Want to spice up your ski holiday with a dose of culture? Look no further than Japan, the newest kid on the world ski stage…
With the Aussie dollar riding high, a surprising new mecca has emerged on the international ski scene – the snowfields of Japan! Not only does Japan currently offer great value for money, it is also renown for perfect powder snow, a long and reliable ski season, cheap lift tickets and superior customer service. Add to this a quirky, rich and fascinating culture, fabulous food and very few crowds, and you’ll soon understand why Australian families are flocking to Japanese slopes in record numbers.
There are two major ski destinations in Japan – the northern island of Hokkaido, and the main island of Honshu. The fields of Hokkaido are perhaps better known, with the resorts of Niseko, Rusutsu and Furano all popular with Australian skiers and boarders because of their long seasons, challenging runs and deep powder.
Niseko is becoming one of the most popular overseas ski resorts for Australian families. With amazing powder snow, plenty of Western-style apartments and activities for children, Niseko is a family-friendly destination. Niseko actually consists of three resorts surrounding a single mountain, linked by 37 shared lifts which can be skied on one pass. A whopping 16 metres of snow falls here in an average season (early December to May), resulting in a winter wonderland which will leave your family spellbound. Night skiing is a specialty here, with the illuminated area the largest in Japan.
Niseko’s leading Western ski school is Niseko Base Snowsports (NSB), offering a kids’ club that runs for six hours a day and includes lunch in the purpose-built playroom where kids can get a hot chocolate to warm them up. Kids’ Club rates start at $94 a day. NSB is located in the brand new Alpen Ridge apartment complex, 31 luxury apartments in Niseko’s most sought-after location right near the Ace Family Lift.
Furano, located in the Daisetsuzan National Park in the centre of Hokkaido is another family favourite, famed for its sunny blue-sky days and reliable snowfall. English is widely spoken here, with a free mountain guide service giving guests the opportunity to experience Furano with a local. This is a great place to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, with a host of cultural activities including tea ceremonies, kimono demonstrations and dog sled rides that are sure to delight the kids.
Not far from Furano is the Club Med resort at Sahoro, one of the only resorts in Japan that offers extensive English-language ski and snowboard lessons. The all-inclusive package includes three meals a day (international and Japanese food), unlimited wines and soft drinks, free lift and gondola passes and free ski tuition, as well as the legendary Club Med kids’ club activities. The ski slopes are right at your door, and outside is the most amazing powder snow imaginable!
Where families rule
Another ski resort that gives families top priority, is the amazing Alpha Resort Tomamu, located about 90 minutes from Furano.
As well as offering great on and off piste skiing, the resort has incredible facilities to delight the whole clan, including an ice hotel and bar, a gorgeous Ice Village and the most amazing wave pool imaginable. This massive 80-metre pool is protected from the elements by a sun-soaked glass-walled dome, so the kids will forget they are staying in a land of extreme cold!
If you can drag the kids away from the pool, they’ll love what’s on offer at the large childcare facility. Here, in the company of other children, they can enjoy a variety of hands-on programs prepared according to age, including visits to the forest to see animals, making snow slides and snow huts, and preparing delicious chocolate fondue!
There are also fun activities for the whole family, including dog sledding, hot air ballooning at night, snow-shoe nature walks and an ice-glass studio.
Skiers and boarders of all standards are catered for at Tomamu, but advanced skiers have the opportunity to ski pure powder with the resort’s Mountain Liberation Program; while a snow cat tour takes you to backcountry runs where you’ll find the best champagne powder in Japan.
There are several styles of accommodation available at Alpha Resort, including rooms in a 26-storey tower offering incredible views of the surrounding peaks, comfortable family rooms in the Villa Sport facility, and suite-style rooms complete with Jacuzzi and sauna.
A cultural experience
However, you don’t have to go all the way to Hokkaido for superb skiing and reliable snow. It’s hard to beat Japan’s main island of Honshu for convenience – Australians can fly into Osaka or directly into Tokyo, then jump on a bullet train and be in the snow within a matter of hours. This is particularly handy if you’re combining your ski experience with a cultural holiday in one of Japan’s bustling cities.
There are six major resorts clustered around the Olympic city of Nagano, which is just a 79-minute ride from Tokyo on the shinkansen bullet train (an adventure in itself!) Probably the best known of these is Hakuba Valley, which is billed as Japan’s skiing mecca, with over 200 runs on a 30 kilometre stretch of alps. There are 10 individual resorts in this region, but most skiers and boarders stay in the town itself, where there’s a range of accommodation and a wide selection of entertainment and dining. This is the ideal scenario for families, especially those who love night-time activities like karaoke or the wonderful Japanese tradition of the onsen, or bathing in hot springs.
