The 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics cemented Japan’s spot on the short list of world-class winter sports destinations. Since then, big resort areas like Hakuba and Niseko have continued to draw an international crowd of skiers and snowboarders. But with the throngs have come longer lift lines and pricier accommodations. So where to turn? Lake Shirakaba in the Shinshu area of Nagano, just two and a half hours from Tokyo, offers winter escapes without the rush.
Surrounded by beautiful white birch trees, the lake is already a popular summer getaway for Kanto residents. But the true beauty of the area emerges when it is covered with a fresh blanket of powder.
Following the raucous celebrations of the New Year, we hopped on a shuttle bus from Shinjuku to the Ikenotaira Hotel, the area’s one and only full resort facility featuring ski slopes, hot springs, restaurants, and even a massage parlor and bowling alley. But don’t expect luxurious shopping malls and pretty young things prancing around in sexy snowboarding attire. This is no bustling winter resort town, a la Aspen or Park City.
The Shirakaba highland’s fresh air alone acts as a kind of therapy for always-on-the-go city slickers. It won’t take long before you’ll be entranced by the friendly locals, abundant nature and the utter departure from the world of conspicuous consumerism.
Unlike summer months when the area is crowded with Japanese tourists, in wintertime the lake attracts many visitors from other parts of Asia and the West. Though locals tend to be shy with foreigners, a friendly staff member at the hotel who happened to be fluent in both English and Chinese was kind enough to offer a tour of the neighborhood.
Art lovers accustomed to the exhibitions of galleries in Ueno and Roppongi—among the finest in the world—may turn up their noses at the area’s quaint museums, but it’s fun to explore the art centers dotting this quiet countryside. One highlight is the World Silhouette Museum, which features the fairytale-like works of Seiji Fujishiro. And, of course, the Shirakaba landscape itself is a masterpiece.
There are several ski complexes located in and around the lake. The oddly named 2 in 1 Ski Slopes offer eleven runs for beginners and intermediates alike. For those who want to schuss in peace, Shirakaba International Ski Slopes doesn’t allow snowboarders, who tend to be more daring with their descents. Another option for those traveling by car is Kurumayama Highland Ski Slopes—accessible via the Venus Line, a scenic road that overlooks the entire Lake Shirakaba and surrounding areas.
After a long day in the snow, hot springs can work wonders. Ikenotaira Hotel has one of the largest rotenburo outdoor baths in Nagano. Another soothing option is the brand new Suzuran no Yu public onsen, located nearer to the lake.
After a good soak, settle into comfortable wear and wander down to Ikenotaira’s outstanding buffet-style dinner, which features delicacies from around the world and is complemented by two beers from the local Shirakaba-Tateshina microbrewery. Regardless of where you are, nothing beats an all-you-can-eat deal.
If you’re seeking a high-energy, high-profile and high-cost winter getaway, Lake Shirakaba may not be the right destination. But its accessible location and down-home hospitality make this part of the Nagano highlands a haven for Tokyoites seeking a weekend of snowy solace.
Lake Shirakaba can be reached via the JR Tokkyu Super Azusa train from Shinjuku to Chino (¥5,670; 2.5 hours), followed by a 30-minute taxi ride. Going by car takes 3 hours on the Chuo Expressway. Ikenotaira Hotel (www.ikenotaira-hotel.co.jp/english) offers affordable accommodation packages (from ¥12,600 per person per night and up) that include roundtrip shuttle bus service from Shinjuku, accommodation, breakfast and dinner buffet, lift pass and ski/snowboard rental. Call for reservations and details in English at 0266-68-2100. Visitors will be able to enjoy the snow attractions until late March, but it’s best to make a reservation in advance, especially on weekends. Check out the official Tateshina town website for more information about the Shirakaba highlands. www.town.tateshina.nagano.jp/