, but it extends to a huge area and contains more slopes than any other resort nearby. The quality of the snow is excellent, and usually abundant. Shiga Kogen is a ski resort that accommodates for everyone, all levels, both skiers and snowboarders. And if skiing is really not your thing but your friends dragged you into it, while in Shiga Kogen you have a chance to a trip to see the Jigokudani monkey park, or visit a real Japanese style castle in Matsumoto.
Another popular area is Hakuba, again in Nagano prefecture. With its 7 ski resorts distributed around the valley, Hakuba can promise fun to everyone. You can even ski on the same slopes where the 1998 winter olympics took place, at Happo-one!!
Between Nagano, Gunma and Nigata prefectures, there are so many ski resorts that it is impossible to name them all. What they have in common, though, is that fun is guaranteed. And that's not only limited to the skiing experience: eating a traditional dinner either at the hotel or at one of the many family run restaurants in the village, soaking in the hot springs to relieve the soreness of the day, walk around the snow, check out local bars and...why not, making new friends among the Japanese.
Get your gear ready, winter is not over yet.