|The tube that brings the snow|
was to go to Nagano, the area for premier ski resorts in Japan, but the webcams looked depressing. A call to a hotel in the area confirmed that there was no skiing, despite claims otherwise on their websites. But my flights were set, so I was to stay the weekend in Japan, snow or no snow. I knew there were several indoor ski halls, but I had already gotten enough from indoor skiing recently in Beijing
, and Hong Kong
. Desperation sets in. Could I fly to Hokkaido? Are there are any other open ski areas in Japan?
Fortunately, my friend Itsuma came to the rescue. He pointed out a small ski area of Karuizawa
, 200 kilometers from Tokyo and 80 kilometers from Nagano. It is open. For real. I make the decision to go.
Of course, going was not that easy. I am carrying almost 70 kilos of luggage, I have no clue about the language, and the trip involves buying tickets, making seat reservations, and changing trains. But Itsuma comes to the rescue again. He prepares a slide set to guide me through the journey, complete with relevant excerpts from timetables, suggested routes through the central station, and pictures. (Thank you!) This is yet another example how nice people are in Japan. Always willing to help and always smiling. What a nice country to visit!
Armed with a printout of the slides and some local currency I find my way through the system and after a few hours arrive at the Karuizawa train station. It is raining, but I can already see the ski slopes!
|Karuizawa ski slope|
When I manage to carry my heavy load out of the station, I spot Karuizawa Prince Hotel's minivan. Perfect. They can take me to the hotel. I end up using these small cars six or seven times during my visit, usually carrying just me, leaving in a couple of minutes after I ask for a ride, costing nothing, and the guys even carry my skis from the lift to the parking lot. I guess these services are part of my stay at this expensive hotel at 250€/night. Oh well, this is probably still less than I would have paid if I had stayed in a hotel near Tokyo. And I'm glad I'm here only for one night.
Strangely enough, the hotel and town are full of people. And they do not appear to be dressed for sports. It turns out that Karuizawa's main attraction is not skiing but shopping. The town center is one big shopping area, apparently specializing on fashion.
The Ski Area
|Narrow a course|
The ski area has two chair lifts and two runs open, but the rest of the mountain is completely free of snow. No wonder, given that it is +15 Celsius and raining heavily. But how did they manage to open the two slopes, then? The answer is in the snow machines. Karuizawa does not employ usual snow cannons that require freezing temperatures to operate. They employ gigantic ice machines that manufacture snow no matter what the temperature is outside. The machines are placed in containers around the mountain.
I was not able to determine what was inside the containers, but various cooling
techniques have been used elsewhere in the world. The vacuum ice maker technology
is particularly interesting. It works by exposing cold water to vacuum, forcing some of the water to evaporate and the remaining part to partially froze. The resulting frozen slush can be separated to cold water that can be fed back into the process, while the ice particles can be blown out to the slopes through long tubes.
Karuizawa is able to keep two slopes open with this technology. The slopes are small, just 40 meters of altitude difference. Both slopes are served by a chair lift.
|I think I understand what they are trying to say|
In the winter Karuizawa is a more reasonable ski area, with a 215 meter altitude difference and 11 different slopes
. The longest slope is one kilometer, and the steepest slope goes up to 30 degrees inclination.
|Sunny day at Karuizawa|
Given that the two open slopes are small, the skiing is not very interesting. But it still feels good to ski outside. The snow making system provides some additional entertainment, as it tends to generate high snow dunes where the tube ends. These forms are fun bases for jumps.
In good weather and during weekends there are long lift lines. When it is raining cats and dogs... not so many lines.
|Snow is piling up|
A couple of kilometers from the ski area resides the mighty 2568-meter Mt. Asama
. This is an active volcano, last erupted in 2009. It would be a tempting ski descent destination for volcano skiers, but can only be done in the winter, if at all. There seems to be very little information about skiing this mountain in the Internet.
|Lift lines at Karuizawa|
|It feels like spring outside the hotel|
As far as I was able to determine, the Karuizawa Prince Hotel is the only accommodation next to the slopes. The hotel exists in two parts, the East and West hotel. The East one is closer to the small slopes that were open and also houses the local spa. I did not visit the East one, but I liked the West one.
|The main building at the base of the Karuizawa ski area|
On-slope food is available in the restaurant next to the base building. Interestingly, while the kitchen is staffed with waitresses that bring the food out, the ordering process takes place through a machine. A soup costs 500-600 Yen, or 5-6 €.
|Press here for food|
|Two items of ancient technology appeared from the darkness|
You can take the high-speed Shinkansen train from Tokyo main station to Karuizawa, the trip takes roughly an hour and is very comfortable.
|My train has a bigger nose than yours|
Ski Destination Japan
|Helpful signs make it easy to choose the right style nose for your train|
Japan would be great ski destination, except that I am here too early for the season. The most interesting skiing is around Nagano
, the site of the 1998 winter olympics. The area that I wanted to visit in Nagano was Happo One
. Alternative, there is good skiing on the island of Hokkaido in the north.
Really. I had a lot of fun in the afterski at the Marron bar at the Karuizawa Prince West Hotel. However, I was all alone. Not recommended. It is possible that there would have been more interesting bars in the shopping center, however. By the time that I realized there is no one in the bar, I was too tired to walk back to the shopping center. Sleeping is good way to spend your evenings, too.
|Busy bar scene|
I have now skied in 38 different countries or states. As I am writing this, I'm sitting in the Haneida airport in Japan, waiting for a flight that takes me to North America for business and a new state to be conquered on skis. Incidentally, I looked at my itinerary two minutes after Narita Express had closed its doors, and ended up on the wrong airport. Luckily I had enough time for the extra two hour detour by bus.
|My transport back to the right airport|
|One of the many sunrises on this trip|
Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko