Today’s guest blogger, Pyar Anderson, a certified bike technician from the REI Northridge (Calif.) store, shares his favorite winter experiences from across the Pacific Ocean. Pyar's story:
Looking for a unique ski vacation that’s a bit off the radar? Try Japan.
Japan’s snow has frequently been described as second only to the powder of the Rockies. Sound weird for an island nation? You can thank Siberia’s cold air and the Sea of Japan’s moisture for a combination that creates the most reliable snow in the world—not to mention a landmass that is almost 70% mountains.
That’s not all. The best national public transit system in the world, some great budget lodging options and a rich tradition of hospitality make Japan’s winter-recreation options second to none. The best ski spots in Japan are in northern Honshu and anywhere in Hokkaido.
Yes, Japan is a distant location for a ski vacation. Getting there means a 10- to 12-hour flight that starts around $850.
But consider the rewards: You can immerse yourself in an incredibly old culture, have a meal served to you by a monkey, bathe in geothermal baths, experience beautiful and bewildering festivals and ceremonies, or just get lost in translation.
If you are concerned about repercussions from the disastrous 2011 earthquake and tsunami, please be reassured. The major ski destinations are far enough from Fukushima to be quite safe.
Once in Japan, travel is fast and easy with Shinkansen high-speed trains. Between incentives already in place to promote tourism and recently available discounts in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, travel and hotels are surprisingly cheap.
The most cost-conscious hotels are Japan’s famed capsule hotels. For $30, you can have your very own tube dwelling for a night. At 6'6" tall, even I fit comfortably in capsules—though any taller might be a stretch. They also come with lockers, wireless and communal baths.
Capsules are only in larger cities, so stay here upon arrival and before departure. My wife and I actually sought out capsule hotels and eventually found one in Kyoto called the Capsule Ryokan where we stayed whenever we would visit.
Minshuku and ryokan are traditional Japanese guest houses. Both have rooms with tatami (woven reed) floors and futon (cotton-stuffed sleeping pads) beds. Toilet and bathing facilities are communal.
Regardless of quality, all minshuku and ryokan will provide breakfast and dinner. Prices can run anywhere from $60 up to multiple thousands for a night.
Our favorite place to stay in all of Japan was a small ryokan where the owner knew I was a big eater. He would have the cook prepare dish after dish to see how much food I could eat. I always got my money's worth.
A relaxing evening at a minshuku guest house in Japan.
Bathhouses called sento and hot springs called onsen are a must while visiting Japan. These range in size from a sento with a small tiled bath to mega onsen complexes with restaurants, gardens, shopping, caricature artists, massage and spa baths where small fish nibble on your skin as an exfoliant. If you can get over concerns about public nudity, onsens are one of the best things about Japan. After a day of skiing or snowboarding, there is nothing better.
The famous hot spring monkeys of Jigokudani are viewable near Nagano. After watching them bathe in their own onsen, my friends and I agreed that the monkeys had it right and we had a bath of our own.
Onsen buffs seek out particular water for various curative qualities; consider this when choosing yours. If you have any tattoos, come prepared with bandages to cover them before even entering the building. Because of associations with Yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicates, most onsen don’t allow people with tattoos to bathe.
Even the snowy roofs are beautiful in Japan.
The best thing about onsen in winter is outdoor bathing in the snow. Most onsen have at least a few outdoor baths which are usually surrounded by gardens. The contrast of hot and cold and the swirling of snow and steam is mesmerizing.
The most unusual accommodations you’re likely to find are the Japanese temple stays or shukubo. For the price of a ryokan (guest house), you can stay in a Buddhist temple and meditate with the monks.
The town of Koyasan in central Japan offers a variety of different temples where you can stay with monks and see their lifestyle firsthand. Temple stays offer similar comforts to a minshuku or ryokan. What you get in addition usually involves vegetarian meals and morning meditation.
Koyasan itself has only one small ski hill nearby. It is, however, close enough to some phenomenal ski destinations to make it a worthwhile trip if you want to see some significant cultural and historical sites during your visit. Niseko and Kiroro on Hokkaido, and Hakkoda on Honshu, are all top-rated ski resorts and worth visiting.
At the end of the day, hang out around Japan’s most ubiquitous warming pleasure: the kotatsu. This is a low-slung table with an accompanying blanket and an integrated heater. With the blanket draped under the removable tabletop and the heater fired up, the kotatsu provides a pleasing bubble of warmth. The kotatsu can become a locus for social activities or you can choose to lay under it on your own on a warm, drowsy afternoon. My wife was particularly fond of the kotatsu nap.
First-time visitors are likely to run into many more surprises than the few I've outlined here. Just remember to have fun and try everything at least once. Japan is very friendly for English speakers, but also mysterious enough to supply plenty of new experiences.
Enjoy the snow and all the fun ways of staying warm!