Naeba and Kagura, Tashiro & Mitsumata

tokyoweekender_Naeba

by Brad Bennett

If only Yasunari Kawabata could have carved up Mt. Tanenoko on a clear morning after two days of snow and a big powder board beneath his feet. The award-winning author surely would have had new inspiration from the land about which he wrote in his novel “Snow Country.”

The mountains of Niigata are located only 80 min­utes from Tokyo by. Shinkansen and, while there are plenty of winter slopes to choose from in the Yuzawa area, Naeba, fondly known as “The St. Moritz of the East,” is often the first choice for the Kanto crowd wishing to get away for a day trip or a quick ski weekend.

Situated in a deep valley along Route 17, the old road through the mountains to the Japan Sea, Naeba is connected to the Tashiro, Kagura and Mitsumata ski areas by “Dragondola” — the world’s longest gondola.

The resort attracts more than two million winter fans each year and, with live music, World Cup races, a quality snowboard park and ski lessons for kids, it is easy to see they are working hard to keep guests coming back for more.

ON THE HILL

Naeba features more than 30 lifts and is one of Japan’s trendiest ski resorts. The base of the ski area is quite wide and open but, due to sheer popularity, it can still be crowded on weekends. The theme here is families, couples with schools for kids and adults and plenty of beginner courses for those just getting started.

The top runs at Naeba are steep enough to challenge advanced riders, yet a bit narrow and better suited for skiers than boarders. With snowboarders and the younger generation increasingly responsible for keep­ing the winter economy healthy however, it was a smart move by the Seibu Group to develop the Asagai Snowboard Park.

Just a 10-minute walk from the Prince Hotel, the park has been expertly sculpted to provide a professional atmosphere where local and international talent get air time in the half pipe and flash some style on the various jumps and rails.

Getting ready for the backcountry

Keeping the kids entertained can be a challenge, and fortunate­ly WakuWaku Family Snowland, near lift #4, offers great snow sliding alternatives for small children, kids and groups who want to have a little fun. Check out the snow mobile rides, monstrous inflatable snow sausage and, if still standing, the downhill inner tube course — a great place to settle friendly wagers.

Naeba to Tashiro

The Dragondola, at 5,481 meters, is the world’s longest ropeway and a Swiss-made engineering marvel. The access from Naeba is easy, and the views are stunning. In less than 15 minutes, the incessant J-pop music fades below as you are lifted above Tashiro Lake to wider and less crowded slopes.

Mid winter Tashiro Lake

The snow quality is better here; the only drawback is the area closes at 4 p.m., and the lift queue to return to Naeba can be long. Tashiro can also be accessed from the Tashiro Ropeway on Route 17.

Tashiro to Kagura

Traversing across Tashiro takes about 40 minutes, until you reach a slow-moving double chair that takes you up to the Kagura area. Known for good snow and backcountry options (enter at your own risk), Kagura is not much more than a covered high-speed quad with four or five trails back down to the lift.

The skill level tends to be higher, and you can ride here as early as November and as late as May. Further down the moun­tain, the Mitsumata area has a small boarder’s park, a few jumps and two good slopes for learning. Accessible by the Mitsumata Ropeway on Route 17 — the clos­est access point from Echigo Yuzawa Station.

OFF THE HILL

The elusive apres ski experi­ence in Japan is alive and well in Naeba. The Naeba Prince Hotel features an open-air concert venue that attracts everything from pop divas to pro wrestling. Foreign guests wanting to party usually head to Snodeck (Tel. 025-780-9190,  open until Apr. 11), located at the base of Asagai Boarder’s Park. With guest DJs on weekends, delicious pizza and a fully stocked bar, Lome and Kylie, the owners from the UK and Australia, have turned this old ramen joint into a warm winter oasis.

Check their Web site for spe­cial weekend events and complete package tours. Snowboarding les­sons in English also available.

Onsen recommendations for the area include Kaido no yu, at the base of the Mitsumata Ropeway; Shukuba no yu, at the base of Tashiro Ropeway; and Komako no yu, near Eichigo Yuzawa Station.