For a traditional Japanese experience, it’s hard to go past Nozawa Onsen, where you can stay in authentic Japanese inns called ryokan (sleeping on futons rolled out on tatami mats). This town literally bubbles with hot springs, and it’s particularly beautiful at night when the cobbled streets are illuminated by lanterns.
The largest ski field in Japan is Shiga Kogen, with 21 interlinked resorts all accessible on one lift ticket. Located in the Joshinetsu National Park, skiing here is a lovely natural experience, with great powder snow and one of the longest ski seasons in Japan. However, the lack of a central village means that non-skiers may not have much to do – definitely something to keep in mind if you have young children in tow.
If you’re staying in any of the Mount 6 resorts near Nagano, there’s one activity that’s a must for the whole family – a visit to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, located in the hills above the town of Yudanaka. Although the 200 wild Japanese macaques who live in this sanctuary are free to come and go as they please, they tend to hang around for one good reason – hot spring pools, specially built for them!
Your kids will love the sight of these cute little fellas hanging around in their own personal day spa, soaking up the healing waters just like humans, and looking cute as can be. Don’t look them in the eye, however – monkeys see this as an act of enmity, and will bare their fangs at you accordingly! They don’t seem to mind cameras, however, so get all your close-ups through the viewfinder.
During winter, the sanctuary is located about a 40-minute walk through deep powder snow from the nearest car park, but it’s worth the trek to see the monkeys in their natural state, enjoying the bounties of nature and doing what comes natural in simian society.
Can we afford it?
Yes you can! The days of Japan being out of reach for the average Australian family are long gone, and with the Aussie dollar going great guns against the Japanese yen, there is no better time to treat yourself to a snow holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Not only can you now get relatively cheap flights to Japan from Australia, but you’ll also find accommodation and food comparable to Australian prices, if not cheaper. In fact, meals can be incredibly cheap, with ‘bento box’ lunch meals costing around $10 per person, a bowl of ramen noodles around the same, and a whole meal of yakitori meat skewers setting you back around $20 per person!
Shopping in Japan is great fun, and there are bargains to be had if you take the time to shop around. Let the kids loose in the incredible 100 Yen shops – the equivalent of our Two Dollar shops – where they’ll find all sorts of cute souvenirs and gadgets.
Perhaps your best investment for your holiday in Japan is a Japan Rail Pass, which must be purchased here in Australia before you leave. Valid on all JR Group Railways including the famous shinkansen or bullet trains, as well as the main metro line in Tokyo, the savings can be extraordinary if you’re planning extensive rail travel. For more information, visit www.railplus.com.au
Room with a view?
Accommodation is Japan comes in all shapes and sizes to suit all budgets, but it helps if you know beforehand what you are getting. International hotel chains tend to have the most spacious rooms, though even these may be smaller than what you are used to. So-called ‘business hotels’ are a cheaper option, but they are often very tiny rooms, just big enough to squeeze two single beds in, while the bathrooms are miniscule – you practically have to shower over the toilet seat!
Ryokans, traditional Japanese inns, are perhaps the nicest option, giving you a cultural experience as well as more space - that is if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor! These rooms consist of a large living/sleeping area, covered in tatami matting. During the day it serves as a dining and lounging area, while at night your hosts will roll out a fold-up futon on the floor for you to sleep on. Ryokans often include meals or at least a dinner option. You should book ahead for these, but note that many of them take cash only – so be prepared. Look up www.japaneseguesthouses.com
The most curious style of hotel rooms, however, are so-called ‘coffin’ or capsule hotels – tiny, bunklike spaces which only cost about $30 a night, but don’t fit more than your body and a flat-screen TV in them! Some people compare it to sleeping in a drawer – certainly not for the claustrophobic!
Tour or solo?
For many first-time visitors to Japan, a group tour or a package booked by an established ski tour company offers peace of mind and takes a lot of the stress out of the experience.
Companies such as Deep Powder Tours have years of experience skiing in Japan’s Niseko region, giving them the advantage of inside information about the destination. They can design a package to suit your family’s preference and budget, as well as provide transfers, night excursions to onsen, ski lessons for the whole family and pre-booked lift passes. All of which take the guesswork out of the experience, leaving you more time to get out there and enjoy the snow. For further information, visit www.skijapan.com.au
Jetstar flies daily between Sydney-Brisbane and Osaka and five times weekly between Cairns and Osaka. Economy fares start from $479 (one way, all inclusive) and StarClass $1399 (one way, all inclusive) from Sydney.
The Jigokudani Monkey Park is open all year but is most spectacular during the winter months. Admission fee is 500 yen per adult (about $5). Visit their website (below) for more information and to watch the monkeys on a live webcam.