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Exploring Iiyama, Japan | A family winter wonderland

Looking to enjoy a relaxed ski holiday for the whole family? Like the idea of getting away from the crowds to experience perfect powder slopes and tree-skiing? Want to minimise your travel time from Tokyo and other scenic and cultural attractions? Consider Iiyama, Japan.

Madarao Mountain, Iiyama, Japan

This article is in collaboration with Iiyama and Voyapon, more information on Iiyama can be found on their website. Photo’s of Iiyama in this article were taken by Todd Fong.

The city of Iiyama is located in the north of Nagano prefecture. It’s a popular hiking destination in summer and for enjoying the coloured leaves of autumn but Iiyama really comes into its own during the winter when it enjoys a long ski season that generally lasts from mid-December through until early April.

The Iiyama Ski Resorts

Several of Nagano’s ski resorts are already well known to international visitors, Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen and Shiga Kogen are some that may spring to mind. Until recently the Iiyama ski fields were the local’s secret but then the bullet train came to town opening up new opportunities and word soon got out.

Madarao Mountain

The ski resort at Madarao Mountain is around 30 minutes from the station by shuttle bus, a little less by taxi and is made up of 31 piste, 15 lifts and 13 official tree courses. Adding even more diversity to Madarao is that it is interconnected with the Tangram ski resort with 15 additional trails and 5 more lifts which can be accessed using a combined lift pass.

Childrens area at Madarao Mountain

Nagano is renowned for its quality powder snow but you will find Madarao and Tangram less crowded and generally a little cheaper as they aren’t as well known to foreign tourists. They’re a particularly good option for families with 30% of the slopes being good for beginners, they have soft even snow, and kids lessons are available in English for both individuals and groups. There are also children’s play areas and affordable childcare if you want to tackle some of the more advanced tree courses.

Accommodation in the Madarao Mountain area is mostly in ‘pension houses’, a type of guesthouse that is usually family-owned and run. Most pensions have shared spaces such as relaxation areas, dining and bathroom facilities. An alternative is the Madarao Kogan resort hotel which has a variety of room types including family rooms with private bathrooms (including shower, not tub).

Togari Onsen

Togari Onsen ski resort is a smaller facility with 18 courses and is at a lower altitude in the Sekita mountain range. For something different to try here they have a snow bike park with those fat tyred cycles that we ride on the sand to ride in the snow.

Accommodation here is mostly in ‘pension houses’ in the town so you can enjoy a bit of the local area within walking distance of the slopes, onsen and restaurants. There is quite a variety available and some like Motoyashiki are a more upmarket version with natural hot spring baths. Pensions are known for their hospitality and some like the Refre Inn Fukuzawa have been in a family for 60 years passing through generations of owners and with multiple generations working on the property.

A wide choice of snow activities

Without a doubt, Iiyama in winter attracts skiing and snowboarding families but with snowfall up to 4 – 5 foot deep and so much open space there is plenty of opportunity for enjoying a wide range of snow pursuits.

Sledding in Iiyama

Snowshoeing is one option. You get to spend time in the backcountry taking in the scenery and serenity while leaving only your shoeprints in the snow. You’ll enjoy some spectacular views and perhaps even spot some animal tracks along the less travelled paths. Guides in Iiyama will cater to all levels of experience and you can also hire snowshoes.

A thrill ride zipping around on a snowmobile is another popular choice at Kamakura Village. Speed across the flat areas feeling the wind on your face and the snow spraying out behind you. Most tours allow younger children to ride together with a parent.

Sleds and taboggans are another fun way for the family to enjoy the gentler snowy slopes together in a more relaxed way.

Soak in the onsen

One of the joys of winter in Japan, or I would say any time of year, are hot springs which are called onsen. The experience of soaking in the natural mineral laden water relieves tired muscles and flagging energy after a day of fresh air and exercise.

The gorgeous stone bathhouse shown below is part of the facilities at Motoyoshiki at Togari Onsen. This guesthouse is also known for the quality of the fresh healthy meals featuring local produce included in the room rate.

