Skiing in Kawaba, Japan, good fun for all ages
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 12, 2013
Kawaba, a two-hour drive from Tokyo, is a family-friendly ski area with enough challenging terrain and off-piste powder to interest skiers and snowboarders of all abilities.
You know you are in Kawaba when you start seeing pictures of ringo (apples) outside shops. The valley leading to the ski area is planted with numerous orchards, and the local vending machines are filled with cans of apple juice rather than Coke.
Getting up to the ski lifts involves a challenging ascent along a winding, often snow-covered road that’s slippery enough to make chains or snow tires mandatory. At the top there’s a large gray, seven-story concrete parking garage that, like most structures at Japanese ski resorts, looks like it could have been designed in North Korea.
Inside it’s a different story. There are comfortable restrooms, changing areas and lockers on every level and elevators that ferry guests to the ski area. The top two floors include plenty of colorful shops and restaurants as well as a gear rental store.
Those with very small children can take them right outside to frolic in a kids’ snow park.
If you are a novice snowboarder, you will be in good company at Kawaba. About 80 percent of the almost exclusively Japanese clientele there are intermediate-level snowboarders taking advantage of the gentle slopes and moderately challenging terrain features scattered throughout the resort.
Most of Kawaba’s pistes are not particularly challenging, but skiers and boarders will need to maneuver down at least one 16-degree intermediate level slope for about 400 yards to reach the easiest runs.
The ski area itself includes five chairlifts including two quad lifts with padded seats and plastic wind shields along with several more basic lifts.
The most popular lift is the second quad-chair, which takes skiers toward the 6,627-foot summit of Mt. Kengamine.
The views from the top look best after a blizzard, when the pines and deciduous trees dotting the mountain are covered in snow.
Youngsters and people honing their skills have plenty of options on the way down but most prefer the Sakuragawa course, a wide, gently sloping valley that snakes down to the car park. There are plenty of interesting terrain features, such as quarter pipes cut into the side of the valley where boarders can practice jumps and spins.
If you want to get a little more air, you can head into Magic Valley, a collection of jumps and rails that are challenging for most people but not big enough to risk severe injury.
If you are into moguls, there’s a freestyle area on the side of Mt. Mumeiho (1,745 m) where you can, occasionally, see experts pulling spins and flips off jumps at the bottom of the course.
Expert skiers can head onto the 29-degree Takate Skyline black diamond run served by a double chair.
But the real joy of Kawaba for an expert is off-piste, where there’s plenty of deep, untracked powder. If you want to enjoy it, you need to duck under safety ropes illustrated with skull and crossbones signs and be confident enough to navigate your way through trees.
The layout at Kawaba is great if you are skiing with friends of differing abilities since all of the courses — on and off-piste — funnel toward Magic Valley, and it’s easy to meet up at the bottom of various lifts.
For those interested in lunch, there are two restaurants near Magic Valley and another very large restaurant on the top floor of the car park. All serve hearty Japanese food, such as ramen noodles, that provide plenty of calories to expend on the slopes.
After a hard day on the mountain, there’s nothing better than a relaxing soak in an onsen (hot spring). Kawaba is home to numerous onsen — many of which are inside hotels — which allow visitors to pay for a bath even if they aren’t staying the night.
Skiers and boarders looking for a resort close to home won’t be disappointed by Kawaba.
From Tokyo Station: Route 1: Take the Jouetsu Shinkansen (Jouetsu Bullet Train) to Jomokogen Station (est. travel time: 80 minutes). From Jomokogen Station, take the complimentary shuttle to the slopes (est. travel time: 50 minutes; shuttle reservations required).
From Tokyo Station: Route 2: Take the Jouetsu Shinkansen (Jouetsu Bullet Train) to Takasaki Station (est. travel time: 80 minutes). From Takasaki Station, take the JR Jouetsu Line to Numata Station. From Numata Station, take the complimentary shuttle to the slopes.
From Tokyo: Take the Kanetsu Toll Way and exit at the Numata Interchange. Then take State Highway 120 to Prefectural Highway Hirakawa Numata.
TIMES: The ski area is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. daily, weather permitting.
COSTS: A day pass costs 4,200 yen for adults, 2,000 yen for a child.
FOOD: There are three restaurants and a coffee shop selling a range of reasonably priced (mostly Japanese) meals at the ski area.