My overnight bus from Ikebukuro, Tokyo, packed full of bleary-eyed college students on holiday, rolled into Shiga Kogen around dawn and began making stops along the belt of 21 interconnected ski resorts that make up Japan’s largest ski area.
I disembarked toward the end of the line in Ichinose as fat snowflakes swirled around me in the wind. The sun hadn’t yet crested the southern rim of the mountains as I hustled into my accommodation at Chalet Shiga and out of the frigid air.
Lucky for me, it’s common enough for people to arrive via overnight bus and so my Spartan, but cozy, room was already available and I spread out over the tatami mats to catch a few more hours of sleep.
The Shiga Highlands, Nagano Prefecture, have become increasingly popular with international tourists since the 1998 Winter Olympics expanded the area’s profile. But as I set out for the slopes a few hours later, on this Monday morning there was hardly anyone else around.
By the time I’d rented my skis and boarded a chairlift, the blanket of clouds continued to be dragged across the sky to shed their stores of snow — a fraction of the region’s 12 annual meters. From the lift I craned my neck to get a look at Japan’s highest skiable mountain, the 2,307-meter Yokoteyama.
My lift ticket gave me access to all 21 of Shiga Kogen’s ski areas. But with so much ground to cover I only managed to ski three on my first day, with the skier-only zone at Okushiga Kogen — the plateau’s northern-most resort — providing the best views. While most of the ski areas in the region face other ski slopes or the lowlands to the west, Okushiga Kogen faces jagged, snow-speckled mountains that are too sharp and steep for even trees to grow. It may be scenic, but skiing down the Olympic giant slalom course I had to keep my eyes firmly fixed on the ground in front of me.
Working my way home hours later, I found a favorite run on the 2,009-meter Mount Yakebitai by sticking hard to the right, over swirling eddies of fresh snow and through groves of Shiga Kogen’s iconic white birch trees, all the way down to Ichinose Diamond. With not a soul in sight, the only movement was the occasional stray ribbon of birch bark pirouetting across the snow with the breeze like some kind of alpine tumbleweed.
Back at Chalet Shiga, I had a quick soak in the public bath before bounding back down to the first floor and hurrying into Teppa Room, the sole reason I’d chosen Chalet Shiga from the 100-plus other options in the area. Teppa Room is the official taproom of Shiga Kogen Beer, which is held in particularly high esteem by craft beer lovers for its hoppy ales and local focus.
Owned and operated by Tamamura Honten, which has been brewing sake in nearby Kutsuno since 1805, the brewery produces almost all of its own ingredients locally, including its highland hops.
The name of the taproom at Chalet Shiga comes from an old term in the local dialect for the small bars that once fronted sake breweries and sold quick libations to passersby. But on this occasion, I was in no hurry as I sipped the first of many apres-ski pints.
The next day my friend Noriko Ozawa, a former competition skier who works for the Ski Association of Japan, joined me on the slopes. The clouds parted to an azure sky as we made our way beyond Ichinose to Terakoya ski area — a collection of fast intermediate runs east of the main valley.
When the crowds started to pour in we explored further south, following a long, narrow run that zigzagged through trees and eventually deposited us at the relatively steep Hoppo Bunadaira area, where I checked another Olympic run off my list before stopping for lunch.
Overly confident and with my belly full of ramen, I followed Noriko to Nishidaeyama (and to some of the few ungroomed runs in the area), where we slogged through the previous day’s snow on the southern-facing slope. Noriko, who has been skiing at Shiga Kogen her entire life, then led us to fresher and deeper powder across the valley at Takamagahara Mammoth. Here, we spent the last two hours dropping in and out of the banks below the lifts and flirting with the tree lines.
Finally, with the sun throwing long shadows of snow-heaped pine trees across the mountain, I bid Noriko farewell and retreated back to the chalet for another bath and beer.
The following morning, taking a well-deserved rest day and eager to experience Shiga Kogen’s other big attraction, I took a bus down from the highlands to the stop closest to Jigokudani Monkey Park, which is still a further 2-km walk through a snowy forest trail. To help make the agony of expectation more manageable, several signboards along the trail provided educational tidbits about Japanese macaques, though the final sign before the ticketing gate simply welcomed me “to a world much like our own, the world of the snow monkeys.”
There are no fences here and the macaques are very much wild. During the day they come for the warmth of the spring and the food that is provided for them, but at night they head back into the mountains to sleep.
However, as much as I’d heard and read about the park, nothing could have prepared me for the simian — or, more accurately, Seussian — chaos I encountered.
There were bathing monkeys, but also joking monkeys. Caring monkeys and daring monkeys; fighting monkeys and biting monkeys. So, too, I saw monkeys sleeping, creeping, peeping and even weeping. They were tumbling, rumbling and stumbling — such a cavalcade. These monkeys were on parade.
And that’s to say nothing of the camera-snapping tourist hoard that jostled for the best angles and were so focused on a particular macaque, that another of the animals could easily have slipped through their legs and rifled through their bags without detection. Indeed, watching both “clans” of primate exhibit such a vast range of peculiarities did give me pause: Perhaps this world of the monkeys really isn’t so different from our own?
Not being allowed to join the monkeys in their bath, I made the short walk to the Kutsuno township in search of my own version of a soak. I stumbled upon Tamamura Honten’s sake and beer brewery by chance, so I ducked in for a pint of Shiga Kogen’s Africa Pale Ale and got a look at the under-construction new brewing facilities before continuing on.
Many of Kutsuno’s myriad hot springs require a key and are open only to locals, but an information center near the river pointed me to a scalding hot bath where an interloper like myself could soothe his ski-weary bones.
The next morning, I discovered my day trip into town to gawk at the macaques may have been wholly unnecessary. At breakfast, a foursome of Australians told me that they’d left their room window ajar the previous day while they skied, only to return and find it pried open and the room utterly ransacked.
After “tut-tutting” them, I stepped outside to a troupe of some two-dozen snow monkeys perched on the chalet balconies and in neighboring trees like some Hitchcock-like prelude to bedlam. My suspicions proved judicious when one hoary fellow bounded, bellowing, out of a tree and stripped a bag of souvenirs from the hands of a hapless tourist a few yards away.
The closest onlookers chased the simian assailant to his new roost on the hood of a Honda as I made my way to the safety of the ski lift for one last day of cavorting in the snow in this weird winter world of monkeys and men.
Getting there: An overnight bus (¥8,500)runs from Sunshine City, Ikebukuro, to Shiga Kogen (returning to Shinjuku Station); all-access lift tickets cost ¥5,000/day (¥4,200 through Chalet Shiga); weekday room rates start from ¥10,800; entry to Jigokudani Monkey Park is ¥500.