Asia's Winter Wonderland

31 Oct 2010

When people think skiing or snowboarding, the images conjured in their heads may be of eclectic European resorts in the French or Swiss Alps, scenic Austria, Canada’s Whistler or Colorado’s Aspen – places where the rich and famous go. Less well known, but slowly making a name for themselves, are a range of ski resorts scattered across Asia from Japan and Korea to even China. They offer unique experiences on the slopes with different conditions and cultures. In the southern hemisphere, New Zealand remains a premier ski destination, especially in its winter months of June, July and August.

Japan Winter Skiing

Slopes of the Rising Sun

Long blessed with abundant snow, Japan has many great ski resorts but most of them do not cater to foreigners’ needs. Signs are all in Japanese and staff are also not likely to speak English. It was only in the last five years  when things began to change. For the moment, the best place for non-Japanese skiers is Niseko on the island of Hokkaido. The resort is routinely ranked by skiing and travel magazines as having the highest snowfall in the world, with up to 15m being dumped on its slopes each season (compared to around 10m in Canada’s Whistler), thanks to a cold front that swoops in from Siberia. The property consists of various ski areas and four of them – Hirafu, Higashiyama, Annupuri, and Hanazono – are linked by a unified ski pass as well as ski trails and shuttle bus service. Niseko also offers excellent night-skiing at Hirafu, with runs two-thirds up the mountain operating until 8:30pm.

Japan Winter

Another reason why Niseko is a good choice for non-Japanese skiers is that, unlike other resorts in Japan, there has been an influx of foreign money in recent years from Australian, Singaporean, and Hong Kong investors. As a result, there is a huge variety of lodging choices that suit Western tastes and different budgets – from backpacking pensions to a Hilton hotel and all manner of luxury holiday homes.

Other big resorts in Japan include Furano (also in Hokkaido),  Hakuba (where the Winter Olympics was held in 1998), Zao, Myoko-kogen, Hachimantai, and Shiga-Kogen – the last of which bills itself as the largest ski resort in Japan with more than 70 gondolas, lifts and rope-tows serving 21 smaller ski resorts all accessible by a single lift pass. Each resort has its own personality. For example, the snow in Furano is lighter and fluffier than that in Niseko, but that means they tend to be easily blown away by winds rather than settling down into a snow base. The resort at Hakuba, on the other hand, does not allow off-piste skiing, meaning that skiers must stay on official runs.

Those seeking a more unique Japanese experience while enjoying the snow can check out Nozawa-Onsen, which, in addition to its respectable ski facilities, is notable for its cobblestone town décor and ryokans – inns where the focus is on the observance of Japanese traditions. Rooms are, therefore, replete with tatami floors, sliding doors, and onsens (Japanese-styled spas), guests wear yukata (unisex casual kimonos), and carefully crafted meals are served on low tables.

Japan Winter

But unlike Niseko, most other resorts in Japan cater more towards the domestic crowd, meaning that foreigners may find it just slightly more difficult to get around because of the language barrier. Because foreign investors have yet to make headways into other resorts in Japan, it also means luxury accommodation for skiing outside Niseko tends to be much more limited.

“You will struggle in some places to order things and to be understood. Not all signs will be in English, they won’t have a lot of English speaking [ski] instructors. It just means you’ve got to be generally more adventurous and spend a little more time to communicate with the locals to get what you want,”  says Ross Carty, managing director for Japan-based tour company Outdoor Travel Japan. He adds that resorts further south tend to be more crowded, especially during the weekends and holidays, and there is also little argument that resorts in Hokkaido typically have better snow than those on Honshu.

The skiing season in Japan usually runs between December and April.

Skiing day and night

While Korea is almost as well regarded as any Asian skiing destination, the resorts offer a slightly different experience. There are 13 ski resorts in the country, all clustered around Seoul within a few hours’ drive. The largest resort is Yongpyong, located at the foot of Palwang Mountain in Gangwon Province, around 200km or two hours’ drive east of the South Korean capital.

