Sunday, February 13, 2011

Skiing in Japan

From Dec. 28 to Dec. 30 I went with some friends to the small village Omachi-Onsen in Nagano-Prefecture for skiing. The prefecture is located in the west of Honshu, just a few hundred kilometres from Tokyo. It is a famous ski-region, especially since its capital city, Nagano, hosted the Olympic Winter Games 1998. The region is called “the Japanese Alps” and has many mountains with a height of 2500 to 3000 meters and a lot of snow in the winter. Actually, the Japanese Alps are the reason why the winter in Tokyo is so mild, 10 – 0 °C and sunshine almost every day. All the snow comes down in the Japanese Alps, respectively in Nagano.
So, we had white pistes and a very nice ski-trip. And it was cheaper than I have expected. We were lucky to have a Japanese friend, who found an offer for students for 21000 Y (about 200 €) for 3 days, including the bus from Tokyo to Nagano, the pass for the lifts, ski‑equipment (even clothes) and a stay in a typical Japanese hotel (ryokan) with breakfast and dinner for two nights. Thanks, Tohru.
We saw the first snow-covered mountains during a rest
Actually, there is not so much that I can tell about the ski-trip. It was snowing all the time, the pistes were good, the snow was fine and it was a great thing. The ski area was not that big, maybe 10 – 15 pistes, but totally enough for three days. Oh, yes, and I even saw a Japanese serow (Ger: Japanischer Serau)  when I was on the ski-lift. Accept of the serow, you can have a quite similar ski experience in the European Alps. But what you can not have in Europe, and what made the trip even better, was the hotel. It was, as I mentioned above, a typical Japanese ryokan. The experience of staying there is completely different from a European hotel. First of all, you have a typical Japanese room, which is very minimalist. Almost no furniture, except of a large table and two chairs at the window. The floor is covered with Tatami-mats and you sit on the floor on silk-pillows around the table. 
To make it more comfortable in the evening when you sit together and drink a beer or sake you use special back-rests. When you want to sleep, you just move the table to the side or outdoors and roll a futon bed on the floor. It sounds hard and indeed it is a bit harder than our western-beds, but not so uncomfortable as it sounds. You get used to it after one or two nights. And of course you put of your shoes before you enter the room.
The ryokan was run by some older women. They wore kimonos all the time and were very friendly, although they did not speak any English. In the morning they called us for Japanese breakfast to the dining room. Japanese breakfast is very …substantial: with rice, grilled fish, some salads and sweet nori and, of course, miso-soup.
Actually, it was more like lunch at 8 o’clock in the morning. After lunch breakfast, we used the ski-bus to get to the pistes. The trip was maybe 20 – 30 min. Then it was skiing the whole day, including lunch on the pistes. Lunch was actually the only thing we had to pay for. The restaurant was ok, but quite expensive and it was the only one, means it was very crowded during lunch-time. Most of the pistes were illuminated, so we could use them even after sunset and went home at about 5 or 6 o’clock. In the evening, the friendly women stored our ski-stuff and served a great Japanese dinner with multiple courses in our room.  
The ryokans very pretty inner courtyard
The whole ryokan was on ground-level and the window, resp. glass-front, led to a pretty inner courtyard, which was covered with snow and completely silent. But the ultimate + point was the outdoor thermal bath, called onsen, which was part of the ryokan and open the whole night. There is almost nothing more relaxing than a bath in an outdoor onsen after a ski-day, with hot thermal water and snow flakes falling on you. Onsen are extremely popular here, and because Japan is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, these thermal springs are almost everywhere. In towns with many onsen, it is included in the name, as in Omachi-Onsen. It is comparable to a “Kurort” in Germany. 
Except the pistes, the onsen was the place where we spent most of the time. So, when you go to Japan in winter and plan to go skiing, I can definitely recommend to ask Tohru for organising the trip ^^. Or you search by yourself for a ski-trip, but make sure tostay in a typical Japanese ryokan. Its not that expensive and an ultimate Japanese experience.

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