Asia offers plenty of good skiing and boarding near bases
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 13, 2014
It’s true that Europe’s vast ski and snowboard options get the most publicity — for the great powder, the high elevations, the charming chalet accommodations, the food, the aprés-ski.
But on the other side of the world, in Asia, it’s not as if powder hounds in Japan and Korea are missing out on snow sports.
In South Korea, due to host the Winter Olympics in 2018, there are plenty of places to take to the slopes within a few hours’ drive of U.S. bases, both north and south of Seoul.
The rugged peninsula made for tough fighting during the Korean War, but in the last six decades, Korea’s mountains have been developed as ski and snowboard resorts complete with some of the latest and greatest equipment.
At Yongpyong Resort, you can ride a two-mile-long gondola up to the highest point on the ski field to enjoy spectacular views that stretch from the surrounding mountains all the way to the coast.
Heated chairlifts make for a smooth ride at many Korean resorts, which usually include terrain parks with plenty of jumps and rails for youngsters to show off their tricks. The half-pipe at Hyundai Sungwoo Resort includes a conveyor that runs alongside it, allowing snowboarders to hone their skills by going up and down dozens of times in a day.
Koreans are keen to show off their cool ski outfits on the mountain. However, the person who looks the coolest getting on the lift at the bottom of the mountain in Korea is often the worst skier on slopes. That can make for some challenging conditions on Korean pistes.
Despite the extreme cold in winter, South Korean ski areas don’t get a lot of natural snow. The white stuff that people ski and board on there is mostly manmade and, just below the top couple of inches raked by a snowplow, it’s hard as rock. At Bears Town — a ski area north of Seoul — the lack of skill exhibited by the fashionable snow bunnies is a recipe for the sort of crashes that you might see on the gridiron on any given Sunday. Fortunately, aprés-ski in Korea involves copious amounts of soju (a local liquor) and makju (beer) to dull the pain along with plenty of barbecued red meat and rice to restore your energy for another day on the hill.
For a family-friendly vibe with beautiful mountains and rivers, try Elysian Gangchon Ski Resort near Chuncheon City, once home to Camp Page, a large U.S. Army base. The ski area doesn’t have particularly challenging terrain, but none of the resorts in Korea will wow the experts. After skiing, you can revive with a serving of the local specialty, spicy tak kalbi chicken.
The Japanese Alps aren’t as majestic as those in Europe, and the ski areas there don’t have the charm of an Austrian ski chalet. But what they lack in character they more than make up for with the lightest, deepest and most consistent powder you can imagine.
A full account of ski areas that can be reached for a day or weekend trip from Tokyo would fill a large book. However, those contemplating a trip to the snow in the weeks and months to come have plenty of choices.
The home of the Fuji Rock music festival in summer, Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture is only 120 miles from Tokyo and easily accessible by train and bus.
The massive resort on the slopes of Mount Takenoko was built during Japan’s boom times and has a 1990s vibe. A 1,299-room hotel complex at the foot of the mountain, the Naeba Prince Hotel, greets skiers, who can relax in one of dozens of restaurants before or after they hit the slopes.
The lower part of the mountain is where most people will have their fun. It’s got plenty of wide, groomed slopes that are suitable for beginners. If you want to practice tricks, there’s challenging terrain at one end of the valley. There are also plenty of places to sit and drink coffee or beer in the sun.
The alpine views are slightly spoiled by the resort’s lack of charm (most of the buildings look like gray concrete boxes) and massive power pylons.
Those in search of adventure can board a gondola to head up to the top of the mountain — almost 3,000 feet above the valley floor.
The top section of Naeba has a chairlift that offers the most fun for off-piste skiers who, if they are willing to scoot under a rope, can carve lines through a sparse forest before dropping into a deep bowl and finding their way back to the lift.
The most skilled powder hounds can have fun going all the way to the valley directly under the gondola, although they’ll have to watch out for some rather dense trees.
Skiing in the trees at Naeba has its rewards (untracked snow), but those who stray too far from the piste risk dropping into gullies that will force them to make long and tiring slogs through deep snow to reach the valley floor.
Mount Norikura in Nagano Prefecture is a bit farther afield for Tokyo residents, but it’s possible to get there on a bus or car within four hours. It’s much lower-key than a massive resort like Naeba and offers the added benefit of natural onsen (hot springs) to sooth skiers’ aching bones after a hard day on the mountain.
Many skiers drive partway up the mountain to park their cars, but the road can be slippery, and traffic sometimes backs up when vehicles get stuck. A better option, if you are staying at a nearby hotel, is simply to walk to the lowest lift, which is within about 500 yards of most of the accommodations.
Many of the runs on Mount Norikura are long and flat. Experienced skiers might find the on-piste skiing a little dull, but it’s perfect for beginners.
The best option for thrill seekers might be to head over to one of three challenging terrain parks, some of which feature large jumps along with rails and quarter pipes.
The mountain also has its fair share of back-country skiers, who can be seen heading higher above the top lift on cross-country skis.
There are some large restaurants with excellent menus partway up the mountain, but it’s also nice to stop at the lowest lift — an area that has a sort of European feel to it and plenty of hot coffee available.
Aprés-ski at Norikura involves trudging down the road to the local onsen, which include scenic outdoor hot pools.
A two-hour drive from Tokyo, the family-friendly ski area of Kawaba offers 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 are intermediate-level snowboarders taking advantage of the gentle slopes and moderately challenging terrain.
The ski area itself includes five chairlifts, including two quad lifts with padded seats and plastic windshields, 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 layout at Kawaba is great if you are skiing with friends of differing abilities. All of the courses — on and off-piste — funnel toward Magic Valley, so 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.