Thursday, November 10, 2016

Are you a powder hound or culture vulture? At Japan’s first ski resort, you can be both!


Nozawa Onsen: Courtesy of Scout Ski 
Having reluctantly left behind the Canadian Rockies in early January, little did I think I would be skiing again last season. I was off on a four-month cultural voyage of discovery around the world with Semester at Sea, a floating university that visits 10 very exotic non-western countries.

Visiting mostly hot destinations, my husband, Simon and I had very little winter clothing packed, just enough layers to get us through the winter winds of Japan and China. But, having left the perennial summer of Hawaii, we began the grueling 10-day sea crossing to Yokohama, with the weather gradually worsening after day 5. Planning our first landfall in Japan, nightly conversations in the fun and friendly faculty bar led inexorably to skiing. Weighing up whether to watch the sumo championships in Tokyo, photograph Mt Fuji, or marvel at the Maiko in Kyoto, the answer was straightforward: it’s winter again, so let's go skiing!

Nozawa Onsen: Courtesy of Scout Ski
Where better than Japan’s first ever ski resort, Nozawa Onsen in the Nagano Prefecture (of 1998 Olympic fame), to try out the legendary powder while immersing in the authentic Japanese culture? Twinned with St Anton, since Hans Schneider from Austria identified it as Japan’s first ski resort nearly 100 years ago, it is the top resort in the Honshu region.
 
It took one city train, two bullet trains, and a bus to get there from Yokohama, but as the rolling foothills gave way to peaks, it started bucketing down and we could feel the pow calling us! The long and leisurely locomotive journey was a great way to see the panoramic countryside of Japan unfold. Leaving the cities behind, the tantalizing topography is dotted with small ski hills and cute villages. Houses are either solidly square or rectangular, most with dark brown balconies and prettily trimmed windows and doors. Although fancy roof ornamentation makes the architecture distinctly Japanese, just add wooden shutters and it would look very Alpine.

Simon Hudson skiing a black at Nozawa Onsen
Let's skip to the actual skiing as I know you are anxious to find out if it is as good as the advertising - and worth that all-day journey. Forget hero snow! The snow we found at Nozawa Onsen was ‘samurai snow’, where we scythed through knee deep powder in sensuous scimitar-shaped furrows. Despite agonizing rental boots, we reveled in it all day from 8:30 - 4:30. It was literally the softest powder we have ever experienced, disintegrating around our skis as we zoomed through it in a cloud of vapour. That first day, we woke up to snow and it snowed consistently until 2pm, when a beautiful BC-like vista of rolling hills, villages and fields were revealed. We never lined up for lifts, hardly saw a soul on the slopes, and were able to ski the best runs over and over as the downpour refilled our tracks. 

Other highlights at the hill included the labour-saving, covered magic carpet to get to the base area from the village; the proliferation of quaint on-mountain eateries complete with garment drying facilities and very varied Japanese and western menus (many Austrian-themed); heated loo seats; and mountain signage in English. 

Simon outside St Anton Rentals, Nozawa Onsen
On arrival the night before, we had had to rent everything at the St Anton Rental Shop, including skis (very good condition Rossignol Pursuit P100s), boots (Nordica, but too tight at the toes, too short in the leg and too flexy), clothing, mitts, helmets, goggles and gloves. I was unrecognizable in my unisex teen boy-racer outfit. Simon looked more himself, in his own shell jacket he'd brought to wear in the monsoon rains of Asia. Beneath, we both sported my yoga outfits but it wasn't cold enough for us to miss our usual thermals. Moral of the day: Yes to renting skis, clothing and helmets but if you have difficult feet, don't rent ski boots! I now know why so many beginners give up after the first agonizing day!

Ornate entrance to Ryokan Sakaya
The only place we were out of our depth, was in the hotel and restaurants, full of ancient traditions and cultural booby traps. First thing at the luxurious but authentic Ryokan Sakaya was to shed shoes by the door and don slippers. Next a very delicate tea ceremony in our room, wearing hotel kimono-like robes (actually called yukatas) and a lesson in the difference between hotel slippers and a second pair of bathroom slippers - cardinal sin to get them confused! Our beautiful room featured all the authentic trappings: wooden ceilings, tatami mat floors, paper screen doors, futon beds and rice-filled pillows. Turned out that guests wore their yukatas to and from the onsens (hot springs) and even to breakfast where Simon and I looked churlishly incongruous in our over-eager ski gear. Luckily Scout Ski, who had planned our entire itinerary, had thoughtfully provided a guide with all the facts and foreigners' faux pas when staying in a Japanese hotel, so we didn't do too many things wrong. 

