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Sushi on snow


Whether your family are experts on the snow or just starting out, Japan offers a wintry experience unlike any other, write Amelia Hungerford and Natarsha Brown.

W ith more than 70 per cent of its landmass covered in mountains, it’s hardly surprising that Japan is a winter wonderland with an incredible array of steeps, glades, gentle slopes and cosy villages that suit every snow-sporting ability.

From the island of Hokkaido in the north, to the southern mainland of Honshu, you’ll find great snow, beautiful scenery, delicious cuisine, and the quirks and traditions of a rich culture, all topped off with omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality that makes guests feel honoured as well as welcomed. Options for family-friendly ski resorts range from multi-mountain Aussie favourites such as Niseko and the Olympic facilities of the Nagano region to quaint villages with a local feel such as Nozawa Onsen. Choose your experience, or visit a few to discover the diversity Japan has to showcase.

For kids, they’ll get a firsthand cultural encounter that only adds to the brilliant memories they’ll make on the snow (on skis or off). So brush up on your Nihongo language skills, grab your winter woollies and follow us to the ski fields of Japan.

United in Niseko
Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is where much of the snowy magic is concentrated. Niseko United is the epicentre of the nation’s ski culture, winning all of Japan’s awards at the World Ski Awards in 2015 and featuring highly in our own awards each year. For families starting out in Japan it’s the ideal spot, easily accessed from Sapporo’s international airport and offering diversity across four linked resorts: Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and Hanazono. Add in the world-class powder and great facilities that cater for all ages, and you’re set for a snow holiday to remember.

Little ones will feel right at home on the mountain after a few days with Niseko International Snowsports School. Its locations in Grand Hirafu and around the Hanazono 308 Ski Centre offer fun and progression-focused English-language programmes for kids aged three to 14. Sheltered magic carpets and learning areas combine with new adventurous Strawberry Bells trails, a beginner terrain park and the Kamonohashi ride to zip up to more advanced terrain in comfort and safety.

More advanced families can enjoy tree runs at Strawberry Fields at Hanazono, live it up with epic backcountry conditions and volcanic steeps, and cruise the long, thigh-burning runs of Niseko Village. New for 2016 will be two state-of-the-art lifts at Niseko Village, part of owner YTL Hotels’ innovative master plan for the ultimate all-season resort. When it comes to accommodation, you’ll find the biggest selection in Hirafu, from ski-in, ski-out hotels to private rentals and cosy traditional digs.

Rusutsu rush
Less than an hour’s drive from Niseko is Rusutsu Resort. If it’s powder you seek, you’ll find it in abundance here; the trio of mountains – West, East and Isola – receive 12 to 14 metres of snow each season. Light, dry and forgiving (without any white-knuckle vertical drops), this is beginner-friendly powder at its best. If your junior snow angels aren’t quite up to that, they soon will be after a few private lessons with an Englishspeaking instructor and cruising the 37 wide, groomed trails. Rusutsu is also renowned for its unbeatable tree skiing, made all the better by being easily accessible from much of the resort’s state-of-the-art lift system.

Accommodation centres on two main hotels – the four-star Rusutsu Resort Hotel and The Westin Rusutsu Resort – with cottages and pension-style options nearby. Compared with its ever-popular neighbour, Niseko, this powder-haven offers a more intimate experience while still offering the biggest single-resort domain on the island. That means fewer lines, and a great opportunity for the little ones to soak up Japanese kitsch culture at its best. Think singing trees, dancing bears and cutesy souvenirs. When you need a day off the skis, the Crayon Shinchan Kids’ Park is a perfect escape, with tubing, snow biking and a colourful array of activities.

This is how we Tomamu
Hoshino Resorts Tomamu is sure to please all ages with its snow fun here, there and everywhere... whether you’re strapped into skis or out of them! Just a 90-minute drive from New Chitose Airport in Sapporo, here each individual family – and family member – can discover their own way to play with adventures such as Snow Rafting, Snow Banana Boating and Snowshoe Walks.

Suspend reality and enter the otherworldly Ice Village that lights up the night with its very own bar, chapel, hotel, restaurant, ice skating and warm-up house or take a dip at Mina Mina Beach, one of Japan’s largest indoor wave pools, and Kirin-no Yu, an open-air bath facing the forests of Tomamu and the starry skies.

If you can pull yourself away from the resort’s abundance of off-the-slopes fun, then it’s time to hit the mountains. On top of six lifts that access various runs that cater for all abilities, you’ll also find the GAO Outdoor Centre and Nipo Town, a playground for beginners and first-timers.

