Skiing Japan - APPI Kogen and Gala Yuzawa resorts - Insights
Note - With coronavirus halting most travel, we realize that most folks won't be able to travel for a while, but may have time to catch up on researching destinations to go to. We hope you can find some insights as you plan your next trip while we all help to mitigate the spread of the virus. Cheers and good reading.
Nicha and I lived in Japan for a couple of years helping to build out a Japan team for the tech company we worked for, so during our off time we were able to ski a few places around the country and experience Japan Ryokan (traditional Japan hotel). We thought we'd return this year and try a couple of resorts new to us - APPI Kogen and Gala Yuzawa. Below are some of our trip highlights and insights for you in case you are planning or just thinking about a ski trip to Japan. We highly recommend a trip to Japan for skiing or touring - you'd be surprised how reasonable it can be. And experiencing a different culture is well worth the long flight.
Regions to Consider
To understand where to begin your search, the map below is a good place to understand the general regions to consider. We provide a summary of each region applicable to ski areas. You'll need to do more research to align with what you want out of a trip as there are a number of options across the regions - but this should get you started and get the planning juices going.
For many this is the holy grail of Japan skiing, as the amount of powder, off-piste trails, and mountain town feel is world class. We visited the resort of Niseko a few years back and it lived up to a lot of this billing. Our timing to visit in March was not ideal as the powder had turned a bit slushy on many trails - so if you go plan for Jan/Feb - although prices may be super high during this time.
Note also that you'll hear more Australian accents than Japan language if you select this region. Good news is you won't have a language issue, but the area is more western feel than traditional Japan Ryokan style. So if getting a traditional Japanese experience is high on your list, you may wish to look elsewhere.
This area is just below Hokkaido and has equally amazing powder and off-piste trails as Hokkaido but with more of a local Japan feel. This is the region where we skied on this latest trip when we visited Appi Kogen.
The resorts here are a bit further of a train ride than other locations and may require a train/bus or train/train/bus, but connections are typically very efficient.
This is where a lot of the more popular easy to get to resorts are as the train ride from Tokyo is not as far as other areas. Resorts in this region include Hakuba 47, Gala Yuzawa, Karuizawa, and Happo One to name a few.
These resorts tend to offer less off-piste, un-groomed areas but are beginning to be more accommodating so don't write them off until you ask. Accessibility is a key benefit to this region as most places are less than 2 hours from Tokyo - so you can take an early morning train and be skiing for most of the day. For those wanting a ski/travel combination and not just a ski trip this may be a great option. But in reality most of Japan is a short train/plane/bus trip - so all options should be considered.
When you look at the trail maps of Japan mountains, you'll notice that they are smaller in terms of number of trails than European and US resort mountains. But most Japan resorts will provide enough terrain options to keep you exploring for multiple days and not be bored. In addition, many resorts have inter-connected mountains which end up being fairly big. For example, when we skied Hakuba 47, the sister resort Goryu is connected via lifts and shuttles, and Happo One is a short ride away providing another option if you are planning a week-long trip.
So you'll need to do some research on how mountains are connected, and what lift tickets get you, and where best to stay to minimize drives or shuttles back and forth.
Groomed, Un-groomed, Off-Piste?
Off piste is still evolving in Japan but vary across resorts. If you like to go un-groomed and in the trees without hassle, be sure to check the resorts policies. The two places we went to on this trip had contrasting options for us: Gala Yuzawa didn't have off-piste, Appi-Kogan had groomed, un-groomed, and off-piste trails.
Language can be an issue if you go to the less touristy locations or if you need to connect to local trains and buses. Sapporo/Hokkaido will feel more western/English than the locations around Nagano or Tohoku regions. With Japan getting ready for the 2020 Olympics, a lot of signs are in English and other languages, and there will usually be someone on staff that speaks passable English.
Moving Your Equipment
There are amazing logistics services that can ship your skis and equipment from Narita and other large airports to the steps of your resort, if you have a day or two of exploring to do before going skiing. If you don't have that luxury, most trains and buses will have space to store your skis/boards. But there will be walking and possible train/bus transfers so it's always good to pack as light as possible. Another option is renting as most resorts have high quality rentals.
Yamato transport is our go-to service for transporting skis and luggage to our resort. This service is available at airports and resorts, so if you plan to go to multiple resorts and visit Tokyo in-between skiing, they can ship your ski/board equipment to the next place without you having to carry it into the city. Keep in mind they may need a day or two to get your stuff to the resort from the airport, so plan accordingly. And always keep your paperwork - Japan operates on old-school paperwork for most transport services, never through away tickets/receipts/itinerary papers.
Luggage to Airport services
In addition to ski/board equipment services many hotels offer ship to airport services for large pieces of luggage. If you are planning for an extended trip and have a lot of luggage and don't feel like carrying it to the airport, this service can do same day transport to most major airports in Japan.
We used CA-GO for this service and they were amazing. If your flight is in the afternoon and you want to tour around Tokyo in the AM and not worry about your bags, it's worth using this service.
Trains & Buses are Your Friends
With Tokyo hosting the Olympics, most of the signs across Japan are now in English, and train/bus staff are super helpful to get you where you need to go. Japan's train system, especially it's high-speed Shinkansen trains - are convenient, fast, and comfortable. We view the train experience as a big part of the overall trip - so make sure you include this if possible.
Some resorts will require a bus transfer at the train station, and are easy to coordinate.
We typically will find detailed information on what trains and buses to use on the resort websites - so the best place to start planning is to narrow down the region and the resort, then work in the logistics once a resort is decided.
Where to Start
So where to begin if you are searching ski resorts? Some of the best resources we used to plan our trips include:
- Powder Hounds - We read this site pretty much cover to cover. While the authors were more powder/expert focused, they provide accurate insights on to the resorts, what to expect from accommodations, and direct links to many resort sites. We used this site as a starting point and branched out from the links they provided.
