Japan Family Travel: Outdoor Winter Fun at Hakuba Valley’s Tsugaike Kogen

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Just like my family’s Christmas traditions back home in the States, for the New Year’s holiday here in Tokyo we spent three days holed up inside cramped apartments with various members of my wife’s family.

By the first weekend of 2020 we had to get our two boys – ages 3 and 5 – outside. Fresh air and exercise are what the doctor ordered, but wintertime in Tokyo offers few opportunities for outdoor playtime.

So we bought everybody new snow boots and headed to Tsugaike Kogen ski resort at Hakuba Valley. Located amidst the snow-covered peaks of the northern Japanese Alps, Hakuba Valley ski area in Nagano Prefecture is known for big-scale slopes worthy of hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics as well as its pristine family-friendly runs and accommodations.

How To Get to Tsugaike Kogen

There are ski resorts closer to Tokyo, such as Gala Yuzawa, which is only 80 minutes away from Tokyo on the Joetsu Shinkansen. However, greater accessibility means larger crowds on the weekends.

Door-to-door, and including transfers, bathroom breaks and temper tantrums, it took us a little over three hours to reach Tsugaike Kogen from Tokyo using public transportation.

The first step was to take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station. As a family we always buy non-reserved tickets (approximately ¥10,000 per ticket). First of all, they can be used on any shinkansen throughout the day (so long as they have non-reserved cars). If you miss your train, you can catch the next one, which is inevitable with our family.

Second, kids under the age of 6 ride free on the shinkansen – so long as they sit on your lap. To guarantee a reserved seat for your child, you need to pay half price for a ticket. Meanwhile, anything goes in the non-reserved cars, which can be risky if traveling on a holiday weekend. The risk is why we always leave from Tokyo Station, where the shinkansen starts. If you arrive early enough you have first dibs on seats for the non-reserved cars.

The ride from Tokyo to Nagano Station is a quick 82 minutes, and for our five-year-old – a budding train otaku – it was the highlight of the trip. From Nagano Station we took the Alpico bus to Tsugaike Kogen. Tickets for adults were ¥2,200 a piece, and again, children under the age of 6 ride free as long as they sit on your lap. Buy bus tickets at the souvenir shop at the station’s east exit (located right next to the elevator).

It was a quick transfer and we were soon situated for a 95-minute bus ride. Even though it was completely full, the bus was clean and comfortable, and our kids enjoyed the mountain views.

Depending on the bus, Tsugaike Kogen is the final stop. The ride to Hakuba Valley’s largest and most famous resort, Happo-one is 30 minutes shorter, and they also provide a nice kids park and kids’ ski lessons, plus plenty of English-language guidance.

Again, we were looking for less crowds, and Tsugaike Kogen has a reputation as one of Japan’s most family-friendly ski resorts. Upon arrival, reality exceeded expectation.

Photo by Hiroya Nakata

Family Activities at Tsugaike Kogen

We were a bit nervous because hotels in Tsugaike Kogen don’t offer pick-up service from the bus stop. However, it is a small village and once off the bus we realized everything was in walking distance. Pretty much every hotel we checked out online was within eyesight of at least one of Tsugaike Kogen’s many lifts. And one of the best parts was our kids were welcome everywhere.

Another reason we selected Tsugaike Kogen is its reputation as a beginner-friendly mountain. The runs at the base of the mountain are relatively flat, and as we could see upon our arrival, they were wide enough (1,200-meters-wide to be exact) to allow space for everyone to comfortably ski or snowboard. If you are looking for adrenaline-inducing adventure, you can find that at one of Hakuba Valley’s nine other resorts.

Our first stop was the kids’ park. For ¥500 per kid (parents are free), we grabbed two of the plastic sleds on hand and climbed aboard the moving sidewalk that took us to the top of the hill. Disembarking from this “lift,” to the left was a nice rolling slope, and to the right was a steep drop with a fun jump at the bottom. Also on hand were toys to make snowballs and a large area where kids were building snowmen and other abstract snow sculptures.

For older kids, Tsugaike Kogen offers several more adventurous activities. Take the gondola to the middle station and find fire pits surrounded by fat tire bikes, sleds, snow tubes and more. They can also climb through hoops and scamper over rope bridges at the towering net course.

Photo by Hiroya Nakata

Ski Lessons for Kids

On our second day we enrolled our five-year-old in his first ski lesson through Tsugaike Ski School. Evergreen International Ski School is also on hand offering classes in English.

We equipped our son at Uchikawa Sports, a fully equipped family-run shop just half-a-block away from the slopes. Nearby was Spicy Rentals, which has five branches in Hakuba Valley and is known for being English-friendly.

The instructors at Tsugaike Ski School were patient with our son and gave him every opportunity to get comfortable wearing skis for the first time. Even though he was far from ready to head down the moguls, the instructors reassured us to give him tons of praise for his efforts.

While the oldest was undertaking the two-hour lesson, our three-year-old had a ton of fun terrorizing the indoor kids’ play area. Tsugaike Kogen also offers a daycare service for parents who want to hit the slopes for a spell.

Planning a Ski Trip for the Family

For food options, there are nice ramen shops, soba shops and food trucks within short distance of the slopes. People come to Tsugaike Kogen for skiing, and the town caters as such. You won’t find nightlife here, though the onsen are perfect for winding down at the end of the day.

You also won’t find many establishments at Tsugaike Kogen offering fluent English-language service, though everyone we encountered was comfortable dealing with foreigners and we were able to communicate our needs without frustration.

There are other family-friendly ski resorts in Japan worth checking out. Shiga Kogen, also in Nagano Prefecture, also offers daycare, children’s ski lessons and English-language support. Head north to Hoshino Resorts Tomamu in Hokkaido for a more luxurious family winter getaway.

For us, Tsugaike Kogen met all of our needs and it is a trip we are already planning to make next year.

Feature photo by Hiroya Nakata

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