Full ski ahead! GALA YUZAWA and other fun things to do in Yuzawa
Winter is upon us, and when it’s winter, what comes to mind? Skiing and snow activities! Japan is home to many snow resorts and places people would love to visit for winter activities such as skiing, snowboarding, or just frolicking in the snow, and one of the most popular destinations for winter activities is located in the town of Yuzawa (湯沢町 Yuzawa-machi) in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken). It's here where you, dear readers, can find one of the best skiing resorts in Japan to make your skiing debut.
Make your skiing debut at GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT
GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT’s Snow Enjoyment Park. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
Japan has areas that have some of the heaviest snowfalls in the world, and one of them is Niigata Prefecture. It's starkly different from the major cities such as Tokyo, where snowy days are a rare occasion. Because of the heavy snowfall, Niigata is the perfect place for skiing, and GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT is the place to go for just that. It's one of the most popular snow resorts in Niigata. Due to its central location and convenient access, it’s become a go-to winter destination for people living in Tokyo and nearby cities. The altitude at this resort is high among the ski resorts in this area, so the snow quality is really good, and it snows almost every day at the peak of the season. If you want to start skiing, GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT is strongly recommended, and it's best to couple with a stay at a hot spring inn (旅館 ryokan) with an open-air bath, and an experience with the famous Niigata sake!
Going up the mountain by gondola. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT is on a mountain and visitors can go up by gondola, so they can feel just how close the sky is by ascending, especially with the surrounding mountains in full view. When going up the mountain, mundane things related to daily life―houses, cars, etc.―are out of sight, so visitors can have a respite from daily life, and that makes this snow resort particularly special. It's akin to a winter version of a beach vacation, watching the sunset on the horizon at a beach resort on a serene island. Plus, the resort also makes for a memorable venue for marriage proposals and anniversary trips.
When it comes to ski resorts, the Alps in Europe and Rocky Mountains in North America also have many ski resorts, but I don't think there is any other place where you can enjoy fresh snow every other morning due to region's heavy snowfall. Also, in Europe and the United States, skiing tends to cater to more affluent visitors; in Japan, anyone can go skiing.
Better yet, it’s accessible via the Jōetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線) and is directly connected to the JR GALA Yuzawa Station (JRガーラ湯沢駅 Gāra-Yuzawa-eki), so not only can visitors come here easily from major cities, but they can also reach the snow resort without having to leave the station building. Visitors can reach the resort from Tokyo in just about 75 minutes by shinkansen, and once they reach JR GALA Yuzawa Station, they will find the resort's information counter just outside the ticket gates.
The resort's renewed information counter just outside the ticket gates. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
The resort is usually open for business from mid-December to the beginning of May. Because of the resort's high altitude—with Mount Takatsukura (高津倉山) as high as 1,181m—snow usually comes earlier compared to other snow resorts in the area, so it opens earlier. If snow continues to fall even in spring, the resort will be open even until the Golden Week period. But do note: this all strictly depends on the weather conditions; if snow doesn't fall in April, it will close earlier than usual.
The different skiing courses available at the resort. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
One of the best things about GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT is how visitors need not worry about winter gear, as most can be rented onsite at the resort (it's best if you can bring your own accessories; woolly hats, ski goggles, and thick and long socks are not available for rental, so you can only buy them at the resort). Ski lessons are readily available for the uninitiated—with different levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced—and they're also available in different languages: English, Chinese, and Thai.
(Note: ski and snowboarding lessons are not available in Chinese and Thai for 2020 / 21 season.)
Winter gear for rent onsite. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
What’s more, the snow resort has 16 different skiing courses suited for skiers of all levels, plus a few more belonging to other resorts such as Yuzawa Kogen and Ishiuchi Maruyama. There are gentle slopes for beginners, and for more seasoned skiers, steeper-gradient slopes can be found near the top of Mount Takatsukura. For those who have never done winter sports should not fret; a half-day lesson is a good way to start off their skiing endeavour. Skiing involves sliding down a slope, and because of gravity, you will descend faster and faster, which is pretty intimidating for first-timers. But for gentle slopes, anyone can ski on them as long as they take some lessons and practise a little.
