Craig Tansley goes uphill and down again in search of a perfect holiday in the snow.
Whether it's snow monkeys, traditional bathhouses, deep powder, black diamond ski runs or family resorts you desire, Japan has you covered. With more than 600 resorts to choose from, offering some of the best powder-snow skiing available anywhere, it's really just a matter of deciding which snow experience you want to have. Here are our tips on Japan's best ski areas.
The Hakuba Valley has terrain to suit everyone from the first-day skier to the professional, as well as plenty of off-snow activities to pursue. There are groomed cross-country courses, or you can snowshoe, snow tube, toboggan, go snow rafting or take a variety of tours to traditional temples.
Hakuba comprises 10 resorts and offers access to more than 200 ski runs. It's the ski mecca of Japan and was home to many of the events of the 1998 Winter Olympics. It's best-known for its powder snow and vertical skiing, although novices are also catered for. Happo-One has some of the highest snowfall in Japan, while Tsugaike and Iwatake are perfect for intermediates, with their long, cruising runs.
Free shuttle buses run between all resorts and there are plenty of hot springs to soak in. Snowboarders are well catered for; some of the country's best half pipes and terrain parks are located here. See hakubatourism.com or ski-hakuba.com.
Not only is this Japan's largest ski resort - or rather, 21 inter-linked resorts available on one lift ticket - it also has one of the longest ski seasons in the country. There are more than 80 kilometres of slopes here, the longest run being six kilometres. It's also open every evening until 9pm. Shiga Kogen hosted a variety of events at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
The ski resort of Yakebitaiyama is the most modern of all resorts at Shiga and offers the fastest lifts and perhaps the best variety of terrain. If you want the tree runs, for which Japan is famous, however, try nearby Okushiga.
The best idea is to stay in the village of Ichinose, as it's the most central and has the best range of accommodation and restaurants. It's also one of Japan's prettiest towns, where shop keepers use toy guns to shoo away pesky monkeys and you can bathe at free communal baths. See shigakogen.gr.jp/english.
Seeing Nozawa Onsen is like looking back in time, with its authentic ryokan inns and natural hot springs (there are more than 30 to choose from and some are at least 700 years old). However, it also has all the convenience of one of Japan's biggest ski resorts. There are 50 kilometres of runs accessed by two gondolas, five quad chairs, four triple chairs and 13 double chairs, with one run being more than 10 kilometres long.
The tradition of the place attracts a lot of older Japanese skiers but its challenging terrain also brings Western snowboarders. Forty per cent of the mountain is dedicated to beginners but there are 1065 metres of vertical rise to challenge even the bravest skier or snowboarder. Socialising isn't huge here but festivals are; the best one to see is the famous fire festival in January. See nozawaski.com/winter/en.
It might attract as many Australians these days as Disneyland and it's not nearly as steep as Hakuba but it gets more snow than anywhere in the world outside Alaska. Each season you can expect 16 metres of snow to fall and its location, on the west coast of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, means Niseko is the first place on earth to receive snow from a Siberian storm. You can access four ski areas on the one lift ticket, with 37 shared lifts and four gondolas. On a powder day (which is most days), there's more than enough room to find your own first tracks and nothing can beat the sensation of riding some of the world's driest powder snow. There's a wide variety of Western and local restaurants and bars (you can even buy VB and meat pies if your heart desires), although, with the huge influx of Australian skiers, Niseko will not suit all travellers. See niseko.ne.jp/en.
To get to the Nagano region, take the Narita Express to Tokyo Central Station, then look for the Nagano Shinkansen, a 90-minute bullet train. Shiga Kogen, Hakuba and Myoko Kogen are easily accessible by train from Nagano. For information on rail travel, see japanrailpass.net. For Hokkaido resorts, fly to Sapporo with JAL where resorts such as Niseko arrange transfers.
It's a fact of life that Australian skiers are the most adventurous on the planet; find a mountain anywhere on Earth and, without doubt, you will find an Australian who found it before you did. But if you'd like to avoid Australians en masse and have a genuinely Japanese ski holiday, Myoko Kogen could well be your idea of alpine heaven. It is one of Japan's oldest ski resorts and Westerners have yet to infiltrate it fully. It's also where the Japanese Royal family chooses to ski. Although it's not far from the popular ski regions of Shiga Kogen and Hakuba and it boasts more than 14 metres of snowfall a season, Myoko Kogen has traditional Japanese accommodation with few options for nightlife outside soaking in onsen and competitive karaoke competitions with locals, who take their singing very seriously. Skiing here is as far as you can expect from the ''Australianised'' experience you'll have at Niseko. In Myoko Kogen you're still a novelty - I counted only three Australians in a week, two of whom worked there.
You'll also experience uncrowded ski runs on Myoko Kogen's nine mountains, which have everything from steep black runs to easy, wide-open beginner slopes. What's more, the tree runs (just be careful of where you're allowed to go) are well spaced and have deep snow. There's about a kilometre of vertical descent, with some runs more than nine kilometres long.
For all this splendid isolation, you'd expect to have to travel for days but finding Myoko Kogen is easy. Just catch the bullet train to Nagano (90 minutes), then travel another 40 minutes by train before taking a 10-minute bus transfer.See myoko-nojiri.com.
While we're at it, here's another secret: the Hakuba Valley is one of Japan's best snow regions and mountains like Happo One are attracting many Westerners. But check out the often-forgotten northern end of Hakuba at Cortina and you'll discover some of Japan's steepest, deepest runs. The resort is small but has the highest snowfall of the region. It has the most challenging terrain in Japan with a huge bowl and tight tree runs. You'll find plenty of steep runs here that on powder days are not as scary as you think. See japanspecialists.com.