Last weekend, I was able to check off one more prefecture on my list, as I traveled to Nagano. Alongside a hundred other people and three coach buses, I departed Osaka on Friday night. After a seven hour drive while crammed in seats designed for, well, smaller people, I managed to rehabilitate both my legs before hitting the slopes at Ryuo Ski Resort.
A custom tracked van designed to maneuver in the snow delivered me from the parking lot to my hotel. The mountain resort staff was expecting us, and laid out all our ski clothing and rentals on a table for us to pick up. Now, if you’re expecting ski lodges in Japan to be like your basic lodge in the states, then think again. Here are just a few differences between skiing experiences in Japan and the U.S. that I have observed from two ski trips here:
- In Japan, everyone changes into their ski gear in the parking lot, and hikes up to the lift in their ski boots.
- There are no fire places in the lodge. Nor are there many inside areas for you to just hangout out and warm up.
- It’s impossible to find ski rentals post 1998ish. Everything is very outdated, but it still works. Again, this is just from visiting two resorts.
- No hot chocolate
- Chair lifts are extremely low to the ground. Meaning, instead of the chair hitting you in the back of the knee while you get on, it catches you just about your ankle. This is convenient for an infant, but a bit surprising for a grown adult. Looking back, I can remember a time when I was very young and my sister and cousin sandwiched me off the lift as I struggled to hop on. Although they were successful in having the operator stop the entire lift for me to pick myself off the ground and crawl up to the chair, I don’t believe their scheme would have ever worked had we been getting on a Japanese chairlift.
- I’m convinced that 80+% of Japanese people snowboard. You can’t escape boarders sitting in the middle of the trail; They’re everywhere. (Yes, I know I sound like an east coast ski snob)
- The views from mountains in Gifu and Nagano put most views from east coast mountains in the US.. to shame.
As mentioned previously, there are some incredible views from mountain summits in Nagano, and Saturday was no different. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the temperature was in the 50’s (very unusual for early March). Resultantly, the snow turned to slush as the day progressed. But, it was nice not shivering your butt off on a chairlift.
One of the coolest things on the mountain was the gondola that holds 160 people! It’s proclaimed to be the largest one in Japan. However, it doesn’t take you to the top of the mountain. And, that’s not saying much since the mountain seemed to be dwarfed by its surrounding neighbors. I was definitely a little disappointed in the height of the mountain, and the number of trails available, but I couldn’t complain on such a beautiful day. I guess you need to go to the Hakuba region of Nagano to get that olympic quality ski experience. Overall, if someone invites you to make the trek up to northern Nagano to Ryuo Ski Park, don’t feel bad about declining the invitation.
After skiing on Saturday, Sunday provided me with the opportunity to see the famed onsen snow monkeys. It was about a thirty minute drive from the hotel, followed by a short twenty minute walk in the woods. At Jigokudani Monkey Park, the smell of natural rich sulfer greeted me as I made my way off the bus, but it soon dissipated after a few minutes of hiking. Along the way, you might be able to catch a few monkeys of the side of the trail. I guess these are the outcasts ones who aren’t allowed in the onsen.
However, many monkeys are permitted by their peers to bathe in the natural hot spring waters, and I was able to get a few pictures amongst the flock of tourists. It was a fun experience to have monkeys walking all around you. Just make sure you don’t stare daggers at them because it might provoke them to attack. Just as I was leaving, the rain turned to big snow flakes, but I didn’t want to trek back up the trail to get more pictures. So, you’ll have to settle with rainy ones.
By three o’clock I was back on the bus en route for Osaka, with that Sunday night feeling where you know it’s only a matter of hours before you need to be back at school. However, seeing the snow monkey onsen definitely made it a worthwhile trip.