Shiga Kogen Ski Diary
Day 1 – getting there
Having been skiing in the northern island of Hokkaido for the past two years – see Niseko Ski Diary – we decided this year to try the biggest island in Japan, Honshu, and the biggest Japanese ski resorts, Shiga Kogen and Hakuba. This is where most Japanese ski, we were told, and we were worried about crowds but expected great facilities. On both counts we were partly right.
We booked through a travel agent, Steve Kelso of Niseko Ski Tours, and wanted to get into it so we asked for a week at each resort. They both looked big enough to keep us busy and happy for that time.
We took off on JAL (rather than Qantas) a few minutes late at about 11 am. The plane was a “mature” jumbo. It was packed. You could not see a single empty seat. And what seats. They may not be the narrowest and most densely packed, but they felt it. Against this the staff and food were good, and the nose-cone-mounted camera so that you could see everything during takeoff and landing was nice. The entertainment system was pretty poor for a long-haul flight - each console allowed you to see the films, but there were only a few to choose from, and they could not be paused or started on demand. Also the earphones were pretty bad but we took our own noise cancelling – highly recommended – even if you just want to sleep.
Time was made up so that we landed on time, and luggage appeared eventually. One poor person was told by a large sign on the belt to contact the staff. Apparently some of their stuff was still in Sydney. Also there was a man whose job was to walk around with a sign saying that "lots of luggage looks the same so please do not take the wrong one". This did not seem like a very fulfilling job.
Traveling from Narita to Shiga Kogen or Hakuba you have four choices:
- get a train to Tokyo, a 500 metre walk up across and down with skis and stuff through commuter crowds, a train and then a coach.
- stay overnight at Narita, or Tokyo, finish the train and coach the next day in the morning.
- (our choice) get a private car transfer from Narita to Shiga Kogen. This cost an extra A$300 or so, and a bit longer than the first choice at about 5.5 to 6 hours, but it was easy after a hard flight and indeed was quite pleasant.
- unknown to us, there is apparently a taxi service (Chuo Taxis?) that will meet a small group and take you to Shiga for about 12000 yen each.
It all depends really on how you feel after the flight, how confident with Japan you are, but for us next time it will be a hotel in Tokyo. In any event we were fairly wiped out the next day and we only had a short ski, that could have been had in an afternoon.
So for us, the journey took 5.5 hours, almost all along motorway, and took us past Tokyo Disneyland, through the centre of Tokyo, and then north-west along motorways towards Nagano. A lot of the motorways were tolled, and as we drove through the electronic toll-gates, a mechanical gate would open – but if you're diving at 50 kph, you have the sense that you're about to run into the gate, and it quickly pulls out of the way about half a second before you run into it.
On the drive up into the national park in which Shiga Kogen is located, a thick fog descended, which reduced visibility to a few metres, and so the driver started up the satellite navigation system, and drove along winding alpine roads at around 40 kph steering almost entirely using the satellite navigation. Thank goodness for accurate maps!
Our hotel was the St Moritz. Overall pretty good, with a very friendly and helpful owner/manager, but some drawbacks. It is three star, but located in a position which was good but not ski-in ski-out. The room was normal size for a western hotel room, but fairly large for a Japanese hotel, with twin beds plus the usual Japanese pre-moulded plastic bathroom module. The communal hot bath, a great saviour after skiing, was functional but basic, with just one bath, and no spring water input. As is often the case, the rooms were only made-up every other day, and each occupant had one tiny thin towel, as well as a modesty towel for the communal bath.
Typically though, the place had free Internet and wifi. Our laptop was soon buzzing. A loan DVD player was around as were several DVDs in Japanese but English could be found through adjusting the player. Forget watching Japanese TV unless you like Sumo wrestling. So take a good book, but as you will be tired and relaxed after the hot bath, it doesn't take long to get to sleep. This is the only place where I have ever felt that the air is "thin". Perhaps it is me or it could be the altitude.