Some pointers for first-timers too: it's fine if you tumble and fall when skiing for the first time. It doesn't hurt as much as you think, because the snow is fluffy enough to cushion your fall (especially the snow at GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT). To master skiing down steep slopes with many bumps and turns is definitely not easy, although advanced skiers always make it look so easy. Everyone's a beginner at some point, and if you practise, slowly but surely you will become an advanced skier someday. Simply put, the better you become, the more fun skiing gets. Another pointer: skiing is best done in the morning, when the mountain slopes have a fresh slate of snow that's not touched by other skiers.
Ski lessons are available at the resort. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
Many people have claimed how fun it was to take part in skiing especially for their first time, and even the staff working at the resort vividly remember their first affair with the Yuzawa winter:
“I was overjoyed when I first experienced winter (at the resort). Although it was very cold, it was utterly beautiful, and I wanted to play a lot in the snow and experience skiing for the first time. It wasn’t easy at first; I was scared when I didn’t know how to stop myself when skiing. I fell a lot, but it didn’t hurt because of the soft snow, so it was pleasant and fun. I practised every day, and it was a great experience before I began teaching customers how to ski. I feel like I've already improved my life.” – Emmie, staff at GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT
Skiing lessons are available in different languages. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
“The exhilaration of cutting through the wind and sliding on pure white snow was unforgettable. It will feel liberating for you to stand in the midst of the snowy landscape with the wide-open sky above you, and snowy mountains all around you. It’s an escapism from everyday life. The emotions you feels as you see yourself progress, when a seemingly intimidating course turned to be an easy one, is something you would never forget. Seeing a snowflake before your very eyes, unlike mere illustrations and designs of it, is something everyone should experience for themselves. These are the kinds of experiences you can get at this resort.” – Yukie, staff at GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT
In fact, winter this year is going to be a little special, and the resort is making some changes and has plenty of activities in store for their visitors. Let’s see what they are.
There’s going to be some changes
An unforgettable winter experience. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
I previously wrote about GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT when I paid a visit back in February this year (time really flies, doesn’t it?). The resort is officially opening on 16 December 2020, and it has something special lined up for visitors. There are also going to be some changes to make their visitors' winter experience a little better and more memorable. Here are some highlights of what visitors will get to see:
(Note: For the latest updates on their opening date, you can refer to their official website, Facebook page or Twitter account.)
① Happy 30th anniversary!
Celebrating their 30th anniversary this year. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT).
2020 is a bit more special compared to other years for one simple reason: it’s the resort’s 30th anniversary. The resort first opened in December 1990, and for 30 years it has been giving millions of visitors both local and foreign unforgettable winter experiences. This year, the resort has fun ideas lined up for us, including selling original exclusive merchandises, and special programs too.
In fact, the resort staffs are also having a change in wardrobe: they will be sporting new uniforms with a fresher look, in commemoration to the anniversary.
② Better amenities
The resort has been running for 30 years, so it’s inevitable that ageing has taken place for some of its amenities. This year, GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT is having a makeover, some of which include replacing the ski center carpeting, replacing and digitising 18 of their signages with latest updates and easy-to-use interfaces, and redesigning the iconic Photogenic Wall.
③ Customer service improvements
Pricelist for renting winter gear onsite. (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn)
Visitors to the resort will experience improvement at the resort in several ways. For example, the luggage storage is relocated to the courier service counter on the third level of the ski centre (formerly it was at the information counter) to reduce congestion and make luggage deposit and collection a smoother experience. English, Chinese (traditional / simplified), and Japanese languages will be made available for winter equipment rental online, as well as continual improvements for the mobile version. The winter gear reservation system also had an overhaul: now visitors can rent winter gear online and simply collect it onsite, so as to reduce congestion.