Yongpyong spans an area of around 1,700ha, with 15 chair lifts (including a cable car) covering 31 slopes for varying skill levels. As with the case for a lot of Korean resorts, Yongpyong can be very crowded on weekends and when the season begins in November.

Korea Yongpyong Resort

This improves dramatically as the season progresses, especially when the mountain is fully opened in late December and January, when more experienced skiers would be able to enjoy its long runs. On black diamond (advanced) trails the gradient can be up to a crazy 50°, and there is little chance of being slowed down by clusters of beginners standing around on slopes. Snowfall averages around 2.5m each season, which stretches to April, so much of the snow on trails is man-made, but runs are typically well groomed.

One interesting aspect of skiing in Korea is that the slopes stay open unusually late compared to resorts in other parts of the world. At Yongpyong for example, some lifts run until the dead of midnight, meaning that one can theoretically ski non-stop for 15.5 hours straight from when the slopes open at 8:30am. A day pass costs 63,000 won (US$55.69).

Korea Yongpyong Resort

Another popular Korean ski resort is Muju, located in Mount Deokyu National Park in the province of Jeollabuk-do and around four hours’ drive from Seoul, which is widely regarded as the most scenic of Korea’s ski resorts with an excellent panoramic view of the surrounding valleys from the top of the highest chairlift at an elevation of 1,530m. The resort’s most famous run is the 6.2km Silk Road slope, which is the highest as well as the longest run in Korea, and it is not unusual for skiers to come away with the experience of feeling like they had been gliding through clouds because of its altitude.

Korea High One

Finally, the newest addition to Korea’s ski industry is High 1 Resort in Jeongseon, also in Gangwon Province. Opened in 2006, it has 18 slopes over around 500ha, serviced by five chair lifts and four gondolas. In addition to a 400-room hotel and two ski-houses with fully-equipped resting places, there is also a casino tables as well as slot machines. To complete the package, there is a revolving restaurant atop one of the resort’s summits.

Down under

When it’s summer north of the equator, the place to go for snow is New Zealand. The largest resort in the country is Whakapapa at Mount Ruapheu, around four hours’ drive from Auckland. It has 20 ski lifts serving 43 trails, over an area of 1,050ha.

Another ski resort is further south at Mount Hutt, which is a third of the size of Whakapapa and only has four chair lifts, but it has the distinction of being the ski resort in the Southern hemisphere to receive the first winter snow, and the earliest to open.

The Remarkables

Still further south near Queenstown are Coronet Peak, Treble Cone, and The Remarkables – three resorts that are popular because of completely different reasons. Coronet Peak is one of the most popular resorts in New Zealand because of its ease of access – it’s only a quick 25 minute drive from Queenstown. Treble Cone, on the other hand, is known for its challenging terrain, while The Remarkables boasts excellent backcountry skiing. James Coddington, chief executive for NZSki, which manages the resorts at Mount Hutt, Coronet Peak and The Remarkables, says the latter – with its rolling terrain – is more geared towards snowboarders, while Coronet Peak is priced to target the luxury market.

The Remarkables

The winter season in New Zealand typically runs between late June to October each year, and in addition to receiving some of the earliest snow in the Southern hemisphere, resorts in the country are also among the last ski fields below the equator to lose its snow.

“We have smaller ski fields, so we are talking 363.6ha versus 808ha to 1,212ha in North America, and even bigger in Europe,” Coddington explains. “We’ve got good snowfall, averaging between two to three metres a year,” says Coddington, adding that resorts in New Zealand make use of snow-making facilities to refresh and replenish trails.

The Remarkables

“The Japanese ski fields are about similar in size, however, they get a lot more snow, but with that you get worst conditions as far as weather is concerned. To get more snow, you get more snow days, so you have more inclement weather. In Queenstown, we very rarely have a closed day in the whole season.”

