Large linked resort with the goods to suit all levels and interests.
Open from late November to mid-May Naeba, otherwise known as the ‘St. Moritz of the East’, is one of the most popular resorts in Niigata. A favorable weekend destination for the Tokyo jet-set, Naeba can get crowded, but with over 30 lifts to choose from you’re never queuing for that long – although some improvement could be made on the staff’s Gondola-herding skills as they rarely fill each cabin. While there are two different resorts covering two geographical areas, Naeba and Kagura, are both available under the one lift pass and are linked together by Japan’s longest Gondola, aptly named the “DraGondola” due to its dragon-like shape. A short 10 min walk from the base of Naeba takes you to the Asagai Snowboard Park, also on the Naeba-Kagura lift pass and a must for any park rat.
Overall, this resort genuinely caters for everyone including families, couples, beginners, intermediates and advanced, perhaps with the exception of big mountain riders/skiers. That said, up top in Naeba you’ll find some steeper slopes and purposefully un-groomed “natural” runs and on the Kagura, side there’s permitted access to backcountry. Night skiing at Naeba happens most nights between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., and until 10 p.m. in holiday periods. The big overhead lights swathe the lower half of the resort in an eerie orange glow, but provide a nice mystical night skiing or riding experience.
One of Naeba’s most attractive qualities is the in-bounds un-groomed terrain. These areas effectively become powder fields within the resort. Marked by the yellow grid areas on the piste map, they’re easy to access and offer some tasty treats that you wouldn’t usually expect to find within a resort boundary. These sections are popular after any amount of fresh snow, so make sure you’re first in the lift line. The upper-mountain area offers more challenging terrain and receives healthy amounts of snow coverage with pockets of fresh seeming to hang around days after a big dump. However, if you only want to ride powder, your best bet is to head to Kagura by taking the Dragondola some 5,481 metres across to the Tashiro area. With a higher altitude, Kagura is well known for good snow and accessible backcountry – which you must assume all responsibility for, so be suitably prepared with the necessary equipment and knowledge.
Naeba has the fun and friendly Malibu Park. Here you’ll find some small rollers, an assortment of boxes, medium-sized kickers and a few other jibs. It’s location close to the base and the two servicing lifts running alongside, means that you can take quick laps without losing your “park momentum.” All the features are pretty tame and ideal for easy progression without the risk of serious injury.
The park receives regular maintenance and grooming, but it does get crowded. You tend to have to stop and wait for your turn to drop between the features, which can be somewhat frustrating. If you’re experienced in the park, you’ll establish a decent line through the whole thing that resembles something like this: down box, medium tabletop, a wave box or alternative rail feature, a slightly larger table, followed by a flat box and an oil drum, before traversing back across to the lift. To lookers right of the park, is a boarder/skier cross track filled with berms, banks and gap rollers. The track winds down through some trees before popping out worryingly onto the lower half of the park. Pay enough attention at the exit and you can enjoy some fun races with your mates, or the locals if you’re the sociable type.
Heavy hitters should head to Asagai, just opposite Naeba. This place is park only! Recognizing and fulfilling the need for the ever-increasing freestyle movement, the Seibu Group has created a Mecca for park skiers and boarders alike. Asagai doesn’t just cater for the pros, although it does that very well with it’s massive booters, technical street rails and an international standard halfpipe. There are a number of smaller kickers, boxes and rails there to enable safe learning and progression. The park is well maintained and the staff are seen regularly grooming and shaping, keeping the features in tip-top condition. There are five runs in total at Asagai, all with nice open spaces between. It’s serviced by three lifts and, for some reason, doesn’t attract the same kind of crowds as Naeba. However, Asagai is not widely publicised so you might have to do a little searching and ask around before you come across it.
With over 25 runs, Naeba is well endowed in the piste department. The trails spread across a large area enabling you take a different path down every time. The pistes are well groomed but predominantly cater for beginners and intermediates, although the runs at the top are slightly more challenging keeping advanced carvers amused for a while. That said, all levels of piste fanatics will have a good time here. Take the 6-person gondola to the top and snake your way down the red run far skiers left. Here you can cruise some 4,000m of trail with high banks either side. You can really pick up bit of speed and crank out some burly turns – but watch out for the crowds and the usual group of learners huddled around the next corner.
Getting to Naeba is fairly simple, although not quite as convenient as the other Yuzawa-based resorts. Driving is the easiest solution, taking Route 17 from Yuzawa. Train is also simple enough, with the Joetsu Shinkansen running direct from Tokyo Station to Echigo Yuzawa, about 80 mins. From the West Exit of the station, jump on the Naeba Prince Hotels shuttle bus to Naeba, about 45mins and free for hotel guests.
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