Biwako Valley ski resort review
Biwako Valley Ski Resort Overview
Biwako Valley (びわ湖バレイ) is a tiny little ski area located next to Lake Biwa (びわ湖, Biwako) in Japan’s Shiga prefecture ( 滋賀県 ), a short distance from the city of Kyoto. It really is small, with just over 200m of vertical and 7 lifts… at least, 7 lifts on paper… but actually two of them are in a line so they really only count as one (with a midway switchover), and there are two sets of parallel lifts so those four really only count as two! So really, in navigational terms, there are four lifts. The runs are short, and lapping the main Horai lift you can probably fit in 8 runs an hour (depending on waiting times in the park). The parallel lifts come into play during weekends and national holidays, when every snowboarder in Kyoto and Osaka heads to Biwako Valley and the crowds are ridiculous – these days are best avoided if possible, as the lift lines are by far the worst I’ve experienced in Japan and the cable car back down to the base area is a major bottleneck; I’ve waited as long as an hour to get down on busy days, and there isn’t a viable option for riding down what with the high snow line in Kansai.
Homepage and piste map (the homepage is in Japanese and has a limited English version – hit the ‘English’ tab at the top right of the screen. I’ve tried to cover everything below, including access information)
Terrain, snow, off-piste, transportation, etc for Biwako Valley ski resort
While Biwako Valley is very small, I definitely have a soft spot for the place. That’s partly just because I’m biased by some great memories from my two winters in Kyoto, but it does have a few good points; being a small affair it’s super-chilled, the staff are all really friendly, the views of Lake Biwa and Mt Hiei are fantastic (probably my favourite ski resort view), lift tickets are cheap, and the riding is saved from being a complete waste of time by the great effort they go to with their terrain park. The park crew build a good set of jumps and keep them nicely groomed, and they always have a dude on a deck chair spotting for everyone and keeping everything running nice and safely. Unbelievably, they even have a half pipe up there – it’s hardly ever in good riding shape, but they have the appropriate equipment and do cut it when the conditions allow. Although the pipe is probably only in decent shape for a total of a couple of weeks per season, it’s amazing that they have it at all and I used to hit it every chance I got – there’s no way it makes financial sense for them to maintain a pipe, so extra kudos to them for having it!
Biwako Valley is a nice place to learn, but to be honest, for non-beginners if you don’t ride park you’ll have ridden the whole mountain in no time and won’t be very impressed. If you’re going to be riding here regularly and are not a park rider, well… it’s time to learn park! That’s exactly what happened to me – Biwako Valley was where I landed my first backside 360s, got my first proper airs in a (small) halfpipe, and hit the Big Daddy jumps for the first time. I still prefer pow any day of the week (or all day, every day, if you’re talking Hokkaido!), but you have to ride what’s available and while Biwako doesn’t have powder or terrain they do make the most of what they’ve got and it’s a decent place to ride park (and it’s pretty awesome flying through the air while looking at that lake view!)
Snow conditions at Biwako Valley aren’t great – the annual snowfall isn’t much, and what does fall is usually pretty wet and sticky. They do manage to keep things topped up and in decent shape though with some impressive grooming and snow-making equipment for such a small hill (though it’s often not cold enough for the snow cannons). The other thing to warn you about conditions-wise is the wind – this ski area is on an exposed ridge, with the land rising up gradually from the west and dropping away precipitously down to the lake on the east side… sometimes the wind absolutely rips over the top of the ridge towards the lake, making the Horai chairlifts extremely unpleasant – freezing cold and also a little scary – so make sure you’re dressed for it even if the temperature isn’t that bad.
So, overall, Biwako Valley is definitely not a ski area to fly all the way to Japan for! But if you happen to be in the Kansai region during winter and fancy a day on the slopes but don’t have time to go all the way to Nagano or Niigata, it’s a good option for a fun day out and makes a change from all the temples you’ve probably been checking out in Kyoto – as much as I love Kyoto, to be honest it can be a bit drab and grey in winter and I always loved getting out of town and up the hill every chance I got. And if, like me a few years ago, you wind up taking a job in Kyoto or Osaka and then find yourself wondering if there’s a local hill nearby and whether you should take all your riding shit with you, the answer is yes you should – during my first Kansai winter (after a New Year’s trip to Hokkaido with a rather eventful return journey featuring a scissor-wielding maniac) it took me a while to figure things out for local riding. If you’re now trying to work it out, hopefully I’ve just written the page that answers your questions.
How to get to Biwako Valley from Kyoto and Osaka
To get to Biwako Valley from Kyoto, simply take the Kosei ( 湖西 ) line from Kyoto station (or perhaps Yamashina ( 山科 ) station if you’re staying somewhere on Kyoto’s Tozai (orange) subway line) and get off at Shiga ( 志賀 ) station (580 yen, around 40 minutes). The JR rail company operates a shuttle bus from Shiga station to Biwako valley’s lower ropeway station where you can buy tickets etc. The bus waits just outside the station, leaves roughly hourly, takes 10 minutes, and is rather overpriced (340 yen each way when I used to do it, plus they charge 100 yen extra if you have a board or skis) – you can check the bus schedule on the website here. You can check train times on Hyperdia and choose your train accordingly (there’s a good explanation for using Hyperdia here).
Coming from Osaka, the faster trains (called ‘special rapid’, 新快速, shin-kaisoku) to Kyoto leave every 15 minutes from Osaka station in Umeda – don’t get on the ‘local’ train (普通電車, futsu densha). One of those four special rapid trains per hour actually runs along the Kosei line after Kyoto (the final destination of the train will be Tsuruga, 敦賀), but this doesn’t stop at Shiga so you’ll need to get off at Katata ( 堅田 ) and switch to a local train for a few more stops to Shiga station. This is the fastest way from Osaka to Shiga station and saves you about 15 minutes. The other three shin-kaisoku trains per hour from Osaka to Kyoto (final destination: either Yasu ( 野洲 ) or Omishiotsu, 近江塩津) go on the wrong side of the lake after Kyoto, so you have to change at Kyoto station to the Kosei line. Osaka station to Shiga station is 1,320 yen and takes from 67 to 83 minutes, check Hyperdia for up to date schedules.
Returning, make sure you check the last shuttle bus departure time from Biwako Valley back to the station, it’s a long walk which I did once and wouldn’t do again – get a taxi or thumb a ride! (I had to hitch down a couple of times, people are usually happy to pick you up and have a chat). Also keep in mind that on busy days the queue to come down on the ropeway can be horrendous – as much as an hour on national holidays – so (a) don’t go on national holidays! (and preferably not weekends either) and (b) allow plenty of time for the ropeway line so you don’t miss the bus.
Biwako Valley Ski Resort Summary
This is the ‘local’ hill for Kyoto and Osaka. It’s a small hill with usually small amounts of wet snow, but a good park, a halfpipe (sometimes), good vibes, and cracking views.
Resources and Useful Links for Riding at Biwako Valley
Check out my quick guide to Kyoto
Travel insurance with snow sports cover from World Nomads. Their flexible insurance can be bought even if you’re already in Japan – I once found out the hard way (in Thailand) how important this can be!
Snow Forecast for Biwako Valley (snow-forecast.com does exactly what it says on the tin – my go to for accurate snow forecasts!)
Have you been to Biwako Valley? What did you think? Does my information need updating? Do you have any questions? Leave a comment below!
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