One day in 1986 the good people of Joetsu, a coastal city in Niigata, were deluged by 232 centimeters of snow—in one day. That’s roughly enough to bury a one-story building. Although this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day, locals will attest that Niigata boasts some of the heaviest snowfalls in Japan. Modern-day Yuzawa, just across the border from Gunma, was where Yasunari Kawabata’s penned his award winning novel Snow Country (Yukiguni), while the snow camellia is the prefectural flower. You see, winter is when Niigata really shines, and the ubiquitous white stuff attracts hordes of skiers and snowboarders to Niigata’s slopes each year.
Yuzawa is the most popular of Niigata’s winter sports areas, mainly due to the quick access from Tokyo and the variety of ski resorts a snowball’s throw from Echigo-Yuzawa Station. Tokyo-ites flock to Gala, Kandatsu, Ishiuchi Maruyama, Iwappara, Naeba and other resorts on the super speedy bullet train that takes just 77 minutes.
Gala Yuzawa has its very own train, and the station doubles as the ski lodge—how’s that for convenience! The efficiency means that you won’t be alone on the local hills, but it makes it possible for a day trip, although spending a night or weekend is recommended to fully unwind. The NASPA New Otani is one of a dying breed of skiers-only resorts, but there are plenty of snowboard parks for the tricksters and even heli-tours in spring.
The other white stuff, which Niigata is famous for is rice, brewed into some of Japan’s finest sake, and the Echigo-Yuzawa Station features a great sake-tasting room where you can try more than 50 kinds of Nihon-shu from Niigata and other parts of Japan, and you can even bathe in a sake spa.
Today, there are clusters of bubble-era mansion apartments, resort hotels, pensions and ryokan from which to choose in this once-quiet village about which Kawabata famously wrote. If you’re not sure where to start, a new company, enthusiastically named WeLoveSnow.com (www.WeLoveSnow.com), opens its doors this season to help organize ski packages, make online bookings and to get you on the slopes. They’ve also opened The Bottle Bar, a western-style bar just 10 minutes walk from the Echigo-Yuzawa Station. This après ski bar features a big screen with satellite TV so you won’t miss your favorite sports, as well as billiards and affordable drinks. Open late from Dec. 16 but closed Mondays.
Pine Ridge Resort Kandatsu has thrown some fresh air on Niigata’s ski scene with a progressive approach, teaming up with MTV Japan to bring an exciting lineup of events this winter. The resort has 13 varied slopes including mogul and powder areas and a “Snowstyle” terrain park. After a full day on the hill, you can relax in the luxury spa featuring indoor and rotenburo (Japanese-style outdoor bath).
The resort offers Burton’s acclaimed LTR (Learn to Ride) program that guarantees new snowboarders will be making turns after their first lesson. Considering many new riders don’t make it past the first day, it’s definitely worth the yen and the time. More info available at www.pineridgeresorts.com.
Just over the border from Nagano Prefecture, in the southeastern part of Niigata, Myoko Kogen area is one of Japan’s best-kept secrets. This scenic, mountainous area stretches all the way to the Sea of Japan coast and features some great resorts including Suginohara, Akakura, Ikenotaira Onsen and Arai.
Suginohara boasts one of the area’s longest top-to-bottom runs (8 km) and stunning views of beautiful Lake Nojiri as you ride up the gondola. Myoko Kogen is home to eight hot spring areas: Akakura, Shin-Akakura, Ikenodaira, Suginosawa, Myoko, Seki, Tsubame and Matsugamine.
For a truly hassle-free ski holiday, head for Arai Resort & Spa. The resort has an English concierge and three-, four- and five-star accommodation and one of the finest spas in Japan, the Manna Spa—complete with an authentic Dead Sea bath. The resort is made for families, with an incomparable kids’ club, an all-season pool and indoor and outdoor baths. It’s also a serious mountain.
Those seeking fresh tracks can join Arai’s special early bird tour and be the first on the slopes. Their renowned Guide Center has bi-lingual ski instructors, and you can even enjoy moonlight snowmobile tours and even paragliding. Guests can look out and onto the heated main courtyard from several excellent restaurants and enjoy some of Arai’s own beer made onsite at their microbrewery, one of the first in Japan. For more visit www.araimntspa.com.
Niigata often plays second fiddle to Nagano and the Japan Alps when it comes to winter sports areas in Honshu. However, for convenience and sheer amount of snow, the prefecture is in a class of its own.