Located just up the road from Hakuba (just 2 stops past JR Hakuba station on the single track JR Ooito railway line that threads its way up the valley from Matsumoto), Tsugaike Kogen is perhaps the most under-rated large ski resort in Japan, with excellent snow & facilities, including Japan’s longest gondola, and an excellent onsen (natural hot spring). For cheap accommodation it is one of the best ski resorts in Japan. Apart from the deep snow cover, the quality of the snow is excellent with extensive runs, and the season extends well into spring. For added excitement Tsugaike Kogen has helicopter skiing in spring, and its massive powder bowls attract an increasing number of people to venture into its vast back country on snowshoes or telemark skis to enjoy perfect powder conditions.
Tsugaike Kogen is part of the Hakuba Alpen Resort group, consisting of the Happo One, Hakuba Iwatake and Tsugaike. It is not possible to ski from one resort to another, but joint ticketing arrangements make it easy for visitors to spend a weekend exploring the northern part of the valley – the best part of Hakuba. Geographically, Tsugaike Kogen is actually in Otari (population about 3000), the neighbouring village to Hakuba, however it is considered to be part of Hakuba as it is located in the same valley, and it is the Tsugaike Ridge dominating the valley that provides the spectacular scenery here.
Why is the powder so good? It is all due to location. On the far side of the ridge during the winter months, moisture laden winds from Siberia blow in from the Sea of Japan and deposit heavy (usually moist) snowfalls along the coastal areas. When these seasonal winds hit the high altitude ridgeline that forms the watershed, they are forced upwards, and deposit vast quantities of light powder snow onto the slopes on the sheltered Hakuba side of the ridge. It is for this reason that the snow depth at Tsugaike is often slightly better than down the road at Happo One, the season slightly longer, and the quality of snow excellent. To get better powder conditions is difficult to do unless you are able to travel to Hokkaido or get to some of the higher parts of Shiga Kogen.
So what is the down side? There are two major reasons why Tsugaike Kogen hasn’t become as famous as Happo One. First of all it is located at the far north of the valley, so for skiers from Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka it is often considered to be a little too far (the advantage of this of course is the Tsugaike Kogen is rarely crowded, even on long weekends). Secondly, Tsugaike Kogen doesn’t have a large number of advanced runs, for an intermediate skier is fantastic, for a beginner it is sheer heaven. For snowboarding, Tsugaike Kogen is more or less perfect for all levels. However a skier with advanced technique wouldn’t want to spend more than one day here before heading to other resorts such as Happo One, Hakuba 47, or over to Madarao Kogen and so on.
Hakuba village has a population of only 8000 people or so, Otari only 3000. At the base of Tsugaike Kogen a small village of around 400 residents forms the resort’s base camp. The facilities are excellent and all accommodation is in snow. Due to its remote accommodation, its usually worth staying in the village. If you are visiting for a weekend, the best way to get the most out of the location is to stay 2 nights, enjoying Tsugaike Kogen on the Saturday, and another resort such as Happo One on Sunday before returning home. Backpackers, students and other budget travellers should note that accommodation rates here are not as high as at Happo One or Hakuba 47. There is a particularly high quality youth hostel called “Hakuba-no-sato” located next to the gelande on the eastern side, from which it is possible to ski from the front door onto the gelande and straight down to the lifts. Managed by Kayoko Kurita, it is comfortable and affordable. It does not have self-catering facilities, but the food is tasty and the servings good value. You don’t need to be a YH member to stay there, and it is better (with good western amenities etc) than many of the minshuku & ryokan, which are also more expensive. For bookings call TEL:0261-83-3011. During the winter months it is 3360 yen per night, with breakfast 630 yen and dinner 1050 yen. Non-members pay an extra 1000 yen surcharge.