We elected for bed and breakfast, although in retrospect both breakfast and dinner might have been better. This is because hotels are the only real dining options in Shiga Kogen, with a couple of exceptions, and dinner in the hotel was Y3150 extra per night, or Y1500 more for special food, which we had on our last night. The dinners were Japanese and eclectic, things like Shabu-Shabu, and buffets, and were pretty good, but not amazing. Lots of varied beverages were available including Japanese beer (reasonably priced for a holiday location), local wine (not too expensive but reportedly sweet) and juices such as raspberry and various currants. Sake and similar were available, and are well worth trying.
Day 2 – first day's skiing at Shiga Kogen
As we arrived, after midnight, it was raining. from Australian experiences this led us to despair, but when we woke in the morning it was clear, at least at the base, and fresh powder had fallen and lay beautifully. A glorious and unexpected start.the temperature was well below freezing.
On our first day's skiing, we skied Ichinose Family, a large area in the centre of the resort, and close to our accommodation. From end-to-end, Shiga Kogen's ski area is around 16 kilometres long, although there are some big breaks in it. The bus takes about an hour from one end to the other, but in a very circuitous route around many hotels and stops. The Ichinose area is near the middle and divided by the road into Ichinose Family and Ichinose Diamond.
Ichinose Family is the place to start out, with gentle green slopes, although it often has big groups of school kids during holiday times. The size of the place means that they can be absorbed, though, and this is the big centre for schools, hiring and so on. As an aside we heard nothing but complaints about hired equipment, possibly because it is based on the schools trade. So take you own equipment if you can.
Later in the day we move towards the top of the mountain above Ichinose Family, where conditions and slopes became a bit more difficult. Indeed, the pleasant weather at the bottom became near almost a snow storm at the top.
Each of these resorts would rank well on there own in many countries, but of course you get picky with such a selection. For variety Ichinose Diamond probably takes it.
Day 3 – full day's lesson at Shiga Kogen
We had a full day's lesson today, just the two of us, which consists of two hours in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon. We had lunch at a restaurant at Takamagahara that our instructor showed us. In the afternoon after the lesson we were both exhausted!
During the day we covered most of the four resorts nearest our hotel. Given the lack of English signage in some places it helped with our confidence as well as being great fun and really getting the feel of the place.
The lesson was a good way to learn about the mountain and was ok as a lesson - Japanese lessons seem to be less technical or drill driven, even when language isn't a problem - but it was expensive at about 28000 yen. For later days we had "group" lessons that usually had the same number of people!
For dinner we went to a good Himalayan/Indian place, with some Australians we met (one of whom was a dental technician). For about 2500 yen we had kebabs, some vegetable and meat curries, and a big pile of the freshest nicest naans ever, with a couple of big beers. Super. There was no rice, but the naans were plenty filling. It was in the Hotel Japan, on the main Ichinose road, and seems to be one of the few restaurants that is not owned and operated by a hotel.
Day 4 – skiing at Shiga Kogen
Today I went and explored the 3 gondolas across the road, on the Mt Yakebitai slope, whilst Dad had a full day's lesson with Marilyn and Ian. I saw snow monkeys at the bottom of "Giant Ski Piste" - these are the same monkeys as are seen in the hot springs, and they are protected here too because Shiga Kogen is part of a national park. At the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted from a day's great skiing. My whole body aches, and if I close my eyes I feel a sense that I am still moving, like on the ski slopes.
The group lesson was great fun, until the instructor got a bit carried away and suggested that we try one of the Olympic runs. Marilyn and Ian were a super couple, typical of the friendly, experienced, but not pushy couples that you meet in such places. And very solid skiers! They were staying at the Sunroute, where they reported that there were signs on the windows suggesting that open ones would be invaded by monkeys! Also it seems that there were more Aussies there, and that it was much busier.
