Shiga Kogen is Japans largest ski resort and is located less than 200km north-west of Tokyo on the island of Honshu. The resort has a European feel and is spread along an alpine valley offering a range of terrain to explore.
Most of the runs are intermediate level and cut through the trees. There are dozens of lifts peppering the area and skiing the entire field in one day is very challenging.
Planning your trip
There are enough slopes here to occupy someone for a solid week. The resort is not the closest to Tokyo but it is still within weekend warrior range meaning it will be busier on those days. The world famous wild snow monkeys live down the valley and are worth a visit.
Accommodation is pretty soulless and is reminiscent of the bad days of 1900’s European ski resort architecture. Think big concrete blocks with tragic sounding names.
Rentals are hit and miss so consider bringing your own or hiring from a specialist outfit, not your accommodation.
The lifts and eateries are all a bit tired. There isn’t really a heart to the resort so don’t expect a pumping nightlife or any real atmosphere.
Access to and from
The easiest way to the mountain is to catch a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano and then switch to a bus.
It is possible to catch trains along the west coast of Japan all the way to Hokkaido and make this resort a stop off on your way north.
Sun 25 Dec: Toyko to Shiga Kogen
Christmas morning we checked out of the hotel and jumped on a train bound for Nagano. Christmas breakfast was hot canned coffee and croissants bought on the platform before boarding the train. Canned coffee is found in vending machines everywhere and, whilst it’s extremely sweet, it is a great way to warm up.
We whizzed westward towards the alps on our first Japanese bullet train. There wasn’t much snow on the nearby peaks but this changed as we moved deeper into the mountains. We were stoked that both the conductor and the food trolley woman stopped to bow at the carriage occupants each time they moved from one carriage to the next – not something you see in New Zealand!
Arriving at Nagano we confused ourselves trying to get up to Yudanaka and on to Jigokudani Monkey Park by either a train or a bus. After much smiling, gesturing and broken English we found ourselves on a local bus to see the snow monkeys. The monkeys are world renowned for making use of thermal springs to while away the freezing winter days. We had figured it would make a memorable Christmas so set snow monkeys as a goal. After hopping off the bus we trekked for about 40min along a beautiful snow covered road and then up a tree lined valley to reach the visitor entrance. After paying our entry fee we wandered along the valley further until reaching the pools filled with monkeys. There were probably as many SLR cameras as there were monkeys and we were taken aback at how close people were getting – even patting monkeys out of the way if they were the spoiling composure of a certain shot. Mark quickly pointed out the pool walls had tell-tale grout and looked suspiciously man-made. It was a pretty amazing experience despite the crowd and the cold seeping up through our shoes. We warmed up in the fairly basic information hut before a second session. We were glad we stayed on for a while because many of the people had finished for the day and in the hut we learnt:
1, the monkeys started coming to the hot-springs around the 1970’s and their unique adaption of bathing may have coincided with them being fed and built a pool;
2, they actually spend their nights in the trees up the valleys so are not permanently pool bound;
3, there is a man with a metal scooper who scoops the monkey poo out of the pool each afternoon so the monkeys are not simply bathing in a broth of their own turds.
A mid-forest vending machine supplied us with some much needed hot drinks for the walk back to the bus stop. After crossing our fingers for a while a local bus steamed up the hill. We hopped on and were promptly confused by the fee structure. There is a panel adjacent to the bus driver with lit squares showing ascending prices – the squares indicate the cost to the destination and go dark one-by-one when a stop is passed. You pay your fare on exiting the bus. We changed busses when we reached the ski area and made our way to the distinctly box-like Prince Hotel.
The hotel was full and housed hundreds of Japanese people of all ages, plus an Australian family, and us. The Japanese disabled ski team were staying at the hotel and one chap was very chatty so we got to know a number of them. They had been to Turin for the Olympics – impressive. One of the instructors used to spend the Japanese summers skiing on Mt Hut. Mark was excited to talk to him having emulated the Japanese race style on the top T-bars at Mt Hut for several winters. To the un-indoctrinated the Japanese race carving style is quite distinctive, precise and powerful looking.
Free Wi-Fi enabled us to Skype home for Christmas and send out festive wishes.
Christmas dinner at the hotel was expensive and looked like a half-hearted attempt at a western Christmas dinner. Uninspired by the offerings in the restaurant we opted for Nissan pot noodles and a couple of drinks from a vending machine at the end of the hall. A relaxing end to a magic day.
Mon 26 Dec: Shiga Kogen
After organising some VERY tired looking rental gear and buying some goggles (which turned out to be only single glazed) we hit the slopes at opening time. Shiga Kogen is part of a massive network of interlinked ski fields and despite snow and wind we took it upon ourselves to do all the lifts. We met some friendly locals on the lifts and skied with them for part of the morning before burning off to continue our challenge. The snow was fluffy and thigh deep. The rental skis coped well on the groomed but we battled to make the most of the deep snow.
After a morning of playing in the northern half of the field we lunched out the back of the main resort just beyond Mt Higashidate. The basic Japanese style hut felt remote in the ominous weather but we made ourselves at home with slippers and noodles in broth. Delicious.
By the end of the afternoon we had skied all parts of the field connected by lifts and only missed the parts you needed to bus to. The snow was beautiful all day and the poor weather kept most of the people off the slopes making excellent conditions for us. Overall the facilities felt a bit dated but it was culturally interesting because most of the visitors were Japanese.