Twenty years on from the Olympics, Nagano is still the home of Japan’s winter sports

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

February 7, 1998, was a sunny, if slightly hazy day in the city of Nagano. That morning, 50,000 spectators and 2,176 athletes representing 72 nations crowded the Minami-Nagano Sports Park to see Emperor Akihito open the 18th Olympic Winter Games and watch an opening ceremony filled with traditional performances by sumo wrestlers and festival groups.

Sign of the times: Hakuba
Sign of the times: Hakuba’s Happo-one resort was home to the Olympic ski jumping, the downhill, super-G, combined ski and the cross-country skiing events. | OSCAR BOYD

In the run-up to the games, the winter had been unseasonably warm and for much of the previous two months, officials had feared a snowless Olympics. So worried were the organizing committee, that the army had been drafted to create contingency plans, including laying tatami mats across the melting cross-country course to shade it from the sun. Fortunately, two weeks prior to the opening ceremony, disaster was prevented when a storm moved across the Sea of Japan and delivered a healthy layer of snow across the prefecture.

Twenty years on and Japan’s neighbor to the north, South Korea, has just opened its own games, an extravagant nighttime bonanza in the temporary pentagon that is the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.

Legacy is a question that inevitably follows an Olympic bid — whether summer or winter — and goes hand in hand with justifications of the vast costs that these celebrations of sport incur.

Nagano’s Olympics cost $2.2 billion and ran over budget by over half a billion dollars, a figure that doesn’t include infrastructure — the shinkansen (bullet train) line from Tokyo to Nagano was built specifically for the Olympics — or hotel renovations.

But in the 20 years that have passed, Nagano has secured its reputation as one of Japan’s premier winter sports destinations and, at only four hours away from Tokyo by car, or one hour by shinkansen, the prefecture is exceptionally convenient for a winter escape.

The city of Nagano

At the heart of Nagano Prefecture and acting as a transport hub for the surrounding resorts, is the city of Nagano. The city is home to five Olympic venues, including the Minami-Nagano Sports Park used to host the opening and closing ceremonies. Besides this, the Aqua Wing and Big Hat arenas were used for ice hockey, the M-Wave was used for speed skating and the White Ring Arena was used for figure skating and short track speed skating.

The M-Wave now hosts the Nagano Olympic Museum, featuring memorabilia from the Olympics and Paralympics including medals, torches, team clothing and a two-man bobsled. The rink is open to the public from October to March and also hosts numerous national and international speed skating competitions.

Aside from Olympic venues, Nagano’s most famous attraction is the 7th-century Zenkoji Temple, home to the first Buddhist statue ever brought to Japan, and the temple at which Olympic officials prayed for snow on New Year’s morning before the games.

Getting to Nagano City: Nagano is extremely well connected to Tokyo by shinkansen services (one hour) and highway bus services (four hours).

Hakuba

The Hakuba portion of Japan’s Northern Alps is one of the country’s most famous areas for winter sports. The resort has a strong reputation for skiing and snowboarding both within Japan and internationally. During the Olympics, the slopes of Hakuba were used to host the ski jumping, the downhill skiing, super-G, combined ski events and the cross-country skiing.

Now, the 11 resorts that make up Hakuba are some of Japan’s most popular — on and off piste — and receive an average of 11 meters of snow per year. Happo-one is the best known of the resorts, with long, steep runs and extensive backcountry. Hakuba has gained fans such as pro-snowboarders Travis Rice (“The Fourth Phase” (2016)) and Jeremy Jones (“Further” (2012)) and pro-skier Jon Olsson.

Skiiers and snowboarders ride the chair lifts at the Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort, Nagano Prefecture.
Skiiers and snowboarders ride the chair lifts at the Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort, Nagano Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD

Mount Shirouma dominates the range and, at 2,932 meters, is Japan’s 26th tallest mountain. Despite its year-round snowfields, Shirouma is one of the most popular mountains to hike in Japan, and can be climbed from June to October with relatively little gear. Before June, the mountain can be climbed with crampons and an ice axe, but the risk of avalanche is high.

Getting to Hakuba: From Nagano, the Hakuba area can be easily reached by bus from Nagano Station (one hour). From Tokyo, buses regularly run from Tokyo Station and the Shinjuku area to the resorts of Hakuba.

Nozawa Onsen

Along with Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen is one of Nagano Prefecture’s most popular ski and snowboard resorts. During the Winter Olympics, the resort was used to host the biathlon, a last minute addition to the Olympic schedule.

Located in Shimotakai-gun in northeast Nagano Prefecture, the town is famous for its large collection of onsen (hot springs), and has maintained itself as one of Japan’s most traditional feeling ski resorts — in terms of the built environment at least. The resort offers night skiing on its lower slopes and hosts the spectacular Dosojin Fire Festival on Jan. 15 each year.

Nozawa Onsen’s development as a resort is intertwined with the history of skiing in Japan. Skiing was first introduced to Japan in 1911 by a major in the Austro-Hungarian Army, Theodor Edler von Lerch. The sport came to Nozawa Onsen the year after and, in 1930, Hannes Schneider, founder of the Arlberg skiing technique, taught skiing there. The Japan Ski Museum is based in the village and contains equipment and memorabilia from that early period of skiing and from the Olympics.

Getting to Nozawa Onsen: From Tokyo, take the shinkansen to Iiyama Station and then the Nozawa Onsen Liner bus from Iiyama Station to Nozawa Onsen (two hours total). Several companies offer direct bus transfers to Nozawa Onsen from both Narita and Haneda airports.

Yamanouchi

Take a small, local train about an hour northwest of Nagano to reach Yamanouchi. Though the area doesn’t have the international reputation of either Hakuba or Nozawa Onsen, it is home to Honshu’s largest contiguous ski area, the well-regarded Shiga Kogen Ski Resort, with more than 80 kilometers of trails over 19 different, interlinked ski areas.

The Shiga Kogen area hosted the Olympic slalom event and nearby Mount Higashidate was used for the giant slalom, in which Hermann Maier famously won a gold medal after a disastrous, 130 kph crash in the downhill in Hakuba. Aside from quite literally catapulting Maier to fame, the 1998 Winter Olympics introduced snowboarding to the games for the first time and the Kanbayashi Snowboard Park was constructed in Yamanouchi for the snowboard half-pipe event.

A Japanese macaque baths in the natural hot spring at the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture.
A Japanese macaque baths in the natural hot spring at the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD

More than its winter sports, the Yamanouchi area is perhaps most famous for the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where Japanese macaques frequently bathe in a natural hot spring during the winter months.

Getting to Yamanouchi: Located to the northwest of the city of Nagano, the Yamanouchi area can be reached by train from the city. Alight at Yudanaka Station and take the bus to reach Shiga Kogen and other nearby resorts. Take a separate bus, taxi or walk to the “snow monkeys.”

Iizuna

Located immediately northwest of the city of Nagano, Iizuna’s relationship with snow sports has been a relatively short one, as the main bulk of the Iizuna Kogen Ski Resort was constructed for the 1990 FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, with the vision of it then becoming a venue for the Winter Olympics. During the Olympics, the resort hosted a temporary jump park for freestyle skiing, built atop of the existing ski facilities.

The resort is now primarily known for its collection of steep mogul runs that are spotted in between easier beginner runs. The resort is served by seven lifts but has a limited number of runs, especially when compared to the larger resorts of Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen. At the base of Mount Iizuna is the Spiral, the notoriously dynamic Olympic bobsleigh and luge course that was the first of its kind in Asia, though it has been slated for closure due to high maintenance costs.

Getting to Iizuna Kogen: Iizuna Kogen is a 35-minute bus ride from Nagano Station.

Why ski Japan?

While skiing in Europe and North America is primarily associated with long, steep runs and a hard snowpack, Japan’s mountains are generally much gentler and offer some of the world’s best conditions for powder and tree skiing.

Japanese ski resorts are typically much lower in height than their international counterparts and Japan’s highest resorts top out at around 1,800 meters. Compare this to many resorts in the French Alps which extend to above 3,000 meters. Lower altitude (and warmer average temperatures) means that the trees that grow on the slopes tend to be deciduous rather than coniferous, and grow further apart, allowing for easy tree skiing.

At the same time, Japan receives some of the highest snowfall in the world, with averages in some areas exceeding 12 meters per year. The west-to-east movement of cold air from the Asian continent brings with it water from the Sea of Japan, which condenses as it is uplifted above the mountains along the north coast of Japan, resulting in heavy snowfall and excellent powder, particularly in January and February.