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JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) ski trip ideas

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) ski trip ideas

Written by: Owain Price / SNOW ACTION 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is the most popular JR Pass option for winter visitors to Japan. No surprise thereit provides easy access to Honshu’s busiest and most popular resorts. Bustling Hakuba (白馬), sprawling Shiga Kogen (志賀高原), historic Nozawa (野沢), and the latest “next Nisekos” like Myoko (妙高) and Madarao (斑尾), are all just a bus ride from major shinkansen stations along the Nagano (長野) route.


Adam Portland gets a lonelier line at Tenjindaira. (Image credit: Alister Buckingham / skijapan.com)


So many foreign skiers and boarders flock to these resorts, you don’t need itinerary advice to join them. No worries for foreign visitors at all—just get a train to Nagano, jump on the Hakuba bus, and there you have it... too easy!


Lotte Arai is a short shuttle ride from Joetsu-Myoko Station. (Image credit: Phil Tifo Akai Resort)


Much the same applies at Myoko and Madarao, where foreign-owned businesses have mushroomed in recent years, and to a lesser extent at Nozawa. Any combination of these, plus Shiga Kogen and the spectacular “new” Lotte Arai, work smoothly with a JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)—use the full 5 travel days on that to mix them up traveling between Nagano, Iiyama, and Joetsu-Myoko stations.


But if you prefer to find areas with great snow, great terrain, and far fewer foreigners, check out our “Escape the crowds” itinerary options below.


JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) “Escape the crowds” itinerary

GALA Yuzawa is Japan’s most popular ski resort, unique for having direct shinkansen-to-slopes access. So yes, expect crowds! But they are easy enough to avoid too.

You could be smashing Naeba-Kagura first thing in the morning—fresh off an overnight flight! (Image credit: Grant Gunderson / Prince Resorts)


Day 1: JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) Travel Day – Ski & Stay Naeba/Yuzawa areas

There is no quicker way to get from an overnight flight to decent snow than using the Joetsu Shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅) or GALA Yuzawa Station (ガーラ湯沢駅) in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県). During winter there’s a series of shinkansen whisking you from Tokyo Station to Yuzawa in around 70 minutes.


GALA Yuzawa is owned by East Japan Railway Company (JR East), with the resort linked by lifts up from the platforms to the base of the gondola. It doesn’t get easier than that!


Echigo-Yuzawa is the regular town station just before GALA Yuzawa. From here, you have a choice of a dozen nearby areas accessible by shuttle buses or taxis. Or Right across the road from the station’s exit is the base of Yuzawa Kogen. You can buy a 3-area ticket here that includes GALA Yuzawa and Ishiuchi too. There’s a lift connection across a valley from Yuzawa Kogen to GALA Yuzawa, then you just ski on into Ishiuchi, the largest and most varied of these three.


The Yuzawa resorts are popular with locals scooting up on the shinkansen in 70 minutes from Tokyo. (Image credit: Owain Price)


Kandatsu Kogen is a good pick for powder daysit’s a short 10-minute shuttle ride from the station.


If you’re arriving off the plane with luggage, it’s best to have sorted some accommodation in Yuzawathere are plenty of great value options. There and then, just drop your bags and go skiing.


Or even easier, stay at Naeba Prince Resort, which is a 50-minute free (for Prince guests) shuttle ride up the road. Here you get all the benefits of ski in/ski out from the massive hotel complex and the chance to ski everything from fast groomers to out-the-gate fresh snow at the inter-linked Kagura side of the resort.


Slashing a late season pow line at Kandatsu Kogen above Echigo-Yuzawa. (Image credit: Owain Price)


Day 2 to Day 4 or 5: Ski & Stay Naeba/Yuzawa areas

If you’re staying a few nights at Naeba, you can take the shuttle back down to Yuzawa to ski the resorts there for the day, and nightthe night skiing at Ishiuchi in particular is worth it.


The Yuzawa areas are quite low altitude generally, so the snow can be heavier and spring arrives sooner. But in peak winter from the end of December to late February, you can get some great powder days and it is usually not crowded at all if you go during midweek.


Naeba Prince offers great value for money, and kids up to the age of 12 ski for free so it’s an excellent choice for families.


Yuzawa has lots of restaurants and izakaya, plenty of accommodation and shops galore, especially in the big arcade at the station. So it’s a lively and cheap option, with far less western influence than at the main Nagano resort areas.


If you love tree features, you will love Okutone Snow Park, Minakami. (Image credit: Owain Price)


Day 5 or 6: JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) – Ski & Stay Minakami area

On our JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) itinerary, you can ski most of the day and travel in the afternoon, or vice versa.


From Echigo-Yuzawa, it’s a short shinkansen ride back to Jomo-Kogen Station (上毛高原駅) for Minakami (水上) in neighbouring Gunma Prefecture (群馬県). This popular onsen town is strung out along a river valley, with everything from upmarket onsen resort hotels to great value ryokan inns.


