The JR East Nagano Niigata Pass is the most popular JR Pass option for winter visitors to Japan. No surprise there – it provides easy access to Honshu’s busiest and most popular resorts. Bustling Hakuba, sprawling Shiga Kogen, historic Nozawa, and the latest “next Nisekos” like Myoko and Madarao, are all just a bus ride from shinkansen stations along the Nagano route.
So many foreign skiers and boarders flock to these resorts you don’t need itinerary advice to join them. These days you can spend your Hakuba holiday in an Australian owned lodge, rent gear from an Aussie owned shop, eat in Aussie owned restaurants, aprés ski in Aussie owned bars, watch an Aussie do the ski report, and be guided by Aussie ski guides. You can even use an Epic Australia Pass for 5 days skiing. It’s like skiing at home, but bigger, with noodles ..
No wonder it’s popular. Just get a train to Nagano, jump on the Hakuba bus, and Bob’s your uncle .. Too easy!
Much the same applies at Myoko and Madarao, where Aussie owned businesses have mushroomed in recent years, and to a lesser extent at Nozawa. Any combination of these, plus Shiga Kogen and the spectacular “new” Lotte Arai, work smoothly with a JR East Nagano Niigata Pass – use the full 5 travel days on that to mix them up traveling between Nagano, Iiyama City and Joetsu-Myoko stations.
But if you prefer to find areas with great snow, great terrain and far fewer foreigners, check out our “escape the hordes” itinerary options below.
JR East Nagano Niigata Pass escape the hordes itinerary
Maybe we should rephrase that. This is an “Escape the geijin hordes” itinerary to be precise.
Gala Yuzawa is Japan’s most popular ski resort, unique for having direct shinkansen to slopes access. So yes, expect hordes! But they are easy enough to avoid too.
Day 1: JR Pass Travel Day – ski & stay Naeba/Yuzawa area
There is no quicker way to get from an overnight flight to decent snow than using the Joetsu Shinkansen to Echigo or Gala Yuzawa. On weekends there’s a series of snow special trains whisking you from Tokyo Station to Yuzawa in around 70 minutes.
Gala Yuzawa is owned by JR Rail, with the resort linked by lifts up from the platforms to the base of the gondola. Doesn’t get easier than that!
Echigo Yuzawa is the regular town station just before Gala Yuzawa. From here you have a choice of a dozen nearby areas accessed by shuttle buses or taxis. Or right across the road from the station exit is the bottom of Yuzawa Kogen. You can buy a 3 area ticket here that includes Gala Yuzawa and Ishiuchi too. There’s a lift connection across a valley from Yuzawa Kogen to Gala Yuzawa, then you just ski on into Ishiuchi, the largest and most varied of these three.
Kandatsu Kogen is a good pick for powder days – it’s a short 10 minute shuttle ride from the station.
Arriving off the plane with luggage it’s best to have sorted some accommodation in Yuzawa – there are plenty of great value options. Then just drop the bags and go skiing.
Or even easier, stay at Naeba Prince Resort, which is a 50 minute free (for Prince guests) shuttle ride up the road. Here you get all the benefits of ski in/ski out from the massive hotel complex and the chance to ski everything from fast groomers to out-the-gate fresh snow at the inter-linked Kagura side of the resort.
Day 2 to Day 4 or 5 – ski and stay Naeba/Yuzawa areas
Staying a few nights at Naeba you can take the shuttle back down to Yuzawa to ski the resorts there for the day, and night – the ‘Nighta’ night skiing at Ishiuchi in particular is worth it.
The Yuzawa areas are quite low altitude generally, so the snow can be heavier and spring arrives sooner, but in peak winter from the end of December to late February you can get some great powder days and midweek it is usually not crowded at all.
Naeba Prince offers great value for money and kids Ski Free to 12 years so it’s an excellent choice for families.
Yuzawa has lots of restaurants and izakaya, plenty of accommodation and shops galore, especially in the big arcade at the station. So it’s a lively and cheap option, with far less western influence than at the main Nagano resort areas.
Day 5 or 6: JR Pass Travel Day – ski & stay Minakami area
On our JR East Nagano Niigata Pass itinerary you can ski most of the day and travel in the afternoon, or vice versa.
From Echigo Yuzawa it’s a short ride back to Jomo Kogen shinkansen station for Minakami in neighbouring Gunma Prefecture. This popular onsen town is strung out along a river valley, with everything from upmarket onsen resort hotels to great value ryokans.
