Japanese Alps: Snow Monkeys And Skiing In Nagano, Japan

Japanese Alps: Snow Monkeys And Skiing In Nagano, Japan

The towns of Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen are only a few hours from central Tokyo, but they feel as though in another world. Narrow streets wind up and down hills, past hidden izakayas (gastropubs), public bath houses, and hot springs that steam in the cold winter nights. Tourists and locals traipse about in their traditional onsen (hot spring) attire; the click-clacking of wooden flip-flops punctuates the quiet night air. An easy bus ride carries visitors to the magnificent ski slopes at Shiga Kogen, where seemingly endless mountain runs cater to the advanced and novice skier alike. For a relaxing, adventurous, and positively magical trip from Tokyo, visit the monkeys, hot springs, and ski resorts of Nagano.

Stay in Shibu Onsen and enjoy the hot springs after a day on the slopes

Bluebird Day at Ichinose
Source: Noey Neumark

While regions in northern Japan, like Hokkaido, tend to gain the most international fame for their powdered ski slopes, the resorts in Nagano Prefecture come in a close second. (The 1998 Winter Olympics were held here, so the perfection of these mountains should come as no surprise.) Best of all, these slopes are accessible by train in less than half a day, allowing for a quick, adventurous retreat from the bustling Tokyo metropolis. Shiga Kogen is a massive ski area encompassing 19 interconnected ski resorts, so that’s a great place to start. Head first to Ichinose Diamond, where you can rent equipment for the cool price of 100 USD (approximately 11000 JPY) for two days (at Snow Can, which has everything you need, including winter clothes!), purchase lift tickets for approximately 50 USD (9300 JPY) per day, and get ready to ride.

From Ichinose Diamond, skiers and boarders can work their way in either direction to a slew of adjoining resorts, allowing everyone from the novice to expert skier to get the most out of their lift ticket. The run options for beginners and intermediate skiers and snowboarders are seemingly endless, with a ton of green (easy) and red (medium) runs between Ichinose Family and Ichinose Diamond, Yakebitaiyama, and Terakoya. For the more advanced winter sportsmen and women, these resorts do offer a handful of black runs, including some Olympic courses from the 1998 games, but heading a few resorts over (via lifts and gondolas) to Okushigakogen Ski Area will expand your options substantially.

Stay in Shibu Onsen and enjoy the hot springs after a day on the slopes

Beautiful Shibu Onsen
Source: Noey Neumark

Getting to Shiga Kogen from the quaint mountain town of Shibu Onsen couldn’t be easier. A shuttle bus runs through the town every morning, starting at Yudanaka Station and winding its way up, up, and up into the peaks. During ski season, the shuttle’s a steal at about 5 USD (500 JPY) round trip, and it conveniently drops you at the base of the ski resort of your choosing - it stops at several. Getting back down the mountain is just as easy, and life doesn’t get much better than an evening in Shibu Onsen after an exhausting day of skiing. After shedding your ski clothes, “apres-ski” in style at Shiga Kogen Brewery’s Teppa Room for some fresh and tasty local beers. Then, scour the town’s small, sleepy streets for a delicious dinner; keep in mind that the best restaurants might be the hardest to find. For exceptional bar food, head to Ichidaya, where the cheery owner cooks up perfect gyoza (dumplings), grilled squid, and fried tofu, among other greats. Noodles on your mind? Slurp up the soba at Sabiya.

Fed and happy, it’s time to soak the day away in one of the town’s countless onsen, or baths of natural hot spring water. Local hotels can typically arrange an onsen visit for guests, so hit up your concierge for a good deal.

Visit the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Snow monkey chilling
Source: Noey Neumark

What’s cute and funny and furry all over? The snow monkeys that fill the premises of Snow Monkey Park, on the edge of Shibu Onsen! These little creatures are not shy. As park visitors reach the end of the trail from the main road and approach a small valley of hot springs and snow-covered rocks, the monkeys will start popping up from all directions. They hang to the fences lining the trail, they scurry past the feet of curious travelers, and they play and jump like there’s no one else around. Hundreds of monkeys cover the park’s snowy landscape. They jump from rock to rock in the sulfuric hot springs, they dig hungrily in the powdery snow for food, and they play tirelessly.

The official park entrance is a 20-minute walk from the main road, along a flat, wooded trail. To enter the park itself, visitors must pay the small entrance fee (approximately 500 JPY, or 5 USD), but it’s well worth it for the furry creatures that await. Make sure to bring a camera for this National Geographic-worthy excursion!

A blissful vacation awaits in Nagano

The town of Shibu Onsen, a short walk from the Yudanaka Train Station, and the nearby Shiga Kogen Ski Resorts, have all travelers need for a perfect vacation full of relaxation, adventure, and of course, great food. From exceptional skiing on some of the world’s most beautiful slopes to local brews and bites in a picture-perfect ski town, Yamanouchi Prefecture is full of surprises. While winter is pure magic with the powdery white snow, abundant monkeys, and rejuvenating hot springs, the locals swear the region is incredible year-round. Considering the mountains, nature, scenery, restaurants, and all-around great vibes, the locals’ sentiment is easy to believe.

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.

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Noey has lived all over the world, from San Francisco to New York, Hanoi to Bangkok, and is currently pursuing an MBA in Nashville, Tennessee. Noey's ideal vacation consists of a bit of beach, a...Read more

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