The layout map used at the resort will also be renewed so that it’s easier for visitors to read and navigate throughout the place. In addition, the shuttle bus service will also be reviewed, with more bus departures and new stops added for visitors to Yuzawa.
④ Foods galore
The resort's Japanese restaurant YUTA. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
“When in Niigata, eat seafood and rice (and sake)”, as many locals would concur. Niigata has a reputation for having some of the most amazing seafood and rice in Japan, and GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT aims to showcase just that.
New onigiri on the menu. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
The resort will be renewing its menus and even curating a limited one specially in commemoration of its 30th anniversary. Expect delectable foods that use more speciality Niigata ingredients such as rice and sake; in fact, there will also be selling a wide variety of rice balls (おにぎり onigiri) using Koshihikari (コシヒカリ) rice.
⑤ COVID-19 prevention measures
In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, new guidelines have been formulated and implemented for the well-being of visitors and staff members. These include the wearing of masks, regular hand sanitisation, and social distancing measures.
For visitors who have rented winter gear at the resort, they will also receive a neck gaiter for further protection against infections and better hygiene.
More than just skiing
Most people would habitually associate Yuzawa with winter activities, a testament of the town’s sheer popularity as a snow resort. But what if you want something more than just skiing? Yuzawa is not just a main destination for winter sports, but it's also a hot spring town with many hot spring inns, and is located in one of Japan's snow countries (雪国 yukiguni). Check out what other amazing experiences you can find below.
Enjoying hot springs in Yuzawa
Hotel Futaba's open-air hot spring bath. (Image credit: ホテル双葉)
It might not occur to some people, but Yuzawa has not always been known for its snow resorts. The town is also known for its hot springs (温泉 onsen) whose stretches back as far as 800 years ago, and there are seven hot springs at Echigo-Yuzawa (越後湯沢), some of which have open-air baths (露天風呂 rotenburo). The hot spring water at Echigo-Yuzawa are mildly alkaline, which is known to improve skin tone, and it has mineral properties that are beneficial for healing muscles.
The best part about staying at a hot spring resort in Yuzawa during winter is to be able to gaze at the panoramic view of the magnificent snowy mountains while soaking in an open-air bath (雪見露天風呂 yukimi-rotenburo). There are many hot spring resorts with open-air baths to choose from. Imagine doing this especially after a long day of winter sports at the nearby mountain slope. It’s a heavenly experience that can’t be described in words, and skiers will feel rejuvenate after a long day once they have a look at amazing views from a hot spring bath.
Snow-covered open-air hot spring baths. (Image credit: ホテル双葉/東映ホテル)
Hotel Futaba's open-air hot spring bath. (Image credit: ホテル双葉)
What's more, Echigo-Yuzawa is a hot spring town that comes to life at night. Visitors can check out the many restaurants and bars in the area, enjoy Niigata's amazing sake, and take part in night activities such as karaoke and shooting galleries. Visitor shouldn't miss iconic Japanese dishes such as sashimi and grilled fish that would perfectly complement sake and a fun night of singing to your heart's content.
Onigiri-dokoro & Sake-dokoro YUTA. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA / Ishii)
KARAOKE BAR KEI. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA / Ishii)
Echigo-Yuzawa Onsen Town. (Image credit: Snow Country Tourist Area Association)
For the sake of sake
Ponshukan Echigo-Yuzawa. (Image credit: Enjoy Niigata)
Fans of sake, listen up: there’s a treasure trove of sake right inside Echigo-Yuzawa Station itself! It shouldn’t come as a surprise that since Niigata is famous for its high-quality rice, it is home to some of the best sake in Japan. If there’s one place visitors should check out for the prefecture’s best rice and sake, it’s Ponshukan Echigo-Yuzawa (ぽんしゅ館 越後湯沢驛店).
