A Ski Weekend In Nagano
I must confess that I'm not much of a skier. I didn't grow up with easy access to mountains or parents who skied, so my first experience on the slopes came at the ripe age of 30. On top of being late to the game I'm just generally risk-averse, so a ski holiday for me translates to leisurely cruises on green runs. My true draw to the sport is what comes after "shredding" the pow: the après-ski. So when I started researching ski areas in Nagano and learned about the onsen (hot spring) resort towns in Yamanouchi, I was sold.
Even if you've never heard of Yamanouchi, it's likely that you'd recognize a photo of its popular resident, the Japanese macaque. Commonly referred to as snow monkeys, Japanese macaques earned National Geographic fame for their love of winter spa visits. At Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi, you can witness hundreds of wild monkeys descend steep mountain cliffs to a hot spring gorge, where they zen out in the warm water, groom each other and steal the iPhones of unsuspecting onlookers (or so I've heard).
Yamanouchi also happens to be just down the road from Japan's largest ski resort, Shiga Kogen. Encompassing 19 different ski areas and over 50 lifts and gondolas, you could easily spend a full week exploring Shiga Kogen end-to-end. A single pass grants you access to every run and a shuttle bus system that connects all the ski areas. As an inexperienced skier, I'm usually stuck running the same bunny slope over and over and over - but not at Shiga Kogen. Its plethora of gently sloping greens make it an excellent ski destination for powder novices like myself.
Our home base in Nagano was Yudanaka Tawaraya Ryokan, a 10-room traditional Japanese inn with English-speaking staff (a rare find in rural Japan) and several swoon-worthy onsen, including an outdoor hot spring for private use. The town of Yudanaka is littered with onsen - there's even one inside the train station - and visitors can make a day (or night) out of a soaking in the area's numerous public baths. A perfect complement to exploring the snowy Japanese Alps!
If you are traveling to Yudanaka from Tokyo by public transit and wanting to ski in Shiga Kogen, I suggest staying longer than 48 hours. Shiga Kogen is very spread out! The closest runs to Yudanaka Station are 30 minutes by shuttle bus, but it takes 1.5 hours - and a bus transfer - to reach some of the larger ski areas within Shiga Kogen. With all the activities and sights we were trying to squeeze into two days, we spent more time commuting than doing anything else.
- From Tokyo Station, take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano Station (80 minutes).
- At Nagano Station, switch to the Nagano Dentetsu line. Depending on your arrival time, you'll have two options to reach Yudanaka Station from here: a local train (70 minutes, one transfer at Shinshu-Nakano Station along the way) or a limited express train (50 minutes, direct).
Our ryokan was a quick 5-minute walk from Yudanaka Station. Alternatively, you could choose to stay at one of the ski-in ski-out accommodations in Shiga Kogen and utilize the shuttle bus to visit Yudanaka Onsen and the monkey park. In that case, on your commute from Tokyo you would take the Nagaden express bus from Nagano Station to Shiga Kogen (70-85 minutes, depending on your accommodation).
Good to know
There is a ski and snowboard rental shop just outside Yudanaka Station. A ski set (skis, boots, poles and helmet) rents for JPY 4,800/USD 42.50 per day. However, if you are headed to Shiga Kogen I would recommend getting rentals at the resort so you can avoid the headache of hauling your gear on the buses. The shuttles do not have ski storage - you will hold on to your skis, poles, boots, etc. for the duration of your ride, during which you may or may not have a seat. Shuttle transfer between Shiga Kogen's ski areas is included in the price of your lift ticket - but anything beyond that (i.e. Yudanaka) will cost you. If you plan to visit the monkey park, bring appropriate footwear for the 30-minute hike to its remote location.