Motowashiki onsen in Iiyama, Japan

Both ski resorts offer a public onsen alternative. Mura-O-no-Yu Onsen is just 5 minutes down the road from Madarao Mountain Resort and includes indoor and outdoor pools looking out on the serene birch forest. The alkaline waters are pulled from deep in the earth to relax the body, they say it can relieve fatigue, heal muscle aches and pains and relieve stiff joints.

At Togari Onsen there are two outdoor hot spring pools just a short walk from the ski resort. They have a natural outlook and are rumoured to beautify the skin in addition to providing the relaxation and healing benefits that are usually appreciated after a day on the slopes.

Iiyama snow festival

Japans most famous snow festival takes place in Sapporo up on the northern island of Hokkaido. It truly is an incredible show but we equally love getting to festivals in the smaller towns, they always seem to deliver unique experiences and lasting memories.

The Iiyama snow festival takes place in early February each year and if you have the chance to include a visit in your itinerary you should. The snow sculptures are worked on by groups from local businesses, schools, public services and private groups too, the whole town gets involved bringing a true community spirit.

There’s more to do than just view the sculptures, there are fun activities that you can participate in, live music, entertainment and festival food, Japan does festival food REALLY well. If you’re not familiar with it I highly recommend takoyaki and okonomiyaki as warming options but each region and season usually has a few of its own specialties too.

We’ve done a few of the Japanese winter festivals but we’ve not made it to this one yet so I’ve linked to a YouTube video below by Jeff Wortman that will give you a feel for the event and the vibe of these community events.

Experience the kamakura village

You might have heard of Kamakura, a seaside city south of Tokyo but did you know it is also the Japanese term for an igloo? For a month during the winter, from late January through February, the city of Iiyama hosts a temporary kamakura village of these adorable ice huts at the foot of the mountains.

Around 2 dozen igloos are built of various sizes and can each hold a small group of people. Outside there are fun winter activities available for the children including sledding and the chance to ride in an inflatable boat behind a snowmobile.

Kamkura (igloo) festival in Iiyama

The kamakura village serves up nabe which is a hearty warming meal cooked and served at the table in a hotpot. It’s a traditional Japanese dish and the version here uses local pork and vegetables served with regional side dishes. Local sake can be purchased and is a wonderful Japanese winter drink that will chase away the chills from the inside out.

If you visit the village at night you can enjoy the magical fairytale setting of the softly lit igloos. Follow the path to the igloo shrine and on festival nights watch the firework displays. Iiyama city has very little light pollution which also makes it the perfect spot to enjoy the night sky full of shimmering stars above you.

How to get to Iiyama from Tokyo

Another good reason to consider Iiyama for your Japan ski holiday is the ease of access from the major airports and the city of Tokyo. If you want to maximise your time on the slopes or easily combine your ski holiday with some sightseeing the travel time is an important consideration.

In 2015 the final section of the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen opened linking Tokyo and Kanazawa via Nagano. Part of this extension to the rail network included upgrading Iiyama to a bullet train station and making it’s ski resorts much faster to access. Travelling by road Iiyama is approximately 250 kilometres north of Tokyo but it can be reached in around 1 hour 40 minutes using Japans fast and comfortable rail system.

From the station, it’s 20-30 minutes by bus or taxi to the resorts. For Madarao Mountain Resort the shuttle leaves from bus stand 1 outside the Chikumaguchi exit. For Togari Onsen it’s a regular bus or you could take the local train to the Togari Onsen station.

Arriving with luggage you might also consider a taxi, although taxi fares are often said to be expensive in Japan we’ve not found them more than in Australia and it’s a reasonable option for the convenience on short transfers like this.

If you need to rent any equipment or are looking for current tour information and bookings you can do this before you leave the station at the Tourist Information Office on level one.

The map above has been created in Google to show the relative locations of the key destinations referenced in the article.

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