“I LOVE this place!” she said as she raced out into the fresh powder fallen from the night before in Aizu, Japan.
My daughter, 7, who had been dreaming of her first snow experience, couldn’t contain her excitement as she threw snowballs and tasted the fresh flakes falling on her tongue with her brother, 4 writes Benjamin Tuffy
Having travelled to a lot of destinations pre-kids, Japan had long been on our list of places to visit, not only for the world-class snow but also for the rich and multifaceted culture that evolved over the centuries. Unique customs, arts, cuisine, and innovation are everywhere you look, so it was the perfect place for our children to start their snow journey with us.
With COVID putting a dampener on our plans, the trip to Japan became a never-realized carrot we had dangled in front of the kids. When it finally came time to pack our bags, the kids and we parents could barely believe it was happening.
Flying ANA, we were grateful for their easy app for check-in because, let’s face it, lining up is no fun. But we cruised through and slotted into the overnight flight from Sydney to Tokyo. With approximately 10 hrs, the night flight proved to be the perfect strategy to navigate jet lag and the kids’ body clocks.
Our time in this thriving city was brief, and we chose to stay at the Shinjuku Prince Hotel which is perched above the world’s busiest train station. A whopping 3.5 million people per day pass through Shinjuku station, so the Prince Hotel’s location is about as convenient as you can get for exploring the city.
While the room was as expected for Tokyo in terms of floor space, we were very pleasantly surprised with how effectively the design utilized the space; large windows and clever storage meant we never felt crammed in. With our room located on the 22nd floor, we could not only see across an epic Tokyo city skyline but also had a view of the world-famous Godzilla statue just a block away.
In just two days in Tokyo, we visited the Skytree Tower at sunset, Shibuya Crossing at night (head to Magnet by Shibuya Rooftop for a bird’s-eye view of the masses without having to bustle the crowds), Takeshita Street in Harajuku for the Colossal Fairy Floss from Totti Candy Factory, and the must-see Team Labs immersive digital art exhibition—it was all mind-blowing.
We left feeling like we had seen so much yet had only just scratched the surface.
Mt Bandai, Aizu Fukushima.
Departing from Tokyo station, we caught a Shinkansen (bullet train) on the Tohoku-Hokkaido line to Koriyama station. The trip was 1 hr 36 minutes, and they run every half hour or so. This was a highlight of the trip for our kids as they couldn’t believe the speed we were hitting, which we tracked using a speedometer app.
Accessible and fast, we simply bought our tickets at the train station about 30 minutes before our planned train, providing us enough time to grab plenty of snacks, Onigiri (Japanese rice balls) and bento boxes for the trip. And don’t worry, there was a drinks trolley on the train with a small selection of snacks, so we were ready for when the kids started to do what kids do.
From Koriyama, we caught a local train to Bandaimachi station, approx 1 hr 50 min. This train was quite the contrast to the Shinkansen, and we enjoyed the slow roll through the mountainside covered in snow. At the end of our journey, a lovely girl sitting on the train gifted us a box of cookies with a Google-translated message wishing us a wonderful stay. It was a touching and unexpected moment of kindness that really spoke to the heart of Japanese culture.
Tip! Having used the Black Cat transporting service to forward our large luggage from Tokyo to the ski resort, we travelled with two carry-on-size suitcases. The small $45 fee to ship the ski gear was well worth it to avoid the trouble of lugging the extra cases around and worrying about where to store the bags while on the train. The hotel arranged it all for us, and we simply had to allow at least two days for the cases to arrive at their destination. We were a little apprehensive at first, but as we arrived at our ski resort, we saw the bags there waiting for us. Japanese precision and efficiency at its finest!
An Authentic Snow Experience.
Arriving at the local train station felt like another world. The snow was so deep on the ground, and the fog was thick. There was no one around other than the shuttle bus to the Bandaisan Onsen Hotel, our destination! How convenient.
A short 15-minute journey up through a beautiful snowy forest with cabin-style homes, and we were there. The welcome you receive in Japan is so warm and heartfelt; we were gently ushered out of the cold to be warmly welcomed by local Japanese staff in their traditional outfits.
As we were checked in and given an overview of all that was on offer, the kids’ excitement by all the activities was mounting. Not only is the hotel located right at the bottom of a massive ski resort extending over three mountain ranges: Mt. Bandai, Mt. Nekomagadake, and Mt. Umaya, but it also boasts 22 different ski runs right at your doorstep.
Due to the mountains’ proximity to the coast, Aizu experiences predominantly cold and dry conditions. The region benefits from the influence of moist seasonal winds originating from the Sea of Japan, which, while not directly hitting the mountains, contribute to sustaining the high-quality snowfall throughout the season—and it was perfect!
A powder skiing paradise, it is also the location of many a snowboarding event. At the time of our arrival, we were a little blown away by the foyer being filled with a hundred or so Japanese snowboarders waiting out the fog for a park event to kick off again. Jumping to Instagram, it was easy to figure out what the buzz in the lobby was about, with Hioto Ogiwara blowing up the socials pulling a Switch Backside 1980 a day earlier—a world-first moment in the sport of snowboarding. The talent there was unreal, and for a good reason—the snow is epic.
With heavy snow closing the lifts, it was time to unwind with a complimentary Miso soup in the lounge and then relax in the onsite onsen amongst the cedar wood and floating apples in the magical natural hot spring water—this itself is worth a day trip from Tokyo!
