Living in Shanghai had many advantages but one of the best things was being close to Japan and some of the best ski hotspots in the world. For many of my American, European and British friends who have grown up living a snowball away from big mountains, it may not seem like much, but for an Australian being, only 2.5 hours flight from waist-deep powder is a big deal. By North-American standards our family are not big skiers, we only get away for vacations and we didn’t grow up in the snow but our three children love it and now we’re all at a moderate level. Like most families, we want to give our children all the exposure and experiences possible while living abroad and for this family vacation we loved Japan for how much diversity and local culture you can pack into a ski holiday.
We headed to Japan in mid-January on the cusp of Chinese New Year vacation with a couple of families all with various ski-experience ranging from x-ski instructors to people who were great skiers and snowboarders to those of us who were at a moderate level. Our ski instructor friends had skied Japan a number of times including the bigger resorts in Niseko, but had been interested to try out a smaller-country village they had heard about called Myoko.
Myoko Kogen is located one hour north of Nagano. From Tokyo the best way to get there is to take the bullet train called the Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano, then the Shinetsu train line to Myoko Kogen Station.
While there is no “Myoko” ski resort as such, the Myoko area is made up of several ski resorts that are largely linked together by a shuttle bus system. The main ski area is Myoko Akakura, which is made up of two resorts side by side; Akakura Kanko ski resort and Akakura Onsen (Akakan). There’s something for everyone across the ski resorts although Myoko Kogen, according to my ski- instructor friends, is better for the treed slopes, off-piste riding and longer vertical rides.
They also loved having guides to take them through the back-country areas. While our friends did agree the Japanese runs were not as long or steep as most European runs they did, however, say it was the best snow they had ever experienced. Myoko Kogen is famed for the abundant snow because of its proximity to the Sea of Japan and we had 30 centimetres of snowfall each night.
There’s a couple of good rental and ski-school places in the village and we went with one called Myoko Snow Sports who were excellent with our kids and had English-speaking staff and instructors.
We were lucky enough that it was so quiet at the time we went (just prior to Chinese New Year) that while we booked our children into group ski-school lessons they practically had one-on-one lessons. They also have a nice day-care or crèche facility for the younger children so the parents can enjoy a full-day or half day by themselves on the slopes.
Kids are amazing at skiing as they seem to have no fear and even my seven-year daughter was going down black runs by day three and my four-year-old had mastered small jumps like he had been skiing his whole short life. Me, on the other hand, …well I didn’t quite make it to a black run but I had loads of fun mastering the moderate terrain.
If you like Japanese food, then you’ll know that Japan is well renowned for its Japan amazing sushi, tempura and hot pot specialities. While this is a quiet little village, the main street is dotted with great places to eat. They have a few Japanese curry and noodle houses, local seafood restaurants and a few western restaurants including pizza and Italian places.
They also had a great crepe place for a quick snack or dessert after dinner, which my kids loved. One thing to consider, however, is that most of the hotels only served a traditional Japanese breakfast so it might be a good idea to pack some western cereals for the kids.
“Myoko” is the town in the valley near Myokokogen Station, but many people stay in one of the ski villages up at the base of the ski resorts, which is what we did so we could be close to the groomed runs and lifts. We stayed at The 7th Door Resort and Hotel Taizan and our friends stayed at Hotel Daimaru, which all had traditional Japanese-style rooms including futon beds and a great onsen (Japanese hot bath) for apres-ski.
While the Japanese resorts are not fitted out like most of the luxurious European chalets, staying in a traditional Japanese-style room is a great way to experience the Japanese culture. Akakura Onsen is generally the most popular village to stay because it offers good access to the main ski resorts, most with ski-in, ski-out facilities or a very short walk to the main lifts and has the largest number of bars and restaurants.
Facilities & Side Trips
Even though Myoko Kogen has a traditional Japanese vibe, the facilities are reasonably well set up for westerners and families with most of the locals speaking some English. The mandatory après activity is to take a soak in one of the many onsens, which range from hotel based onsens to delightful outdoor hot springs that are surrounded by forests with magnificent views. But be warned, if you’re not used to bathing nude with complete strangers you’ll need to opt for a private family option or separate male and female options. While there is no overly vibrant nightlife – it is a small village after all – there are plenty of small bars with great atmosphere.
One of the highlights of the trip was visiting the snow monkeys. Myoko is about a 45 minutes bus ride to the base of the town where the snow monkeys live. Then you have to hike for about an hour through beautiful forest up to where you see these little guys in action.
On warmer days they are out and about in abundance playing and frolicking with one another and come right up to your feet, and on cold days they are all huddled in the hot springs having a good soak.
Ninja Temples and Forest
Another side trip was visiting some beautiful temples and the home of the Ninja, where we were told the very first Ninjas originated from. This was the original forest where the very first Japanese Ninja apparently trained and is breathtakingly beautiful in the forest for a quiet walk.
We loved Myoko Kogen because the snow was obviously great, the food was stellar and it was great for children but also because it wasn’t a big commercial resort filled with hooligans and glitzy commercialism.
The town itself is very cute and easy to stroll along with families. If you’re looking for a family-friendly ski-adventure with loads of culture, then Myoko is a great choice.
Other top places to ski in Japan
Sapporo is located on the northern island of Hokkaido, and an easy flight from Tokyo. It first became internationally recognized when it was the host of the 1972 Winter Olympics, the first place outside of Europe to be afforded this honour.
Staying on the island of Hokkaido, you will find the ski resort of Niseko, often called Mt Fuji of the north, and again the snow is guaranteed. Niseko is the biggest and most popular cluster of ski resorts in Hokkaido.
There are seven ski areas, which are connected and may be skied on one ski pass. Niseko receives one of the highest snowfalls in Japan each year, with the average snowfall of over 17 metres. Niseko has a very active après scene, and a vast choice of accommodation options.
Hakuba is located on the Honshu island and is in the Nagano prefecture, and an easy Shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Tokyo. Recognized for its natural beauty and for its consistently brilliant snow, Hakuba was host to a number of major events in the 1998 Olympics.
Shiga Kogan is again located on the main island and is a collection of 21 ski resorts. Many offer ski in – ski out accommodation options. One of them is Myoko Kogen, which is where we stayed for 7 days.