Monday, April 1, 2013

Yukiguni (Snow Country)

One of my Nihonggo teachers once told me that to enjoy my stay in Japan, I have to experience what each of its distinct season can offer. Having spent our Christmas in Manila, I realized that we were not really able to enjoy any Japanese winter activity and it is already spring here in Tokyo!

After some research, I learned that Japan is not only famous for Hello Kitty, anime and the beautiful cherry blossoms but is also home to some of the best ski slopes in the world. And in the slopes, winter extends until late May! So it's unanimous, our family will give skiing a try! My daughter, Elisha, is particularly curious since her favorite Little Pony character, Rainbow Dash is a good skier.

It was the celebration of the Spring Equinox when we decided to head off to Ueno, Tokyo at 5am to catch the 7:06am Bullet Train (Shinkansen) to Niigata. We need to be  at the station early to avoid the crowd and have guaranteed seats. Taking the bus is cheaper, but travel time takes 3 hours compared to the one hour ride via shinkansen. To reach Echigo Yuzawa by 8:11am, we need to take either the Max Tanigawa or Max Toki  Joetsu Shinkansen of JR East Line. It was my family's first bullet train ride so we were all excited. 

Joetsu Shinkansen

With the many equally known ski provinces in Japan, we have settled to try Iwappara Ski Resort in Echigo Yuzawa, Niigata not only because of its proximity to Tokyo but also because of its kid-friendly facilities. Yuzawa is known throughout Japan as "Snow Country" being the  title of the Nobel Prize winning novel written by Yasunori Kawabata. The story's setting was in Yuzawa and was written while Kawabata was staying in the place. I was intrigued on how it could have evoked such lovely words from the novel's author and I immediately knew why upon alighting the train.

View from our Shuttle Bus

Our hotel, Sierra Resort, is a cozy bed and breakfast located right in middle of the slopes. We were glad with our choice because of its proximity to the walkway tunnel, Kids Park and the Information Center and Lift Stations of the Iwappara Ski Resort. Their picture windows offer a nice view of the Alps as well as their open-air onsen (hot spring pool). Their English speaking staff, Michiyo Izumi-san made everything easy for us. Most especially, they agreed to prepare gluten-free, milk-free and soy-free meals for my son. They also gave us a reasonable package with free lift passes and ski rental for the kids .

(Photo taken from hotel website)

View from the Hotel Lobby 

After a quick breakfast and upon checking-in, our ski instructor picked us up for a two-hour session. We booked a two-day/two-hour/session package with Canyons because they have English speaking instructors. Although it is not encouraged for adults and kids to attend the same lesson, we still went for it as we want to be able to watch the kids.

Instructor Jimmy Adjusting our Skis Before the Start of our Session

Balancing act!

The kids learned faster than the adults because they were not afraid to fall.

It was snowing heavily when we woke up the next morning! 

We soon found out that skiing and sledding was easier with fresh powdery snow...

Day-Two Photo with our Instructor

Snow Mobile Tour of the Resort


On board the Lift 

Kids Park

Igloos and Snow Mountains

View from the top!

Zach's Gluten-Free Dinner

Dinner for the Adults

This is not your ordinary heated pool! Water from this onsen is gathered from the geothermal springs of the nearby alps. There are two separate pools for male and female guests. Cameras are not allowed in the onsen, but we were lucky to be the only guests using the facility so we were able to sneak a shot.

At dusk the following day, we said goodbye to this view with a promise that we will be back before the slopes close on May 26.