The powder adventure continues in Shiga Kogen
After three days of exploring Hakuba, our crew were feeling acclimatized to the immense and fascinating Japanese culture and ready to venture further into the wintry reaches of Nagano. A bus and train transfer got us to Yamanouchi town which sits in a wide river valley 30 minutes from Nagano and at the base of the mountain that played host to our next ski destination, Shiga Kogen. With only a portion of our day used for travel we decided to take advantage of the clear weather and soak in some of the local sights.
First up was a compulsory visit to the much talked about Jigokudani snow monkey park. The snow monkey’s reputation well and truly preceded them with “interesting” portraits scattered through local information, advice on NOT to stare them directly in the eye and the story of their invasion of the onsen pools. None of this prepared us for the completely bizarre scene of the little grey creatures leisurely bathing in hot water, hanging their hands over the edge to cool off and taking turns having a good old scrub! Incredibly human in their mannerisms and so blasé about the camera lenses and crowds peering at them during their bath time, I understand now why they are one of the top attractions of the Nagano prefecture!
At the base of the snow monkey access trail was the Kanbayashi Hotel Senjukaku. This was most definitely not in our accommodation budget (which is a damn shame) but the offer to check out a traditional geisha performance was sent our way and we were more than willing to step inside the luxurious Japanese style building. The geisha was exquisite and we were all mesmerised as she took us through songs and dances with her soft lilting voice and traditional instruments. Slow and smooth in her movement, she had us all self-conscious in the fact that we were struggling to sit cross legged on the floor!
Leaping on a bus once again we headed the last 30 minutes of our day’s travel up to a series of tree-clad plateaus beneath a scattering of peaks. It took the dawn of the following day to start getting our bearings and we weren’t quite prepared for what Shiga Kogen offered. That place is ENORMOUS! Recent upgrades to their ticketing system mean that with one pass we had access to over 60 lifts across 21 ski fields and a free shuttle to each. Despite skiing there for two days, realistically we would have struggled to ski the entire spread of runs on offer, really shoving home the fact that it is the largest ski area in Asia. What we did discover though, was a fun, family friendly resort that provides immaculately prepared piste runs ranging in steepness and width meaning there was something for everyone. Winding trails, wide springy corduroy in the mornings and for those wanting a little adventure; the opportunity to nip into the trees bordering the piste. Instead of the resort town culture that many of us are used to, Shiga Kogen has clusters of hotels at the base of most of the main arterial lifts. These vary in price and size but all generally include breakfasts and dinner. A quick chat with a visiting Australian family confirmed that the ski in/ski out aspect of this set up is awesome for kids and the English speaking ski schools and accessible slopes make for a happy holiday
With some time to spare on our final day we opted to have a wander through the Shibu Spa area of Yamanouchi town. Once again the amazing balance of tradition, history and modern Japan struck me at full noise. We stepped from a busy road into the hidden and quiet Shibu area. Time definitely slowed down as we passed old women bent double, sweeping their back steps and giggling posse’s of Japanese girls tottering down the narrow cobbled streets in their robes and wooden sandals. Amazingly someone had the foresight to protect this gem of a place, retaining much of the traditional architecture, streetside stores and culture revolving around the rest and relaxation that is so important to many domestic travellers. Given the opportunity again we would have opted for at least one night in one of the traditional local ryokan’s (small hotel) and taken the time to tour the winding streets, onsen hopping as the Japanese visitors have for 1300 years.
Next stop Nozawa Onsen!