|Apr/May 2006 Travel|
"Oh my God, I can't believe it, I've never been this far away from home..." The Kaiser Chiefs must have been to Japan. It's about the furthest away you can get from home and still have flushing toilets. Whatever you know about, or expect from Japan, will be completely, mind-blowingly different from what you find when you're here. Except for the boarding.
Expect great snow, expect awesome powder throughout the whole season, expect to have the mountainside to yourself during the week, expect to be the first to carve your way through virgin snow without having to get up at the crack of dawn, expect to be treated like a celebrity in the rural hills, and you won't be disappointed.
Japan is a long, narrow, mountainous country with between 600 and 700 resorts. Wherever you are in Japan, even on the southernmost island of Kyushu, you'll never be far from the snow in the season. And the season is long, lasting from November to May. There are four major islands in Japan, and Hokkaido, the most Northerly, has the best boarding. But Honshu, the biggest island, also has world-class mountainsides--the Winter Olympics have been held here twice--and most resorts are within easy distance of Tokyo, thanks to the trains. Unlike the UK, where leaves on the line stop trains for hours, Japanese trains run on time come hell or high water, with train drivers suffering agonies of humiliation (and hours of apologising!) if they're even 2 minutes late. So make sure you're on time, or you WILL miss the train!
After the snow, the best reason to come to the land of the Rising Sun is the baths, or onsen, a uniquely Japanese experience. Natural volcanic hot springs are everywhere, and dipping in to the steaming water is the perfect way to relax after a hard day on the slopes. Onsen rules mean that everyone will be naked (no togs allowed), and usually sex-segregated. Inked bodies are frowned upon, so cover up your tattoos at the front desk. Once you're in, it's unlikely anyone will say anything about it to you, but traditionally, tattoos are reserved for the Japanese Mafia, so you may get some disapproving looks from the wrinklies in the baths!
The most beautiful place to snowboard in all of Honshu has got to be Inawashiro. Like everything else, the Japanese like to miniaturise, and there are many one-lift places, though don't let that put you off. There are lots of amazing, labyrinthine resorts to make up for the small ones. Inawashiro is a medium sized resort, with 18 lifts and the longest on-piste run at just over 3km. It is situated above a big mountain lake. The views from almost all slopes are incredible. The lowish altitude means that there are trees to the very tops of the runs, which makes for the most gorgeous on and off-piste boarding you'll ever experience. If you're lucky, you'll even get a glimpse of the troupe of longhaired snow-monkeys that live on the mountain!
From Tokyo, travel in style, and take a Shinkansen (the famed bullet train) to Koriyama. It's expensive, but totally reliable and fast enough to make a day trip from Tokyo worthwhile.
Change at Koriyama for the train to Inawashiro--it takes 45 minutes.
Once at Inawashiro station, snow taxis to the resort are less than Y2000 (£10) each way, and take maybe 10 minutes.
If you aren't feeling so flush, you can take a public bus to the resort. They leave from the depot opposite the train station, cost about Y350 each way, take around 15 to 20 minutes, and are reasonably regular for Japanese buses. (Unlike trains, the buses tend to be slow and infrequent in most places.)
The bus/taxi will drop you off in the car park near the ticket office. Uphill and to the left is the ski patrol headquarters, and just beyond that is a restaurant. In the basement of the restaurant are changing rooms, loos and coin lockers (5 x Y100 coins for a large one!).
If you couldn't bring your own gear (excess luggage costs around £40 per kilo to Japan from the UK), there are loads of rental shops all around, but be prepared for queues on Sundays, and best to call ahead if you have unusually sized feet.
Once sufficiently geared up, head back to one of the little wooden ticket huts. Lift passes are of the magnetic card variety, so be prepared to pay a Y1000 deposit on top of the price for a full day (Y3900) or a 4-hour (Y3400) pass. To get your deposit back, return the ticket to the refund machine at the back of the ticket hut at the end of the day.
Food in Japanese resorts is the polar opposite of Europe--tasty, cheap, and big portions. It'll be mostly Japanese food, but the massive bowls of hot buttery ramen noodles and the ever-present curry and rice dishes should appeal to Western round-eyed devil tastes as well.
On the down side, there are no corner shops or supermarkets within reasonable walking distance of the resort, so if you want chocolate or crisps, bring 'em with you. This especially goes for people intending to stay the night--Japanese dinners are served early in your hotel or hostel--around 6 or 7 pm--and by 10 you will be ravenous, so make sure you stock up on midnight feast goodies. Bringing a few cans of beer is also a good idea if you want to get tipsy without mortgaging your first child for a beer at hotel bar prices.
Inawashiro is jammed with hotels, from 5 star to hostels, so you can take your pick, though if you can't speak Japanese, you may be limited to the ones affiliated with major travel agents. The hotels are usually spotlessly clean, with amazing service, good food, and most importantly, onsens.
Hotel Bandai New Kogen--just across the road from the lifts, with a big clock tower, is an excellent place to stay, although a bit weird in the shoulder seasons. Come during the week, and it's likely you'll be the only guests, in the 40-bedroom hotel! It's a big hotel, with great service, Japanese style rooms, baths and traditional Japanese food. At Christmas, it costs Y8000 per person, including 2 meals. You can book direct (in English!) by calling them on 0081-242-62-3646, or through the JTB travel agents.
Resort information (tel. 0242-62-3800): www.inawashiro-ski.com
Japanese ski-resort information, in English (statistics, weather, snow-reports, reviews etc.): www.snowjapan.com
Train timetables and prices (in English--click the top left hand "English" button on the site): www.hyperdia.com