Shiga Kogen, Japan's second largest ski resort, offers world-class skiing without the price tag or the crowds.
Shiga Kogen announced itself as a world-class snowsports facility when it hosted both the slalom and grand slalom events at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. The world’s best skiers and snowboarders took to the slopes of Mount Yakebitai, promoting Japanese snow to a new generation of winter sports fans. The resort has since expanded, now encompassing 19 interconnected ski areas, all accessible via a single lift pass.
But despite holding the title of Asia’s second largest ski resort (its largest until recently), Shiga Kogen has struggled to assert itself as one of Japan’s skiing hot spots. While other resorts have adapted to foreign demands, Shiga Kogen has been slow to keep up. Resorts such as neighbouring Hakuba have seen huge development, Shiga Kogen much less so. This might have hurt the resort’s popularity, but plenty see it as a blessing; Shiga Kogen has managed to retain its uniquely Japanese appeal.
Regardless, Shiga Kogen’s stocks deserve to be much higher. With an average annual snowfall of 12 m and some of the highest peaks in Japan, it offers some of the best skiing in the country.
Lifts & Terrain
Shiga Kogen comprises 19 interconnected ski areas, 52 lifts, 607 hectares of skiable terrain, and 972 m of vertical. The resort is Japan’s second largest ski area, its 83 km of slopes accessible via a single lift pass. Only recently did it lose top honours to neighbouring Hakuba Valley, when all eleven of Hakuba’s resorts united as one. Shiga Kogen’s ‘common ticket key card’ also permits use of the resort’s shuttle service—necessary given the scope of the resort. Tickets for individual ski areas are available but not recommended unless you’re deprived of time.
Despite having earned credibility as an Olympic venue, Shiga Kogen is seen by many as best suited to beginners and intermediates. Given that 50% of of the resort’s 176 runs are rated ‘easy’, the claim is not totally unfounded. Additionally, much of Shiga Kogen’s backcountry is off limits to skiers. Only in Okushiga Kogen are skiers (and now boarders) allowed to venture off-piste.
However, Shiga Kogen is blessed with some of Japan’s highest peaks (three over 2000 m). The snow quality up top makes for some excellent runs. There’s plenty to satisfy even the most discerning skier. Some steeper inclines can be found at Okushiga Kogen and Yakebitaiyama. Those looking to flirt with the trees might head to Terakoya or Kumanoyu, towards the resort’s southern end. The giant slalom course at Higashitateyama is also worth a crack.
Of course, not everyone is looking to bypass the boundary ropes. Those willing to stick to the groomers will relish Shiga Kogen’s 83 km of pisted slopes. Ichinose Family area offers some flatter, wider runs, perfectly suited to beginners or youngsters. Otherwise, the lower section of Yokoteyama is equally mellow.
Those who’ve developed a taste for Japanese powder tend to favour the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, its colder climate better suited to producing light, dry powder. Honshu’s resorts, on the other hand, offer longer, steeper runs and more diverse terrain. Shiga Kogen’s elevation (and subsequent lower temperatures) means that it competes on both fronts.
Shiga Kogen is Japan’s highest ski resort, topping out at an impressive 2307 m. On average, Shiga Kogen receives 12 m of snow per season. Because of its elevation, the resort is blessed with some of the best snow conditions in the region, both in quality and coverage. Its neighbouring competitors aren’t quite so fortunate. At 1831 m, Hakuba’s highest point is significantly lower. Nozawa Onsen tops out at 1650 m, not much higher than Shiga Kogen’s base (1350 m). Shiga Kogen enjoys one of the longest ski seasons in Japan for this same reason.
Japan’s reputation as a skiing mecca is built on the promise of pristine champagne powder. As much as any other resort on the island of Honshu, Shiga Kogen has the potential to live up to this promise. But until the resort opens up its backcountry, those looking for some of that famous ‘Japow’ (Japanese powder) will likely head elsewhere.
Ski Areas & Accommodation (North to South)
Shiga Kogen resort occupies a huge chunk of land. Navigating the resort’s 19 individual ski areas is no cakewalk. Inevitably, where you choose to sleep will factor heavily into where you ski. Unlike some of Hokkaido’s more westernised resorts, Shiga Kogen has very little in the way of self-contained accommodation. Hotels and ryokans (traditional inns) are far more popular than chalets or cabins.
