A skier's guide to... Japan

The host to this year's Winter Olympics has the largest recreational skiing population in the world. Despite the distance and the language barrier, Japan offers tourists a unique snow experience, says Simon Richmond

ON 7 February 1998, the 18th Winter Olympics will commence in Nagano, across what, late in the 19th century, an English mining engineer William Gowland christened the "Japanese Alps". The name stuck and so did that new-fangled Western practice of shussing down the slopes for fun. Today Japan has more ski resorts than days of the year - mostly across the main island of Honshu and the northern island of Hokkaido - and the largest population of recreational skiers in the world. The question is, given the expense, the language barrier and the distance, should you join them?

The answer is certainly yes. The cost of ski passes, equipment rental and the rates at family-run minshukus and ryokans (traditional lodging houses) compare favourably with many European and American resorts, especially given the weakened state of the yen. Transport to the slopes from the cities is fast and efficient; at one resort you even step straight out of the train on to the ski lifts. Ski maps and signs are often in English (to make resorts seem more "international") and you're sure to find some English speakers around if you run into difficulties.

There's no arguing that Japan is an awfully long way to haul your kit, so it's unlikely you'll be heading out east for skiing alone. But, if you are planning a mid-winter visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, it's definitely worth fitting in a couple of days or more of skiing to your itinerary. Apart from the stunning beauty of the mountains (you'll quickly understand why they were called the Alps) the availability of natural hot spring baths - onsens - at many resorts is something that makes skiing in Japan a unique pleasure. If nothing else, imagine the points you'll score when if comes to swapping ski stories in the future.

Getting there

January and February are the cheapest months of the year to fly to Japan, with Aeroflot at pounds 430 return, while JAL and ANA have seats at around pounds 760, which will include transfer flights up to Hokkaido should you wish to ski there. The Japan National Tourist Organisation (0171 734 9638) can provide basic details on how to get to the major resorts, but if you are seriously considering an oriental ski trip, invest in the spot-on Ski Japan! by T R Reid, published by Kodansha.

Accommodation

Something for everyone from youth hostels and minshuku to top-class ryokans and Western-style hotels. Rates usually include breakfast and dinner, and at the Japanese inns you'll often be sleeping on futons on tatami mat floors and sharing facilities, including the bath. Youth hostels almost always have private rooms, too, if you don't want to share the cheaper dorms. At the opposite end of the scale are the Prince hotels and ski resorts, part of the business empire of the multibillionaire Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, the man most responsible for fuelling Japan's ski boom. Although criticised for being somewhat bland and over-regulated, these resorts, which include Furano in Hokkaido and Naeba - arguably Japan's trendiest ski destination - in Niigata, offer a uniformly high level of comfort and facilities in their hotels. For details, call the Prince Hotels' Paris office on 33-1-4579-9230.

Hakuba Valley Hotel (81-261-72-2448, fax 72-2137), on the slopes of Mount Nakiyama at Nagano's Happo-one. Very popular with the expat community, this convivial Japanese-style inn is run by Hata-san, a friendly English- speaker and pottery lover (the rooms are decorated with huge vases), and has a bar and pool table for apres ski socialising. You'll need to take the chairlift up the slope from the parking lot to get to the inn, which is just over a mile from Hakuba train station. Weekdays it's 10,000 (pounds 46) per person per night, including two meals, and 1,000 (pounds 4.60) extra at weekends.

Club Med Sahoro (81-15-66-466-67, fax 460-65). This resort, 87 miles from Sapporo the capital of Hokkaido, is the only Club Med in Japan and offers both downhill and cross-country skiing. It's not the most challenging of terrain, but the resort has lots of facilities, including an indoor swimming pool and a nearby sports centre, and is good for families since it has a children's club and a junior ski school starting from six years old, with instruction in English.

Niseko Annupuri Youth Hostel (81-136-58-2084). This charming European- style pension, with a roaring log fire, is a couple of minutes' walk from the Annupuri Kokusai resort at Niseko, around two hours from Sapporo by bus. The friendly manager Mitsura-san can sort out ski rental and he and his wife are excellent cooks. Accommodation only is 3100 (14.50) per night, with two meals 4700 (pounds 22).