- SKI.com - An article from this site got us started on thinking about a Japan ski trip this year. In addition to Japan resorts this site has extensive information on Europe and Western US resorts. Great reading for any ski trip you may be thinking about.
- SkiResort.info - This site can help once you narrow down regions and are starting to look at specific resorts.
- Snowpack - A great site that lists top resorts with detailed pros/cons on each. Provides a lot of good insights for you to consider for your trip.
Our Recent Ski Trip - Below we summarize our recent trip ski destinations and highlight the resorts and links for you to check out.
- Getting There - Gala is one of the most convenient places to get to if you are visiting Tokyo and just want to get out for a day or two on the slopes. What's amazing about this resort is the fact that the high speed Shinkansen stops at the base of this mountain. You can get off the train, park your skis, head to the locker room and gear up, and then get on the Gondola to head to the lifts. Rental equipment, including clothes and helmets, are available for those who don't want to bring their gear. For those fearful of not being able to make bus connections or want just a single day or two of skiing while traveling to other parts of Japan, it can't get much easier than Gala Yuzawa.
- Accommodations - We stayed at an old-school Ryokan hotel called the Yuzawa Grand Hotel - it was a short distance from the train station and the gondola base to get to the mountain, with bus service available for both. We had 10 people in our group so getting two big rooms next to each other was a big reason we chose a large hotel versus some other local options. We had a combination of tatami mats and western style beds. Very comfortable for a large group. There is a main street in town with smaller boutique hotels that are quite reasonable and provide access to the shuttle to the gondola. One example is Echigo yuzawa Hatago isen.
- The Skiing & Mountain - Gala has some great groomed runs, but don't offer any off-piste or un-groomed trails - so if that's what you are looking for you may want to go elsewhere. The lifts are decent, the trails long and pretty challenging for all levels. There is also ski and board school instructors for those wanting lessons. The food on the mountain is plentiful - try the sweet potato ice-cream on the upper level of the main lodge - delicious. The connecting mountains next to Gala are Yuzawa Kogen and Ishiuchi Maruyama - when we were there we headed to Ishiuchi and there were some un-groomed runs which was great but lift access to get to certain trails was a bit tricky. The shops and lodges in the Ishiuchi are reminiscent of European ski villages which is a bit trippy. We didn't make it over to the Yuzawa-Kogen side as we really liked the central Gala area best.
- Onsen Experience - The hotel's onsen was old but adequate - but if you are going specifically for onsen other hotels may be better.
- Food - The buffet style restaurant was really good. Breakfast and dinner had a wide variety of choices - both Western and Japanese. You also had soft-serve ice cream and beer on tap. Note - Japanese eat raw eggs so make sure to pick up the boiled eggs for breakfast :).
- Cost - Convenient location means fairly pricey hotels. Expect around $160 per night but it all depends on timing of when you book and if there are deals going on. Price includes breakfast and dinner.
- Getting There - Appi is in the Tohoku region, a 2+ hour Shinkansen ride, and another train/bus or bus ride of about 50 minutes - so total time of around 3 hours. Your local resort can coordinate the logistics details, and the luggage service you use for skis and/or bags will have no problem delivering your stuff right to the hotel. Given it's more remote feel than Gala Yuzawa, it was a welcome change for us. This resort felt far away from the crowds, less westernized, more old school Japan ski resort. There's no town to go hang out in and party so apres ski would be at your hotel.
- Accommodations - Hotel Appi Grand was our hotel which is the high tower at the base of the the mountain, providing a ski-in, ski-out experience. Lockers for skis, boards, etc are in the basement so you just head out in the morning, gear up, and take the elevator to the first floor and you are on the mountain. The hotel's rooms are super spacious, super comfy. We got the cheaper room with no view but you can splurge if you want and get the mountain view room. The hotel looks fancy but price-wise it is reasonable.
- The Skiing & Mountain - We really liked Appi's combination of groomed, un-groomed, and off-piste options. While we are not big powder people, we liked having an option to try out ungroomed trails. The mountain is big enough to explore for a few days for sure without getting bored. The trails are really long and provide some steep challenges for advanced skiers. The lifts, however, are a bit old, and during a windy but bluebird day the mountain didn't operate the gondola and some lifts that take you to the top until the second half of the day - which we never understood why - not sure if it was a staffing issue or what. We did find out later there was a Japan holiday so maybe they didn't have staff for part of that day. When all of the lifts were operating, the mountain was not crowded at all, it felt open and free. While the lifts were a bit old, they did have beer vending machines at the summit - so nice to have one on the last ride down.
- Onsen Experience - The tower onsen was really more like a large indoor hot tub - not great. But the larger onsen that is accessed via a 2 minute shuttle bus has multiple outdoor hot springs, sauna, and cold tubs. This was A+. Super refreshing after a long day skiing.
- Food - The tower had several different restaurant options, with the hotel highly recommending to reserve before you arrive as the demand is quite high and restaurants are fairly limited. There's no town to go walk around and drop in on a restaurant, the tower and surrounding buildings had plenty of places to eat and drink - it's just not a big apres ski party town.
- Cost - If you start to book for December of 2020 and 2021 season, you'll see some pretty sweet deals to entice people to the mountain. I did a quick search and saw deals for ~$60 per person for double occupancy. Given the lack of travel across Japan due to coronavirus - 2020-21 may be the best time money-wise to explore Appi and other places across Japan.
We'd be happy to chat more, send us a note to firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like more information or have questions.
Reference 1 - map of prefectures and regions in Japan. For reference on regions to select to ski.
Reference 2 - Powder Hounds - one of our favorite sources for skiing around the world, notably Japan.
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