This article is part of a guide to Tokyo from FT Globetrotter
When the boy-meets-girl romantic comedy Watashi wo suki ni tsuretette (Why Don’t You Take Me Skiing?) became a hit in 1987, the ski industry was booming in Japan. This was especially so among twenty- and thirtysomethings, who often saw skiing as an opportunity for romance. Good-looking skiwear and expensive equipment were key to their success — both on and off the slopes.
There was, of course, a downside to skiing’s popularity. Heavy traffic to and from ski resorts. Long queues for ski lifts, hustling for a table at lunch. Overcrowded pistes — full of people showing off their ski technique — became a somewhat dangerous place for fun.
But the era of ski exuberance was brought to a halt in the 1990s when the economic bubble burst and the nation hit a financial winter. According to a survey by the Japan Productivity Center, the number of people on the slopes has decreased to around 6m in recent years, as opposed to nearly 18m at the sport’s peak. Unusually warm weather and the global pandemic, even only the beginning of it, made the 2019-2020 season one of the worst in decades.
This year, resort operators are hoping they can make up some of their losses. Some resorts closer to the Tokyo area are successfully targeting weekend or day-tripping skiers by opening slopes in the early hours of the morning, offering quick transportation to Shinkansen high-speed train stations and arranging overnight bus tours and more.
You may think that there’s no point in skiing for such a short time. This is certainly the case for certain resorts in Japan, such as those in Hokkaido, or Hakuba and Shiga-Kogen (my favourite) in Nagano — all of which have a variety of runs to enjoy and accommodation more suited to longer stays. However, these are further away from Tokyo.
But just imagine: it’s winter in Tokyo, and you happen to have a day off. In a couple of hours, you could be whizzing down the slopes.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and general travel restrictions, at the time of publication the following ski resorts and many others in Japan are open this winter, although masks are obligatory and capacity for gondolas and ropeways has been reduced to allow for social distancing. Check the latest Covid-related restrictions on websites and purchase tickets online in advance where you can.
It’s worth noting that on-site equipment rental usually takes time, so do arrive early or make online reservations where possible. Ski-pass prices listed below are all for a one-day adult pass on the weekend. Discounts are available online and at convenience stores.
No of runs: 10 | Altitude: top 1,870m, base 1,290m | Longest run: 3,300m | Lifts: 5, plus a snow escalator | Ski pass: ¥5,200 (£37/$50)
This is one of the best places near Tokyo to enjoy excellent snow, with a peak altitude of 1870m. It’s compact, but expert and intermediate terrains are good. There are also three “snow parks” for snowboarders and freestyle skiers to practise their skills.
But Kawaba’s real beauty is its easy access by car: it’s about a 25-minute drive from the Numata exit of Kan-Etsu highway (E17) — about two and half hours from Tokyo. And there’s no need to worry about parking: there’s a six-storey car park right next to the ski centre, which opens at 1am on weekends and can accommodate up to 1,000 cars.
No of runs: 16 | Altitude: top 1,181m, base 358m | Longest run: 2,500m | Lifts: 9, plus a ropeway and gondola | Ski pass: ¥5,200
Last year, this famous ski resort celebrated its 30th anniversary, and it remains one of the most popular for day-trippers from Tokyo. The fastest Shinkansen will take you to Gala Yuzawa from Tokyo Station in just 75 minutes. The train arrives at the ski centre, where you can rent everything you need, and then hop on an escalator to take you to the gondola.
Sometimes the snow here is a little wet and heavy (the highest point is 1,181m). But expert courses in the southern part of the resort are challenging: they are usually not groomed and offer an off-piste experience. The longest run heads all the way back to the station; it’s narrow, but with a good view.
Due to Covid-19, the resort has capped the number of skiers it allows per day, and you may not be able to ski unless you pre-purchase your ticket a few days in advance. Please check details on their website beforehand.
No of runs: 36 | Altitude: top 1,650m, base 565m | Longest run: 10,000m | Lifts: 18, plus 2 gondolas | Ski pass: ¥5,200
This is one of the best ski resorts in Japan, with excellent onsen and plenty of authentic culture. As the crow flies, it is 180km from Tokyo, so might seem a bit far. But you can make a day trip of it if you are prepared for an early start.
Take the 6:28am Shinkansen from Tokyo to get to Iiyama station, where a shuttle bus will take you to Nozawa village centre, arriving at 9:10am. The nearest gondola is around a five-minute walk from there.
The snow here is generally excellent. There are great runs that will satisfy even expert skiers: the vertical drop is an impressive 1,085m, and you can ski up to 10km from the top to the base. There are a variety of fun items — kickers, half pipe, wave, etc — for snowboarders and freestyle skiers to enjoy. A new gondola has been introduced too: each cabin is equipped with an air-ventilation system, which may give you some comfort in this Covid era.
No of runs: 21 | Altitude: top 1,789m, base 900m | Longest run: 4,000m | Lifts: 10, plus 3 gondolas | Ski pass: ¥5,200
Like many other ski resorts operated by the Prince Hotels group, Naeba is rather functional. But that’s fine, as you won’t have much time anyway: Naeba is big. From the very top, at an altitude of 1,789m, there are a total of 21 runs, most of which will take you back down to the Naeba Prince Hotel, where facilities are well organised.
Naeba is not as quick to get to from Tokyo as Gala — you need to take a 40-minute shuttle bus from Echigo Yuzawa station. Nor does it offer the easy access by car of Kawaba — it will take around 50 minutes from the Tsukiyono exit of the Kan-Etsu expressway, or more if the roads are snowy.
But for those who think size matters when it comes to ski areas, Gala or Kawaba are no match for Naeba. Some of the black runs are tough enough to be used for national and international competitions, and it has many long, well-groomed intermediate terrains. The children’s parks with attractions make it good for families too.
Do you have a favourite ski spot near Tokyo? Tell us in the comments
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