If your group includes beginners, or if you haven’t hit the slopes for a while, the lower reaches provide miles of beginner and intermediate (FIS rated) runs, all of which are wide and serviced by fast lifts. You rarely have to wait more than one minute for a lift here except first thing in the morning. Even during the night skiing (Tsugaike Kogen has excellent night skiing runs and the lighting facilities are the best around), there are a number of intermediate level runs, along with some moguls late in the season. For beginners alone, there are 15 lifts servicing a multitude of gelande, including some powder runs. Looking up the mountain, the best place for a beginner (especially for those learning snowboarding) is the vast “Chibikko gelande” on the left. Designed for kids, yet it is usually completely empty, as the kids are more likely to be found on the runs closest to the accommodation. During or just after fresh snowfalls, a beginner has the opportunity to ski in powder on the edge of this run. The powder area includes a few trees, however they are sufficiently spaced for a beginner to navigate easily (this run is a golf fairway during the summer). It is also possible for beginners to ride the gondola to Tsuga-no-mori station close to the top of the mountain (stunning views of the ridge!), however some of the return runs can intimidate. There is however an excellent “Rinkan” course, a road winding down the mountain which is of a gentle grade and easy to negotiate. Please note that while beginner level skiers will find the “Rinkan” easy, the gradient is sometimes too slight for beginners on snowboards.
For intermediate level skiers and boarders, there is a fantastic range of options available. Above the gondola’s Tsuga-no-mori station, there are two pair lifts serving several intermediate slopes known as Tsuga-no-mori gelande. This is the highest point of the resort (1680 meters/5510 feet) and on a clear day it is possible to see a small glimpse of the Sea of Japan from the crest. This gelande also has excellent snow well into spring, and if you know how to read the terrain and choose runs according to the position of the sun (see ski notes), then Tsuga-no-mori is the best spring skiing run in Hakuba. The vast quantity of intermediate runs is also why Tsugaike Kogen attracts a lot of skiers and snowboarders aiming to reach advanced level. The runs include “pole bahns”, a mogul “taiken” course, and several “bridging” runs to help people prepare for advanced level runs. The ski schools at Tsugaike are particularly popular as a result. Its a good place to learn, a good place to improve skills.
If you are at advanced level, then to get the most out of Tsugaike Kogen requires a bit of imagination. Why? Because if your idea of advanced is 40 degree plus straight groomed runs with few moguls, then your options are limited. For freestyle boarders, the “hitpark” and half pipes provide plenty of fun. For advanced skiers and alpine snowboarding, the best advanced run is the Uma-no-Se gelande accessed from Tsuga #2 lift at the top of the resort. It is a hard challenging run about 1 kilometer in length. It is never crowded, and has excellent moguls late into the season. Below the advanced section of this run is the intermediate Shirakaba gelande, which usually offers a pole bahn on one side and flat bahn on the other. You can then board the gondola again at Shirakaba station, instead of descending to the base of the mountain (the beginner/intermediate slopes). Treating these two runs as one provides a long and challenging route, enough to tire a physical fit and competent advanced skier (you can catch your breath on the gondola). On an alpine snowboard it is a fast and challenging run, and its worth tuning your board as you’ll really want to use your edges. Early in the season it is also excellent for telemarking, however the bumps that increasingly appear from late February may be a problem for your knees etc – there are of course other ways down that are fun on telemarks. The other good advanced run is the Champion’s course on the far right of the resort. This is also steep, and never crowded unless competitions are taking place. On a weekday of course, you will usually be the only one on the run. Compared to the Uma-no-se gelande, the Champion’s course provides better moguls and freestyle opportunities, though a pole bahn is also often set up on the left next to the run adjoining the 70 meter ski jump facilities.
