Ski Asia visits the Yokoteyama and Kumanoyu ski areas at the southern end of Shiga Kogen, and discovers a slower-paced ski scene with a lot to love.
Shiga Kogen is unofficially Japan’s second largest ski resort, with more than 607 hectares of skiable terrain serviced by 52 lifts. The resort is not a single ski area, but a network of 18 resorts spread over roughly 25 km; they are accessible on a single lift pass and connected by a bus service that runs regularly through the day. At its height, Shiga Kogen was one of Japan’s most popular ski resorts and also a venue for the Winter Olympics, where it hosted the men’s and women’s slalom events. And with Japan’s renowned Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park within a short drive away, it has more than a few strings to its bow and should rightly hold its place as one of Japan’s top winter tourist attractions.
But as we make our way to Yokoteyama ski area – at the far south of the inter resort bus line, there is very little sense that we’re arriving at what could rightly be considered one of Japan’s top ski resorts. Instead, as the only remaining passengers on the bus, we step into a car park that is also deserted, surrounded by several hotels with no sign of activity apparent.
We are here to stay at the Shiga Palace hotel, an 80-room Japanese-style hotspring hotel that is parked conveniently between the Yokoteyama and Kumanoyu ski areas – the former being the highest ski area in Japan and one of the largest in Shiga Kogen. The hotel itself is spacious, with expansive but slightly tired facilities that suggest to us it was probably a hub of activity during Japan’s skiing boom in the 90s. Just a few sets of skis can be seen in an enormous ski locker room in the basement, and the staff in the ski rental shop – also in the basement – seem unoccupied.
In the evenings, we sit amongst perhaps ten other people, in a large dining hall that has the capacity to seat well over a hundred. Our evening onsens are on our own – which, as self-conscious foreigners, is just the way we like it.
The effect of being in a ski resort with so few people is initially a little unnerving, but ultimately very relaxing. There is no hype, no commotion and no rush, and with so much being written about the hordes of foreigners arriving in Niseko and Hakuba, it is comforting to know that there is still so much of Japan’s ski scene that is there to be enjoyed at a more leisurely tempo. If Shiga Kogen can be this relaxed – admittedly during a mid-week stay – then one can only imagine how many of Japan’s 500-odd resorts are also like this.
Yokoteyama Ski Area
Our first day of skiing in Yokoteyama is a delight. There is no such thing as a lift ticket line in Yokoteyama – at least not during the time we are there – so our journey from the hotel to the ski slopes is as painless as it comes. The sun is out, and the runs are blanketed in white from a recent snowfall. We are not early onto the slopes by any means, and even though lifts have been spinning for almost an hour by the time board the chairlift, Yokoteyama’s groomed runs remain a pristine corduroy, while the powder each side is virtually unblemished.
And this is where we really uncover the real pleasure of Yoketeyama. My partner, a lower intermediate skier, is enthralled by the perfectly groomed green and blue runs, with space to burn and all mental faculties dedicated to her skiing rather than the avoidance of collisions from above and to the side. On the other hand, I discover an aspect of skiing in Yokoteyama that it is less well known for – its powder. Topping out at more than 2,300 metres in elevation, Yokteyama has the highest lift-accessed slope in Japan, which tends to result in cold temperatures and dry snow – a recipe for great powder skiing.
While a lot of the terrain in Yokoteyama is roped off to skiers and snowboarders, there are some areas that allow riders more freedom to roam, and the rewards are undeniable. The tree skiing is superb, the powder light and dry, and the only downside to skiing through the often bottomless powder is knowing that your own tracks will be there if you happen to pass through the same area again.
And here we feel the need to be frank. The “area boundary” signs in Yokoteyama are a very common sight, and riders looking for boundless off-piste terrain to explore may do better at resorts like Hakuba or Madarao where tree skiing is not only allowed, but promoted. In Yokoteya and, we suspect, much of Shiga Kogen, your off-piste adventures are confined to a few smaller areas. But we find ourselves quite content lapping the same few runs with a full appreciation for just how good the snow is.
Yokoteyama is also one of Japan’s most picturesque resorts, and the view from the top station of Sky Lift No. 3 is sensational – well worth a walk up a short flight of stairs to the observation deck. One of the tourist draw cards is a phenomenon called “snow monsters”, where snow and ice form over the trees in such a fashion that they give the appearance of a monster. Zao Onsen, a ski resort further north in Japan’s Yamagata prefecture is better known for its “monsters”, but the sight of these imposing figures at Yokoteyama is no less impressive. Take your camera!
Kumanoyu Ski Area
Our second day in Shiga Kogen alerts us to one potential downside of being in a place with so much elevation. High winds and low visibility mean that the Yokoteyama’s top lifts are on hold, so we decide to try Kumanoyu – a smaller ski area – where just one of its four lifts is not operating. Unlike Yokoteyama, Kumanoyu is quite busy, though crowds are composed entirely of local school groups making their annual ski trip. Most are beginners and, as a result, the lower slopes are chaotic but the higher, steeper runs mostly empty.
Once again, we are treated to fresh tracks despite minimal effort on our part and no new snow for 48 hours. Runs are short, but satisfying, and if there is a downside it is the cold temperatures that have dropped to -12°C. With wind chill factored in, it means regular coffee/beer breaks at the Kumanoyu base, and a lengthy pause for lunch while we warm up with curry udon (Japanese noodles), pork katsu and miso soup. Ski resort food in Japan tends to be simple, hearty and reasonably priced (a meal will set you back somewhere between 800–1,500 yen), which is a real pleasure for anyone accustomed to the $20 burger and fries combo that has become commonplace at ski resorts in North America and Australia.
We are genuinely satisfied by our day of skiing in Kumanoyu, but can’t help make comparisons to the previous day in Yokoteyama, which has remained a highlight of our trip to Japan. For beginners, though, Kumanoyu may in fact be a better option, with several mellow green runs to choose from. However, with ski passes that provide access to all areas of Shiga Kogen, there is no real reason not to try both.
With so much of Shiga Kogen to explore, our two days at the resort have not done it justice; we’d have happily spent a couple of weeks working our way down the bus line of ski resorts and local onsen. There are, after all, 18 separate ski areas to discover, all with their own quirks and highlights. We suspect that the sleepy nature of our trip is more a characteristic of Shiga Kogen’s southern resorts, and by all accounts, there’s more life (and more visitors) in places like Okushiga Kogen and Yakebitaiyama. Okushiga Kogen, for example, has an international ski school, and there is a snowmobiling operation in Yakebitaiyama that we have been told we are silly to have missed.
Shiga Kogen is certainly not the place for a party though, and après-skiing takes on a new meaning as dinner and an onsen replace the usual ski resort antics. If this sounds appealing and you’re willing to take a chance on what we are labelling “Japan’s forgotten resort”, then you may well reap the rewards.
How to get to Yokoteyama and Kumanoyu
Train from Tokyo Station
- Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen (1hr 50min) from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station. Transfer at Nagano Station onto the Nagaden express train going to Yudanaka Station (45 minutes), then take the Nagaden bus to the Hotaru Onsen bus stop. It’s the last stop of the bus line and just in front of Shiga Palace Hotel.
- From Nagano Station East Exit you can also take a direct bus going to the Hotaru Onsen bus stop on the Shiga Kogen line. For the 2018/19 season, there is only one bus that goes all the way through to Hotaru Onsen; it leaves the Nagano Station East Exit bus stop at 13:15 and arrives at the Hotaru Onsen stop at 14:46. This schedule changes from year to year, so it is always best to check beforehand or confirm with your hotel.
For more information on Shiga Kogen, visit Ski Asia’s comprehensive resort guide.