JAPAN - Niseko in Hokkaido, Japan, is a popular ski destination with Singaporeans. But in the past decade, the town has practically become a Singaporean outpost - what with Singaporean chef Willin Low setting up a restaurant there and Singaporean companies such as Cathay Organisation and SC Global developing properties there.
For enthusiasts who are keen to explore the other snow destinations Japan has to offer, here are three alternative resorts to check out. But as these spots are popular with Japanese travellers, it is best to book now for the next snow season in December.
Shiga Kogen and Hakuba are both located in Nagano prefecture, an inland area that is home to what has been nicknamed the Japanese alps. Nine of the 12 highest peaks in the country are found in the prefecture, which makes it a popular destination for skiers and snowboarders.
Given its natural endowments and long history with snow sports fans, it is not surprising that Nagano is home to more than 80 snow resorts.
While there are big hotel chains such as Sunroute and Prince, there are many smaller family-run establishments which may have quirks unfamiliar to travellers used to modern amenities.
These smaller hotels will offer obligatory breakfasts (usually generous as they are used to fuelling guests for a full morning of snow activities) and onsen (a Japanese necessity).
But be prepared for spotty Wi-Fi, dated decor (a friend said my Hakuba hotel bathroom had "serial killer decor", although I preferred to think of the ombre pink tiles as Wes Anderson-friendly), and, often, cash-only payments (which might mean carrying a substantial wad of cash to pay for your stay).
Be sure to check payment methods before your trip, and, if you cannot live without connectivity, then get a roaming data package.
Nagano is well connected not just to Tokyo but also to Narita and Haneda airports. The usual route is to take the train into Tokyo station, hop on the shinkansen for Nagano train station, then transfer to a shuttle bus that will take you to the ski town of your choice.
The Narita Express ticket costs 3,020 yen (S$36.80) and takes about an hour. From Haneda airport, you can take the monorail (650 yen) or the Keikyu line (580 yen). The trip takes about 30 minutes.
The shinkansen to Nagano costs about 8,000 yen and will take about 80 to 100 minutes. If you have the JR East pass, it covers transfers from the airport and the shinkansen.
You can also buy tickets at the JR ticket office at the airport, which will save the hassle of negotiating ticketing machines and the madness that is Tokyo station.
Tokyo station can be an intimidating experience as it is spread over three floors and has more than 20 tracks for both local and regional train services.
My main motive for taking the shinkansen route would be Ekibenya Matsuri, the perennially packed shop located just at the shinkansen gates at Tokyo station. It specialises in ekiben, cold lunchboxes for travellers, and there is a staggering array here sourced from all corners of the country.
If you are in the mood for a souvenir, I recommend the Godzilla bento - octopus and assorted vegetables on seasoned rice - which comes in a cute ceramic jar emblazoned with the famous movie monster.
Unless the stars are aligned, there will likely be delays between trains and buses, so be prepared to spend at least seven hours travelling from the airport to your Nagano destination.
If you are loaded with bags and ski gear, an alternative is a direct bus service. It is cheaper and saves you the hassle of navigating transfers while juggling luggage.
During peak snow season - between mid-December and end-March - there are direct bus services that will take you from both airports to Nagano. The ride will usually take at least six hours and costs from 4,100 yen. Check at the bus counters or online for information.
There are many bus companies, including the budget Alpico (www.alpico.co.jp/en/timetable/) and the Nagano Snow Shuttle (www.naganosnowshuttle.com/Narita.aspx).
Keep in mind there may only be one bus service a day, so depending on your arrival time at the airport, it may make more sense to choose the train option.
If you are travelling in a group, the most convenient option could be a chartered taxi. Chuo Taxi Airport Direct (http://air.chuotaxi.co.jp) is the only service that will drive you to your doorstep from the airport. Prices start from 12,000 yen per passenger and the car is a minivan which will accommodate five passengers comfortably with bags and ski gear.
Another ski resort you can visit is Zao Onsen, located in the Yamagata prefecture north of Tokyo.
The quickest option is the JR Yamagata shinkansen from Tokyo station (from 13,800 yen), which will take about 2½ hours to reach Yamagata. From Yamagata station, it is a 40-minute bus ride (1,000 yen) to Zao Onsen.
Readers of a certain generation will remember Yamagata as the home town of Oshin, the eponymous character of the 1983 hit television series starring Yuko Tanaka. Avid fans can plan a detour to Ginzan Onsen, featured as a backdrop in some of the scenes.
Be warned though the town is not very well linked, so transportation connections are a hassle.
1. SHIGA KOGEN, NAGANO
This destination is for the hardcore snow enthusiast who really wants to explore slopes and runs. There are 52 ski lifts spread over more than 600ha of mountain slopes, so you could easily spend a full week here.
The slopes are sprawled between 1,340m and 2,307m, and a snow shuttle service connects the 21 resorts. Lift tickets start from 4,200 yen for a day pass, and spring ski season ends on May 6 this year.
WHERE TO STAY
381-0401 Nagano, Yamanouchi, Hiraomachi 7149, Japan
Because of its sprawl, this destination offers the greatest variety in terms of accommodation. Those who like the modern amenities can opt for the giant Shiga Kogen Prince Hotel, which offers more than 600 rooms at the Yakebitaiyama resort area.
But I stayed at Villa Ichinose, a quaint old-school hotel at the quieter Ichinose village area.
This two-star hotel is about 50 years old and the decor looks like it has not changed since it opened. The lobby has comfortable sofas and a fireplace which hosts a wood fire.
Spacious tatami rooms start at just 6,000 yen a night, with additional meal charges (1,000 yen for breakfast, 2,000 yen for dinner).