Self-drive is good here for fast access to the main areas according to conditions, but distances are not big either so taxis are a viable alternative. Booking in with a guide outfit look no further than Canyons Japan for thatwill provide transport as part of their package and expert guiding to the spectacular skiing and riding on offer at the likes of Tenjindaira (天神平) and Okutone (奥利根).


Tenjindaira would quite likely be my pick if someone said you can only ski one place in Japan for the rest of your ski days. It’s that good. Deep snow. Steep trees. Amazing alpine above the lifts. And still often not too many people at all


Okutone is a great back up for days when it’s too wild up the road at Tenjindaira.


For a mellower family experience, Minakami Hodaigi has nice open beginner and intermediate runs, and some worth-a-look sidecountry.


Mike Harris from Canyons.jp has been guiding at Tenjindaira for 29 years. (Image credit: Owain Price)


Day 5 or 6 to Day 9 or 11: Ski & Stay Minakami area

How long you stay in this area depends on your inclinations but at least 3–5 nights is reasonable. One good day at Tenjindaira will leave you craving more, while Okutone is a real surprise package (the local’s favourite too). The many onsen in the valley are a bonus.


Finish your trip at a mainstream destination like Nozawa or stay off grid. (Image credit: Shaun Mittwollen)


Day 9 or Day 11 to 14: JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) Travel Day – Option A: Go mainstream & finish Hakuba, Nozawa, etc.

Where next? Consider heading back over to Nagano and Hakuba—just scoot down from Jomo-Kogen to Takasaki Station (高崎駅), around 16 or 17 minutes, and change shinkansen lines there for Nagano or Joetsu-Myoko or Iiyama stations.


That’s still only your 3rd JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) travel day, leaving a 4th to get back to the airport on Day 14.


Or do a couple of days in Myoko, Madarao, or Lotte Arai and a couple of days in Shiga Kogen, Hakuba, or Nozawa to use the full 5 days. Either way, you can ski the morning in Minakami or the afternoon in your chosen destination area easily enoughthe shinkansen sectors are short.


Skiing powder at Marunuma Kogen in Gunma using the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). At Marunuma, there was no one else skiing the pow lines! (Image credit: Alister Buckingham / SkiJapan.com)


Day 9 or Day 11 to 14: Option B: Stay off grid & finish in Katashina area, Gunma

But if you are keen to keep avoiding the crowds, especially all those western skiers just like you looking for powder, then staying in Gunma is a good Plan B.


The Katashina (片品) area south-east of Minakami has some medium-sized resorts with great value ski in/ski out accommodation options.


You can either get on the local JR trains for a scenic run down the Joetsu line to JR Numata Station (沼田駅) and take the bus from there, or take the bus from Jomo-Kogen Station to Katashina. From here, local shuttle buses run up to Oze-Iwakura (尾瀬岩鞍) and Marunuma Kogen (丸沼高原) —the best of the Katashina areas.


The Mount Nikko-Shirane Ropeway at Marunuma Kogen whisks you up to 2,000m, which is high by Japanese ski resort standardsthat’s 170m higher than the top of the lifts in the Hakuba Valley, for example. The base village here at 1,390m is also higher than the summit at many popular Nagano and Niigata areas, which usually translates to quality snow over a longer season.


Oze-Iwakura is a bit lower, but bigger terrain wise. There is also more (but not much) of a village at the base. Oze-Iwakura offers a budget lodge option or the modern main resort hotel, both ski in/ski out and great value. It’s the pick to stay at and you could day trip over to Marunuma for a look using the local shuttle buses.


On your final morning, you can easily ski before heading back to the airport.


Doing our full off-the-grid JR EAST PASS Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) itinerary, you will have skied maybe 10 different areas, with only Naeba among those a major destination for international skiers.


We observed mainly local skiiers at Oze-Iwakura. (Image credit: Carmen Price)


Useful links & contact for Gunma Prefecture and Minakami area


JR EAST PASS regional options and costs

  • JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area): 5 flexible travel days in 14 days = pre-purchase ¥17,310 or ¥18,330 purchased in Japan after arrival; child (ages 6–11) ¥8,650 / ¥9,160.
  • JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area): 5 flexible travel days in 14 days = pre purchase ¥19,350 or ¥20,360 purchased in Japan after arrival; child (ages 6–11) ¥9,670 / ¥10,180.
  • JR East–South Hokkaido Rail Pass: 6 flexible travel days in 14 days = pre-purchase ¥26,900 or ¥27,930 purchased in Japan after arrival; child (ages 6–11) ¥13,450 / ¥13,960.
  • JR Tohoku–South Hokkaido Rail Pass: 5 flexible travel days in 14 days = pre-purchased ¥19,750 or ¥20,790 purchased in Japan after arrival; child (ages 6–11) ¥9,870 / ¥10,390


For JR EAST PASS options and inclusions check their English site here.

For more JR EAST PASS travel tips and our JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) itinerary ideas, check here.

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