Scan some internet forums and you might read something like “I’m interested in going to Yuzawa Ski Resort….” or “Echigo Yuzawa Ski Area”, or other similar places that don’t exist. Yuzawa is a town and an area that encompasses many other sub-areas. It can be confusing, even if you live here! So here is a quick primer on the area.
Before we start Yuzawa is in Niigata Prefecture and the bullet train stations are Echigo-Yuzawa Station and GALA Yuzawa Station. (Yuzawa is the smallest place in Japan to boast two bullet train stations.) Yuzawa Station is in Yuzawa City in Akita Prefecture. If you find yourself on a bullet train from Tokyo to “Yuzawa” and it is going to take over an hour and a half, you are likely heading to the far north of Japan. I am sure it is a wonderful place to visit, but probably not if your hotel is close to Echigo-Yuzawa Station.
Yuzawa town grew up around a hot spring that was discovered over 900 years ago by an ancestor of the family who runs the Takahan Hotel. Natural hot springs have always been a big draw for the town. It wasn’t until the opening of the Shimizu tunnel under the mountains from Gunma in 1931 that the town became popular in winter. It was the first tunnel in Asia and only the 4th in the world. It took 9 years to build and is a real feat of engineering, as it is almost 10 km long and completes a spiral through the mountain. The exit of the tunnel is the one in the famous first line of the Snow Country novel that was written by Yasunari Kawabata, who spent time at Takahan Hotel where he met the inspiration for the geisha character in his book. That often quoted first line is something like:
“The train came out of the long border tunnel – and there was the Snow Country.”
Coming by expressway, local line train, or bullet train today and you have a similar experience to the main character in the book as he arrives in Yuzawa. There is often no snow as you come across the Kanto plains and up to the mountain. Then you dive into the long tunnel and emerging out the other side you find yourself in a different world, often with snow piled up everywhere and more snow falling from the skies. It is a bizarre experience and often likened to the stepping out of the back of the wardrobe scene in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
So you are now in Yuzawa town. The town itself used to be the area around the station and itself is divided into lots of little sub-areas. Due to some bureaucratic reorganisation over a decade ago, many of the smaller towns in rural areas were grouped together to make administration easier. The new Yuzawa town area covers everywhere from Naeba at one end of Route 17 to GALA Yuzawa Ski Resort at the other. This is about a 45 minute drive and encompasses all the towns and ski resorts in between.
Ski resorts in Yuzawa town are Naeba, Tashiro, Kagura/Mitsumata, NASPA Ski Garden, Iwappara, Yuzawa Park Resort, Kandatsu Kogen, Yuzawa Nakazato, Nakazato Snow Wood, Ludens, Ipponsugi, Yuzawa Kogen, and GALA Yuzawa. Several of these resorts are in little towns that used to be entities in their own right but now fall under the Yuzawa umbrella.
Still with me?
Yuzawa is part of the the Minami Uonuma district which includes towns like Muikamachi, Shiozawa, and Ishiuchi. Rumor has it that Yuzawa was originally supposed to be part of Minami Uonuma City when all the administration areas were redrawn, but with quite a bit of income from hydroelectric plants supplying Tokyo and tourist dollars from the many hotels and mansion buildings, the town decided to keep some of its independence.
Resorts in the Minami Uonuma area include Ishiuchi Maruyama, Ishiuchi Hanaoka, Maiko, Mt. Granview, Chateau Shiozawa, Joetsu Kokusai, Muica, Itsukamachi, Hakkaisanroku, and Hakkaisan.
The border between Yuzawa and Minami Uonuma is between GALA Yuzawa and Ishiuchi Maruyama. They are just a couple of minutes apart but technically in completely different towns. Those two resorts are linked with Yuzawa Kogen to make the 3 Mountain Area.
As a visitor to the area these distinctions don’t mean much and many people are talking about resorts in Minami Uonuma too when they say “Yuzawa”. From a branding perspective it would be great to have one name to cover the whole valley as Hakkai-san to Naeba covers a large number of resorts each with their own particular highlights.
We’re not quite done yet. Yuzawa and Minami Uonuma are also part of a government initiative to encourage rural tourism, and have been grouped up with other neighbouring towns and districts to create the Snow Country Tourism Zone. This also includes Tokamachi, Tsunan, and Uonuma City in Niigata Prefecture, Minakami in Gunma Prefecture, and Sakae Village in Nagano Prefecture. This brings even more ski areas into play, as well as lots of culture and festivals that have come about due to life in a region of exceptionally heavy snow. If you are based in Yuzawa or Minami Uonuma for your winter vacation it is worth checking out what is going on in the Snow Country Region as a whole, as there are some amazing festivals throughout winter that are often not too far away.
The Snow Country Tourism Zone is one of the 13 area chosen by the government to highlight the best of rural Japan. The main project for these areas is called Undiscovered Japan.
Again, it is probably not worth worrying about these distinctions if you are here on holiday. Just know that there is more to the town/area/region than a couple of better known resorts, so get out and explore, no matter where you happen to be.