When your stomach is rumbling after a day of winter adventure, the variety of dining choices will have you clutching your belly in delight. With more than 20 restaurants on site, from Japanese fare to barbecued plates in forest cabins, there is something to tickle everyone’s tastebuds.

Hooked on Hakuba
The southern island of Honshu is Japan’s largest and home to its biggest ski resorts. Known for playing host to the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano City is located about 223 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, near the Alps and some of the highest mountains in Japan. The temperature... the snow... the people... it’s a page out of ‘Goldilocks’; everything is just right. And getting there is half the fun: the bullet train from Tokyo Narita Airport to Nagano takes about 90 minutes and leaves regularly.

Most of the games’ events were held on the slopes of the 11 resorts – including Happo One, Goryu – Hakuba 47, Iwatake and Cortina – that make up Hakuba Valley, guaranteeing access to world-class facilities for all ages. With 138 lifts and 960 hectares of skiable terrain, there’s plenty to keep everyone occupied.

Of the four main resorts, Happo One is a favourite for families. Here you’ll find the expert staff of Evergreen Outdoor Center, a one-stop destination for English-language ski and snowboard lessons, backcountry guides, a kids’ daycare service and tours to soak up the white-blanketed beauty of the valley. Glide along and discover life on skinny skis with a cross-country tour or make like Big Foot and go tramping through the glades on a snowshoe excursion. Advanced families can even undertake Avalanche Skills Training for the ultimate in on-mountain safety. At Evergreen International Ski School, kids from three to six can join the Yeti Club while Hakuba Heroes are just right for snow monkeys from seven to 14.

When you need a break from the slopes, breathe in the fresh mountain air while rejuvenating in the warmth of a bubbling onsen. These hot springs aren’t just about relaxation; they’re surrounded by cultural rituals that kids are sure to find fascinating. Get a taste for traditional Japan by dressing up in a kimono and taking origami lessons; although English-speaking services are often easier to find in Hakuba than other resorts in Japan, there’s still plenty of opportunity to encounter the local customs.

Culture on snow
With its strong European feel, Shiga Kogen is made up of 19 different ski resorts mostly interlinked via the slopes and lift system, allowing families to explore the different villages with ease. With more than 80 kilometres of trails, 600 hectares of terrain and 980 metres of vertical, Shiga Kogen is cited as being the largest ski resort in Honshu. The family skiing area, Paul Barn, allows for little ones to get used to their snow legs in a safe space. Ski lessons are available for kids under 12, and for those 12-plus, there are both ski and snowboard classes.

They say that you come to Nozawa Onsen for the snow, but even more so for the picturesque village of twisting laneways. Boasting a total ski area of 297 hectares, the variety of slopes guarantees snow fun for families. The ski school welcomes skiers of all abilities with lessons designed individually by age and current skill levels. Private lessons are also on offer, with a Kids' Room babysitting service, or the family can enjoy some snow time together at the Kids' Park.

Imperial slopes
Although largely known for its treed slopes, off-piste riding and long vertical, Myoko Kogen offers something for everyone, including child care services and lessons in English. The real drawcard of the resort is its Japanese historic charm (it was once a favourite mountain retreat of the imperial family) and an abundance of hot springs. The real pull of Madarao Mountain Resort is the promise of lower ski traffic and, with 60 per cent of the runs ungroomed, fluffy and deep powder. With 30 different runs and 15 lifts, the resort features a Tree Run trail, Free Ride Park, Kids' Park and wave courses. Still something of an undiscovered gem, it's possible to visit the park as a day trip from Myoko Kogen and Nozawa Onsen.

Happy in Appi
Appi Kogen promotes its resort as 'Don't worry be Appi!', and the 'Aspen of Japan' certainly lives up to its motto. With most of the slopes facing north, snow conditions are a powder-addict's mecca, open from December until May (approximately 160 out of 365 days). The region's well-known 'Aspirin' snow (light and fluffy snowflakes) is so light you can't even make a snowball - “ perfect for learners who will no doubt take a few tumbles! There's something for all ages: bunny slopes, a 5.5-kilometre cruiser, steep runs for the adrenaline junkies, a mix of groomed runs and deliberately unkempt slopes, 21 trails totalling 41 kilometres of total run length and 18 lifts, all over 282 hectares. Appi Family Park is the ultimate snow playground with sleds, snow tubes, mini courses for kids and a 72-metre snow escalator, and is fenced off to keep beginners safe.



Getting There
Japan Airlines flies from Sydney, Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Cairns to Tokyo Narita or Kansai.


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