Winter brings Japan’s best travel bargains, and this millennium year the bargains are better than ever.

This winter sees the long-awaited liberalization of the domestic aviation market. As of Feb. 1, airlines will be free to set fares as they wish. Government guidelines concerning fares and maximum allowable discounts are being lifted.

The first airline to announce new domestic fares is All Nippon Airways. ANA’s big news is its “Super Discount Fares” of 10,000 yen. Under this plan, seats on any flight during certain travel periods that remain unsold two months prior to departure will be sold for a limited period at the 10,000 yen fare.

Feb. 17-23 is the first opportunity to try for a Super Discount 10,000 yen seat, for travel between April 17-23. ANA’s toll-free number for domestic reservations is (0120) 029-222, and requests for these special fares will be taken starting from 9:30 a.m. Or, you can try your luck at www.ana.co.jp starting at 9:30 a.m.

The second window of opportunity for a 10,000 yen seat is March 1-7, for flights only on one day: May 1, which falls during Golden Week. The third Super Discount purchase period is April 1-7, for flights only on June 1.

ANA plans to offer additional Super Discount tickets later in the year; the initial offerings cover only the first quarter of fiscal 2000.

Japan Airlines and Japan Air System have not yet announced their liberalization packages, but will do so shortly. JAL’s will be available starting April 1, and details can be obtained earlier from www.jal.co.jp or from (0120) 255-971. For JAS, it’s www.jas.co.jp or (0120) 511-283.

Ski bargains

For those who want to hit the slopes in Hokkaido, the best bargains are package tours. Not only do they give good value for the money spent, but since Japanese tour companies are past masters at taking care of every detail, these packages provide seamless travel. All the skier has to do is get to the airport; everything from then on is taken care of, except certain meals.

Tokyo-based Beltop Travel, in conjunction with Japan Airlines, has been offering ski tours to the foreign community in Japan for 14 years, and knows how to make things hassle-free for clients. It has a Web site (www.beltop.com) that allows people to choose which flights and hotel they want around the clock. Within 24 hours Beltop gets back to the client with confirmation, and payment can then be made by credit card. For those who prefer to book by telephone, the number is (03) 3544-0939.

Ski packages for two nights start at 29,800 yen (for a no-frills tour available only on certain dates), and range up to about 50,000 yen. For packages to Sapporo and Niseko, as few as one person can sign up. For other destinations (Rusutsu, Furano, Sahoro, Tomamu and more) the minimum is two people.

The no-frills packages include round-trip air fare on Japan Airlines, hotel and breakfasts, and buses to and from the slopes. Other tours provide a lift pass and equipment rental for one day as well as at least one lunch and one dinner. Packages up to five nights are available.

Beltop’s tour to the Sapporo Snow Festival is already sold out, but the waiting list is still open. The tour is Feb. 11-13, and costs 99,000 yen for adults and 89,000 yen for children. Space is still available on a pre-snow-festival tour Feb. 5 and 6 for 49,900 yen (adults and children). The festival opens Feb. 7, so most sculptures will already be completed when this tour arrives.

For skiers who don’t want to fly to Hokkaido, JR East has some bargain train fares on the Tohoku and Joetsu lines. On the Tohoku shinkansen, a 15,000 yen round-trip ticket from Tokyo to Morioka (good for four days) is available to early-risers. You must take the 6:04 a.m. Yamabiko, but can return at a time of your choosing. Morioka is the jumping-off point for the Shizukuishi and Appi Kogen ski areas.

If Zao is your ski preference, there’s a 14,500 yen four-day return fare to Shiroishi, Zao. This fare requires a 6:12 a.m. departure from Tokyo, but you can choose your return time.

In Japanese, these tickets are called Asa Toku Kippu, or Early Risers’ Special.

For those who want to ski for one day, a Gala Higaeri Waribiki Kippu is available to Gala-Yuzawa on the Joetsu shinkansen. The weekend return fare from Tokyo is 12,800 yen, and weekends are 14,000 yen. Both fares include a lift ticket.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.