The hotel has its own unofficial mascot, a little black dog named Mika which trots through the lobby for its twice-daily walks and which bears an uncanny resemblance to a gremlin.
Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Snow Monkey Park)
6845 Heion, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano Prefecture
Open: 8.30am to 5pm daily (winter opening hours are different)
Admission: 800 yen
The snow monkeys of Jigokudani are famous for their love of onsen bathing. Jigokudani by the way means valley of hell, so named because of the steep slopes and sulphurous hot springs. In the winter, the Japanese macaques can be found chilling out in the hot spring pool.
The monkeys are perfect Instagram-fodder. But take note that the approach to the area is via a mountain trail, which can take 45 minutes to navigate in the winter as the slopes are treacherously icy. Wear sturdy shoes and dress warmly when you are visiting in winter.
WHERE TO EAT
551-2 Hirao, Yamanochi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano 381-0401
Open: Wednesdays to Mondays, 11.30am to 3pm
Tel: 0269 381724
Located on the main road near the monkey park is this eatery which dishes up delicious handmade soba.
You can have it hot or cold, with an all-you-can-eat vegetable tempura spread, made with local mushrooms and vegetables.
Prices start from 1,280 yen per adult diner.
2. HAKUBA, NAGANO
Hakuba, which means white horse, is becoming very popular with foreigners and hardcore Singaporean enthusiasts who are catching on to its charms.
Located in a valley ringed with mountains, the Hakuba area has 10 resorts and more than 200 runs catering to all levels of proficiency. The all-area mountain pass, which allows access to all 10 mountains, starts at 6,000 yen for an adult single-day pass.
Hakuba is also a lot friendlier to non-snow sports types as the villages, especially Echoland, is packed with hipster cafes where one can hang out with a cuppa.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Grace Hakuba
399-9301 Nagano, Hakuba, Happo, Japan
This modest hotel is smack in the middle of Happo-One village, only a stone's throw from the ski lift and a 10-minute walk to the Happo-One gondola. It is also surrounded by eateries.
If you are a group of three planning to share a room, I would recommend taking the Japanese-style room. The Western room can accommodate three, but one unlucky soul will have to sleep on a pull-out sofa bed, which looks like it dates back to the 1970s and has springs which creak alarmingly.
Snowboarders will appreciate the ski shop located next to the ski locker room. It offers maintenance and rental services.
And if you are tired from a day of snow, Bar Refuel just outside the hotel serves really good burgers - the yakiniku burger is delicious - and a superb wasabi-flavoured karaage. It also stocks local craft beers. The Hakuba Brewing Company's Pale Ale (800 yen) is excellent, hoppy with a pleasantly bitter tang.
WHERE TO EAT
5054 Hokujo, Hakuba, Kitaazumi District, Nagano 399-9301, Japan
Phone: +81 261-72-2295
Open: 11.30am to 9pm daily
This unassuming eatery serves giant bowls of piping hot soba as well as platters heaped with cold soba. It is also old school enough to serve a traditional Nagano delicacy - horsemeat sashimi.
It gets busy at lunchtime, so if you are looking to beat the crowd, pop by when it opens.
Prices start from 1,000 yen.
3335-1 Hokujo Hakuba-Mura, Kitaazumi-gun 399-9301, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 261-85-0191
This one is for the coffee connoisseur. A tiny wooden shack, about five minutes' walk from Happo-One village, houses an unexpectedly hipster cafe which serves single-origin coffees roasted in-house (from 700 yen for a pourover). There is a tiny selection of cakes, but the cafe is devoted with monastic minimalism to the coffee. You can purchase beans here too.
399-9301 Hakuba-mura, Kitaazumi-gun, Nagano Prefecture 3020-142
Tel: +81 261-72-4342
This tiny bakery, located on the fringes of the Echoland village, has an astonishing view of the mountains from its windows.
It also makes the most fabulous little sourdough loaves which make no concession to the Japanese love of soft fluffy breads. They do half loaves (from ¥380) of their chewy, crusty breads. The cranberry walnut and blackforest flavours are excellent.
3. ZAO ONSEN, YAMAGATA
This ski town is still relatively undiscovered, thanks to its distance from Tokyo. But intrepid travellers willing to invest in the extra travel time will be amply rewarded.
With 14 slopes and 12 courses, it is tiny compared to the Nagano behemoths. Day tickets to the slopes start from 5,000 yen.
The added attraction in Zao Onsen is the juhyo, the snow monsters on the mountain tops. These are created by the region's climate, which encourages the formation of rime on the evergreen trees that cover the upper reaches of the mountain. The resulting shapes are grotesquely beautiful and have become a tourist attraction.
You can take a night tour (1,500 yen) of the juhyo, which is colourfully lit. Transport is via the Zao Ropeway gondola, and then you transfer to a Caterpillar with a heated cabin. The mountain top is especially cold at night, so dress warmly in ski gear for maximum protection.
WHERE TO STAY
Takamiya Hotel Rurikura Resort
990-2301 Yamagata, Zaō Onsen, Zao Onsen Sandogawa 1118-7, Japan
This well-equipped modern-day ryokan is located conveniently across the road from the Zao Ropeway and near the ski lifts.
It also offers a luscious breakfast buffet and lush dinners, which are worth investing in. The famous Yamagata beef which, though not as luxe as wagyu, is tender and flavourful.
Dining options in the small town are a bit limited. But Soba Yuyu-tei at the Zao Center (903-2 Zao-Onsen, Yamagata-Shi, Yamagata 990-2301, Japan) serves hearty portions of the region's famous chewy soba.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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