Skiing season started late this year. December is usually unpredictable, but by January most mountains should be fully operational. Japan’s ski boom of the 1980s and 1990s is long gone, but the good news is that skiing is now much more affordable and slopes far less crowded. The plethora of ski resorts to choose from can be overwhelming. You should pick the resort most suitable to your choice of transportation. Here is a short guide comparing the differences when you visit a mountain by train, bus or car.
For skiers without their own equipment, traveling on an express train makes for the most pleasant trip. Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive mode of transportation. A one-day Gala Yuzawa ski trip with train fare, lift ticket and ski rentals is fine for a working adult but harder on the budget if you are paying for a family of four. However, nothing beats Gala when it comes to convenience. After a 75 minute ride from Tokyo Station, you arrive at a station where you can literally put on your skis and board a gondola to the lifts. Surprisingly, Gala is not a tourist trap but offers a wide range of intermediate runs for more experienced skiers as well. http://www.galaresort.jp/winter/english/index.html
Clocking in at 60 mins, the Asama Shinkansen ride from Tokyo Station to Karuizawa is even shorter than to Gala. From there it’s just a short shuttle bus ride to the Karuizawa Prince Ski Resort. Consisting mainly of machine made snow, it is a mountain more suited to novice skiers. If there are non-skiers in the group, Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza across the station can provides hours of window shopping opportunities (though it is not an indoor mall). The Karuizawa Prince Hotel is connected directly to the ski slopes, and is a great place for an overnight stay. Saturday nights are pricey but it’s cheaper if you stay on a week night. http://www.princehotels.com/en/ski/karuizawa/index.html
Joetsu Kokusai is very popular with families for overnight trips. The attached Green Plaza Hotel offers ski-in/ski-out accommodation, massive buffet meals and a free shuttle bus, though the ride is about 30-mins from Echigo Yuzawa Station. The runs are suitable for all levels but it is a wonderful resort for small, non-skiing children. There are bouncy castle slides and sled runs for young families to enjoy. Because the location is less convenient, it is also cheaper than Karuizawa. http://www.jkokusai.co.jp/pdf/eng.pdf
Taking a tour bus from one of the major Tokyo stations is the most affordable way of going on a ski trip. There are two types of buses. One departs early morning at around 6am and the other type departs at night, usually around 10pm.
Weekend traffic leaving Tokyo is horrid and it can easily take over 5 hours one way to arrive at a ski mountain. Even with a bathroom break, only those with strong bladders should bus it on a weekend. On weekdays though, the bus rides are around 4 hours and are surprisingly pleasant. The round trip bus ride and ski ticket at Kawaba Ski Resort was less than ￥5000 (2014 pricing)
Some ski resorts have their own shuttle buses. The Prince hotel chain offers their White Snow Shuttle Bus from their properties in Shinagawa and Ikebukuro to the Naeba Prince. However, with a late arrival time of around 1pm, it is only conducive to overnight trips. A Prince Hotel ski and stay package usually comes with a 2-day ticket which includes night skiing. The Naeba resort, especially if you get a Mount Naeba ski ticket which includes connection to Kagura and Mitsumata mountains, is a fun place to ski. You can ski from 2pm to 9pm on day one and a full day the next. http://www.princehotels.com/en/ski/mtnaeba/
For the buses departing at night, traffic is light and you arrive at the mountain early to begin a full day of skiing. One drawback is that it may be difficult to sleep on these crowded buses. A bigger concern is safety. Sleepy drivers driving on icy winter roads at night is a formula for accidents, and fatal ones have occurred. Despite the low cost, I would strongly discourage people from taking night ski buses.
If you have winter wheels and do not mind driving on snowy roads, going by car provides great flexibility. There are slopes in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture which are not that hazardous to drive to, such as Norn.http://snow.gurunavi.com/guide/htm/r0071ens.htm
Saku Ski Parada is a small slope literally right next to the Sakudaira parking area, off the Joshinetsu Highway just past Karuizawa. It is small, with artificial snow and suitable only for beginners. http://snow.gurunavi.com/guide/htm/r0105ens.htm
Because both Saturday morning and Sunday evening traffic are horrendous, we like to drive to Maebashi on a Friday night and stay at a business hotel. We rest, eat a full breakfast and drive for another hour to ski for a full day on Saturday. We have all our own equipment and enjoy the flexibility of driving up, so it is our preferred mode of transportation, though all types have their benefits. Japan is a great country for skiing so take advantage of it!