Ponshukan’s wide variety of sake. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA / Ishii)
Visitors stepping into Ponshukan—“ponshu” colloquially means sake—will be greeted amusing statues of drunken people, and they will be spoiled for choice: there are over 100 types of sakes from Niigata’s 90 breweries, and they can sample them at Ponshukan’s Saké Tasting Room. Visitors can take note of seasonal specials and staff recommendations in the diverse collection. For denominations of ¥500, they will be given a sake cup for tasting, and 5 coins they can use as credits for selecting sake to sample, so use your coins wisely!
Saké Spa at Ponshukan. (Image credit: Enjoy Niigata)
In fact, if you love sake so much, why not just bathe in it? Because at Ponshukan, you literally can! There’s a sake-infused public bath named Saké Spa available here, and visitors can a dip in it for a fee. Not only is that a pleasant subtle scent of sake in the bathwater, the natural amino acids present in sake help in giving bathers soft skin, and it can also help to improve blood circulation and clean skin pores.
Onigiri at Yukinto, with Bakudan onigiri on the right. (Image credit: Enjoy Niigata)
When there’s good rice, there’s good sake. But also, there’s good onigiri. Ponshukan not only has a wide spread of sake, but also different kinds of onigiri made with a variety of fillings at Yukinto (雪ん洞). In fact, if you’re famished, try out their special Bakudan onigiri (bomb onigiri): a gigantic rice ball made with locally grown koshihikari rice! There’s also a corner for tasting soya sauce, made from discarded sake lees.
Ponshukan Marketplace. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA / Ishii)
Ponshukan located inside CoCoLo Yuzawa at Echigo-Yuzawa Station. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA / Ishii)
Of course, it would be a waste to visit Ponshukan and leave empty-handed. Why not buy something home after all that sake tasting? Ponshukan Marketplace has a plethora of sake selections from local producers, brewers, and manufacturers to bring visitors the best that Niigata has to offer. On top of sake, there are also other products ranging from sweets and rice crackers (せんべい senbei), to traditional condiments and local delicacies.
Ponshukan Echigo-Yuzawa (ぽんしゅ館 越後湯沢驛店)
Address: 2427-3 Yuzawa, Yuzawamachi, Minamiuonuma, Niigata 949-6101
Nearest station: Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅)
Opening hours: 9:30am–6pm (Saké Tasting Room / Ponshukan Marketplace), 10:30am–5:30pm (Saké Spa)
Fees: ¥500 per person for 1 cup and 5 tasting coins (Saké Tasting Room), ¥800 per adult/¥400 per child ages 11 and under (Saké Spa)
Living in the snowy countryside
Yuzawa Folklore History Museum "Yukigunikan". (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA / Ishii)
Niigata Prefecture is historically known as a snow country because of its heavy snowfall during winter. The heavy snowfall has a major influence in the lifestyle of the locals both in the past and present, and the best place to learn about this is at the Yuzawa Folklore History Museum "Yukigunikan". Here, visitors can experience the old Japanese lifestyle in the region, and see exhibits such as the tools used back then, rooms equipped with open hearths (囲炉裏 irori) to replicate those in the past, and even a reconstruction of Komako's Room, where novelist Kawabata Yasunari met Matsue, the main influence behind his literary work "Snow Country" (雪国 Yukiguni).
(Note: I wrote in detail about the snow countries in Japan, including Niigata, and mentioned about Kawabata's literary work in another article. Check it out here.)
Exhibits of tools used by locals in the past. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA / Ishii)
Replicas of rooms of homes in the snow country. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA / Ishii)
A reconstruction of Komako's Room. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA / Ishii)
Yuzawa Folklore History Museum 'Yukigunikan' (湯沢町歴史民俗資料館「雪国館」)
Address: 354-1 Yuzawa, Minamiuonuma District, Niigata 949-6101
Nearest station: Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅)
Opening hours: 9am–4:30pm daily (closed on Wednesdays)
Fees: ¥500 per adult, ¥250 per child
Love you berry much
Echigo-Hime strawberries. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Do you know you can pick fruits in a snow country too? In Echigo-Yuzawa, visitors can pick strawberries even in winter, and the town of Yuzawa is famous for a special kind of strawberries named Echigo Hime (越後姫 Echigo Princess). These strawberries can be found only in Niigata Prefecture, and they are known for their irresistible juiciness and fragrance.
