Well it has been a few months since my last post, but unfortunately I have been rather busy with a few major jobs on. So with Christmas out of the way and the pressure off we felt that it would be a great idea to spend the New Year break skiing at our favourite resort Tsugaike Kogen in Nagano Prefecture. This is the resort I spent two winters working in in the early 1990’s so is always great to return and catch up with old friends and enjoy the wonderful facilities the field has to offer for a family ski holiday.
Tsugaike Kogen from above
We caught the bus from Shinjuku Station on the Tuesday afternoon and settled in for the 5 hour drive up to the resort. Travelling to the mountains here is considerably less stressful than the drive to most New Zealand ski resorts. The road system seems as efficient and well maintained as their train systems with regular rest stops a long the way offering all manner of refreshments and souvenirs to make the trip enjoyable. We arrived at Hakuba Happo Bus Station around 8:00pm where we are picked up by Satoshi who is manager of the Cerulean Alpine Hotel and an old friend.
After checking in and enjoying a quick bath in the hotel’s onsen it is off to bed in anticipation of a great days skiing in the morning. We wake early and head down to breakfast in the dining room and enjoy a fantastic full on Japanese style breakfast with about 6 different dishes and more food than we could eat. After breakfast we kit up in our warmest gears as the weather is atrocious and head off to arrange our equipment at the rental shop next door to the hotel. Once kitted with our gear we are ready to hit the slopes and head off to the Kane-no-naru-oka Slope to meet up with our friends. This slope alone has 3 quad lifts ferrying eager skiers to the top of an approximately 1km long learners slope which make it ideal for a family with young kids still mastering the art of skiing. We spent the morning making the most of the freshly falling snow, although it did make it rather cold when riding the lifts. For lunch we headed across to the Oya-no-hara Slope and skied to Country Joe’s Curry House which is operated by an old friend on the side of the slope. It was great to catch up with Endow-san and his family while we enjoyed a delicious curry to warm us up before we went back out in the cold. The next day was much the same although in slightly colder conditions.
Lunch at Country Joe’s
On our third day we decided it was time to move on from the beginners slopes and try out something more challenging, so we moved up a level of lifts in the morning before heading back down to the gondola base station to meet a new friend for lunch. We decided to check out somewhere new and settled on Cloche, where we were treated to some delicious traditional Japanese style dishes. After lunch we loaded into a gondola and took the 25 minute ride up to the top of the mountain. As some of the slopes were a bit advanced for the kids we were able to take the beginners route down the summer roadway until we got to one within their capabilities. We emerged on the Hanoki run and enjoyed the extra challenge that this slope offered over what we had been skiing. This took us down to the base of the Maruyama lift and allowed us to finish the afternoon skiing on this intermediate slope, although the girls did decide to head back to the Skyliner 4 run once their legs started to tire, leaving Jimmy and I to enjoy the intermediate runs at our own speed without waiting for anyone. By 4:00pm the weather was starting to pack it in again so we decided to call it a day, so headed back to the hotel, returned our rental gear and got ready for another full on Japanese dinner experience at the hotel.
Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Snow Monkey Park)
The next morning we were up nice and early again to have breakfast before catching a taxi to Happo Bus Station so we could catch the bus to Nagano and go and visit the famous Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Yaen Koen, something the kids have been eager to experience since I visited with friends earlier in the autumn. We were lucky enough to discover that there is a special package ticket on offer at Happo Bus Station for 5,000 yen (2,500 for children) offering return bus fares to the closest bus stop to the Monkey Park. From Nagano Station we caught another bus to Kambayashi Onsen from where it is a 30 minute walk to see the monkeys. The walk up is through a snow covered forest along some icy tracks (crampons definitely make the walk up in winter a lot easier). Most of the track is easy going with only a couple of minor climbs or stairs along the way. After a while you arrive at the hot springs area and if you are unlucky enough you may even catch a glimpse of humans bathing in the pool across the river from the verandah of the ticket office. From the ticket office it is only a 5 minute walk to the pool the monkeys frolic in. I have always had this picture in my head of a valley filled with hot pools and bathing monkeys based on the pictures I have seen over the years of this attraction, however reality is vastly different (although in now way disappointing), the hot POOLS are in fact a hot POOL not much bigger than a small backyard swimming pool. The monkeys themselves are fascinating and you can spend hours watching them bathing or running around the outside of the pool or in the snow. While they are a completely wild troop managed only via feeding you are able to get within cms of them at times. It is not good practice to approach them too closely but generally if they come towards you or by you they will pass quite closely without causing you any problems. It is only if you have something they want or if you approach them too close that you can find yourself in trouble. One monkey took a liking to Molly’s bag of souvenirs she was carrying back down the mountain and tried to rip it from her hands and was quite confused when she hid it behind her back and up her jacket to avoid any further trouble. As we wanted to catch the last bus back to Tsugaike Kogen we left the park around 2:00pm and made our way back to the bus stop. Our kids left totally satisfied that they had experienced something amazing and which they will remember for the rest of their lives. This is one of those activities that anyone visiting Japan should put on their list of must see attractions, from Tokyo there are also day trips which are good value if you don’t have the time to travel there yourself.
The last night I spent enjoying a few beers and sakes with Satoshi and some of the other staff and guests at the hotel till the early hours of the morning, before catching a few hours sleep then onto the 9:00am bus home. It was great to catch up with old friends and make some new ones and to also see our own kids forging new friendships with the children of my friends. Tsugaike is like a second home to me after having enjoyed working there in the ’90’s so it is always special spending time there.
The best way to access Tsugaike Kogen is by bus, it is about half the price of the Shinkansen and despite the speed of the Shinkansen still takes about the same amount of time to get there, buses leave regularly from Shinjuku Station. Book online at http://highway-buses.jp/hakuba/
I may be biased but we always stay at the Hotel Cerulean Alpine, it is a family run hotel which always offers a warm welcome and amazing food. If you can’t get in here try Country Joe’s.
If you are looking for something slopeside, you can’t go past the popular Country Joe’s Curry House, which offers a menu of Currys and Pizzas along with hot and cold drinks. This is a small restaurant with seating for about 16 people inside but is well worth the wait. If you are happy to walk a short distance off the slopes try Cloche near the Gondola Base Station, here you can sit down and relax over a traditional Japanese style meal or even have a beer.
If you have a spare day or two in the area it is well worth the effort to check out the Snow Monkeys at Jigakodani, Get the Nagano Snow Resort Pass and catch the Express Bus to Nagano from Hakuba Happo Station at 9:25am, which should allow you to get to Kanbayashi Onsen-guchi bus stop around 12:00, it is a 30 minute walk up to the monkeys, The last bus direct to Tsugaike leaves Nagano Station at 4:10pm so you need to catch the bus from Kanbayashi Onsen-guchi at 3:10pm. This leaves you about 2 hours to take in the Monkey Park and have something to eat at one of the restaurants along the way as well, or get some takeaways at the restaurant near the base of the walkway. The last bus back to Nagano leaves at 5:15pm, with the last bus from Nagano to Hakuba leaving at 9:45pm. Nagano is also famous for the Zenkoji Temple which is nearby Nagano Station if you have time to spare.
After a brief flirtation with Japan in the early '90's, and some occasional trips to Australia since, I have had an unrequited love affair with Japan and general desire to explore the world for the next 20 years while reality prevailed and I found myself pretty much stuck in my home country of New Zealand (not that is an entirely bad thing...).After a chance opportunity arose in mid 2012 to relocate our family to Moscow, Russian Federation I finally set off on my OE with my family in tow. It has been an amazing journey that has seen us experience life in Russia, Japan and now Finland, as well as visiting around a dozen countries so far in our adventure to date.While my family situation has changed along the way, I am continuing to explore the world with my tri-lingual son and enjoy sharing the adventures we have had with my followers.
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