Style

Being the top winter leisure activity of the young, skiing in Japan can often seem very much about fashion and very little about sport. Indeed, some skiers' idea of the perfect outing is to spend the day on a cafe terrace, preening in designer gear, while checking out the on-slope talent for potential apres ski activity. One ski publication even rates resorts in terms of their romance potential.

Even so, the ski-boom of the late 1980s has bequeathed Japan with many state-of-the-art resorts. Slopes tend not to be as long or quite as challenging as those in Europe, but they are not without their advantages. Your average Japanese, with only a day or two at the most to ski, does not want to hang around, thus there are many high-speed lifts and gondolas at most resorts to get you up the mountains. Lengthy lift queues are a feature of the weekends and national holiday, and unless you want to perfect your slalom technique by dodging fellow skiers, then you'd be well advised to avoid resorts within easy access of Tokyo, such as Naeba or Gala Yuzawa, at these times. Still, as you'd expect for Japan, even when crowded, lift lines are orderly and fellow skiers courteous.

If you've got big feet, you'll need to sort out your ski boots before arriving in Japan. Otherwise, rental operations are plentiful, with a full set of equipment costing around 4000 (pounds 18) per day.

Eating

With few exceptions, on-mountain food in Japan is unimaginative canteen fodder, although Western taste buds will find some dishes exotic, such as ramen (Chinese-style noodles in a soup broth) and curry rice (a mildly spicy brown stew on white rice), both ideal energy boosters. Avoid pizza - it seldom bares any relation to the Italian original, which is probably why the Japanese have the habit of sprinkling on Tabasco sauce. And in case you're wondering, the burger-shaped packages coated in bread crumbs are tonkatsu (pork cutlets).

Things perk up at the base resort restaurants and cafes, often with amusing Western names, such as Coffee Cake Dude at Happo-one. Once back at your hotel or inn, dinner is invariably a multi-course platter of individual delights, including soup, raw fish, salads and pickles and as much rice as you can handle. Popular dishes include nabe or stew, with fish or meat, vegetables and noodles boiled up your own cooking pot, and sukiyaki - thin beef slices cooked in soy sauce, sugar and sake, along with tofu and vegetables. The Prince resorts have many different restaurants offering both Western and Japanese food and the on-slope Ramen Corner cafes, where mamas in white aprons dish up huge bowls of steaming noodles; try the miso ramen, which has a thicker soup flavoured with bean paste. At Nozawa Onsen in Nagano, don't miss out on the manju, wonderful steamed dumplings with various fillings including meat and mountain vegetables, and best bought from street vendors out of wooden steam boxes.

Apres Ski

All-night discos are practically non-existent, but there are other entertainment options. Many resorts, poised over volcanic vents, come with a supply of naturally heated water, suffused with minerals. The water is piped into special bath complexes and a dip in the pools - both indoor and outdoor - is the ideal way of reaching a post-ski nirvana. What better way could there be to bond with your fellow skiers than soaking beside them in a piping hot rotemburo (outdoor pool), while sipping a beer and watching the snowflakes fall?

After a few more bi-ru (beers), you might be encouraged to visit a karaoke bar, but it's likely that you'll have had your fill of bubble-gum Japanese pop, since piped music drifts eternally over the ski lifts. High-brow cultural pursuits are on offer, too. Nagano city, accessible by high-speed Shinkansen train from Tokyo in just 90 minutes and a good base for forays out to the resorts in the surrounding Alps, has Zenko-ji, a huge atmospheric Buddhist temple where you can search for the "key to salvation". Hokkaido's capital city Sapporo, location of Japan's last winter Olympics bash, hosts the fantastic Yuki Matsuri, a week-long festival of mammoth ice and snow sculptures every February. Nozawa Onsen has 13 public bath-houses and a great night out can be had scurrying along the village's twisting streets alternately bathing in the hot pools and cooling down with a beer in a bar: try Stay, named after the Jackson Brown song. Also drop by the Japan Museum of Skiing, on the slopes in a cream-coloured lodge, which has thrilling action shots of dapper Austrian Hannes Schneider, the man who introduced two-pole skiing to Japan in the 1920s.

