Snow Time in Niigata

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Growing up in our tropical climate, seeing and touching snow for the first time is always a memorable moment. Terribly exciting, in fact, that often we forget to wear gloves and freeze our hands off! My past encounters with snow have not always been intentional though; it happened by chance either too early or too late in the season to fully enjoy it.

This trip completely changed my perception of winter holidays and we hope, others too. With a little bit of planning and preparing, snow time can be so much fun in Japan even if it’s your first time. Perhaps especially so when it’s your first time! All these years, autumn has always been my favourite time to visit Japan but now I’m not so convinced anymore. Let us take you through our recent snow journey in different prefectures and discover the joy of winter in our favourite destination – Japan.

While Hokkaido and Tohoku are a sure bet for some winter fun given its location on Japan’s archipelago, those who are venturing Central Japan and are looking for some frosty pleasure may find just the right elements in the two prefectures we are exploring today too: Ishikawa & Niigata (with the latter also fondly nicknamed “Snow Country” by the nation).

Full-Week Itinerary: Myoko Kogen | 妙高

Niigata is your best bet to winter activities when it comes to prefectures sitting below Tohoku region. Why do you think it is dubbed the “Snow Country”?

Myoko in Niigata is known as one of the heaviest snowfall spots in Japan, especially in January where several days of continuous heavy snow is common. This sets the perfect base of fresh powder snow for winter activities all the way till March. There’s a handful of ski resorts here for single thrill-seekers, group explorers, or family vacationers. Some spend an entire week (or two!) in a single resort while others hop around several within Myoko Kogen. This trip, we had the chance to explore three of its most prominent ski resorts: Suginohara, Akakura, Lotte Arai.

Access to Myoko Kogen Station or Joetsu Myoko Station:

From Tokyo Station, take Hokuriku Shinkansen’s Kagayaki to Nagano Station for JPY8350 (Approx. 1.5 hours). There, head up the escalator and board the local train Shinano Railway Kita-shinano Line to Myoko Kogen Station for JPY850 (Approx. 45 mins). Alternatively, the Hakutaka heads directly from Tokyo Station to Joetsumyoko Station from JPY9940 (Approx. 2 hours). From both stations, there are bus services that access the ski resorts below.

Suginohara Ski Resort | 杉ノ原スキー場

With the longest ski run in Japan at 8.5km, Suginohara Ski Resort is great for beginner to advanced skiers as well as snowboarders. There are 15 ski lifts that can carry up to 16,000 people per hour which makes lines relatively shorter than others, if any. We’ve seen skiers waiting in extremely long lines at other places and that does not look fun.

As (good) luck would have it, the heavy snowfall followed us all the way here.

Being so used to rain, naturally I felt like I have to take cover from the snow as it falls. It’s a strange feeling when everyone else is just hanging out in the open like nothing’s falling from the skies. The key is to have proper winter wear! Not just thick coats or layers of thermal wear, but windproof or waterproof outerwear that are suitable for snow sports. Here at Suginohara Ski Resort, rentals are available for both ski and snowboard gears (ski, poles, snowboard, boots) as well as snow wear (jacket, pants).

We picked our preferred rental wear designs to fully enjoy winter without hesitation!

We had our own fun making snow angels and sledding down a gentle slopes!

By the way, while ski and snowboard are internationally-used terms, sled is referred to as sori here in Japan.

We also took this gondola up, which is always an experience in itself for the gorgeous views.

Upon reaching the top, we found out that it was -12°c!!

Visibility was low; there were people getting ready to ski or snowboard down but our untrained eyes could barely see past much so we promptly hopped into the next gondola down. Apparently on clear days, Mt Fuji is visible at the summit. Hope to catch that view one day!

Access: < Ski Season Only > From Joetsumyoko Station, take the Myokokogen Liner Bus for JPY1300 (Approx. 70 mins). Bus route and schedule here. From Myoko Kogen Station, there are limited buses in a day. You can take the Myoko Shuttle Bus for JPY500 (Approx. 30 mins) or the City Bus on Suginosawa Line for JPY480 (Approx. 25 mins). Bus route and schedule here and here.

Akakura Onsen Ski Resort | 赤倉温泉スキー場

While we only made a quick stop here for lunch, this hot spring village seems popular among many foreign visitors for winter activities. If that’s what you’re looking for, access ski resort facility information here.

It’s said that when you’re in Akakura Onsen, its signature red yakisoba is a must-try. This bright red dish was created by this humble eatery by the corner on the village’s main street and we went straight to the source.

Miyoshiya | みよしや

476 Akakura, Myoko, Niigata

Despite its striking appearances, it isn’t actually spicy – it’s colored red only by local vegetables like tomatoes and paprika. Even so, this red yakisoba packs a punch in the flavour department and reminds us of the our local delicacies back in Malaysia. Was it the spices? Sue Ann thinks it resembles Mi Goreng while Cheesie says it has a hint of Tandoori! We heard the ramen here is delicious too!

Access: < Ski Season Only > From Suginohara Ski Resort, take the Mt Myoko Shuttle Bus for JPY500 (Approx. 25 mins). Bus route and schedule here.  The restaurant is a short walk away upon arrival.

Stay: Lotte Arai Resort | ロッテアライリゾート

This resort is impressive. Even before stepping in, it felt like we’ve arrived at an European countryside resort and that feeling grew stronger as we toured the grounds.

Relatively new after its reopening by new ownership in 2017, Lotte Arai Resort is an upmarket resort with its classy yet cozy atmosphere and luxurious stays ranging from deluxe suites to presidential suites. It is immensely spacious (we got lost at one point!) and foreigner-friendly with English-speaking staff members. With heavy snowfall that continued on, unfortunately we didn’t get to spend much time outdoors but do access ski resort facility information here. It’s 1.5km zip line is popular among thrill-seekers too!

Here are something different for non-skiers to enjoy too: indoor playgrounds!

We did get to enjoy some of its indoor facilities like its indoor entertainment park where guests can work out a sweat bouncing on interconnected trampolines and bouldering walls of varied difficulties for JPY2000 an hour. Kids are welcome! This is a great spot to keep active when the weather gets too intense outside.

Lotte Arai’s in-house hot spring, Hoshizora Onsen, is highly recommended!

Official photo from Lotte Arai Resort.

This was such a treat for us; it has spacious outdoor baths which look absolutely breath-taking in the winter. It was snowing the night we went for a dip; the contrast of hot and cold was incredible. We enjoyed it so much that we woke up super early the next morning for another soak. No photography is allowed; but imagine this view with pure white snow. Takes onsen experiences to a whole new level!

Great news for inked guests like myself; Hoshizora Onsen is a tattoo-friendly hot spring!!

Dinner that night in Asahi Restaurant was particularly sumptuous.

By far one of the most indulgent hotel buffets I’ve enjoyed. Local Japanese food like assorted sashimi, sushi, grilled seafood, sukiyaki, nabe were freshly prepared right in front of its respective stations in small portions to ensure freshness. There were salads, stews, pickles, stuffed buns, grilled meats, and many more. Service was wonderfully attentive with staff clearing used plates almost immediately and offers of assistance with the smallest tasks; often in English.

Access: < Ski Season Only > From Akakura Onsen or Myoko Kogen Station, take the Lotte Arai Resort Shuttle for JPY1500 (Approx. 80 mins). Bus route and schedule here. There are also direct bus services from Tokyo Narita or Haneda Airport for JPY11500 (Approx. 6-7 hours). Bus route and schedule here.

Winter has come to an end for now but we hope this first chapter of our snow adventures in Niigata have stoked your interest in these underrated prefectures that offers plenty of winter excitement!