Tuesday 31 December 2013

Winter in Japan - Myoko Kogen

I love skiing.  I am not good at it, but I love it.  I have only ever been skiing four times in my life.  Once in Australia (it doesn't snow much in Australia and not at all where I come from) and, now, three times in Japan, and each time I have skied in Japan I have always skied at the same place.  Myoko Kogen.

In 1916 Myoko Kogen came to national prominence when it was voted number one in a national poll to determine the number one summer resort in Japan and it is also the traditional mountain retreat for the Japanese Imperial family.  Myoko Kogen became Japan's first international ski resort in 1937.  The area is comprised of 9 ski resorts and the one I have always gone to is Suginohara which boasts the longest ski run in Japan.  I always go there as it has some great beginner runs!

I had the opportunity to go there on a ski trip organised by my close friend Emiko.  Our group numbered about 20 with some of Emiko's friends and three of her children coming along too.  We stayed at the National Myoko Youth Outdoor Learning Centre (website is in Japanese) and for a total of 10,000 yen (about AU$100) we got accommodation for 2 nights, 3 meals a day and ski and ski wear rental!  I challenge you to find a better deal than that!

I caught the train over to Odaiba to meet with everyone and depart from there.  I was a little early so I wandered down to the beach and took a photo of what was an absolutely amazing morning!

We set off in our cars and a little over two thirds of the way there (about 2 hours from Tokyo) we were in snow! 

What a change from that first photo!  The snow only intensified the closer we got to Myoko Kogen and it was bucketing down when we arrived.

We settled in and made our way to the dining area for dinner.

After dinner we went back to our rooms (dormitory style) and had a few drinks (drinking is actually not allowed, but no-one checks and we just brought some drinks in in our bags).  Outside it was blizzard-like conditions.  We were actually in a snow thunder storm with regular flashes of lightning and thunder rolling across the skies.  At about 11PM I went to bed looking forward to resuming my love affair with Myoko Kogen the next day.

We woke up (to the soothing melody of some piped in music and one of the staff waking us up over the PA system) at about 7AM.  I poked my head outside and was greeted with the sight of this.

For a guy who comes from a place where it is regularly over forty degrees Celsius (104 F) this sight was incredible.  I was right in the middle of a winter wonderland!  Excited, I hurried through breakfast and collected my ski gear and headed outside.  There were about twelve cute kids in our group ranging in age from less than one to about 11 and they trickled out and started having fun in the snow.

They were soon joined by one big kid!

Each day started with a snowball fight, started by myself but both times finished by the kids!  Sheer weight of numbers won both times with me being relentlessly pounded with snowballs until surrendering!

After dusting off the snow we got into a car and headed for Suginohara.  We arrived and a glance around showed that we weren't the only ones who think Myoko Kogen is the best ski area in Japan!

Having said that, Myoko Kogen is not as busy as other ski resorts as it is not on a bullet train stop and we never had to wait in line for the gondolas or chair lifts.

We put our skis on and jumped on the gondola for the ride to the top of the mountain.

Reaching the top (a five to ten minute ride) we set off for the bottom again.  Remember at the start of the post I said that I had only ever been skiing 4 times in my life?  Well the last time was eleven years ago!  So to say my skiing was a little rusty is a massive understatement!  I lost count of the number of times I fell over and hauled myself back up again with a big silly grin on my face!  I was having a great time!!  I even managed to take a couple of photos on the way down!

After taking about 10 minutes to get to the top of the mountain it then took over an hour to get back down again!!  My legs were burning from the exertion and my knee was crying out in pain (an old sports injury) but I felt alive and was having a ball!!

Back down at the bottom again we stopped for lunch and refuelled for an afternoon of more skiing.  Before heading up the mountain again I paused to take a look around and the scenery was staggering!

Absolutely incredible!  I understand why the Royal family take their vacations here.

Looking at a map of the area I realised I had come down a different way to the other times I had been here so when I got to the top of the mountain again I went off in search of the ski run that I was familiar with.  I found it and came down this way this time.  I love this particular ski run as it is powder snow most of the way down and in some places is as much as 200m wide!  The expanse and the space is incredible, and being surrounded by whiteness is surreal!

I had had my fix and when I got to the bottom the others were waiting to head back to the rooms.  I also saw a real life snowman in Emiko's son Keanu!

All night long I was hobbling around like an old man, but I was happy!

The next morning the snow and the skies had cleared and outside was like a piece of art!

After breakfast I went outside to take a few more photos of the facility and the surrounding area.

I then started (and lost) another snow fight with the kids to finish my short stay here.

I had also organised to catch up with a man I had known through facebook and the Japan Australia Friendship Association (based in Adelaide, Australia) but had not met before, Nic Klar.  Nic is also from Adelaide and has lived in Japan for many years.  He first came to Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher and worked at a few schools around the Niigata area.  He wrote a book about his experiences called "My Mother is a Tractor", a funny look at life as a foreigner in Japan.  It can be found on Amazon here if you would like to check it out.  Nic also runs an incredibly comprehensive website about Myoko Kogen which can be found here and is a must read for anyone thinking of visiting the area.  It has information, weather reports, snow conditions, a hotel booking engine and more.

Nic came to the Youth Centre to pick me up and took me back to his house where I enjoyed the hospitality of Nic and his wife Mami.  

Myoko Kogen is a lovely little town of just over 6,000 people and I was happy to spend some time with Nic and Mami learning more about the area, it's history and also what the future may hold.  I won't spend any time talking about Myoko Kogen  too much (more than I already have) as Nic's website is the ultimate source of information for the area.

We were so busy talking that we missed my train, so we went to the township of Akakura Onsen to have some ramen at one of his wife's friends restaurant, Akakura Shibata.  It is a nice restaurant with a real homely feel to it and we enjoyed some ramen (that I forgot to take a photo of....).  There is a little bit of English spoken by the owner and they also have an English menu.

The owner of the restaurant offered to take a photo of Nic and myself.

Nic's knowledge of the area was soon displayed as a few people from Sweden happened to walk into the restaurant and struck up a conversation with us.  Soon Nic was recommending things to do, places to go and shops to visit to buy ski gear.  They had certainly walked into the right restaurant at the right time!

Pretty soon it was time to head back to the train station to make my way back to Tokyo.  Waiting at the station I was reminded of a previous visit to Myoko Kogen when I looked along the snow covered train lines.

I had been here for skiing with some friends and we had experienced blizzard conditions the whole weekend we were there.  We got on the train when it arrived and the train then proceeded for about 500 metres and stopped.  They had decided that there was too much snow.  However, the train staff took so long deciding what to do next that by the time they tried to move the train again, the wheels had frozen to the track!  We were stuck there on the train (standing as there were no available seats when we got on!) for eight and a half hours!  In fact right here

was where we were standing!

This time, however, there were no problems.

I changed trains at Nagano to something a bit more comfortable

and made it back to Tokyo on schedule.

Well, that's it for this post.  I hope you enjoyed Myoko Kogen, it is a seriously beautiful place and number one on my list of places to ski at.

Thanks for reading in 2013.  I have enjoyed showing you around Japan and Tokyo and I hope you have enjoyed reading.  If my blog has made you want to visit this lovely country, or has given you some information about places to visit for a trip you have made to Japan, then I am happy.  I am looking forward to visiting more places in 2014.

Have a happy and safe New Year, (akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!)  See you again soon.