Strawberry picking at Yukiguni Agri Park Strawberry Park. (Image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT)
One place where visitors can experience strawberry picking in winter is Yukiguni Agri Park Yuzawa Strawberry Park. Because the park uses greenhouses to grow strawberries, the fruits are available throughout the year, but they’re in season in winter and spring (that’s the best time to pick strawberries). They can choose either one of two courses: picking 100g of strawberries for ¥280 or go for the 30-minute strawberry buffet! The price for the buffet varies between ¥1,500–1,850 per adult, depending on the season.
Yukiguni Agri Park Yuzawa Strawberry Park (雪国アグリパーク湯沢いちご村)
Address: 750-1 Kandatsu, Yuzawa, Minami Uonuma, Niigata
Nearest station: Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅)
Opening hours: 10am–3:30pm (park closes at 4pm)
Admission fee: ¥150 per person
Yuzawa in 3 days 2 nights
With so many things to see and do in Yuzawa, how does one fully enjoy everything from skiing to exploring the town if they don't have much time? One only needs a few days to do so in winter—in fact, a 3D2N schedule would be perfect—and here's one simple plan that has a bit of everything.
① AM: Arrive early from Tokyo, ski lessons in the morning (for first-timers)
② PM: Visit Yukigunikan and Ponshukan
Start your trip with skiing in the morning, when the snow is at its best for the day, where first-timers can take start their skiing debut with skiing lessons. After skiing lessons, do some practice and ski at your own time and pace. After that, pay a visit to Yukigunikan to learn more about the olden days of the local lifestyle, and then finish the day off with a trip to Ponshukan for some sake.
① AM: Ski lessons in the morning (for beginners), free skiing time
② PM: Go strawberry-picking at Yukiguni Agri Park, and explore the nightlife of Echigo-Yuzawa
Skiing continues again in the morning, where beginners can learn to hone their skills further with some free time afterwards for self-practice. After skiing, go strawberry-picking and feast on strawberries. End the night by exploring Echigo-Yuzawa's nightlife.
① AM: Final day for skiing
② PM: One last hot spring experience with spectacular view of snowy mountains
This is your last chance to master your skiing skills! Before going back, take one last good dip in one of Echigo-Yuzawa's many amazing hot springs to rest your body after three days worth of winter sports. Make your way back to Tokyo, and reminisce about your skiing debut experience.
So, how about it? As a country of four seasons, Japan has wondrous beauty throughout the year, and winter is no exception. GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT is definitely the place to be for winter activities, but it also has wonderful hot springs and other intriguing activities. Make your way to this amazing snow resort, and have an unforgettable winter experience at Yuzawa!
How to get to Yuzawa
Yuzawa is located in Niigata Prefecture, and can be reached easily from Tokyo by train. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Jōetsu Shinkansen bullet train from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) or JR Ueno Station (JR上野駅 Ueno-eki) to JR GALA Yuzawa Station. The journey takes 75 minutes, and the ordinary fare is ¥7,220 from Tokyo or ¥7,010 from Ueno, with seat reservation. The ski resort is usually open only during winter, but the business operation period is subjected to weather conditions.
For more information on GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT, you can visit the official website here.
(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), or the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the bullet train and make seat reservations for free! Even better, holders of any of the passes can enjoy discounts on gondola tickets and equipment rentals, just for the winter season! Click here for more details.)
JR TOKYO Wide Pass
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass, and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass is an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 3 consecutive days. At ¥10,180, you can use it to travel from Tokyo to GALA Yuzawa, and many other places within the designated areas, such as Nikko, Karuizawa and more. You can also make seat reservations online for free, up to 1 month in advance. For more information on the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, click here.
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥18,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free. For more information on the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), click here.
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). For more information, please check here.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥20,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free. For more information on the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), click here.
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: GALA YUZAWA SNOW RESORT