The secret is out – Japan is one of the world’s snowiest places. It may not seem like that when you look out the window but in 2017, Japan recorded four of the top 10 spots for world’s snowiest cities.
With such a large abundance of snow, it would only make sense that Japan has a strong winter sports scene. While it may not be as strong as the bubble era, when it was common for businessmen to ski in the morning, then attend meetings in the afternoon in Tokyo, it’s still a thriving community. The après-ski scene has also improved over the last decade, thanks to tourists from Australia, the USA, and other Asian countries. And what better way is there to end a day of skiing, or snowboarding, than with a few beers in a cozy warm bar.
Here we present five choices that offer up both great conditions for winter sports and a few local establishments offering craft beer. All these resorts can be done on a day trip from Tokyo, or extended for a few days longer.
Hit the Olympic Slopes of Hakuba Valley
Home of the 1998 Winter Olympics, the Hakuba Valley is famous around the world for its perfect conditions during the season. The valley itself consists of 11 ski slopes, ranging from beginner slopes perfect for new entrants to winter sports, right through to backcountry adventures between the trees for those looking for excitement.
Hakuba Goryu and Hakuba 47, a combination of two slopes, provides the best all-around experience with plenty of open areas and incredible views on bluebird days. It’s also possible to get guides to show you around the backcountry areas, and even hike up to places that appear inaccessible.
What’s On Tap
On top of this, the valley also has Hakuba’s first brewery, with the Hakuba Brewing Company situated in the middle of the village. With a large open space inside, and a burning log fire, the two Dans at Hakuba Brewing Company have created the environs in which to unwind after a long day on the slopes.
For those wanting something a bit varied, then check out the Hakuba Taproom, Baird Beer’s first foray outside of the Kanto area. With the whole range of Baird Beer on tap, and a variety of locally sourced meats and vegetables on skewers, known as yakitori. There is also more of an international focus with the food, too, due to the number of tourists that pass through the area.
A Winter Getaway at Nozawa Onsen
Spanning over 290 hectares of land and with a height differential of over 1,000 meters, Nozawa Onsen is one of Japan’s largest winter resorts. Combined with some of the best snow in the area, there’s plenty of space for all sorts of winter activities besides skiing and snowboarding. Nozawa Onsen also boasts one of the longest winter sports seasons in Japan, usually opening around November, running until early May.
Throughout the season, you can also experience local crafts, visits from Father Christmas for the young ones, firework displays, and local events. Nozawa Onsen is famous for the Dousojin Fire Festival, Winter Holy Light Festival, and the NikoNiko Winter Festival.
What’s On Tap
With so much to do, you’ll also need to unwind and Nozawa Onsen also is home to some of the area’s best craft beer bars. The Craft Room, situated at the base of Nozawa Onsen, is open throughout the season, and has a variety of domestic and imported craft beers on tap, as well as some delicious sandwiches, lunches, and snacks. It’s family-friendly and they will help organize special meals for children.
For those travelling without children, check out Libushi in the center of Nozawa Onsen, the taproom for Anglo-Japanese Brewing Company, Nozawa Onsen’s only brewery. The taproom is standing room only, and gets busy quickly. There’s no dress code, so you may see people darting in for a quick beer as they traverse the onsen in the area.
Find Nagano’s Hidden Secret at Madarao
Madarao isn’t on most people’s itinerary for winter sports, but with recent investments in the area, the quiet times are only going to last for a couple more seasons at most, so get in there quick.
Located in Nagano, Madarao’s courses remain ungroomed, thus aiming themselves to the more confident crowd. Even though Madarao was host to Japan’s first freestyle skiing competition, there are plenty of courses for everyone ranging from beginners to experts, young and old. The backcountry is the main appeal, with local guides helping to set up tours.
What’s On Tap
Madarao itself doesn’t have any local craft beer breweries, though Myoko Kogen is about a 45-minute drive away. However, there has been development in craft beer bars, with the Shaggy Yak operated by the owners of Hop Scotch in Tokyo. The Shaggy Yak offers up a variety of craft beer from Japan, with Shiga Kogen (Nagano) and Hitachino Nest (Ibaraki) all centered around Japanese cuisine and snacks, such as karaage (fried chicken) and gyoza. The Shaggy Yak also has a good selection of vegan and vegetarian foods as well, so no one is left out.
If you’re looking for something a bit cosier or upmarket, then check out the Raicho Madarao Lodge – a hotel and bar that blends European and Japanese aesthetics. The lodge has also secured Kermis, a dining concept by Nobu for the Madarao region, that is based around local Nagano ingredients. The beer list at Raicho Madarao is also focused on beers from Nagano, with Shiga Kogen, and Minamishinshu being two of the breweries on offer.
Gala Yuzawa: The ‘Gold Standard for Convenience’
Gala Yuzawa is the easiest of the places on this list to visit for both a one-day trip or for a longer stay. With direct access from Tokyo Station, Gala Yuzawa is perfect for those looking to try out winter sports for the first time but hesitant to commit.
Gala Yuzawa is the gold standard for convenience, with the shinkansen stopping at the base of the mountain, and the connected gondola taking you up the mountain to the base station. Gala Yuzawa may not have the variety of courses as other places on this list, but the three-mountain pass gets you access to Yuzawa Kogen Ski Resort and Ishiuchi Maruyama Ski Resort for only ¥1,000 more than the regular price.
What’s On Tap
Surrounded by the Japanese Alps, the Echigo Yuzawa is famous for its beautiful sceneries and hot springs. The town is quite spread out so stopping off at Ponshukan inside Echigo-Yuzawa Station is recommended. A chain of shops promoting local products from across Niigata, Ponshukan is the best place for you to try some of the local craft beer, too.
Besides having a wide array of sake from the area, there is also local craft beer from Echigo Beer, Japan’s largest craft beer brewery, Hakkaisan Izumi Brewery, makers of Hakkaisan sake, and Tainai Kogen. The atmosphere inside Ponshukan is jovial and relaxing; however, it does get very busy during the winter season. Our advice? Pick up some beers and walk around the yatai, or small stalls, that line the inside of the station and pick up some yakitori, grilled chicken, or mochi rice cakes to eat with your cold craft beer.
Discover Karuizawa’s Great Outdoors
Karuizawa is an area with a long history and association with outdoor activities. It was promoted as a mountain resort in the late 1800s. To this day, some Tokyo residents own or rent a summer home there to escape the stifling Tokyo summers. With the Hokuriku Shinkansen cutting travel time to less than an hour from central Tokyo, it’s a viable alternative to Gala Yuzawa for access and amenities.
Karuizawa Prince Hotel Ski Resort is the closet ski slope to the shinkansen station, accessible by either a short walk or a shuttle bus from the station. It’s perfect for families and beginners, with gentle slopes lending themselves to learners of both skiing and snowboarding. On a clear day, Mount Asuma, a local landmark that resembles a smaller version of Mount Fuji, looms over Karuizawa, and its fresh snow water is used in the local area to make some exclusive beers.
What’s On Tap
With Yo-Ho Brewing and Karuizawa Kogen Beer located in the area, there is no shortage of craft beer. Café Hungry Spot, located about 10 minutes from the bottom of the resort, has all of the local breweries on tap. While we recommend taking a bus there, some shuttle buses do run there from the station.
Yo-Ho Brewing offers a beer, known as Wild Forest, made especially for the Karuizawa area. In fact, it’s so special that it cannot be bought outside of Karuizawa. Some of the profit from Wild Forest beers sold locally go towards supporting conservation efforts in the Karuizawa area, ensuring the forests and listed-buildings remain for future generations to come.