Snow monkeys and the ski slopes of Myoko Kogen
Everybody was talking about Japan’s champagne snow, and how there was so much of it you could ski all the way into March. So of course I had to check it out. But there was no way I’d go anywhere where Aussies worked the lifts and there was Vegemite available at breakfast. Which meant most of Hokkaido was out. I settled instead on skiing Myoko Kogen, located on Honshu, the main island where Tokyo and most other major Japanese cities are found. Close to Nagano of Winter Olympics fame, Myoko Kogen offered an authentic Japanese experience plus you could ski after dark.
- Ski boots
- Ski jacket and pants
- Ski equipment bag
- All-weather boots
- A trolley suitcase with two wheels
What I should have brought:
- ONE trolley suitcase with four wheels, rather than two
This was because we did most of our travelling by train. Japan’s train network is vast and accessible mostly on foot. Dragging a two-wheeled bag along is tricky because most escalators (and there are many) have a metal pole in front to stop people from bringing trolleys with them. Trying to manoeuvre around this pole with not one, but TWO two-wheeled bags was not easy. Four-wheeled bags (which all Japanese have) are WAY more subway friendly.
To add to the complexity, the subway gets really busy in the morning (before 9:30am) and later in the evening (after 6pm). While the Japanese are mostly very, very polite, it’s still very hard to move quickly out of the way of a rushing businessman with two big bags.
Which brings me to my next point: don’t bother bringing your skis or poles. You can get away with bringing just ski boots. If you aren’t competing, you can get by on rentals.
We got into Tokyo, with a room booked at the stylish Mercure Ginza. It happened to be Valentine’s Day and the big department stores in Ginza were abuzz with women. Turns out women give men chocolate or flowers on February 14. Men return the favour on White Day, which falls on March 14.
Pro Tip#1: On a budget? The cheapest meals in tokyo e.g. ramen or donburi (fish, meat, veg on rice) are found either deep down in the subway underpasses or high up in buildings as rents are lower.
I chose a “western style” hotel for two reasons:
1. I had a big bag of ski equipment plus a suitcase. A Japanese style room would’ve been too small; and
2. The ryokan I wanted to stay at reportedly had bedbugs. This is a serious problem when there are tatami mats on the floor and infestations can take months to eradicate.
Pro Tip #2: Check TripAdvisor before you go. Chances are some disgruntled guest would have complained about bedbugs if they were present. Summer is riskier than winter.
That night, we ambled round the city looking for food and stumbled on a sushi bar on the third floor of some nondescript building near our hotel.
Speaking only basic words in Japanese, I got a table at the sushi bar and chose the omakase dining option. This means that what you get is the chef’s choice – and you simply tell him (I’ve never seen a female chef in Japan) when you’re full. Your bill then gets tallied up.
Pro Tip #3: Want to know what you’re eating? Bring a Japanese-to-English sushi reference book. Our friendly sushi chef didn’t speak a word of English but he had a book under his counter just for tourists like us! Else, read about the many different types of sushi here: http://sushiref.com/glossary/
The following day, we were on the train to Myoko Kogen, which meant navigating Tokyo’s cavernous subway system, dragging along our bags. Four wheels good, two wheels bad!
We got on the metropolitan subway to Ueno, then had to take the equivalent of the V-Line into the country. By this time it was snowing quite heavily, so when we arrived for the next train change, there was an announcement that the train would be late. The man at the ticket counter bowed deeply and apologised profusely – our train was 10 minutes behind schedule. 10 minutes! Whoa. Can you imagine our Aussie public transport operators apologising if your train was late or got cancelled?
Pro Tip #4: Learn a bit of Japanese before you leave. I’ve always found knowing basic words and etiquette is the best way to get to know a country. I’m always dumbfounded that travellers expect locals to speak their language!
At Myoko Kogen, we bundled into a cab and in no time at all, we at our ski resort – Shuzan (which means “Seventh Door”). Because we weren’t keen on using the shared onsen facilities, we booked Western-style rooms, which were still Japanese in decor with tatami mats on the floor, but equipped with private ensuite bathrooms.