In addition to the groomed areas, Tsugaike Kogen offers advanced skiers and snowboarders enormous powder bowls in the backcountry. During the winter this requires ascent by snowshoe. A qualified, preferably local guide is essential, (never underestimate the value of local knowledge), as is avalanche training. For easier access into the backcountry, from mid-March helicopters provide a 10 minute ascent from the heliport at Shirakaba station to Tengupara on the highlands just below the summit of Hakuba Norikura-dake. From here, you can enjoy a 14 kilometer long and fairly easy descent. backcountry boarding, powder skiing and telemarking are fast becoming one of Tsugaike Kogen’s main attractions, and for good reason.
Advantages and Disadvantages – the “pros & cons” etc
Onsen: There are few better ways to end a day’s fun on the slopes, than to continue the fun with a soak in a hot natural onsen. At the base of the mountain just 100 meters or so from Takahara Gondola station, “Tsuga-no-Yuu” onsen is open until 10pm every night (even after night skiing, there is still plenty of time for a hot soak), and costs 700 yen.
Food: The food is the usual. There is a wide range of restaurants, bars and cafe’s on the mountain and in the village at the base. There is even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet way up at 1600 meters catering the young snow boarding crowd. Throughout the resort the usual relatively high “ski-jo” prices apply though, so if you are on a budget then it is best to BYO. In the accommodation there is a wide range of options.
Entertainment: The nightlife in Tsugaike is nowhere near that of Happo One. On weeknights it is a quiet place where you need to make your own fun. On Saturday nights the bars can be lively (there are no nightclubs though), however usually not until late in the evening when the resort workers finally get in to action. If the nightlife is important to you (1) make sure you are staying close to the center of the village and that you will be able to get back into your accommodation later (ie – get a key!) and (2) ask some of the younger workers at the resort where they go for drinks late at night etc.
Weather: As with everywhere in Hakuba, the weather can change quickly (the ridge is the watershed between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific), so if the weather is clear, head to the top of the mountain and enjoy the spectacular “picture postcard” views, as you never know if they will still be spectacular a few hours later. The advantage of Tsugaike Kogen is that the resort is sheltered, when it is snowing your comfort levels are higher than at Happo One as the winds are not as strong. Unless there is a blizzard, skiing or snowboarding in poor weather is better here than the southern areas of the valley (and if there is a blizzard, then when it lifts you will be hitting some of the best powder around)
Signage: Compared to other resorts in the region (especially Happo One), Tsugaike Kogen has excellent trail markings – the signage is easy to understand and runs are clearly marked. You do not encounter intermediate skiers stumbling onto advanced slopes, and if you have a basic knowledge of Japanese then the degree of difficulty of each run is easy to determine. If you are worried about the degree of difficulty of a particular run, or are looking for an advanced run, ask your Discovery Tour guide for advice.
“Under the Ropes”: There are plenty of areas available to go under the ropes or off course (usual caveat applies of course – the resort takes no responsibility). Particularly good are the areas that can be accessed (without snowshoes) from the right hand side of Tsuga #1 pair lift, so powder hounds should not despair. Having said that – do not – hit the powder below the gondola between “Tsuga-no-mori” station and the bottom of the “Uma-no-se” advanced run. In this case its not a matter of the ski patrol, but because avalanches have been triggered in this area by off course skiers in the past and the “Rinkan” course (with beginners) traverses part of a road not far below this area.
Backcountry: Two options basically. Either take a helicopter, or get snowshoes – these can be rented from Uchikawa Sports, a rental shop few minutes walk from the lower gondola station. The phone number for Uchikawa Sports is 0261-83-2236, fax is 0261-83-2564 (Japanese language only). Backcountry access is from Tsuga #1 pair lift. Do not venture into the backcountry without an organized group (including a guide, preferably a local one), without proper equipment, and without completing the “touzan todoke”. (If you don’t know what a “touzan todoke” is, don’t go). The powder bowls are exhilarating, and there are few better ways of experiencing the remoteness of this vast area, but safety should be paramount at all times. It is extremely beautiful, but carelessness has seen the mountains claim a few lives, and regardless of what precautions are taken, there is always an element of risk. Go with a professional group or don’t go at all.
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