One major difference between resorts in New Zealand and many other resorts in the world is the scarcity of ski-in, ski-out accommodations, with a few exceptions such as at Whakapapa. For example, Mount Hutt has no accommodation near the slopes, and skiers would need to drive around 35 minutes each morning to the mountain from the nearest town where accommodations are available.

On the other hand, what resorts in this country typically do offer is world-class skiing facilities in terms of more modern high-speed chair-lifts, gondolas, as well as an abundance of après-ski activities through excellent restaurants and bars.

The peak season is during July and August, which is when the snow is most abundant. However, Coddington recommends that skiers avoid crowds during the Australian and New Zealand school holidays, which run during the first two weeks of July.

New to the scene

It may not be a country many people would associate with skiing, but the new wealth generated in China by its rapid economic growth is leading to rising interest in the sport. Already, there are more than 200 ski resorts nestled in the country’s five main mountain ranges. But the problem is that development has been uneven between facilities, with many of them not having well-developed après-ski activities or international standard accommodations, according to Mao Zhenhua, chairman of Melco China Resorts.

Where you want to go to ski in China will greatly depends on how good you are, says John Jeakins, chief executive of Hospitality Associates Asia, a hospitality asset management and development company headquartered in Beijing.

Skiing in China

For people heading to China for a ski-holiday, he recommends resorts in the northern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin or Xinjiang, where they can get a taste of China but at same time enjoy good skiing. The best bet is probably Yabuli Ski Resort (owned by Melco China Resorts) in the northern province of Heilongjiang. Situated at around 1,300m above sea level, the resort has 18 runs catering to skiers of different skill levels, including a 3.8km-long main run, and the resort gets around four metres of snowfall each season.

Skiing in China

With investments from foreign companies,  Yabuli is not only the largest but also probably one of the few resorts in China (if not the only) with facilities and service quality nearly comparable to what one would expect in places like Whistler or even in the Swiss Alps. Club Med, for example, is set to open its first resort in China on the mountain this year. A day of skiing there costs CNY480 (US$72). Other large resorts include Beida Lake in Jilin, Wan Long in Hebei, as well as a new resort being built in Changbai mountain area, says Melco’s Mao.

For beginners, Jeakins says the better bet is Beijing, with at least ten smaller resorts within an hours’ drive of the city offering facilities ranging from Swiss-style chalets to trails in the shadow of the Great Wall, and modest prices. For example, Beijing Badaling Ski Resort in Yanqing County has two 800m ski runs and a 2,300m snowmobile track, and costs only CNY210 (US$31.50) for an afternoon’s skiing (four hours), including entrance fee.

Skiing in Asia\\\\'s Winter Wonderland

Likewise, Beijing Huaibei International Ski Resort in Huairou District is only 70km from downtown Beijing, with two intermediate and two advanced trails each, and four beginners’ runs. It costs CNY20 (US$3) to get in, and CNY200 (US$30) for four hours of skiing during weekends. Weekdays are slightly cheaper.

The flip-side to that is that most trails are short, and take only a couple of minutes to complete for anyone but the most basic beginners. However, Jeakins adds: “It’s a sensible place to learn how to ski and once you have the basics covered, you can graduate to the bigger resorts to the north.”

Generally in China almost all snow for skiing is man-made, unlike in Europe or North America where resorts rely on natural snowfall, Jeakins says.

That typically means that the country’s major resorts in Heilongjiang and Jilin, which are in the colder climes where temperatures are consistently below freezing, operate throughout winter from mid-November to early April every year with little exception. Another interesting thing about skiing in China is that because the sport is still in its infancy, most skiers are beginners – meaning that more experienced skiers can avoid the crowds on the slopes.

Jeakins adds that because few people in China have their own ski or snowboard equipment or cloth, all ski hills have equipment for rent – although to different standards. The best time to go is over Christmas, which is not officially celebrated in China and therefore there are no holidays during that period. On the other hand, the busiest week here is Chinese New Year, which usually falls on late January or February.

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