Self drive is good here for fast access to the main areas according to conditions, but distances are not big either so taxis are a viable alternative. Booking in with a guide outfit – look no further than Canyons.jp for that – will provide transport as part of their package and expert guiding to the spectacular skiing and riding on offer at the like of Tenjindeira and Okutone.
Tenji would quite likely by my pick if someone said you can only ski one place in Japan for the rest of your ski days. It’s that good. Deep snow. Steep trees. Amazing alpine above the lifts. And still often not too many people at all ..
Okutone is great back up for days when it’s too wild up the road at Tenji.
For a mellower family experience Minakami Hodaigi has nice open beginner and intermediate runs, and some worth-a-look sidecountry.
Day 5 or 6 to Day 9 or 11 – ski and stay Minakami areas
How long you stay in this area depends on your inclinations but at least 3 to 5 nights is reasonable. One good day at Tenji will leave you craving more, while Okutone is a real surprise package (the local’s ‘nighta’ favourite too). The many onsen in the valley are a bonus.
Day 9 or 11 – 14 JR Pass Travel Day Option A: go mainstream finish Hakuba, Nozawa etc
Where next? If an Epic Australia Pass is sitting in your jacket sleeve by all means head back over to Nagano and Hakuba – just scoot down from Jomo Kogen to Takasaki, around 16 or 17 minutes, and change shinkansen lines there for Nagano or Joetsu-Myoko or Iiyama City.
That’s still only your 3rd JR East Nagano Niigata Pass travel day, leaving a 4th to get back to the airport on Day 14.
Or do a couple of days in Myoko, Madarao or Lotte Arai and a couple of days in Shiga Kogen or Hakuba or Nozawa to use the full 5 days. Either way you can ski the morning in Minakami or the afternoon in your chosen destination area easily enough, the shinkansen sectors are short.
Day 9 or 11 – 14 Option B: stay off grid finish in Katashina area, Gunma
But if you are keen to keep avoiding the crowds, especially all those western skiers just like you looking for powder, then staying in Gunma is a good Plan B.
The Katashina area south east of Minkami has some medium size resorts with great value ski in/ski out accommodation options.
You can either get on local JR trains for a scenic run down the Joetsu line to Numata JR Station and get a bus from there, or get a bus from Jomo Kogen station, to Katashina. From here local shuttle buses run up to Oze-Iwakura and Marunuma Kogen, the best of the Katashina areas.
The Mt Nikko-Shirane Ropeway at Marunuma Kogen whisks you up to 2000m, which is high by Japanese ski resort standards. That’s 170m higher than the top of the lifts in the Hakuba Valley for example. The base village here at 1390m is also higher than the summit at many popular Nagano and Niigata areas. Which usually translates to quality snow over a longer season.
Oze-Iwakura is a bit lower, but bigger terrain wise. There is also more (but not much) of a village at the base. Oze-Iwakura offers a budget lodge option or the modern main resort hotel, both ski in/ski out and great value. It’s the pick to stay at and you could day trip over to Marunuma for a look using the local shuttle buses.
Last morning you can easily ski before heading back to the airport.
Doing our full off the grid JR East Nagano Niigata Pass itinerary you will have skied maybe 10 different areas, with only Naeba among those a major destination for western skiers.
Gunma and Minakami are useful links and contacts
- Oze-Iwakura Ski Resort official site
- Katashina Village Katashina Village Tourism site
- Gunma Prefecture Gunma Tourism site
- Minakami info (English) http://enjoy-minakami.com/en/
- Resort website for Okutone Snow Park
- For guiding and lessons check Canyons.jp
JR East Pass regional options and costs
- JR East Nagano – Niigata Pass, 5 travel days in 14 days = pre purchase ¥17,310 or ¥18,330 purchased in Japan after arrival; child Y8,650 / Y9,160
- JR East Pass Tohoku Area, 5 travel days in 14 days = pre purchase ¥19,350 or ¥20,360 purchased in Japan after arrival; ¥9,670 / ¥10,180 child 6-11
- JR East – South Hokkaido Pass, 6 travel days in 14 days = ¥27,930 or ¥13,960 child purchased in Japan; discount @3% pre purchased
- NEW JR Tohoku – South Hokkaido Rail Pass, Just launched on January 5th this offers 5 travel days in 14 days = ¥19,750 or ¥9,870 child purchased outside Japan
For JR Pass options and inclusions check their English site here.