Shiga Kogen’s two largest ski areas are Yakebitaiyama and Okushiga Kogen. Yakebitaiyama is famous for its role in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, but those looking to breach the boundary ropes should head to Okushiga Kogen instead. Until recently, Shiga Kogen’s backcountry had been totally off limits to skiers. However, Okushiga Kogen now permits skiers to venture off-piste.
With slope-side access to Okushiga Kogen, Hotel Grand Phenix offers gourmet international cuisine, a lavish indoor pool and some of Shiga Kogen’s most spectacular communal baths. Guests can stay in one of the hotel’s spacious Western-style suites or opt for a more traditional Japanese tatami room.
Ichinose Village is known to have the best selection of restaurants and bars in Shiga Kogen, though its atmosphere is still somewhat muted. Staying in the village will provide you easy access to both Ichinose Family and Ichinose Diamond ski areas. Lift connections can be made to surrounding resorts including Yakebitaiyama and Okushiga Kogen to the north, and Tanne no Mori Okojo and Takamagahara Mammoth to the south.
Chalet Shiga is conveniently located in Ichinose village, just metres from the slopes. With its own ‘Teppa Room’ sports bar and English-speaking staff, the hotel aims to emulate Western-style lodging. Of course, Japanese guests are also well catered for; Chalet Shiga is equipped with an onsen and traditional-style tatami rooms.
Those looking to complete the Olympic tour of Shiga Kogen might opt to stay in Higashitateyama which hosted the giant slalom at Nagano Olympics. Its lifts connect with both Terakoya (towards the top) and Hoppo Bunadaira (towards the bottom). Higashitateyama is centrally located, offering an easy commute to the more popular northern end of Shiga Kogen.
A stay at Hotel Higashidate allows for prime access to the giant slalom course. The hotel’s traditional Japanese cuisine, spacious tatami rooms and open-air onsen make it one of the more popular spots in the area.
At the southern end of Shiga Kogen are some of the resort’s highest peaks, including Mount Yokote which tops out at an impressive 2307 m. Yokoteyama connects with Kumanoyu and Shibutoge ski areas among others. There’s some excellent skiing in the vicinity and very few crowds to contend with. Yokoteyama is also known for its ‘snow monsters‘ (or juhyo), similar to those found at Zao Onsen. The ‘monsters’ are, of course, no more than snow-caked trees, but the effect is compelling nonetheless.
Shiga Palace Hotel is conveniently located between Yokoteyama and Kumanoyu, offering a charming mix of traditional Japanese sophistication and Western comfort. The hotel is renowned for its exceptional service and delicious local food. Its 100% natural indoor onsen is bound to be a hit after a long day’s skiing.
Wherever you choose to stay, each individual ski resort has its own unique appeal. If you find yourself skiing the same lines, Shiga Kogen’s combined lift pass allows you the freedom to hop on a shuttle and tackle a new area.
Services & Facilities
Shops & Rental
SnowCan, Shiga Kogen’s largest rental operator, is available in various locations throughout the resort. The Nagano-based company has two shops in the Ichinose area, as well as outfits in Takamagahara, Hasuike, Yokoteyama and Kumanoyu. SnowCan offers a wide range of ski brands including Salomon, Fischer, K2, Atomic, Rossignol, Elan and Blizzard. Experienced technicians will set you up with suitable gear, based on your level of ability.
Many of Shiga Kogen’s hotels, even some the smaller ones, offer equipment rental. The 900-room Prince Hotel, based in Yakebitaiyama, operates two rental shops, both professionally equipped. The hotel charges ¥5000 per day for a full set of gear. Otherwise, skis, boots and poles can be rented individually. The shops are located in the lobbies of Prince Hotel’s East and West wings.
Shiga Kogen has two English language ski schools, both operating in Okushiga Kogen, the resort’s northernmost ski area. Sugiyama Ski & Snowsports School was established in 1965 and is one of the more experienced outfits in town. It offers both private and group lessons. One-on-one tutoring starts at ¥20,000 for a two hour slot. The school is in partnership with Prince Hotel (Yakebitaiyama) and Okushiga Ski Rental Shop, and will help you in getting equipped.