GETTING THERE

By car: To Naeba, take the Kanetsu Expressway to Tsukiyono I.C., then head north on Route 17 for 33 kms. To go directly to Kagura, continue on the Kanetsu to Yuzawa I.C. and head south on Route 17 for 20 kms., passing the Mitsumata and Tashiro Ropeways before arriving at Naeba.

By train: Take the Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo Station and get off at Echigo Yuzawa (80 minutes). From the West Exit of the station, you can catch shuttle buses to Naeba (about 45 min­utes). Naeba Prince Hotel guests can use the hotel express bus.

By taxi: From Echigo Yuzawa Station to Mitsumata Ropeway (¥3,000), Tashiro Ropeway (¥5,000) and Naeba (¥7,000).


FACTS & FIGURES: NAEBA

Season: Late November to May 5
Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Holidays from 7 a.m.)
Night Skiing: 5 9 p.m. (Holidays until 10 p.m.)
Number of Lifts: 30
Number of Courses: 27
Longest Course: 4,000 meters
Steepest Slope: 320
Max elevation: 1,789 meters

Terrain
▲ Beginner: 40%
• Intermediate: 30%
♦ Advanced: 30%

Ticket Info
1-day (Adult): ¥5,000
1-day (Youth): ¥3,500 Night ticket: ¥2,800

Facilities
Ski/Board rental: Yes
Ski/Board school: Yes
Artificial Snow: Yes
Terrain Park: Yes
Half Pipe: Yes

Contact Info
Web site: www.princehotels.com/en/naeba/
Tel. 025-789-2211

FACTS & FIGURES: KAGURA, MITSUMATA & TASHIRO

Season: Late November – mid May
Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Holidays from 7:30 a.m.)
Night Skiing: No
Number of Lifts: 26
Number of Courses: 22
Longest Course: 6,000 meters
Steepest Slope: 320
Max elevation: 1,845 meters

Terrain
▲ Beginner: 30%
• Intermediate: 40%
♦ Advanced: 30%

Ticket Info
1-day (Adult): ¥5,000
1-day (Youth): ¥3,500

Facilities
Ski/Board rental: Yes
Ski/Board school: Yes
Artificial Snow: Yes
Terrain Park: Yes
Half Pipe: Yes

Contact Info
Web site: www.princehotels.co.jp/ski/kagura/index.html
Tel. 025-788-9221


ACCOMMODATION SPOTLIGHT

The Naeba Prince Hotel (Tel. 0257-89-221 1, Web site: www.princehotels.com/en/naeba/) is the world’s largest winter resort hotel. There are 4,000 rooms and a host of seasonal attractions including fine dining, live music, summer golf and hiking, health and beauty services and an indoor swimming pool. Each summer Naeba hosts the world-famous Fuji Rock Festival.

The resort, looking like the set of the most recent James Bond movie, is made up of seven buildings connected by a maze of restau­rants and shops. The rooms all have nice views, and extra perks include shuttle services and a personal locker for storing ski gear. The staff was friendly and extremely helpful each time I got lost looking for the rotenburo (open-air bath).

Tanemura-san getting down and dirty for his guests

Family owned and operated for more than 25 years, the White Horse Inn (Tel. 0257-88-9121, Web site: www.whitehorse-inn.com), located at the base of the Mitsumata Ropeway, offers Japanese/Western rooms with or without meals. Expect to drink some sake with Tanemura-san and enjoy the family atmosphere at this friendly pen­sion.

Large groups are welcome, and the ropeway is just across the street. Reservations can be made in English (speak slowly) or online.

For those wishing to spend their yen on new equipment rather than a fancy room, the Mikuniso Ryokan (Tel. 0257-89-2638, Web site: www.mikuniso.com), at the base of Asagai Boarder’s Park, is simple and clean and has a great traditional Japanese breakfast.

If Japanese skills are minimal, contact Lome or Keily at Snodeck about booking you a room.