“The beginner’s run is only open for snow tubing?” I asked, failing miserably to sound calm.
“Yeah. It looks like for the next few hours.”
“How are we supposed to get back down?”
Someone suggested taking the lift. But if I did that, everyone coming up would want to know who the fool was coming down the wrong way all alone.
“We’ll have to go down the intermediate run,” my friends said. It was easy for them to say; they had skied before. For me, it was time to start swearing.
“I’m a beginner. I can barely bloody turn. There’s no way I can ski down that one.” Under a gray January sky this intermediate course looked just a few degrees off vertical.
Japan has more ski resorts than any other country in the world—over 600, according to skijapanguide.com—and one of the winter joys of Tokyo is its proximity to so many of them. For first-timers, the most convenient are the slopes clustered around Yuzawa, which is just 200km away in the mountains of southern Niigata.
The area is also known as “the snow country” thanks to Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata’s novel of the same name. The book begins, “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.” For me, too, after the long tunnel marking the passage into the winter playground, the earth lay white—only under bleary eyes in the early morning sun. As it was my first time to ski, I’d decided on a day trip, so an early start had been essential. The 7:20 shinkansen, to be exact.
Yuzawa’s ease of access and its estimated 6 million visitors a year should mean it’s very crowded, but because 19 different resorts are concentrated in the area, the masses never become overwhelming. The season runs from the beginning of December until the end of March or April.
For sheer convenience, Gala Yuzawa, with 15 different runs, is a good choice. Step out of the station and straight onto the gondola to the mountain. Gala can get more crowded than other places on weekends, however. Iwappara, with 13 runs, is deservedly popular and has wide runs well-suited to beginners. On good days the views are spectacular. The sprawling resort of Tashiro Kagura Mitsumata, with 22 runs, is another good bet for first-timers. It’s also linked to the excellent Naeba by gondola. Naeba is a perennially popular option, with 27 runs aimed mainly at novices and intermediates. But perhaps the most manageable and least overwhelming spot for complete beginners is Yuzawa Park. The resort, with nine lifts and 12 runs, is a five-minute shuttle ride from Echigo-Yuzawa station.
The gentle nursery slope is behind the main hotel building, and beginners need to master the basics of walking, turning and stopping here before moving on to more challenging runs. It’s a good place to struggle with the chairlift too—I found the most effective, if not graceful, way to get on was to wait until it knocked my legs from under me and scooped me onto the seat.
The best starter course is reached by taking the chairlifts to the right of the main building. It starts with a reasonably steep drop into a number of banked turns before another incline and a long, tree-lined sweep to the finish. In the falling snow I advanced from mostly tumbling and falling down to exhilarating, uninterrupted bouts on my feet actually skiing. Twisting and turning through the bends was especially satisfying.
Besides skiing, visitors can try tubing, snow cycles, karts and even a banana boat ride. I was having so much fun that these didn’t cross my mind, even when I found myself terrifyingly poised at the top of the intermediate slope. Trying to calm my nerves, the descent looked far too steep and narrow. “Relax,” my friends urged, as other skiers and boarders, some young children, launched themselves off. I took a deep breath and pushed off.
Utter panic set in, as everything I’d learned deserted me. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t turn. Building up speed and moving dangerously fast was easy, though. Part by design, mostly by luck, my skis crossed and I crashed to the snow unhurt. There was only one thing to do now: I slid down the rest of the way on the seat of my pants.
Yuzawa Park (lift passes ¥4,000) open from 7am on holidays and 8:30am weekdays. Rooms start at ¥13,000. Iwappara (lift passes ¥5,000) open from 5:30am. Night skiing until 9pm every day. Tashiro Kagura Mitsumata (lift passes ¥4,000) open 7:30am on holidays, 8am weekdays. Naeba (lift passes ¥5,000) open 7am on holidays, 8am weekdays. Night skiing until 10pm on holidays. Gala Yuzawa (lift passes ¥4,500) open from 8am every day. Check out www.snowjapan.com for links. By car, be prepared for long traffic jams on Sundays. The Joetsu Shinkansen (from ¥6,490 one-way, roughly 70min) is faster. Look for various package deals offered by travel agencies, JR and hotels this winter. Check out the official homepage of Yuzawa Town: www.town.yuzawa.niigata.jp/english/ski.html