Onto the restaurant for dinner, it was our first dining experience where we were the only Western folk in the room, with full buffet-style portion plates, featuring some of the best of the local cuisine. We finished off the day in the sake bar while enjoying the cultural show of local Aizu folk songs and Aibase dancing. A truly eye-opening and authentic experience where you can join in and learn some traditional moves.
For the kids, Mt Bandai caters well with an assortment of snow sleds and bikes and even a fun Akabeko (the region’s legendary red cow) ride on a snow truck. The breakfast and dinner buffets were fanstastic, with so much to choose from, making dining with fussy kids a breeze. A favourite for the 4-year-old was the delicious breakfast ramen. Noodles for breakfast are our kids’ dream come true! Not to mention the self-serve soft-serve ice cream machine.
Next door to the hotel is the Hoshino Resorts Alts Bandai Ski Resort. Well-equipped with cafes and restaurants and an excellent retail shop not to mention extensive ski hire.
Beyond all of this incredible hospitality was the mountain, Mt Bandai. It was a special moment for our family to finally ski together on this mountain. Our daughter, 7, took to the skies incredibly quickly (#prouddad), for our son, 4, that’s still TBD. Before long, we were ticking off the runs with some of the most beautiful soft snow, spacious slopes, and stunning landscapes to take in.
Exploring Japan’s Pristine Wilderness at Urubandai Lake Resort.
After our time at Alts Bandai, we travelled by taxi to the other side of the mountain to the elegant, Urubandai Lake Resort. As we journeyed deeper into Japan’s pristine mountainous regions and with the beautiful blue sky, we were able to see the villages covered in snow and felt like we were in an ancient playground compared to the world we generally inhabit.
The Lake Resort built beside Lake Hibara is a majestic site; a grand hotel within a national park featuring views all around the volcanic landscape, incredible food, and entertainment.
Our time here was a highlight (#anotherone) for all, with a magnificent, emphasis on magnificent, outdoor onsen bath perched on the side of the hotel. It overlooked the lake surrounded by snow-covered treetops. A tranquil space that provided time to reflect on where we were and who we were with, etching a deep and beautiful memory in us all to take through life.
With enough entertainment onsite, we jumped into one of Japan’s more modern pastimes and booked a night in one of the private Karaoke rooms. Hello, sore throat the next day! It was a blast and a very premium set-up, all on-site.
To dive deeper into the wilderness on our last day, we enjoyed the serenity of a 2.5hr snowshoe trek through the forest to visit the Goshiki-Numa, a cluster of five volcanic lakes at the foot of Mount Bandai in the center of the lake district of Bandai-kōgen, Kitashiobara.
With minerals pushing up from deep below, the Five Colored Lakes have their own delicate colour, ranging from reddish-green to cobalt blue, mysteriously fluctuating throughout the year. A site to be seen that kept the kids fascinated as we trekked through the meters of packed-down snow.
Grandeco ski resort is ten minutes from Nekoma Ski Resort and twelve minutes back to Urabandai Ski Resort. Both are easily accessible to hotel guests who are truly spoilt for choice in this easily accessible best-kept secret part of Japan’s ski fields.
This year they will be opening the connecting lift from Alts Bandai and Nekoma Ski Resorts in Fukushima Prefecture. The lift will allow visitors to ride the lift to and from Nekoma Ski Resorts and Alts Bandai. Construction has begun in the spring of 2023, and the lifts will be in operation from December 2023. The total number of lifts and courses will be 13 and 33, respectively, making it one of the largest ski resorts in Japan.
A fantastic solution if you wish to navigate around the mountain and shift accommodation during your time in the beautiful Fukushima Prefecture.
Farewell to the mountains, hello to the ancient city of Kanazawa.
To end our trip to this incredible country, we headed to one of the more overlooked jewels in Japan’s crown of cultural cities; Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture on Japan’s mid-north coast.
We chose to visit this incredible city for an immersive step into the Japanese culture we’ve long learned about. Kanazawa has many well-preserved Edo-era districts, including original Samurai houses, a Geisha district, and a beautiful castle and garden – all within minutes’ walk or bus ride from each other.
Mixing the old with the new, we visited the Modern Art Gallery. Being a creative family, it was a desired place to visit with modern art installations and exhibitions. Stepping back centuries, we next visited the Castle Gardens for a traditional tea ceremony and gold-flaked ice cream! Our son’s bold excitement to explore the traditional homes was gracefully managed by the smiles and peaceful demeanour of the Geishas hosting the ceremonies, much to our gratitude
We stayed at the Kanazawa Tokyu Hotel, located very centrally between the traditional Samurai (Naga-machi District) and the Kanazawa Castle and Park. The staff here went above and beyond for us from the moment we stepped foot through the door. The rooms are very well-appointed with everything you could need, and the buffet breakfast included was delicious.
Coming to our last day, we spent the afternoon in the sun walking around the ancient castle gardens. A stunning place full of tradition, human craft, quality, and care—it’s worth putting this one on your bucket list!
Indulge your snow passion.
Our two short weeks in Japan will last us a lifetime. From the hustle of Tokyo city, authentic snow experience of Aizu to the immersive culture of Kanazawa, Japan had something for us all at each and every stop we made.
- He said: So when are we going back to Aizu?
- She said: I’ll never forget the onsen at Urabandai Lake resort, and thank god for the Black Cat transporting service!
- They said: We LOVE Japan!