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Enjoy the cold in Snow Country: 4 ways to experience winter in Niigata Prefecture

Enjoy the cold in Snow Country: 4 ways to experience winter in Niigata Prefecture

Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken) is without doubt one of Japan’s renown heavy snowfall areas, with snowfall reaching a record high of 4.19m in Tsunan Town (津南町 Tsunan-machi) in February 2022, the highest ever on record for Niigata. Come spring, all the snow melts and enters the aquifers running under the prefecture, which in turn becomes a source of water for all the agriculture that goes on, allowing for the production of many local delicacies, including vegetables, mushrooms, as well as Niigata’s famed made-in-Uonuma Koshihikari rice (魚沼産コシヒカリ Uonuma-san Koshihikari).

 

However, that does not mean that winter in Niigata is a boring affair, with one being trapped indoors for days or weeks on end due to the heavy snowfall. Read on to find out more about how one can enjoy the snow in Niigata!

 

1. GALA Yuzawa: A ski resort 74 minutes from Tokyo

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GALA Yuzawa Station has a cable car station linked to it to bring skiers directly to the slopes. (Image credit: GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort)

 

Did you know that there are many ski resorts near Tokyo where you can enjoy skiing and snowboarding on a day trip? One ski resort near Tokyo that is of particular mention is GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort (ガーラ湯沢). It takes only 74 minutes from JR Tokyo Station (東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) via the Jōetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線)—furthermore, GALA Yuzawa Station (ガーラ湯沢駅 Gala-Yuzawa-eki) is directly connected to the ski slopes, so access from the station is no issue at all! 

 

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(Image credit: GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort)

 

Once you exit the ticket gates, the ski resort ticket counter is immediately visible, and locker rooms and snow gear rental counters are also nearby. You can rent on the spot, change in the changing rooms, and immediately board the gondola to the top of the mountain.

 

A fantastic view awaits you atop the slopes at GALA Yuzawa. (Image credit: koemu / CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

The ski slopes at GALA Yuzawa are divided into three areas: the Central Area, the North Area, and the South Area. Of these, the Central Area is the largest field, with a cable car that takes you directly up to an elevation of 800m. The summit, at 1,181m above sea level, is also a great photo spot where one can take pictures of the beautiful scenery!

 

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New to skiing or snowboarding? Take one of the lessons available at Canyon Snowsports School and get ready to rock the slopes. (Image credit: GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort)

 

If you want to improve your skiing or snowboarding, Canyon Snowsports School (キャニオンスノースポーツスクール) offers ski lessons in English and Mandarin Chinese. The instructors will teach you the basics like how to put on ski shoes, how to walk, and how to ski in great detail, making it great for beginners! Additionally, GALA Yuzawa also offers a variety of other tours.

 

GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort (ガーラ湯沢)
Period (Winter 2022-2023 Season): 20 December 2022–7 May 2023
Address: 1039-2 Kayadaira, Yuzawa, Yuzawa-machi, Minami-Uonuma-gun, Niigata 949-6101
Nearest station: JR GALA Yuzawa Station (ガーラ湯沢駅)
Access: Directly connected to GALA Yuzawa Station
Opening hours (Ski slope): 8am–4:30pm (Winter), 8am–4pm (Spring)
Opening hours (Ski center): Refer to this for more information.
Tel: +81-25-785-6543

 

2. Lotte Arai Resort: A ski resort where you can enjoy skiing on pristine slopes

A bird’s eye view of Lotte Arai Resort. (Image credit: Lotte Arai Resort)

 

Myōkō City (妙高市 Myōkō-shi) in Niigata Prefecture is a scenic area famous for Myōkō-Kōgen (妙高高原), a highland resort where you can enjoy the nature of the four seasons.

 

It is at Myōkō-Kōgen that you can find Lotte Arai Resort (ロッテアライリゾート), a snow resort that had its grand opening on December 16, 2017. Surrounded by the natural beauty of Ogenashiyama (大毛無山), the resort is situated in a magnificent location where you can even see as far out as the ocean on days with good weather.

 

(Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

Chosen as the best ski resort in Japan in the 2020 SKI ASIA Awards by SKI ASIA, a website focused exclusively on ski resorts in Asia, Lotte Arai Resort takes their skiing seriously, which is good news for ski enthusiasts looking for a good place to ski at while on holiday in Japan!

 

At Lotte Arai Resort, 84% of the slopes are "freeriding zones" where fresh snow is left to fall naturally without being compacted, allowing visitors to fully enjoy the pleasure of skiing on powder snow. While the environment is similar to backcountry skiing, Lotte Arai Resort is well managed and staff patrol the areas, so you can enjoy the grandeur of nature safely.

 

Lotte Arai

(Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

There are 15 ski courses at the resort, meaning all ski enthusiasts, from beginners to experts, are bound to find a course they like. In addition, the resort offers a variety of non-skiing adventures for families, friends, and couples can enjoy such as Asia's longest zip line, bouldering, trampolining, and a variety of fun activities.

