As I mentioned in my previous post, I did enjoy my first day of snowboarding at Yakebitaiyama. Though for the next 4 nights we moved to the town of Ichinose, staying at Hotel Kodama which is conveniently located beside the Ichinose Family Ski Area. The first 2 nights of the stay which occurred over New Year’s eve and the New Year was more expensive at ¥28,000 (~US$280) per night, while the following 2 nights costs us just ¥18,000 (~US$180) per night. However daily breakfast buffet and a set dinner was included at this rate which I found to be very good value for money. The hotel also has a hot public bath in the lobby floor though I wondered where guests might park their car at since the hotel is built to resemble those European ski lodges rather than the North American style hotels like the Westin Whistler.
My friend checked into the room earlier as I was still enjoying myself on the slopes and there was a shuttle bus stop just a few steps before and after the hotel but it was actually a 10-15 minute walk from the South Wing of the Prince Hotel. Hotel Kodama featured lots of dark wood from its exterior to the main lobby though it fails to exude the ambience of a western ski lodge. It was quite empty at the lobby around 5-6pm as most guests are either in the baths or resting in their room before the dinner that is served daily on the second floor at the dining rooms.
Our room was a corner twin and was much more spacious than the one in Prince Hotel. Inside though the furniture was more or less the same with a side chair and coffee table along with a dressing table beside the wardrobe. The bathroom sadly was the same small size with the usual resin vanity counter and small bathtub. It was no matter though as I had all my baths in the bath house. I do not believe the bath house uses natural hot springs but the warmth of the baths was adequate to soothe the tense muscles after a day of snowboarding. The good part was that the hotel had a very nice view overlooking the Ichinose Diamond ski area.
While there was free wifi in the hotel, it was constrained to areas in the lobby and the second floor smoking lounge just outside the restaurant. This meant that the bunch of us could be seen hanging out around the chairs and tables by the lobby to use the wifi for Instragram, Facebook and etc. It is at best adequate for light video streaming though streaming HD videos can be a chore as sometimes the wifi signal does not seem to be that stable.
For the 4 days we had out breakfast and dinner there, the hotel did their best to provide a different menu every day. For breakfast it was a buffet with salads, fruits, pastries, eggs and a couple of deep-fried items. It is best to wake up early for breakfast as some of the items does not seem to be replenished late in the morning.
Dinner is a more elaborate affair with guests seated at the table featuring their room number (which avoids the chaotic scene of the morning). A set meal is served based on the number of registered guests and kids are given children’s set meal. The dinner usually consists of a sashimi or cold plate appetizer, some salad and pickles, a main entree and a special second entree which revolves around hot pots or sukiyaki. At the end there will be fruits. As such, every night guests are certain to be full and I thought it made the whole stay very value for money. Granted the food would not be on par with the high end kaiseki in some of the Japanese ryokans I went to but it is better than some so-called Japanese food elsewhere…
And now onto the skiing part. Ichinose is perhaps the nicest base for both skiers and snowboarders since it is basically near the epicentre of where most of the action takes place. Beside the hotel is the Ichinose Family Ski Area and just opposite which can be accessed via an overhead ski bridge is the Ichinose Diamond Ski Area. Both of the ski areas around Ichinose are geared towards beginners and families with generally mild slopes and wide open terrains. One of my favourite runs here is actually the Terakoya 寺小屋 ski area which is accessed via the top of Ichinose Family quad lift. There are some flat trails in order to access the Terakoya ski area but this area is generally a lot quieter with less people since it is more or less isolated from the main Ichinose skiing area but that means the powder is better here after a fresh snow.
However the best view of the area is probably from the top of the Higashidateyama 東館山 gondola. Skiers need to head to the top of Ichinose Family or head to the exit towards Higashidateyama from Terakoya. Then they can take the gondola after skiing down to the base. The queue for the gondola is quite long though and it is a very cramped, antiquated, egg-shaped gondola. Skiers could place their skis outside but snowboarders have to bring it into the gondola which is nearly impossible. The snowboard size I was using measures 157cm and it scrapes through the roof of the gondola. Needless to say I was really uncomfortable throughout the gondola ride with 3 other Japanese skiers. The approach to the gondola is also made from metal ramps and not natural mountain terrain with lots of zig-zags. While the gondola experience leaves much to be desired, the view from the observatory was magnificent and there is a also a soba restaurant waiting to fill the stomachs of hungry skiers.
Due to the gondola, the run at Higashidateyama is also one of longest and it is a run somewhere in between green and blue which is suitable for beginners who are starting to learn how to carve. The wide runs here are similar to those in Ichinose but it does have more bumps compared to Ichinose. The Higashidateyama ski area connects the Nishidateyama 西館山 and Giant ski areas with Ichinose so it can get pretty crowded in this area as well. Skier wishing to access the Takamagahara Mammoth ski area are also better off getting in from the top of Higashidateyama. Since I was staying in the Ichinose area, that was where I spent most of my snowboarding at, and I did not really venture much into the runs in Nishidateyama and Giant.
Access from one ski area to another is not the easiest in Shiga Kogen and the ski areas around Ichniose lacks a gondola that brings skiers up to the top in an instant unlike in Yakebitaiyama. As such I think it is more convenient in Yakebitaiyama but the variety of terrain in Ichinose, Terakoya, and Higashidateyama would satisfy a wide range of capabilities. When I compared Shiga Kogen to Niseko and the Hirafu/Annupuri ski area, I actually prefer the expanse of terrain at Shiga Kogen. Spending a total of 4 days of snowboarding, I never got to explore all of the runs in the area but that was also because not all the runs are connected. On the other hand, the Hirafu and Annupuri ski area can easily be covered over a 4 day period.
The snow conditions are similar for both Shiga Kogen and Niseko with thick powder conditions even at the base. Shiga Kogen is very accessible for visitors arriving at Tokyo though there is no night life or aprés-ski to be had at all in the area. Unlike Niseko which has a lively night scene, this was slightlt disappointing. In terms of value for money, Shiga Kogen would be cheaper for a ski holiday since most hotels would include meals in the morning and at night. I did not regret my decision to snowboard in Shiga Kogen since it is after all a host resort for the Winter Olympics and that has got to count for something!
Shiga Kogen also does lack a bit of an on-the-mountain dining options with the closest being the soba place at the top of Higashidateyama gondola. However that place is very small with the capability of accommodating at most 25 diners. I had lunch once at the base of Ichinose Diamond ski area just one floor below the rental area. This is in the building that can be seen directly from our room. Japanese ski resorts usually have udon, katsu or curry rice and ramen as the main course. I also had a very delicious mille crepe cake here. Another place I had my lunch was at the Hotel Khuls restaurant which is on the Ichinose Family ski area. They do serve a variety of dishes including gyoza and would be more convenient for families since there was more than ample seating during lunch hour.
However if I were to visit Ichinose again, I would most probably stay at the Hotel Khuls Shiga Kogen or find a lodging between the Ichinose Family and Takamagahara ski area since there are more hotels around this area with convenience stores that makes it easy to get snacks and beverages. Furthermore this part of town had more facilities and amenities for visitors and thus making it more convenient. It is also worth noting that Hotel Khuls is also a ski-in/ski-out property with its restaurant being a great place for lunch.