The owners opened the bar next to the lounge area this night, but in their bar they mostly they had different types of whiskey. What I think would have been nice to have at the bar would be some schnapps (either butterscotch or peach), and a choice of some other types of Japanese beers (additional to the Sapporo beer and Asahi super-dry beer that were available from the vending machines). Probably also the pricing of the pool table was wrong (at Y2000 per hour, or A$20 per hour – should really be a few dollars for a game of pool). However a selection of cheeses and chocolates were served with the drinks, which was a very nice touch. We also tried playing a Pachinko machine that we near the bar, but found the point of the game rather baffling!
Day 5 - Skiing at Kasadake / Kumanoyu / Shibutoge / Yokoteyama / Maeyama
Today we took the bus to get to a large ski area at the other end of the resort, which we have not been to yet, and which you have to get to by bus. Four of us went (myself, Dad, Justin, and Sarah). The bus took 45 minutes to get there there, and the return bus journey took 55 minutes. The resort itself was great and highly recommended especially on a clear day, but the bus was exceedingly slow, and kept turning off the main road for stops and then backtracking all the time - and this was the "fast" bus! So, you'd probably only do it once if you were here for a week.
The snow here is so fine and dry, that it forms a hexagonal crystal as it falls (apparently hexagonal snowflakes are an indicator of cold weather), and these snowflakes fall very very lightly even when there are hardly any clouds in the sky. These snowflakes glitter in the sunlight, and in Japanese this is called the "Diamond Dust", which is exactly what it looks like.
There was again a huge variety of slopes, most of them lovely. The one sour note was that we tried a green run that turned out to be ungroomed. Since it had frozen solid since being used, that made it unskiable to us, and everybody ended on their bums.There was a sign at the top, but it was only in Japanese. We did wonder why there was nobody else around, but so much of this place is really quiet, that it seemed almost normal.
We also found that the batteries in cameras and phones would not last very long in the cold weather – the low temperature must inhibit the chemical reactions that batteries depend on. The coldest days were -13C (with still air), and -25C with wind chill, which is what it was at the top of the mountain, which is rather cold.
We ate lunch at the bakery at the top of the mountain (Mt Yokote), next to the military-looking installation (a radar installation perhaps?). At the bakery, everything was served as buns, with a choice of various sweet and savory fillings inside, including meat, chocolate, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, apple and custard, bacon, and a sweet Japanese filling. It was good, and definitely worth trying for lunch.
For dinner, we ate at the Himalayan restaurant again. It's very good, highly recommend, and great value.
Day 6 - last day's skiing
Today we went skiing with Marilyn and Ian. The weather here today was pretty bad - blizzarding, and a near white out at the top of the mountain. In the covered bits between the trees and in the valleys wasn't bad though, but mostly it was hard to see, and easy to become lost.
Some of the signage of some of the runs is very bad, especially so in a blizzard. As a result coming down from one of the gondolas the conditions were very bad, and we could not tell where the turn off from a black run onto a green run was. We started to hike back up the hill, but then we met some people who were staying in our hotel, who showed us the way.
We lunched at the Hotel Alpenburg, where the royal Japanese princess sometimes stays when skiing. The lunch was fairly ordinary, although mostly we were warming up and waiting for the conditions to improve.
In the afternoon we headed towards Sun Valley, and returned via the Ropeway. The ropeway is quite a bizarre bit of ski infrastructure. It is a huge gondola acroos a valley, but it's 250 metres from the nearest point that you can ski to from Sun Valley, and then you have to walk across a road and bridge, and when you get there you can't tell that's it's the ropeway building, because the ropeway is on the other side, and it looks like every other Japanese hotel, and there are no signs in English! It is the oddest place to put a ropeway. However once you get in into the ropeway, you have a magnificent trip and view over the Giant Ski Piste and the valley below. But then, the only thing you can get onto after the ropeway is a single chairlift, in which you have to take you skis off and hold then. Who builds a huge ropeway that could take 30 people, and then at the end places a single chair lift? There were 8 people working on the ropeway and the single chairlift, and we were the only 4 people using it. And then at the end you have to trudge through the waist-deep powder snow to the nearest chairlift. As far as we could see, we were the first people to do this, at 3 in the afternoon! And then the entrance to the next chairlift is on the opposite side, so you have to go onto the road and walk around. The whole thing just is not well-integrated. This is probably because Shiga Kogen was originally 21 separate resorts, later consolidated. But from a skier's perspective, you want one large well-integrated resort that has lifts in the places you want and need them (so that you don't have to ski), with the right capacity so that there aren't queues.
