Monkey around in the land of the rising steam

Snowboarders in Japan

 Japan is the hot new destination for skiers and boarders with Crystal and Inghams, Britain’s biggest ski companies, launching trips there. 


The snow has been falling steadily for two days. Huge flakes have piled up into thick slabs on the gently sloping roofs, adding an entire storey to the height of the houses. As I step through the door of an ornately carved wooden building, the temperature suddenly rises. Billows of steam slowly climb to the vaulted roof, where a skylight filters a glow from outside. There are about 15 men inside, most naked, sitting in or gingerly lowering themselves into two square baths, their waters lapping up to the edge of the dark flagstone floors. This is an onsen, a communal spa-bath; apres-ski Japanese style.

Strange as it seems, it’s something more and more British skiers are about to experience. Japan is this year’s new must-visit ski destination, with the two biggest tour operators starting packages from December.

True, there’s the 12-hour flight; yes, there are the rumours of epic prices for food and drink; and, yes, there’s the language barrier and lack of cutlery; so it must have something seriously good going for it to compensate. It does.

Japan has more winter resorts than any country; there are more than 700, while the US has around 470. It has one of the highest average snowfalls in the world and 75 per cent of its land mass is mountainous; Japan is a winter sports paradise.

The mountains are lower than Europe or North America, typically topping out below 2,000m, so altitude sickness is not a problem. Neither is a lack of snow. Each winter, strong winds sweep tonnes of the stuff from Siberia, across the Sea of Japan and deposit it over the Japanese Alps on the main island, Honshu, and the extinct volcanoes of the northern island, Hokkaido.

Many of the Japanese resorts were built or upgraded during the economic boom of the Eighties and Nineties and the lift infrastructure is mainly of a high standard. Yet despite the number and quality of resorts, the runs are often deserted. The Japanese generally get less holiday leave than us and work hours are long. During the week, the only Japanese people you see are young Japanese ‘freetas’, renegades that refuse to buy into the workaholic lifestyle and have embraced the Western ski-bum philosophy; working to ride. The rest of the skiing and boarding population grab their chance at the weekend.

I’ve come to Nozawa Onsen, a spa town and ski resort an hour and a half’s journey by Shinkansen – the bullet train – from Tokyo. As the train moves from the tight streets and skyscrapers of the city it passes through paddy fields and up into the mountains. The resort is a nest of steep narrow streets, each fringed with a gully of fast-flowing, steaming, spring water. It’s as if the entire town has been built around a network of mountain streams.

The water that runs from the volcanic springs is channelled away to heat homes and the 30 public onsens, from which the town gets its name. The water is even used for communal cooking pools. I sit opposite them one morning, sipping green tea, watching through the window as a woman hunches against the swirling snow flurries and lowers a wicker basket stuffed with whole eggs and vegetables into the cloud-capped ponds. I can’t resist and wander over to buy a hard-boiled egg, its flesh gently flavoured with volcanic minerals. A snowboarding or ski holiday to Japan is not just about sliding around on snow, it is an immersion in a completely different culture.

One night I walk the streets of Yuzawa, a town in the heart of the Japanese Alps. The streets are wet from melted snow and the tar is lacquered with the reflection of vivid neon from shops, restaurants and hotels. I am mesmerised by the colours of the lights, oblivious to their messages, sheltered from the hard sell of their commercial catcalls.

There’s something childlike about being surrounded by bright billboards which have no meaning apart from their aesthetics; interesting shapes, funny graphics or pretty lights. Then there is the resilience of the ancient amid a frenzy of modernity. The chic boutiques and computer games shop that stand sentinel, either side of an ancient sacred shrine, the kimono-clad host at the traditional tearoom I sit in, politely serving a group of young tattooed snowboarders.

As we ride up the chairlifts, even the mountains seem quintessentially oriental. The peaks are pyramidal and populated with wispy-branched birch trees. From the lift it is possible to catch a glimpse of Japanese macaque – snow monkeys – but if you miss a sighting, Jigokudani Yaenkoen, near Shiga Kogen, is a small park where thermal pools attract families of them; the monkeys can be seen playing or sitting preening themselves and relaxing in the steaming water.

As well as the near-deserted slopes, deep untouched powder and proliferation of resorts, another surprising attraction of a winter sports holiday in Japan is the cost; it is not as expensive as you might think. A day-lift pass at most resorts is less than £20.

Food is also reasonable; one lunchtime I sat in a little local noodle bar that looked as if it was part of the set from Blade Runner, a profusion of neon and steaming vats. The noodle soup was fresh and filling and the bill was about £3, plus £2.50 for my Kirin beer. Even at a mountain restaurant, you can eat your fill of freshly cooked Japanese food for around £6.

There are more Westerners in Hokkaido, the island to which Inghams and Crystal are taking trips, and an invasion of Australasian entrepreneurs over recent years has given the island a more international feel. But a far greater number of resorts are in the Japanese Alps, on the mainland.

Some, such as Hakkaisan, are small and intimate with only a handful of runs. A cable car runs from base to crest and here we ran circuits, finding new routes through the waist-deep powder and trees back to the bottom and up again. Others, such as the interconnected Naeba-Mitsumata-Kagura-Tashiro area, are extensive, with runs to suit all abilities, a terrain park and 26 lifts, including the longest gondola in the world, at 5.5km. The terrain is varied enough to give days of play. If you want bigger still, Shiga Kogen is vast by any standards; 21 different resorts have been linked to form an area that rivals the biggest in the world.

On a two-week tour around the mainland resorts I saw few Western faces. A smattering of expats will grab a ski break from the office at the weekend, but, apart from them, nearly everyone you meet will be Japanese. That is one of the real joys of coming here: you feel a pioneer in a very foreign land.

Such isolation could lead to a fear that making yourself understood is a daily grind: it isn’t. Stepping into a mountain restaurant, hungry from a hard morning boarding, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a large vending machine. The format in these places is you insert your money, choose your meal and out pops a ticket. Take the ticket to the serving counter and they exchange it for food.

The trouble with this particular machine was that all the choices were written only in Japanese. The secret at times like this is to rely on the ubiquitous Japanese gentility. Even if the first person you stop does not speak English, they will often find you someone who does. Smile and help soon arrives.

By the end of the trip something of the oriental lifestyle was definitely rubbing off. After a hard day in the powder, instead of hard-core apres, we yearned for the warm soft waters of the onsen, bringing a profound peace that seeps through tired muscles.

The monkeys have definitely got the right idea.

Huw Williams travelled with KLM ( 0870 507 4074 ; which flies from Heathrow to Tokyo twice a day from £566. For information on Japanese resorts We Love Snow ( 00 81 25 784 3117  ; is a Japanese operator offering weekly packages in the Alps, with five-day lift pass, accommodation and train from Tokyo from £510 pp. Apres Ski Snodeck (  00 81 25 780 9190 ; is a British-owned bar and restaurant at the base of the Asagai park in Naeba which can also arrange accommodation.

The Observer,
Sunday 8 October 2006
[read it here]


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