why choose when you can have the best of both worlds?
When it comes down to it, there seems to be two types of winter enthusiasts in the world. There are those who enjoy skiing, and then there are those who would rather relax in a spa all day. If it were up to me, I would no doubt choose skiing, but when in the Shiga Kogen area, you don't exactly have to choose.
I was rather happy that I did not have to choose between one or the other due to the fact that mother nature did not quite deliver the ‘japow’ experience we had anticipated. This time last year Shiga Kogen (a city known for receiving a renowned amount of snow each year) had a 300 cm base, whereas this year the area is only around 75cm. Luckily, I still got a fabulous day of skiing in which balanced out the rest of our time in Shibu Onsen (the area surrounding Shiga Kogen), Onsen hopping.
onsen hopping you may ask?
Bar hopping, Onsen hopping? Same thing... kind of. First off, let me add that this area of Japan has scorching hot water (read sake & snow monkeys) running throughout the town. So hot that they have eggs boiling in buckets throughout the streets.
Never have I seen something quite like it. This traditional Japanese town has 8 public baths spread along the streets with little symbols & stamps outside each one. Visitors and locals purchase a cloth for 300 yen (roughly $2.50) along with a map and trot around town in a yakuza (traditional Japanese dress), geta's (wooden clogs) & a towel in search for the perfect Onsen experience.
Back in the day, each onsen had a particular use (ex: number 9 was to cure skin diseases, where number 4 was to restore youth) nowadays, it is more a novelty to be able to sit in a bathe for hours while picking up a Shiga Kogen IPA or Porter beer at the various kiosks spread out throughout the main street.
I feel as though not all people drink beer while getting their Onsen on, but it was the perfect way to aprés ski. Plus, I am not one for public baths, so I did wander around town to check out 7 out of 8 baths while stamping my towel. I will also admit I was mostly in it for the outfit and beer (guilty), not to mention we found an arcade straight out of the 70’s along the way.
so you'd rather ski - me too.
While I am quite spoiled of ‘the latest’ in ski resort technology (cough cough Chamonix and Zermatt) with trendy aprés ski bars and ski shops with the latest seasons K2’s on every corner, I was quite surprised and appreciative of the basics that Japan had to offer. Shiga Kogen is about the passion of skiing and the serenity of being in the mountains. Period.
The bus felt as though we were in a time warp which took us from a traditional Japanese town settled in a valley, up to the snow through bamboo and evergreen forests.
Where to ski? There are so many options! To get from Shibu Onsen to Yokoteyama (the highest of the ski areas) we had to stop and change buses at Hasuike. This one hour ride is worth it considering when we got to the last stop we were greeted with snow and absolutely no line for the chairlifts - at all. Shocking for Christmas eve if I may add. The rental shop gave me the latest Salomon's they had to offer and pretty rad neon pink Rossignol ski poles (I wish I had bought them to be honest) for a whopping $23 USD.
The lift passes are sold separate per mountain, so make sure to buy the pass for the entire resort or you will be stuck playing charades with the Japanese speaking ski lift operator when your pass no longer works.
Although I only skied for a day, it felt better than ever to be locked in to my bindings strolling down the piste as if I was back Disco skiing in Chamonix. Even if there wasn’t the freshest of powder, the snow that was on the ground was light and fluffy - therefore, I will go ahead and say the Japow myths are true, it really is champagne powder.
Although the aprés ski culture is not quite the ski week, the mountain cafe had a pianist and free tea for when we wanted to take a fika. After a bus ride back to town, the Onsens were a perfect way to end the day on the hill. I guess Shiga Kogen and Shibu Onsen offer the best of both worlds - Skiing & Spa-ing.
PS - instead of waiting for powder as if we were watching fresh paint dry on a wall, we found some some great hiking trails along with free sake tasting on the way down. Also, we found ourselves grabbing cappuchinos, lunch & dinner at Koishiya Ryokan. Everything from the service, food and atmosphere is absolutely amazing. Cheers!