The Fantasy and Reality of Skiing in Japan

Aiken is a free-lance writer living in Nantucket, Mass.

I had a fantasy about skiing in Japan. I would schuss through deep, powdery snow to the foot of a mountain, where I would change and step into a steaming hot spring in the company of a beautiful geisha who, sliding open paper-thin doors, would offer me warmed sake while I soaked.

From the hotel window on my first ski trip in Japan, I watched a young girl snowplow past with a Walt Disney creature, life-size, attached piggyback to her ski parka.

She wore mirror sunglasses and yellow earmuff stereo headphones. I saw that the reality of skiing in Asia would be removed from my fantasy.

Because skiing originated in Europe, there are few outward differences when skiing in Japan. The equipment, lifts, skiing instruction are all the same. At times it looks as if some hotels have been shipped over from a Swiss Alps resort.

Signs of Confusion

But there are differences. Reading signs can be extremely difficult. On my first day skiing in Japan I decided to take pictures. When the chairlift banged into the camera in my backpack, I turned to raise it.

Then my left ski got caught behind the sign reading, in Japanese: "Keep your skis pointing forward." My ankle didn't break when it turned 180 degrees, but it was an inauspicious beginning.

I changed from chairlift to gondola and, at the summit, came to a parting of trails. I couldn't read what the signs said--intermediate or advanced--so I followed two skiers and found myself on the edge of a precipice, watching two Japanese pros slalom quickly out of sight. I am intermediate in skill.

I descended the snowy cliff horizontally, terror coming with the turn at either end. For moments I hung suspended in air, repeating over and over: "Why didn't I think of this?"

So some advice: Once out of Tokyo, English signs have a tendency to disappear. Beforehand, find out from hotel management or ski-rental people where the expert ski jump is, to avoid a nasty surprise.

Chilled by Prices

Try to bring your own ski clothing. I went to an advertised "ski sale" in Tokyo and was shocked at the high half-price totals. Skis, boots and poles can be rented at almost all slopes.

Time your skiing to avoid local holidays. Almost every slope in Japan is packed during the New Year's vacation, Dec. 25 through Jan. 7.

Hotels are booked well in advance. The first week in February is heavily booked on Hokkaido Island because of the snow sculpturing in Sapporo.

For the best skiing, go when the Japanese are working or in school, and ski during weekdays. Hokkaido is never as crowded as skiing on Honshu Island.

I found the best skiing in Japan to be on Hokkaido Island. I've never skied finer powder or waited less time in lift lines. That was during the second week in December on an island that is one-fifth the land mass of Japan but holds only 5% of the people.

You can get from Tokyo to Japan's finest slopes on a 90-minute flight.

Excursion Fares

Many ski excursion fares include hotel rooms. The Furano Prince Hotel on Hokkaido offers a twin-bed room for about $90 and has a gondola and 17 chairlifts. Ski lifts cost $24 a day, ski rentals $26. The Pension Furano charges $45 a night, including two meals Japanese style.

A Furano youth hostel offers dorm-style rooms for $24 a night, including two Japanese-style meals, one of which may be dried fish and rice and pickles for breakfast, with green tea.

Hokkaido has five national parks that include active volcanoes, crater lakes and wildlife reserves.

Skiing is as close as 45 minutes from Sapporo, the Hokkaido capital, at Mt. Teine, site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. The area has 12 lifts and night skiing, but I wanted more of the countryside. So I made reservations in Furano, three hours by bus from Sapporo.

I found a four-seat gondola and 17 chairlifts covering the slopes at Furano. For around $26 I rented ski equipment.

Capricious Weather

The snow was deep and fresh at Furano and, when the skies cleared, the skiing was perfect. The weather was quick-changing. Snow clouds, when they came, produced a thick, steady snow that fell for hours--great skiing but poor visibility. When on Hokkaido, while the sun shines, take advantage and ski nonstop.

There are many outdoor hot springs --rotenburo --on Hokkaido but the snow is so deep that they become inaccessible in winter. You would have to tunnel to some of them, so locals wait until roads open in spring. But that was not so on Honshu.

On the island of Honshu skiing can be a mix of heaven (Japan's highest mountains) and hell (within driving distance of 10 million skiers). Nevertheless, there are excellent slopes within a three-hour train ride from Tokyo.

I took the train from Tokyo's Ueno Station to Manza Kazawaguchi to ski at Manza Prince Hotel, where outdoor hot springs are accessible in winter. The hotel was built beside several rotenburo. The hotel charges $100 a night for a twin-bed room. There is also the Manza Kogen Lodge, which offers family-style bunk beds at $42 a night.

The Steaming Waters

After an introductory ski I headed for the steaming waters. There was one for men, written on a bilingual sign, one for women and one for konyoku, written only in Japanese. That, I was told, was the old style of mixed-sex outdoor bathing now "only for the older couples."

So I soaked with the men. The hotel is only steps away. In front is a snow-covered valley and mountain range. Snow fell lightly on my head and quickly disappeared on the water's surface.

That may have satisfied me until I heard of Korakukan, where monkeys use hot springs near those used by humans. Korakukan Inn is near Jigokudani in the Shiga Heights of the Japanese Alps. You have a 30-minute walk to this traditional inn (no cars; supplies brought in by snowmobile) and one passes a ski slope along the way.

Inn of Later Pleasure

Korakukan means Inn of Later Pleasure: i.e., have a long, hot soak after a snowy walk. It is a 100-year-old wooden inn and may be the last of its kind in Japan that one can't drive to. It costs $64 a night, including two meals.

Although skiing is a 20-minute walk away, I found myself first stalking monkeys. They are now semi-wild and are agile thieves, so we were warned about locking sliding porch doors. This short-tailed macaque lives father north than any other primate besides man.

Monkeys wake one from late sleeps at Korakukan. They scurry across rooftops and chatter in mock fights. The baby monkeys wrestle in furry balls that roll down hillsides and the adults de-lice each other while looking for open doors and windows.

Across the valley, day-trippers hike to the lookouts and down to the inn for green tea and chimaki-- a sweetened glutinous rice rolled tightly in bamboo leaf, a regional specialty.

You may downhill and cross-country ski near Korakukan. To do the latter you would have to bring the skis because cross-country rentals are not common in Japan.

But with monkey troupes surrounding you, it would be difficult to find more colorful trails. The apres-ski life is simple--soak away the muscle strains you may have accumulated during the day and sip sake as the moon rises.

Korakukan gives off the aura of an older Japan when men and women calmed themselves in the lap of the natural world.

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A Japan Rail Pass is recommended and will save considerably on trains, buses and ferries. The cost for a one-, two- or three-week pass goes from $180 to $380 and can only be bought outside Japan. Contact JAL ticket offices, (800) JAL-FONE, or Japan Travel Bureau. You must show a tourist or transit visa to Japan.

To find Korakukan: Ueno Station in Tokyo for JNR Shinetsu Honsen Line to Nagano City. Then Nagano Dentetsu local train to end of line at Yudanaka town. Local bus to Kambayashi Onsen, about $1.05 U.S., and walk from there to Korakukan along trail with monkey drawn over sign. In winter, good hiking boots are needed for icy parts of the trail.

For additional information, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 2640, Los Angeles 90010; or call (213) 623-1952.

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