 

Lotte Arai Resort is conveniently located near JR Jōetsu-Myōkō Station (上越妙高駅 Jōetsu-Myōkō-eki), less than two hours from Tokyo via the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線)! The resort is also home to a hotel that has a reputation for its relaxed, modern atmosphere and high-class resort feel. The hotel is large, with a total of 245 rooms, and is perfect for those who want to stay for a longer period of time. 2019 also saw the opening of a spa, pool, and fitness centre, meaning that there are even more ways to enjoy the resort and its facilities.

 

(Image credit: Lotte Arai Resort)

 

Why not spend a cosy time away from the hustle and bustle of daily life in a resort surrounded by nature?

 

Lotte Arai Resort (ロッテアライリゾート)
Period (Winter 2022-2023 Season): 16 December 2022–May 2023
Address: 1966 Ryozenji, Myōkō-shi, Niigata 944-0062
Nearest station: JR Jōetsu-Myōkō Station (上越妙高駅)
Access: 30-minute shuttle bus ride from Jōetsu-Myōkō Station
Tel: +81-25-575-1177

 

3. Ishiuchi Maruyama Ski Resort: A spectacular location perfect for snow lovers of all ages

(Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

Ishiuchi Maruyama (石打丸山スキー場) is a ski resort located in Minamiuonuma City, one of the best places in Japan to enjoy some of the most abundant natural snowfalls and a spectacular location created by Mother Nature.

 

Since its opening in 1949, the Ishiuchi Maruyama Ski Resort has grown alongside the snow lovers who visit it and has expanded to a total area of 236ha, with a height difference of 664m and a maximum run distance of 4,000m.

 

In recent years, various developments have been made to improve convenience, such as the introduction of the Sunrise Express—the world’s most advanced combination lift featuring both gondolas and chairlift cabins/chairs on the same cable. 

 

One of the most unique features of Ishiuchi Maruyama Ski Resort is that people of all ages can enjoy the snow. For example, from the newly opened “SNOW GARDEN” located next to the park, visitors can enjoy a spectacular view of the snow-white Uonuma Plain and the Echigo Sanzan Mountains with a hot drink in hand. In addition, “SNOW GARDEN” has two types of stylish snow domes, one large and one small, as well as a ski school and sledding slope for kids.

 

There are more than 20 restaurants on site, including stylish cafes and authentic yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) restaurants, the quality of which is incredible for a place on the slopes!

 

Moreover, a 10-minute free shuttle bus ride from Echigo-Yuzawa Station make Ishiuchi Maruyama Ski Resort extremely convenient to access in winter—click here for this season’s timetable.

 

Ishiuchi Maruyama Ski Resort (石打丸山スキー場)
Period (Winter 2022-2023 Season): 16 December 2022–2 April 2023
Address: 1655 Ishiuchi, Minami-Uonuma-shi, Niigata 949-6372
Access: 10-minute shuttle bus ride from Ishiuchi Station (石打駅)
Opening hours: 8:30am–5pm, 8:30am–8pm (24 December–12 March)
Admission fee: From ¥4,000 for a regular day plan for adults (with advance booking online)
Tel: +81-25-783-2222

 

4. Winter fireworks: Full of charms not found in summer!

Fireworks at Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy. (Image credit: Nagaoka City)

 

When you think of winter in Japan, skiing, hot springs, and gourmet experiences probably come to mind. But in fact, if you come to Niigata in winter, you can enjoy beautiful fireworks.

 

Those who are familiar with Japan might be wondering, "Hey, aren't fireworks in Japan supposed to be in the summer?" That is not wrong—in fact, the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival (長岡花火大会 Nagaoka Hanabi-Taikai) held in summer in Nagaoka City (長岡市 Nagaoka-shi) is so famous that it ranks as one of the Three Big fireworks festivals in Japan.

 

However, in Niigata, fireworks displays are also held in winter! In many cases, winter fireworks displays are not as large as those held in summer, but they have their own charms not found in summer, such as the chance to see fireworks glowing against a field of snow, or to enjoy light displays alongside the fireworks.

 

Take, for example, the Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy (長岡花火ウインターファンタジー Nagaoka Hanabi Winter Fantasy) held every December at Echigo Hillside Park (越後丘陵公園 Echigo Kyūryō Kōen) in Nagaoka City. Here, fireworks set to winter-themed music and large star mine fireworks can be seen, wowing many tourists with their beauty. The event venue is decorated with light displays and Christmas decorations, which can be enjoyed together with the fireworks.

 

The Tsunan Snow Festival, where you can see sky lanterns rise into the winter sky. (Image credit: Niigata Prefectural Tourism Association)

 

Furthermore, New Greenpia Tsunan (ニュー・グリーンピア津南) in Tsunan Town (津南町 Tsunan-machi) offers a sky lantern experience from December to March, and the sight of lanterns rising towards the night sky is truly a spectacle not to be missed!

 

In addition to these events, a variety of other fireworks events are held throughout Niigata. For more details, please visit the official Niigata Prefecture Official Tourism website.

 

For those of you who would like an idea of how to incorporate some of the places introduced in this article into a winter trip itinerary, have a look at this blog for a few ideas on how to do so. For more information on travel packages that will allow you to visit and experience some of the spots above, click HERE!

 

Getting around with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

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The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains and Joyful Trains like the Koshino Shu*Kura) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Jōetsu-Myōkō (~¥19,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

This article is written in collaboration with Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association.

Header image credit: GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort

 

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