By Matt Klampert
It will come as no surprise to anyone that the area of YUKIGUNI has a long and storied history with winter sports, in particular skiing. In fact, Niigata is considered to be the birthplace of the Japanese ski phenomenon thanks to Theodore von Lerch, an Austrian soldier, who first introduced the sport to the Japanese in 1911. Originally prized for its military applications, it also grew in popularity as a way to have fun in winter. In the 1930s, the Japanese government asked another Austrian, the famous ski instructor Hannes Schneider, the “father of modern skiing,” to teach it recreationally. He would end up teaching thousands at a time, and the sport entered a boom period. Now, there are over 700 ski slopes in Japan, with the ones in YUKGUNI among the best.
How to get started
Beginning in November, the ski slopes around the seven towns that make up YUKIGUNI begin to open, and tourists come pouring in. Ski pros love the Snow Country area for its dry, powdery snow, but that doesn’t mean that those who are new to the sport need be left in the cold. Yuzawa in particular can be an ideal skiing experience for first-timers, myself included! I had some trepidation toward skiing here, but even for someone like me, who isn’t particularly sporty, the experience was a good one.
Skiing at Nakazato
That day I went out to the ski slopes of Nakazato, along with my instructor, who was himself a native English speaker. We chose Nakazato as it has more gentle slopes and often isn’t too crowded. However, Nakazato is also enjoyed by intermediate to advanced skiers because of the ability to do off-terrain skiing there. This allows people much more freedom, and more of a feeling of being in nature. The views you can find while skiing off-terrain in YUKIGUNI are truly second to none.
We picked a good day for our ski lesson, as there was good visibility and fresh snow on the ground. The first thing I noticed, and the first challenge I overcame, was the skiwear itself: When it comes to the difference between winter sports, such as skiing and snowboarding, one of the biggest differences is what you’ve got on your feet! When you ski, you have to balance stability and maneuverability, and so the ski boots that you use as a beginner may feel quite stiff, especially when the skis themselves are attached.
Challenges when skiing
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges that beginners are likely to experience is simply getting up the slope. Getting the hang of walking on skis can be a real challenge, even compared to something like ice skating. Your instructor will likely have you practice sliding, and learning how to pick up momentum. Just as important of course, is learning how to stop! The best thing to do is not rush things, and anticipate that you will need an hour or two to get acclimated to wearing and moving in your skis before you climb a single slope.
Once you are ready, it is time to do some real skiing! I found the prospect of using a ski lift somewhat daunting, but it is perfectly doable with an instructor present. However, for those that want an absolutely stress-free experience, look for a slope with a ski escalator, or “magic carpet.” Once you are up there, the most important thing is not to panic, and try to stay on your feet. Somewhat paradoxically, it is also important to get a feel for this without staring at your skis the whole time, although your instincts may be telling you to keep looking down. As for myself, it did seem like I spent most of the time slowly braking down a hill, but nevertheless I made it down in one piece!
Now let’s hear from the experts themselves!
Daniel is a ski instructor from Chile, who has been in Japan for two years. His hometown was nearby to the mountains, so he began to ski at a young age with his family. With positive reinforcement and encouragement from his own teachers, he was able to improve his skills until he moved to America, where he became a ski instructor himself. He enjoys travelling around Japan in his spare time, including a working holiday in Miyazaki and a short stint working as a farmer in Hokkaido.
Daniel has the following advice for beginning skiers: “Use the magic carpet, and remember to take breaks when starting out.” As for places to go, he recommends going to Nakazato and Ishiuchi, especially at night. “Even if it is small, it doesn’t get crowded, and you can do off-terrain, which is nice.” Night skiing is even recommended for beginners, since the slopes are well-lit and visibility is good. In this area, it is especially good to ski on nights and weekdays if you want to avoid the usual rush of skiers and have more room for yourself. He also recommends Maiko, and Hodaigi in Minakami for their beautiful views. “If you are a foreigner coming to Japan for the first time (to ski) and want to have a
Japanese experience…here is that place.”
Kinga is from Poland, and also comes from a family of skiers. Both of her parents are skiers, and taught her to ski. While a student, she entered competitions and later became an instructor. She particularly enjoys off-terrain, or backcountry skiing. In the past, she taught for two winters a year: first during the winter in YUKIGUNI, and then travelling to New Zealand during our summer to teach there. However, now she divides her time between here and Hakuba, where she is an instructor and nature guide for such summer activities as rafting, hiking, and mountain biking. Kinga enjoys YUKIGUNI for its combination of great skiing, shrines, and also hot springs. She recommends Yuzawa as a great skiing destination for skiers of all skill levels, and recommends Kagura Resort in particular to advanced skiers.
Book your own ski excursion today!
My own instructor that day was provided by Snow Country Instructors. They are a group of ski instructors based in Yuzawa that specialize in non-Japanese clientele. They are available not only for skiing, but also other winter sports such as snowboarding and snowshoeing as well. Feel free to check out available packages at their website HERE.
Some Recommended Skiing Areas around YUKIGUNI
Yuzawa Nakazato Snow Resort (Yuzawa)
Address: 5044-1 Tsuchidaru, Yuzawa Town, Minamiuonuma District, Niigata Prefecture 949-6103
Ishiuchi Maruyama Ski Resort (Minamiunouma)
Address: 1655 Ishiuchi, Minamiuonuma City, Niigata Prefecture 949-6372
Hodaigi Ski Resort (Minakami)
Address: 3839-1 Fujiwara, Minakami Town, Tone District, Gunma Prefecture 379-1721
Sakae Club Ski Area (Sakae)
Address: 2903 Hokushin, Sakae Village, Shimominochi District, Nagano Prefecture 389-2702
Matsunoyama Onsen Ski Resort (Tokamachi)
Address: 909 Matsunoyama-amamizushima, Tokamachi City, Niigata Prefecture 942-1434