Due to the conditions it overall wasn't a great day's skiing, and we were heading back a little down, as we had wanted to end our last day of skiing at Shiga Kogen on a high note. It was all made up for at the end of the day though when Marilyn and Ian suggested we try a run they had enjoyed the day before, and it was covered two foot of beautiful light fluffy untracked dry powder snow - bliss!!! It's like flying, and if you fall it doesn't hurt, and I have never seem powder like this in Australia (maybe because it's not cold enough to make the right type of light continuous dry snowfall that's needed to make it). Four runs of powder felt fantastic, and we were happy to end the day on a high.
Dinner at the hotel was sensational, for Y4600 we had Sashimi (a great big plate), tempura prawn and this beautiful raw beef that we barbecued in butter. The beef in the menu was described as being from a cow that "grew up by eating apples, so taste is healthy and sweet". And you know what? It was sensational, just melting in the mouth, easily equal to or better then the best steak I have had in Australia. We also had sake with dinner, which was poured into a glass inside a wooden box, and the sake was poured until the glass overflowed, and the wooden box was half full. The sake was very smooth and easy to drink, and food was great and very filling.
Anyway, it was good, and tomorrow we are off to Hakuba!
Thoughts and Summary of Shiga Kogen
There is a lot of skiable terrain here - I'd estimate the total resort size is maybe 60% larger than Niseko's total size. The resort is approximately 16 km long from end-to-end, although there is a gap in the middle where you need to take a bus (i.e. you cannot ski from end-to-end). The one pass for the whole resort is great, easy, and cheap compared to Australian passes. On the other hand the transport across this huge place is poor, and the way in which all the fields are integrated leaves a lot to be desired.
In Shiga Kogen itself, the layout of the town is dominated by hotels, each of which includes a restaurant and often a bar. The result is that there are almost no independent restaurants.
The economics of Shiga Kogen are in some regards baffling. They have so few customers, that you have to wonder: How do some of the restaurants and hotels stay in business? With the Japanese economy rebounding, and this place being moderately priced it should be busy. And yet the whole resort is only probably at 25% of capacity in mid January, and it does not seem to be picking up. If it were not for the large groups of school children on the mountain, and the very small but growing number of foreign (and especially Australian) skiers, then the whole resort would be in big trouble.
Summary of Shiga Kogen: Good for intermediate skiers. There are some also very good slopes for beginning skiers, however there are school children on them. The lessons are very good value, but because of the language issues, they are not as good as Australian lessons for learning skiing technique (but they are great if you want to see the mountain, and maybe improve your technique a little). Food was good, quite interesting, and worth paying a little bit more because you'll be rewarded with more interesting fare. Condition of the snow is in general good, occasionally icy, and we did come across one or two runs that hadn't been groomed and which were actively dangerous, but that's probably to be expected in such a large resort. The snow was very dry, and there was sometimes powder, although you had to search to find deeper and untracked powder, although it was there. The snow was infinitely better than Australian snow. The weather was quite varied, from one perfect cloudless day, through to two days that were almost a white-out, and three days that were in-between, with on-and-off light snow. The size of the resort was a large plus, providing about 4 days or 5 days skiing for an intermediate skier without having to repeat a run.
Overall impression: Recommended.