Best for beginners

Although they are hideously crowded at weekends and holidays, the Niigata "Snow Country" resorts around the Shinkansen station of Echigo Yuzawa are ideal for beginners and are fairly relaxed during the week. Gala Yuzawa, with a gondola connection directly from outside the station, couldn't be more convenient and, an hour and 20 minutes from Tokyo, an ideal day- trip. The terrain at Naeba, under an hour from Echigo Yuzawa by bus, is more challenging, with some fairly tough moguls and narrow runs. But on the whole, this super trendy resort is best for beginners and intermediates. For something different, try SSAWS (which stands for Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter Snow), the largest indoor ski slope in Japan at Funabashi, around 40 minutes east of Tokyo.

For intermediates

Appi Kogen and Zao in northern Honshu and Happo-one are considered the Holy Trinity of Japanese ski resorts and are all big enough to handle the crowds. Happo-one, at the heart of Hakuba, a sprawling ski area in northern Nagano, has long intermediate runs and is the location of the Olympic downhill and giant slalom courses. Another top Nagano resort is the Tsutsumi-owned Shiga Kogen, where discriminating skiers head to the north end for the Yakebitai and Okushiga ski areas. Appi Kogen is a spectacular new resort born during the ski boom, with 25 miles of runs and a wide range of terrain, while Zao has been in operation since the 1920s and is famous for its "snow monsters" - mountain-top pine trees shrouded white by hoar frost .

Best for Experts

For all Nagano's Olympic flash, Japan's best skiing is on Hokkaido. Resorts such as Niseko and Furano are so large and have such good powder snow that they well justify the additional cost and time of getting there. At Niseko, after years of squabbling, the three main lift operators on the mountain have combined to offer a single pass (on an electronic tag) that gives access to possibly the best range of terrain in Japan. Furano, in the centre of Hokkaido, is not as difficult as you'd imagine for a past location of the Ski World Cup, but still its Downhill Supisu and Kuma-no-shiri ("Bears bottom") courses should not be approached lightly. Although Nozawa Onsen is one of the prettiest resorts and has a couple of excellent beginners' slopes, its off-the-beaten track location means its a better destination for the advanced skier who'll be well occupied with the steep, long runs. If its gradient that you're after, Myoko Suginohara in Niigata has the steepest trail in Japan, a spine-tingling 45-degree 150m-long cliff drop.

For snowboarders

If it didn't already have it, snowboarding gains international respectability when it debuts as an Olympic sport next month. Giant slalom and half pipe course have been built at Shiga Kogen and will no doubt attract keen attention from boarders once the Olympic bandwagon has moved on. Style-conscious Japanese have taken to the new sport in a big way, but many resorts were slower to catch on, banning snowboarding for fear it would upset regular skiers. So many people now snowboard that they've virtually all caved in, although few resorts have built dedicated snowboarding parks. Kijimadaira in Nagano is the undisputed snowboarder's Mecca, while in Hokkaido, at the Rusutsu resort, the courses through the trees on Mount Izola are a favourite workout for boarders.

Value for money

In the United Kingdom, Jaltour (0171 495 1775) and Nippon Travel Agency (0171 437 2424) can sign you up for one of the multitude of local package deals on offer each season, although they will warn you that things might turn out to be difficult if you don't speak Japanese.

Tokyo's Beltop Travel (88-3-3211 6555), with over a decade of experience of arranging packages for the expat community, has a much more relaxed attitude. They speak English and can also be contacted on the Net on http://www.beltop.com/.

Youth hostels are well worth considering for their all-inclusive deals; contact Japan Youth Hostels on 81-3-3288-0260, fax 3288-1490.

Sportsworld (01235-550904) is the official ticket and tour operator for the Nagano Olympics.

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