It’s 7 years since we first featured Naeba, and 6 years since inter-connected Kagura scored our inaugural Japan Ski Boss of the Year Award. The message is starting to get through, this area ticks plenty of boxes. Naeba is great for powder, piste, families and convenience, it’s 100% ski in/ski out, and all that with the added advantage of being the closest major resort to Tokyo. Prince Hotels have a door to door shuttle from the Shinagawa Hotel that takes just under 4 hours, or it’s about 75 minutes on the shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa and a 40 minute shuttle bus from the station. That puts you on snow by lunchtime off an overnight flight, or lets you ski most of your last day leaving on an evening flight.
Looks big you are probably thinking of the picture above, and yep, that is one big hotel complex, boasting 1,224 rooms, 20 restaurants, 7 bars, amusement arcades, hot springs and even an indoor/outdoor learn to ski area for kids to get them started when it’s dumping/too cold (it’s even open at night).
You step out front to a host of lift options, the 900m vertical takes only one long fast gondola and one short double chairlift ride to access, so you can get plenty of mileage in. Naeba boasts excellent fall-line groomed runs to rival anywhere in Japan, being not far behind Happo-One and Furano in that regard.
They leave 20% of the courses ungroomed, allowing plenty of pow shots for the earlybirds, but the overall attitude to skiing off trail here remains old school lose-your-pass-they-chase-you. On a socked in dumping day who’s going to know in our experience in the trees (as long as you know where you’re going of course), but otherwise just take the 20 minute 5.5km ‘Dragondola’ ride over to Kagura, where accessing the back country and skiing the trees is positively encouraged, from top management down. In the heart of the mountains they get plenty of snow, even more at the bit higher and closer to the west coast Kagura than Naeba itself – 10m plus vs 6m plus at Naeba.
In fact the average season there is over 6 months, from late November to the end of May, so it’s a safe bet if your available dates only run to early or late season.
All the high rise blocks in the background effectively cater to the separate Asagai area that only opens weekends and holidays, including nights if you want to check it out – there are bars and restaurants in this town area, and some cheaper accommodation, but the convenience and value for money of the various grades of rooms on offer at the Prince make that hardly worthwhile unless you are on a super tight budget. Still maybe it’s those high rise, or the perception “it’s just a big hotel” area and must be crowded as a result that’s kept Naeba from being far more popular with our market, so far. No doubt it does get busy peak times, but we have hardly hit a lift queue or crowds in several midweek visits over 6 seasons.
A lack of fellow Aussies will be seen as a plus by many, although the flipside of that usually is less of us means less English language businesses and services. For parents the key service in that regard is Ski School, and the Naeba International Snow School, set up by Scotsman Angus Brown [he has moved on to Hakuba in 2016] and staffed by Scots, Kiwis, Aussies and more, has all you need program wise from First Powder morning sessions to Family Lessons and Snowshoe Tours.
Plenty of fun family activities like snowmobiling and snow rafting or the games arcade help make it one of the best places to take kids. Bigger kids of all ages can get serious in the terrain park and snow cross course, and adult kids will enjoy the snowmobiles. It’s designed in the full-on-fun mode for people with limited time to pack a lot in, which is the case for most hard-working Japanese families. It might apply if you are up in J-land on a business trip too and can squeeze out an extra couple of days.
On our first visit a few years back our guide was a former World Cup board racer, Takumai Nagai, who handcrafts beautiful bamboo inlaid swallow tail split boards. You need one of those, or alpine touring ski gear, to enjoy the best of Kagura, with allowed, or rather actively encouraged hiking above the top lift to access some awesome tree runs there. Some lines are pretty obvious, and if you know your stuff and orientate properly can do it off your own bat, but Kagura’s pro-backcountry access CEO, Minoru Nakazawa-san, recommends getting a guide otherwise.
“We strongly encourage all levels of skiers and riders to challenge themselves and get into the backcountry. However, if you are inexperienced or skiing Kagura for the first time, we highly recommend using one of the area’s professional guides” he says. “These guides will not only keep you safe, but they will also show you Kagura’s best spots!”
It’s 100% true in our experiencs, we had a ball with our half day guiding session in the morning, that after lunch at the Wadagoya Mountain Refuge there (where you can stay the night and get first shot at everything) we worked our way back to the Dragondola link riding empty lifts above the high altitude Lake Tashiroko. Midweek in February, with great snow, it was deserted.
For more variety in the area you could go further down the valley to the areas round Echigo-Yuzawa station, though being lower and closer to the coast they tend to get more variable and heavier snow. Even between Kagura and Naeba on the same day it was noticeably dryer at Naeba.
Kick on with night skiing if you can – it’s good for a warm up on arrival day if you get in late. I normally prefer onsen, dinner and beer after dark in Japan but when it’s dumping and you only have to fall out the door it does get tempting.
So if you are tossing up where to go next, or with limited time, put Naeba high on your list of options. The inclusive packages with breakfasts, dinners and lifts are great value.
The Shinagawa Prince Hotel, which is in front of Shinagawa Station, has good access to Narita Airport, Haneda Airport, Tokyo Big Site, and the Tokyo Forum, as well as movie theaters, bowling, the Epson Aqua Park Shinagawa, tennis, golf, swimming pools and other entertainment facilities.
For skiers the Naeba White Snow Shuttle bus service delivers you the 212km door-to-door in 4 hours (including a 15 minute refreshment stop) with plenty of room for ski/snowboards. At ¥3,600, children to 12 years half price (2014 rates; to be set for 2015-16) it’s great value. More at