Words and photography: Kazuya Baba
THE MAJORITY OF THE SLOPES ARE SITUATED AT OVER 1,500 METRES IN ALTITUDE
Hakuba, Nozawa, Myoko, and plenty of others to boot—the Japanese Alps area is filled with a plethora of ski resorts that Australian skiers and snowboarders alike flock to and where hotel bookings can be hard to find, even a year in advance. While there are too many areas to even begin to cover, there is one that I would like to shine the spotlight on once again—Shiga Kogen. This ski resort is the largest in all of Japan, boasting a ski area situated at the highest altitude reachable by ski lift. Fans and visitors to Japan for ski trips will, no doubt, be familiar with Shiga Kogen, but it is still lesser known when compared to the likes of Niseko and Hakuba, which is precisely why getting in the know now will yield rewards later.
A simple glance at the ski resort’s features proves that it’s the best in Japan. It’s home to over 50 lifts and gondolas, and the majority of the slopes are situated at over 1,500 metres in altitude.
Oftentimes, when the ski conditions are less favourable at other ski areas, a trip to Shiga Kogen will prove to be fruitful. However, it’s important to note that because the resort is situated so high up and deep within the mountains, there is no central, open-area “town.” The sheer size of the area means that accommodation facilities are spread out and visitors will likely spend most of their time at their hotels when not on the ski fields. This may be a slight drawback for visitors flying in from overseas to ski or snowboard.
Having said that, many of the hotels are situated right at the base of the ski slopes, allowing for access to the best powder snow around from the moment you wake up. Conquering all of the expansive areas will take at least a few days, even for the most efficient of skiers. There aren’t many ski resorts of this scale in the world, making it a great next destination for the uninitiated. Also, an interesting fact that is surprisingly unknown is that the world-famous snow monkeys can be found at the base of Shiga Kogen. While many guests at other resorts spend a day travelling to see the snow monkeys, those staying at Shiga Kogen can take a quick local bus trip for a casual visit.
Head to Okushiga for a luxurious stay
The ski area in Shiga Kogen starts about a 30-minute climb on the mountain roads from the base of the mountain, leading to a number of highly unique slopes conjoining further and further in. As you drive another 30 minutes deeper into the ranges with slopes lining either side of the road, you’ll find yourself in the thick of the mountain. At the very depths of these mountains is the Okushiga area. When taking into consideration how many courses across the snow that need to be traversed from the starting area to Okushiga, how long it will take to return, and how fast one needs to travel, it’s not hard to understand why some people choose to skip the trip (especially since it takes 30 minutes by car alone). This is also precisely the reason why many true snow lovers choose to stay in Okushiga in their search for the best experience to be had. Okushiga allows for a more relaxed stay when other areas are crowded, and the two main hotels in the area offer a luxury experience for just that reason.
Both of the hotels are situated at the base of ski slopes with ski-in, ski-out access. Okushiga Kogen Hotel (operated by Okushiga Kogen Resort) is a luxury facility with spacious rooms, open-air baths featuring expansive views of the great outdoors, and a lounge bar with a welcoming fireplace, amongst other services. When night falls, guests can drop by the lounge for a leisurely drink as they listen to the beautiful melodies by the resident pianist. There is also a range of cuisines on offer at the hotel from French and Japanese, to a teppanyaki counter where the chef cooks right before your very eyes. The selection will keep the tastebuds of any gourmand satisfied. Families will also be pleased to find that there is a childcare room offering services in English.
OKUSHIGA ALLOWS FOR A MORE RELAXED STAY
The second hotel, Hotel Grand Phenix, is the most-stately resort hotel in the area. It’s a facility with a long and prestigious history and is frequented by the Japanese royal family, as well as world-famous conductor, Seiji Ozawa. A stay here is guaranteed to be an unforgettable experience.
Timber is used in abundance to create a soothing atmosphere in the guest rooms, and each room is fitted with a walk-in closet for the convenience of skiers and snowboarders who have a lot of gear to store. Italian, Japanese, and Chinese restaurants are on site to offer a variety of cuisines to enjoy.
Much like Okushiga Kogen Hotel, Hotel Grand Phenix also has a popular lounge bar with a large fireplace for guests to gather around to chat the night away. There’s no live music as the hotel focuses on offering a quiet experience away from the hustle and bustle, meaning guests get the ultimate relaxation experience during their stays. For days where the weather doesn’t turn up for hitting the slopes, there’s a pool, sauna, and open-air bath to make even the less-active moments a joy.
The two hotels are within walking distance of each other, so guests of either hotel can travel back and forth to enjoy the restaurants and lounges of the other hotel. Despite being in the mountainous depths of Shiga Kogen, the Okushiga area is adored by those seeking out a luxurious experience on many levels. If you’re planning a trip to the area, pencilling in a visit to either of the hotels would be an absolute treat.
There are a variety of courses to tackle in the Okushiga Kogen area, from a course with areas as steep as 30 degrees to whet the appetites of experts, to long and gentle courses for beginners and children to enjoy, as well as the longest course in all of Shiga Kogen. People of all experience levels and ages are sure to find slopes perfect for them.
