In the heart of the Japanese Alps lies Myoko on the country’s main island Honshu, where my adventure begins. This is the perfect place to come with children; daycare is readily available, as are English-speaking kids’ ski schools.
Three major ski areas surround the majestic Mt Myoko, a massive volcanic cone, once revered as a sacred mountain. This winter playground not only offers breathtaking views but is also rich in culture and history. Myoko is in Niigata Prefecture, three hours – though a world apart – from Tokyo thanks to Japan’s famous Shinkansin bullet trains. It’s an area made famous by Japanese author, Yasunari Kawabata, who visited in the 1930’s, writing the Nobel-prize winning novel, Snow Country. Visitors today can share the awe he felt at entering this winter wonderland as the bullet train emerges from a long tunnel into the white new world. With an annual snowfall of more than 14m, millions of visitors are drawn to this majestic province.
I am going cross-country skiing for the first time, navigating dramatic pine forests that also offer exhilarating summer hiking. I’m nervous, especially as only one of my two guides can speak English. But thanks to tactical sign language we are off – however not for long. My first attempt at a smooth downhill glide results in a sideways fall into the powdery snow.
Luckily cross-country skiing doesn’t take too long to pick up and soon I am sliding and stepping with relative ease. And it’s a wonderful way of absorbing the charm of both people and place. I was impressed to find many elderly locals enjoying this sport as their regular exercise. Other locals one could be lucky enough to encounter are tanuki raccoons, foxes and a wide array of bird life, but the closest I get is spotting some footprints from a rabbit or squirrel in the fresh snow. It is also possible to visit the Togakushi Shrine on skis – a popular spiritual ‘power spot’ in Japan.
As we make our way up Mt Myoko we are surrounded by snowcapped mountains, and even faraway Mt Fuji can be spotted on a really clear day. Myoko enjoys more sunny days than many other resorts, ensuring Lake Nojiri positively sparkles in the sunshine. Moving uphill clad in 2kg of ski gear is tiring and works up an appetite. Luckily it’s time for lunch, but there is no restaurant or café in sight. I watch in amazement as the guides start digging with shovels, creating a moat, a large circular table and snow chairs. They place their skis upside down in the snow surrounding our instant café and proudly exclaim ‘seat!’ Then they create a picnic lunch of soup, bread and of course, Japanese saké wine.
From the Akakura Kanto Hotel, midway up Mt Myoko, I awake to stunning views over the skifields and am excited as I am about to have my first ski lesson with Myoko Snowsports. The local ski school was founded by Australian, Tom Langtry and the instructors are also Australian. No sign language today! I am kitted out in hot pink, chosen from an array of brightly coloured, quality Fablice branded rental options. My instructor runs me through the basics and makes sure I am ready for the chair lift. I know that Myoko offers some of the best vertical as well as some of the longest runs in the country so I am excited to get up there.
Sliding off the chair lift at the top, I am surprised to find myself gliding gracefully from seat to slope. Perhaps my stylish outfit is paying off already. Hey, this really is kids’ stuff!
Overtaking me as they zoom down the slope are children galore. Myoko Snowsports runs one of three local ski schools for kids with a variety of classes as well as private lessons. Mini Mountaineers is perfect for ages three to six as it includes both an indoor kids’ centre and safe nursery slopes, while Alpine Explorers and Alpine Shredders (for snowboarders) ensures those aged seven to 14 will become snow bunnies in no time, while having fun and making new friends.
On the third day I head off to Mount Naeba, possibly the most famous of all Japanese ski resorts and Japan's largest single resort where skiers can ride the world's longest 5.5km gondola, the ‘Dragondola’ to access the runs of the Tashiro area of Kagura then onto the Mitsumata area of this massive ski region.
I arrive and it’s freezing. The average temperature here in January is -7.4°C, luckily it’s March and a more reasonable +1.7°C, but I still need all the layers I can get. I warm up first in the Prince Hotel Naeba which stands like a small mountain range at the base of the slopes. With more than 1,000 rooms, direct access to the snow and lifts that run 13 hours a day, it’s the perfect base from which to explore. Ideal for kids is the Pandaruman Adventure Park where littlies can learn to ski with their parents or go tubing and sledding, all indoors on artificial slopes. There’s also a kids’ room in the World Cup Lodge with plenty of toys and Heidi’s Nursery, which offers child care for babies from six months up to six years, while Miffy Ski Camp helps kindies learn about nature while playing in the snow.
Meanwhile, with my guide I take a gondola up and then change chair lifts twice to reach the top of the mountain. It’s even colder up here and the altitude makes my ears pop. There are far more skiiers on these mountains but I fall in love as it starts to snow, each flake is unique and so perfect, I just wish I could take one home as a souvenir.
After some exhilarating skiing I am ready for Japan’s ancient ritual of hot springs or ‘onsens’ to ease my aching muscles. Although there are plenty of these in Myoko, each with their own healing properties, I take a three hour bus trip to the famous Echigo-yuzawa hot spring and ski area and stay at the Hotel Futaba, a traditional Japanese style ‘ryokan’ accommodation. Hotel Futaba has a variety of public onsen facilities, both indoor and out, and they’re open 24/7. Men’s and women’s facilities are quite separate and traditionally the bathers are naked. I’m tired, sore and covered in bruises. Do I really have to strip off in front of strangers? I am shown to my elegant room and open a door to the balcony and to my utter delight, discover my very own private onsen. In the peace and quiet, with no one to stare at me, I sink down into the hot, deep mineral water and begin to relax…