Onsens, ancient towns and skiing at Ryuoo and Shiga in Japan

Yudanaka Onsen, Japan. Photo credit: Vittoria Che/Shutterstock

If it weren’t for the spectacular mountain ranges and incredible powder, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were skiing in Australia at some ski resorts in Japan.

Mountain resorts such as Niseko and Hakuba have become so popular with Australians hungry for that perfect pow, that they have become almost completely ‘Australianised’. The food halls sell meat pies, chips and pizza and the bars sell Australian lager.

If you want a real Japanese ski experience, it’s not a bad idea to get off the beaten track a bit, and get to know a bit about the fascinating Japanese mountain culture along the way.

This year we based ourselves in the onsen town of Yudanaka in the municipality of Yamanouchi, in Japan’s Nagano prefecture, easily accessible from Tokyo with a regular bullet train service that takes exactly 1 hour 25 minutes to Nagano Station and then an hour on the Nagano Dentecu Train to Yudanaka.

The advantage of this location is its within easy access to mountain resorts both to the north and south, including Shiga Kogen, one of Japan’s largest mountain resorts, with a total of 21 linked ski areas.

It’s also surrounded by some of the country’s oldest traditional onsen villages, some dating back to 700AD including Shibu Onsen, Yudanaka Onsen and Kanbayashi Onsen – well worth it for a truly Japanese cultural experience.

A traditional Ryokan in Shibu Onsen

The village of Shibu Onsen is estimated to be 1300 years old. The narrow lanes are great fun to explore, and if you’re staying at one of the local traditional inns or Ryoken, you’re given a key to all the village’s onsen (public baths).

It’s a little odd to see people walking through the snow in their bath robes and sandals, so warm from soaking in the hot springs they don’t feel the cold.

A more recent Japanese tradition to be found here combines onsen culture and the hugely popular computer game Monster Hunter. The village of Shibu Onsen has partnered with the distributors of this game – apparently the scenery here resembles the game – to offer an onsen challenge to visitors.

Purchase a modesty towel from your ryoken or nearby souvenir shop and receive a stamp for each onsen you visit. Collect them all and you get a very special Monster Hunter stamp.

There’s Monster Hunter signage throughout the village and all manner of souvenirs – from t-shirts and figurines to cake.

The hot springs also attract a few locals of a different sort: monkeys. Nearby Snow Monkey Park is well worth visiting to see the spectacle of monkeys having a bath in hot springs surrounded by snow.

On the culinary side, there are a couple of local delicacies worth sampling while you wander the onsen village too: onsen eggs and snow monkey manjus.

Onsen eggs are soft boiled eggs, cooked slowly by hot springs water (roughly 70 degrees Celsius) flowing over them, the result being eggs with a white as soft as the yolk (or yolk as firm as the white – whichever way you want to look at it).

Manjus are steamed buns with sweet or savory filling and snow monkey manjus, with a sweet red bean filling, are a local specialty of Yamanouchi. The food’s not bad on the slopes either, with a choice of Japanese curry, katsu, ramen and miso; it sure beats pizza and meat pies.

Ryuoo Ski Park

Ryuoo Ski Park is a 20-minute drive from Yudanaka, but be sure to brush up on your Japanese before setting off, as there’s no English language signage along the way.

The first thing you’ll notice here (apart from the Japanese pop music pumping through the Tannoy) is the rather dominant presence of boarders. I would estimate 90 per cent of people here are on boards.

There are plenty of beginner slopes lower down, but only black runs from the top of Ryuoo Ropeway – one of the largest gondolas in Asia.

Ryuoo Ropeway

It’s not for the faint hearted, with slopes as steep as 38 degrees and waist deep powder. Some runs are more open than others, some are mere corridors, and if that’s not challenging enough, you can go off-piste through the trees – it’s easy enough to find your way back to the valley.

The runs are perfect for boarders and I must admit, as an intermediate skier, they defeated me. Not so my son who powered ahead of me on his board through that thigh-deep powder and headed back up on the Ropeway for more.

Shiga Kogen

On the other side of the valley, Shiga Kogen is the largest mountain resorts in Japan. A lift pass will get you on all 53 lifts and while there are regular shuttle buses between each of the 21 linked ski areas. Each mountain we scale in this enormous park has a variety of runs from the peak, ranging from green to black so most are accessible even for beginners.

The mountain park sits within a national park, so development is limited and the area is surrounded by a rather stunning wilderness.

It really is spectacular – especially the famous Snow Monsters. These are pine trees so heavily laden with snow that they resemble creatures frozen in time. They are especially visible on top of Mt Yokoteyama – where you’ll also find Asia’s highest Starbucks.

You could easily spend a week here exploring all the mountains. We managed 22 lifts in one day, starting as soon as the lifts opened and making it back to our hotel shortly before the last connecting lift closed.

Where to Stay

Ryokan Biyu no Yado is in the onsen village of Yudanaka. It’s definitely worth staying here at least one night to explore the onsen village and nearby snow monkey park. The spacious rooms are a mix of traditional Japanese and Western style and the many-course meals are an event in themselves. Be sure to book at least one session in the private rooftop onsen.

Villa Alpen is in Sun Valley, Shiga Kogen. It’s a family-run hotel and father and son are both extremely experienced ski instructors, having trained and worked all over the world. I especially like the bar, with an open fire and a great selection of local craft beer and home made fruit wine.

The writer, Deborah Deckson-Smith, was a guest of Shiga Kogen Tourism Association and Yamanouchi Town Tourism Association.

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When Deb’s not planning dive holidays for her clients – or writing blog posts on the Diveplanit Blog she also writes for a number of travel publications, including Scuba Diving Magazine, Scuba Diver Life, Pacific Island Living, Signature Luxury Travel & Lifestyle and Holidays With Kids.


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