Making the rounds amongst ski-fanatic circles of late are the off-piste areas that you won’t find showcased in any guidebook. Okushiga also happens to be home to the only international ski school in all of Shiga Kogen. Drop by the school sometime if you’re looking to take on the sidecountry and backcountry trails in the area.
While I previously mentioned that it takes time to get to Okushiga due to its location deep in the mountains, there is a shuttle bus that operates on a route connecting all of the slopes. This is an efficient way to visit Okushiga from other areas if the allure is drawing you in. The Yakebitai area, adjacent to Okushiga and accessible via the mountaintop, is also a great slope to visit with two gondolas as well as an Olympic course where a number of international competitions have been held. Adding this area to your list is sure to enhance any trip to Okushiga as well.
A new gondola in the central area
I’ve spent the last few paragraphs gushing about Okushiga as a new and luxurious way to enjoy your time in Shiga Kogen, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that existing fans of the area are more likely to be familiar with the central area that is composed of 15 highly unique ski slopes.
Ichinose and Takamagahara are the most-renowned courses in the central area featuring a perfectly balanced layout where advanced skiers can tackle the steep slopes at the top, while the less experienced can try out the more-gentle slopes towards the bottom. Seasoned skiers can take a lift straight to the top, whereas amateur and intermediate skiers can hop off just before the slopes get too steep. The straight-line course from the top to the bottom brings people back to the area constantly because of how efficiently they can tackle the slope in succession. Moving onto the Higashidate slope will treat you to the longest course in the area, which features a variety of areas all in one course—from gentle runs to steep runs, and even moguls as well. Over on the Nishitateyama area is amazing backcountry trails that locals frequent as well, and Terakoya is a hidden gem that offers the ultimate powder snow experience. The list goes on and on!
A particularly hot news item coming from the central area is the recent completion of a resort gondola. Generally speaking, ski resorts have a large carpark at the base of the mountain or a base area, however, Shiga Kogen is a giant cluster of almost 20 ski slopes featuring hotels for visitors to stay at each one. This meant that each of these areas became their own central hub, and made it difficult to create a centralised area. Now, with the remodelling of the old Yama-no-Eki ropeway station, which once served as the gateway to Shiga Kogen, the facility has been expanded as a central hub. Not only does it operate as transport hub with a bus station, and huge carpark with no parking fees, it also features restaurants, souvenir shops, and even shops to rent gear. The new, long-awaited addition of a gondola that connects straight to the ski slopes makes this hub complete.
Hopping on the resort gondola will take you to base of one of the most-prized steep slopes in Shiga Kogen–the Giant area. From there you have access to the Giant area as well as Higashidate and Nishitateyama. Visitors will also be pleasantly surprised to find a number of rest houses upon alighting from the resort gondola. The deep, mountainous location of these slopes made it difficult for visitors to take day trips to enjoy the areas, but the expansion of the Yama-no-Eki area has made staying here far more streamlined.
Just before reaching Yama-no-Eki is the entrance to Shiga Kogen and the first place people are usually greeted by when visiting the area—Sun Valley. This, combined with the adjacent Maruike and Hasuike areas, is home to the few prominent mogul slopes in Japan and, despite their compact size, house a number of hotels at their bases, making them popular amongst avid skiers and family groups.
I’d now like to turn your attention to the Villa Aspen, a hotel much-loved by overseas ski guests. Nobuo Okazawa, the owner of the hotel and an experienced pro-skier who has visited resorts around the world, provides an at-home, hospitable experience that keeps international guests returning time and time again. This hotel offers completely barrier-free rooms and has always strived to cater to a wide range of needs. The focus on turning the tide against climate change has led to the move away from heavy fuels to power the heating, and towards the use of heat pumps utilising the natural hot springs, amongst other environmentally friendly efforts. These efforts have resulted in annual CO2 emissions being reduced by 60 tonnes every year. The environmentally conscious decisions are possibly one of the reasons why this hotel is so loved by climate-considerate Australian visitors. For those who are interested, they may also offer you the opportunity to watch the heat pumps in operation. Contact the hotel about this and other experiences if you happen to book a stay here.
We’ve now covered Okushiga deep in the mountains, the central area, and now the gateway area as well. Almost all of Shiga Kogen can be accessed on skis, with the exception of ski areas such as Yokoteyama, which can only be reached by car or bus. Yokoteyama is situated at the highest altitude of all ski resorts in Japan, at a towering 2,307 metres above sea level. From the mountain, you have access to backcountry courses that will lead you to Manza Hot Spring Ski Resort (also famous for its hot springs), and even Kusatsu Onsen Ski Resort. Engaging the services of a guide familiar with the area would be a great experience to tackle these areas. If you’re looking to dive further into all that Shiga Kogen has to offer then certainly make the trip over to these areas as well.
SKI RESORT NEAR THE BELOVED SNOW MONKEYS
The high-altitude location of Shiga Kogen means that the snow melts slower, which is what makes it popular from March to May as a spring skiing location. It’s host to the Snow Monkey Beer Live event every March, featuring over 100 types of Japanese craft beers, as well as live music performances to round it out. If the sound of that tickles your fancy then a trip in March might also be a fun idea.