Finally the day have arrived for my ski trip to Shiga Kogen. I departed from my hotel (Hyatt Regency) at Shinjuku and head towards the JR Shinjuku station after dropping off my large luggage at the bell desk since I will have another night in the hotel before I fly out of Tokyo. Taking the JR Yamanote line, I alighted at JR Ueno station to meet up with my friend as I was already quite late. Furthermore due to the New Year’s eve holiday, many of the Shinkansen trains are full with no reserved seats left unless we were willing to take the later trains. Thus we took our luck and got 2 non-reserved ordinary cabin seats. I got mine included with the JR pass while my friend paid for her fare.
Unfortunately, there were no empty seats on the train ride and for half of the journey, it was just spent on chatting by the entrance. There was space on the luggage racks, however and we got space for our bags but it was a bit tiring to just stand for an hour or so until a major stop halfway where several passengers alighted and we had seats on the train for the remainder of the journey.
It takes more than 2 hours to get to Nagano from the JR Ueno station in Tokyo and once we reached Nagano we had to take a bus ride to Ichinose. The bus ride took another 1 hour and a half before arriving at Ichinose, and we were amongst the last to be dropped off at the Prince Hotel South Wing. Initially we alighted at the East Wing where we tried to check in but it turns out our room was assigned at the South Wing. However my snowboard did arrive at the East Wing after it was delivered from Luggage Forward.
Prince Hotel operates 3 separate hotels in the Yakebitaiyama Ski Area within the greater Shiga Kogen 志賀高原 Ski Resort. They are namely the East Wing, the South Wing and the West Wing. Amongst them, the West Wing is closest to the town of Ichinose and about a 10-15 minute walk to the town centre of Ichinose 一の瀬. All 3 properties are true ski-in, ski-out hotels with a chairlift just outside the hotel and all have on-site restaurants for guests. The hotel also runs a complimentary shuttle bus between all 3 wings and to the town of Ichinose, while guests who drop off at the wrong wing might be able to get a drop-off by one of the friendly hosts. We got a transfer on a Japanese-style limo van (Toyota Alphard) which was much appreciated.
One of the main reasons for my friend to put us up in the Prince Hotel is perhaps due to the bath-house. However it turns out that only guests accommodated in the West Wing have access to the bath house. As expected the bath house is located in the West Wing, and it would not have been the most convenient for guests staying in the East or South Wing.
In the afternoon around 4pm when we reached the hotel, it can get very busy at the lobby area as that is also the time when most skiers return to the hotel or even check-in to their rooms so there was a long queue at the reception. It was probably 20 minutes before we got to the front of the line. The hotel does have wifi in the lobby and the rooms so that was very much appreciated as we could check Facebook while waiting to check-in.
Our room rate does not include dinner while it should be noted that most of the other ski lodges in the area includes both breakfast and dinner. However our rate of ¥23,000 (~US$230) was just for room only and I thought it was pretty expensive for a basic Japanese-sized room. There was a 2 single sized beds in the room and a small TV at the corner with an armchair and a side table. The bathroom is as basic as any other Japanese hotel with a small resin bathtub. The small size rooms were the major downside of staying in Shiga Kogen!
Breakfast in the hotel was served in the main dining room which resembles a great hall that was covered with glass. It was a magnificent sight with a view of the surrounding mountains. The breakfast was served in a buffet style with both western and Japanese choices. There was scrambled eggs, miso soup, rice porridge, pickles and even hot dishes.
While the lodging at Yakebitaiyama was a downer, the ski hills was very good, especially for beginners and intermediate skiers and snowboarders. There are multiple groomed runs which offers more variety compared to the my experience in Annupuri at Niseko. Only the South Wing of the Prince Hotel has access to a gondola that whisks skiers up to the very top of Mt Yakebitaiyama at 2,009m high. On the other hand shorter ski chairlifts will bring skiers up from the East and West Wing of the hotel. Another gondola exists a walking distance from the East Wing.
The snow quality in the hills was amazing on the first day as there was fresh snow at night while the weather in the day was clear with blue skies. For those seeking steep slopes, there are little of those to be found here, but there are lots of green and blue runs with well groomed trails flanked by trees on both sides. Some of the trails might be a bit narrower than the wide open runs at Annupuri, but I liked the fact that they were longer and provides more downhill speed.
With regards to food in the resort, there were some choices at the base of Yakebitaiyama and skiers could choose from either of the Prince Hotel dining room/restaurants lunch menu or there was some less expensive options like ramen near the base of the South Wing of the Prince Hotel. I helped myself to a bowl of spicy miso ramen which was a huge bowl for lunch. The food was not as fantastic as the snow crab ramen I had in Niseko though and that was perhaps my only complaint for the day.
For skiers, there was also access to Okushiga Kogen from the peak as this is a skiers only area. For snowboarders the terrain in Yakebitaiyama could be covered within a single day and it is best to find other parts of this huge ski complex. The great part of the lift tickets in Shiga Kogen is that it covers several ski areas with the majority of them being centred around the town of Ichinose. I got a 4-day lift tickets for a total of ¥17,500 (~US$175) each with ¥500 for the deposit of the card where the tickets were pre-loaded into. This translated to less than US$50 per day for skiing in a world class ski resort which I thought was slightly better value compared to Niseko considering that Nagano played host to the 1998 Winter Olympics. A drawback in staying at Yakebitaiyama is that there is little in terms of an aprés-ski atmosphere as most of the Japanese skiers mainly retreats to the bath houses and restaurants for dinner. The ambience at the hotel lobby is also quiet. All 3 wings of the Prince Hotel has a gift shop that sells all sorts of daily necessities, snacks, beverages and mineral water while there was also a ski/snowboard rental store that sells gloves and other ski accessories in the South Wing which has probably the largest lobby amongst all 3 wings.
Since I had another 4 more nights in Shiga Kogen, the next post would follow up on the snowboarding to be had in Ichinose and a review of the Hotel Kodama where we stayed for the following 4 nights. My impression based on staying in Yakebitaiyama is that it is probably a quieter section of Shiga Kogen with little to do besides the skiing in the day, and most of the activities being confined to within each separate hotel wings.