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Skiing a popular sport throughout Japan: Honshu - Ice trees and hot springs

by Yuka Suzuki, People and Places editor

Skiing and snowboarding are popular winter sports in Japan, and the number of skiers has grown in the last two decades. Various ski resorts, hot springs, and winter events attract skiers and snowboarders from all over Japan.

There are more than 300 ski slopes in Japan, and most of them are open from December through March. Many skiers and snowboarders enjoy the combination of hot springs and ski slopes. Nozawa, Kusatsu, and Manza ski resorts are well known for their hot springs. Nozawa is located in the Nagano prefecture and is 207 miles from Tokyo, five hours by train. Kusastu and Manza are in the Gunma prefecture and both are about 110 miles from Tokyo, 3.5 hours by train. Nozawa provides 20 ski courses and 24 ski lifts. Kusastu has more than an 80-year history as a ski town. Manza provides more beginner and intermediate courses. After skiing, people enjoy the hot springs, which offer healing warmth to bodies stressed by cold and action on the slopes.

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Also, many skiers and snowboarders enjoy winter ski festivals. The major area for ski festivals, Zaou, is located in northern Honshu, Japan’s main island, in the Yamagata prefecture. Zaou is well known for Jyuhyou, trees covered with ice that yield some of nature’s most beautiful scenery. The Jyuhyou Festival, which features ski slopes at night with all the ice-covered trees lit up, starts in late January and continues through February. Zaou Hot Spring is also famous and has been in use for more than 1,000 years.

Naeba Ski Resort, in the Niigata prefecture also in northern Honshu, is a popular ski resort for young people and couples. It was developed and is owned by the Prince Hotel group. Naeba resort has longest tram line in Japan spanning 3.4 miles and that provides transportation to ski areas such as Mitsumata, Kagura, and Tashiro. These ski resorts were used as scenes in a popular movie in 1987, entitled Watashi wo ski ni turettette, which means take me skiing, and which influenced many young people to start the sport. The movie reinforced the ski boom in Japan.

Many skiers and snowboarders enjoy the unique combination of musical concerts and ski slopes. A famous Japanese singer, Yuming, presents a special concert at the Naeba Prince Hotel every winter.

TV ski commercials also reinforced the ski boom. Alpen is one of the top sports equipment retail stores with outlets all over Japan. Its ski commercial series has been popular since 1992, using songs such as “Romance no Kamisama,” which means God of Romance Song by Koumi Hirose. The commercials linked images of romance with skiing and snowboarding.

Moreover, the Winter Olympics sensationally attracted people to Japan’s ski slopes. The Winter Olympic Games were held at Nagano in 1998. Tae Satoya won the first gold medal for the mogul. In the long jump, Kazuyoshi Funaki won the gold medal, and Masahiko Harada won the bronze. Also, Team Japan won the gold medal for the group jump games.

Most ski resorts provide hotels or inns and ski outfits for rental. Also, they offer ski schools or private lessons. Some resorts provide a gondola to carry skiers to the top of a ski slope, which allows guests to travel to skiing points at a greater speeds compared with a regular lift.
Skiing is one of the social sports today. Many people go to ski resorts by car, after work on Friday night, for the weekend. Also, many universities have ski clubs and university students enjoy skiing or practicing for ski competitions.

Skiing has become more convenient. Ski equipment is heavy, so major delivery companies deliver ski equipment to hotels in just one to two days. Skiers no longer need to carry their equipment uphill due to this service.

With the popularity of skiing and snowboarding, problems have arisen. Some beginners are not able to get on or off a lift by themselves, so they sometimes make a whole lift stop for safety. Passengers often have to wait on the lift, high above a forest, until it is restarted.

Another problem is an increase of injuries. In 1995, there were 608 ski accidents and 805 snowboard accidents, according to the Far East Research Co. Of the snowboard accidents, 88 percent of the victims had snowboarded fewer than 10 times. To prevent in covering to skiers, some ski slopes are either not available for snowboarding, or provide separate areas for snowboarding.

 
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