Shiga International Ski School operates out of Centre House in Okushiga Kogen. All instructors are English speakers. Private lessons are available, starting at ¥18,000 for two hours. Alternatively, group lessons (max 6 people) are on offer, starting at ¥8000 for a half day (2hrs) or ¥12,000 for a full day (4hrs). Kids pay ¥6000 (2hrs) or ¥9000 (4hrs). Lessons can be booked using the school’s online reservations form.
Shiga Kogen, as we’ve mentioned, is huge. If you’re looking to sample all 19 of Shiga Kogen’s ski areas, you’ll almost certainly need to use the resort’s shuttle bus service. Those who’ve purchased an all-area lift pass have access to this service without additional cost. Buses run frequently during ski hours and taper off towards the end of the day, finishing at 7:30pm.
Getting to Shiga Kogen from Nagano station is relatively easy, and can be accomplished via different means. A direct bus is perhaps the easiest way to reach the resort, though you’ll need to work out where your hotel is situated in relation to the stops. Nagaden (Nagano Electric Railway) operates a bus service that connects Nagano Station (East exit) with Hasuike and Okushiga Kogen ski areas. Its Shiga Kogen Express Line runs from 8:15am to 9:00pm. The commute takes between 1-2 hours depending on where you disembark.
If you can stomach a long bus ride, Nagano Snow Shuttle offers a direct route from Tokyo to Shiga Kogen. The journey takes up to 6 hours and stops at various Nagano-based ski resorts before reaching its final stop at Shiga Kogen. This service costs ¥13,000 for adults and ¥12,000 for children.
Most people prefer the comfort, speed and novelty of Japan’s famous shinkansen (bullet train). From Tokyo Station, take the Asama shinkansen to Nagano Station via the Hokuriku Shinkansen line. A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Nagano will cost roughly ¥8000 (US$70). The route is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. If you are travelling on a Japan Rail Pass, you will also need to purchase a JR East Nagano Niigata Area Pass.
Culture & Ambience
The landscape of Japan’s ski industry is changing. Due to the country’s rapidly aging population, ski resorts can no longer rely on the domestic youth market. Many of Japan’s big name resorts are realising the drastic need for foreign tourism. Ski resorts such as Niseko and Hakuba have already adapted to accommodate Western demands.
Niseko, in particular, has become known for its Western-style accommodation, international cuisine, foreigner bars, and English-language ski schools. Its transformation has paid off. In 2015, the number of visitors to Niseko hit a record-breaking 811,000. The so-called “Australian invasion” has revived the local economy. But some would argue that Niseko has lost its cultural identity.
This is where Shiga Kogen differs. Having seen far less development over the last two decades, the former Olympic venue has managed to retain its rustic, small town atmosphere. Many hotels in the area still cater primarily to the Japanese, offering traditional washitsu rooms, communal onsen baths, and kaiseki dining. The resort and its surrounding areas are home to some of the most beautiful ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and public onsens in Japan.
If you’re looking for a European-style après ski scene, you won’t find it at Shiga Kogen. Loud music, Western-style bars and late-night discos are all but non-existent in this part of Japan. But those after a more traditional Japanese experience might just find it.
Food & Nightlife
Shiga Kogen is a huge resort, stretching almost 20 km from end to end. The resort has no real town centre. It’s made up of individual ski areas, each with its own little clump of hotels and restaurants. Many hotels will encourage you to pay for half board. If you’re staying in one of Shiga Kogen’s quieter areas, it might be necessary to comply. Those intent on dining out will need to book accommodation in one of the resort’s more populated areas.
Towards Shiga Kogen’s northern end, Ichinose village offers a small but reasonable selection of bars and restaurants. The village is perhaps Shiga Kogen’s liveliest spot. It’s certainly no Niseko, but you won’t go hungry (or thirsty). Kamoshika is a popular Nepalese restaurant in the area, known for its cheap beer and all-you-can-eat curry menu. The restaurant is located next to Villa Ichinose, not far from the tourist information centre. Time Izakaya is another favourite among resort regulars. It’s as good a spot as any to enjoy a post-ski beverage. Its menu features an appetising mix of Japanese, Korean and Western-style dishes. Plates range from ¥500 to ¥1500.