Village of Nozawa Onsen: Courtesy of Scout Ski
Outside, the narrow hilly streets of Nozawa Onsen are lined with canals gushing with steaming hot-springs water. Locals pipe this boiling water onto their forecourts and roads, melting the snow for easier walking. A great eco-friendly recycling system! Armed with hotel wellies to negotiate the slush, we found the après ski was a little difficult to locate. The village is a maze of intersecting streets, some cobbled, some flagstoned, all very Japanese with lots of colourful calligraphy, ornate architecture, street food and brightly coloured snack shops. We eventually discovered Foot, a sociable stand-up bar full of Aussies and Canadians clustered around the central fussball table. Having sampled the sumptuous 14-course banquet at Ryokan Sakaya the first night, we scoped out the local Italian, Kaze No Ie, the second night - apparently also a favourite of our hotel manager, Yuki, who was there celebrating a kid’s birthday. Incidentally yuki means snow in Japanese!

Because we knew this was our last chance to ski for the whole season, we skied our entire stay but if we ever go again I want to stay longer and add the Snow Monkeys tour to our experience. Other great things to add to your Japan trip: explore the culinary connections at Kobe (beef, wine, seafood, sake and sweets - wait for my upcoming article in the Dallas Morning News to find out more); visit historic Himeji Castle; and watch a magical Maiko show in Gion, Kyoto. Read on for an insightful interview with Scout Ski's Sarah Plaskitt and more great photos from Nozawa Onsen:
Hot Tubbin' Monkey: Courtesy of Scout Ski
Excerpt from our newest travel book "Marketing for Tourism, Hospitality and Events" to be published by Sage this spring:

With the enticing tagline ‘Dream, Find, Book, Ski’, Scout Ski is the brainchild of Sarah Plaskitt, a former journalist and ad agency brand strategist. Her background in journalism has helped her create a topnotch travel website featuring inspirational stories as well as persuasive photography. Reviews of resorts and lodging are more credible since hotels don’t pay to be featured on the site. ‘What makes Scout different from other ski travel agents or online booking services, is that we have been to every resort and property on Scout,’ says Plaskitt, who was away ‘scouting’ in France when she organized our trip itinerary to Nozawa Onsen‘Scout is a small company offering highly personalized service,’ Plaskitt explains. ‘We do all the uphill work for you so you can concentrate on heading downhill.’ 

Sarah Plaskitt
Established in 2013, Scout operates as a magazine, guidebook and boutique travel agency all via the website http://scoutski.com/. ‘It’s a one-stop shop where you can book your ski trip,’ says Plaskitt. This can be anything from just a room to a full ski package with meticulously-crafted itinerary and Scout Field Guide. ‘Although I have some set packages on the site, most of the packages I sell are completely customized for each client,’ she explains. 

From her background in ad agencies in New York and Sydney, Australian-born Plaskitt decided to go it alone in order to have more control, flexibility and purpose in her career. ‘I quickly decided that I wanted to focus the business online which meant I could have customers from all over the world,’ she explains. ‘The heavy emphasis on original content helps Scout get discovered organically by skiers everywhere but, if I do any marketing, it tends to be focused on the US and Australian markets. Selling ski packages is a competitive industry, but I didn’t really see anyone doing the content very well. So I set about making Scout different by having really detailed, first-hand content - which also helps with organic rankings. It also helps when I speak to clients because they really appreciate the first-hand knowledge that I can bring to their decision-making.’


Scout operates in an ever-expanding list of destinations in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France and Japan. Due to its rich history, authentic architecture and reinforcing relationship with St Anton, Nozawa Onsen has an appeal to skiers looking for an immersive Japanese experience. ‘There’s a lot of traditional ryokans - Japanese inns, like Ryokan Sakaya - and shrines, and it’s not overly developed by Westerners,’ Plaskitt explains. The powder snow is another of the big draws: ‘Everyone’s heard about it and everyone wants to try it. And it is as awesome as people say - if you get a great powder day, which is highly likely during peak season.’ A challenge is to get people to book in advance, says Plaskitt: ‘One of the big things I’m trying to achieve with PR in the US is to educate people that they need to book really early for Japan. A lot of properties (and particularly in places like Nozawa Onsen) for key dates are booked out by June/August for the following season - and it’s getting earlier every year.’


Nozawa Onsen, Japan: Courtesy of Scout Ski




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