If you aren’t fussed about stripping off in front of strangers, then by all means book the traditional rooms. As a fairly little person, I had minimal trouble using the pocket-sized loo and shower, but if you’re over 5″5, you might find yourself bumping your head on the ceiling or folded in half on the toilet.
Shortly thereafter, we trudged down the snowy streets to Myoko Snowsports, whom we heard was run by a Japanese lady and her husband who spoke English. Her name was Nozomi, and she kindly organised equipment rental for us (skis, poles) as well as a day trip out to see the famous snow monkeys.
Pro Tip #5: BYO boots. This ensures you’re comfortable from the get-go. There’s nothing worse than having to go off-piste because of blisters.
The slopes were about as wide as you’d find in Melbourne, but much longer and lit up at night so you can ski until late. The mountain was small enough that we did virtually every run in two days.
What was interesting were the old men who manned the chairlifts. They had to be sixty or seventy years old – strangely, there wasn’t a young boarder or skier to be seen, trying to earn their keep as they explored the ski resorts across the globe! Nozomi explained to me that these men were farmers in the summer and this was how they earned their keep in the winter months. They didn’t speak a word of English, but were so polite I got into the habit of bowing back at them!
Every night back at Shuzan, we were treated to a Japanese set meal – beautifully set out on lacquer trays, consisting mostly of vegetables, seafood and of course, fluffy white rice. There was always a soup and a little hard, white square. I never worked out what this was – it was solid enough to break a tooth on but didn’t go soft in the soup either. Nevertheless, the food was awesome.
In the morning, there was toast, butter and jam. There was also traditional Japanese breakfast – rice, miso soup, a tiny piece of grilled fish and natto (a stinky fermented soybean paste).
On the slopes, there were plenty of outlets selling delicious things like hot chocolate and crepes. In town too, there were restaurants and grocery stores where you could pick up Pocky, Meiji chocolate and rice crackers.
Pro Tip #6: We appreciated breakfast and dinner being including in the cost of our stay. This allowed us to try a lot of Japanese food we wouldn’t have come across elsewhere as my limited Japanese meant we were often eating curry rice, udon, soba, ramen or tonkatsu!
Our visit to the snow monkeys of Shiga Kogen was rather memorable. These primates inhabit hot springs that remain at a comfortable temperature during snowy Japanese winters. They are also fed a kind of grain (barley?) by rangers. As tourists aren’t allowed to feed them, they tend to be very well behaved, putting their little hands out to ask the ranger for food. Furthermore, they don’t pester visitors – so I liked them much better than their rabid Southeast Asian and African cousins!
Later, we dropped in at Zenko-ji, a seventh century Buddhist temple set in peaceful gardens in Nagano. They were selling barbecued rice cakes and deep fried locusts outside on the street. What can I say? When in Rome….
We checked out after 4 nights here and headed (by train and taxi) to an even smaller village where our next ryokan – Hatsune – was located. This exquisite, old-fashioned inn had a roof covered in snow and on entering the wooden front door, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. The floors were covered in beautiful tatami mats and gracious bowing staff handed me a silk yukata (robe) to put on with matching slippers as soon as I’d completed the paperwork. Unfortunately, this ryokan doesn’t look like they have their own website, so I’ve linked Hatsune to an English description with images on a third party website. If you wish to book, feel free to use this booking.com referral link here as you’ll get $20 off your stay: https://www.booking.com/s/34_6/7c4c82d2
Our room had a cedar hot tub filled with steaming water designed for two. We sat it in for hours, with the window shutters wide open so we could watch the snow fall over the mountains – magical. Then it was time for kaiseki, brought to us by lovely staff who were eager to practise their English with us.
Pro Tip #7: A kaiseki meal is similar to a degustation meal – a multi-course dining experience involving many tiny sophisticated dishes. I’d recommend skipping lunch for this (if you’re a small eater).
Unfortunately, it was then time to go home. I’ve stayed in some marvellous places in Japan, but Hatsune is right up there. They don’t speak a word of English and their website isn’t great, but take my word for it.