Elsewhere, many of Shiga Kogen’s hotels and ryokans offer a decent feed. Those in Shiga Kogen’s Yakebitaiyama ski area have access to Prince Hotel‘s range of restaurants and bars. These include its main two dining rooms, a ramen noodle shop, an up-market Chinese restaurant, a cocktail bar and an izakaya. In nearby Okushiga Kogen, Hotel Phenix is an excellent spot to nourish your appetite. The hotel’s upscale Italian restaurant, La Stella Alpina, is known for its gourmet Mediterranean cuisine. Pasta dishes start at ¥1800.
Further south, Hotel Higashidate serves up traditional Japanese food like no other. The meals are crafted using regional ingredients including locally-picked woodland vegetables and Koshihikari rice which is shelled and milled on-site. The restaurant is located next to Shiga Kogen’s oldest spa, Hoppo Hot Springs. If Shiga Kogen’s nightlife seems a tad underwhelming, a soak in one of the resort’s luxurious hot spring baths might just dampen your urge to party. This is the Japanese version of après ski, and it’s almost as addictive as beer!
If you have your own transport, Shibu Onsen is only a short drive from the resort. The historic onsen street is a tourist destination in its own right, drawing thousands of visitors to its mineral-rich public baths. Some of the region’s best restaurants can be found on the main strip. Nearby Yudanaka Onsen, a hub for ski-bound transport, is another option.
Just a short bus ride from the slopes is Jigokudani Monkey Park, home to more than 200 Japanese Macaques, more commonly known as snow monkeys. Visiting the park in winter makes for a particularly engrossing experience. During the colder months, the monkeys take to Jigokudani’s hot spring bath, looking to escape the elements.
Watching the snow monkeys is always entertaining. Unfazed by their camera-wielding admirers, the monkeys tend to daily business, basking in the simmering natural spring, rolling snowballs, and grooming each other’s thick fur coats.
Many of Shiga Kogen’s hotels and ryokans offer a shuttle service to the snow monkey park. Otherwise, a Yudanaka-bound Nagaden bus will take you to Kanbayashi Onsen, a short walk from the monkey park’s trailhead. From there it’s a 1.6 km off-road hike to the park entrance. In winter, appropriate footwear and cold weather gear is required.
Check out our comprehensive guide on snow monkeys in Japan for more information.
Shiga Kogen is often overlooked by foreign tourists in favour of Hokkaido-based Niseko or neighbouring Hakuba. As a result, Shiga Kogen’s prices haven’t crept up to the same extent that Niseko’s have.
An all-mountain lift pass at Shiga Kogen is sold for a very reasonable ¥5000 (USD $44). This makes it one of the best value lift tickets in Japan (and bucketloads cheaper than anything offered in the US). Despite being a much smaller resort (18 lifts vs Shiga Kogen’s 58), Nozawa Onsen’s lift pass goes for just a touch less—¥4800. Hakuba Valley, which recently pipped Shiga Kogen for Japan’s largest ski resort, sells its all-mountain pass for ¥6000. Niseko United sells its combined lift ticket for ¥7400.
Much of the accommodation at Shiga Kogen falls into the mid-range price bracket. Prince Hotel, a large-scale 3-star hotel based in the popular Yakebitaiyama ski area, offers a Basic Standard twin room from ¥11,000 (in peak season), but rates increase significantly towards the end of January. Family rooms (maximum 4 guests) start from appoximately ¥21,000.
- Value for money
- Size / terrain
- Snow quality
- Long groomed runs
- Fewer crowds / fewer Westerners
- Japanese culture
- Lack of nightlife
- Off-piste / backcountry restrictions
- Shuttle required to access some areas
- English not widely understood
Snowfall (annual ave): 12 m
Runs (total): 176
Runs (km): 83
Top elevation: 2307 m
Base elevation 1335 m
Vertical: 972 m
Nearest international airport: Narita International Airport
Transport: Public bus, coach, train, private transfer