Greeted with one lonely ski lift next to a run down ticket office, I had to fight back my disappointment. I drove four hours for this? As my snowboard touched the ground and I pushed off from the ski lift, a hidden ski resort opened up before me, revealing several lifts and slopes disappearing up into the mountains. To my right, a gorgeous European-style hotel and resort loomed above me. Looking back, the dilapidated ticket office and parking lot had disappeared out of sight, leaving only the picturesque view of mountains far in the distance. Joestu Kokusai Ski Resort in Niigata was like its own private resort on the top of an isolated mountain.
I have been snowboarding at many resorts on many slopes across Japan, from Hokkaido to Hiroshima. Joetsu Kokusai, however, is on its own level. If you catch it on a clear day, the view of the surrounding mountains are one of a kind. Some of the slopes even offer "scenic routes" that gently wind down the mountain so you can enjoy the view.
My first encounter at Joetsu Kokusai Ski Resort was last winter. We visited near the end of March, so the day was warm and bright but the snow was still decent. We enjoyed our visit so much, we planned a trip this year months in advance and decided to stay in the resort hotel in order to enjoy more of the slopes. We secured a great deal for a two-story room meant for 8 people, which included a buffet dinner, breakfast, and a 2-day lift pass.
Unfortunately, the high quality of the resort is no secret, and the resort area was packed with guests. We had to wait in line to check-in and then to drop off our luggage in the cloak room since we had arrived before check-in at 3pm. Once our luggage was off our hands, however, we were able to get out on the slopes and away from the crowd. The mountain is so expansive that you can enjoy snowboarding or skiing without worrying too much about traffic.
It took us almost an hour to get to the highest point on the mountain, after navigating several lifts and slopes. At the top, we enjoyed a beer and the 360-degree view of the mountain as our gloves dried on the heater in the rest area. The adventure back to the main resort area took almost as long, since we decided to detour down a few other slopes along the way.
As for the resort, I have to admit the sheer amount of people was the most discouraging part of the weekend. There are several cafeterias around the mountain and on the slopes, but the food areas in the main resort always has a waiting list and a shortage of sitting space as families relax for long periods of time near the heaters.
If you can tell from the picture, the vast amount of rooms available at this hotel is astounding. They have rooms for any and all of your needs, regardless of whether it is for singles, couples, families or large groups. While I can't speak for other rooms, the group room we had reserved was perfect for us. The upper room was tatami and could easily fit five people. As a side note - the futons were pleasantly thick and comfortable. The downstairs room had three single beds and a living room area with some chairs and a table. There was of course a refrigerator, toilet and bathtub available. I recommend using the public indoor and outdoor bath available in the main hotel area.
Even if you decide to utilize the slopes for only a day, I think it is well worth it. Joetsu Kokusai is my favorite resort in terms of snowboarding so far. If you are willing to navigate the throngs of visitors in the hotel area, staying at the hotel is convenient and can be quite cheap if you purchase a package deal which includes meals and a lift pass. If you stay at the hotel, you can drive all the way up the mountain to the slopes. If you are a day visitor, you will have to park in one of the lower parking lots and take a ski lift up to the resort. The resort is also accessible by train, but you will have to take a shuttle service from the station to the resort (about 25 minutes), which runs about every hour all day.