Skiing in Yuzawa, Niigata (Gala Yuzawa, Ishiuchi Maruyama)
Yuzawa Skiing Overview
Gala Yuzawa ( ガーラ湯沢 ), Ishiuichi Maruyama ( 石打丸山 ), and Yuzawa Kogen ( 湯沢高原 ), are three linked ski areas in the town of Yuzawa in Japan’s Niigata prefecture. The town is a historical onsen (hot spring) resort made famous by Yasanuri Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, which went on to become a skiing mecca for cashed-up Tokyoites after it was connected to the capital by bullet train with the opening of the Joetsu Shinkansen during the Bubble Years.
The bubble has long since burst and Tokyoites don’t ski as much as they used to, as evidenced by the glut of unoccupied condos in Yuzawa (which can now be bought outright for as little as twenty thousand dollars) and the spooky little abandoned ski areas you pass if you ride on the local train, yet Yuzawa remains a popular ski town due to the plentiful snow and the ease of access from the capital.
(*this is the greatest vert available for a single run, which is the Falcon run down to the gondola base station. This run isn’t directly skiable to from the top lift)
(*this is the greatest vertical drop available for a single run, which is the top-to-bottom run at Yuzawa Kogen)
Piste map for Yuzawa Kogen
Also see the always excellent Japan Guide page for these (and other) Yuzawa ski resorts
Terrain, snow, off-piste, etc for Gala Yuzawa & Ishiuchi Maruyama
There are over a dozen ski areas in the Yuzawa vicinity, and while they’re all pretty straightforward to visit Gala Yuzawa is by far the most convenient of the lot. This is because it’s owned by the JR national rail company, who have a bullet train line running through Yuzawa with a short branch line to the Gala Yuzawa base station. The main station in Yuzawa is Echigo Yuzawa ( 越後湯沢 ) where all trains make stops, but in the winter months some trains run directly to and terminate at Gala Yuzawa. This means you can ride a bullet train from Tokyo station directly in to the ski resort itself – you literally step off the train and pass through the ticket gates straight into the resort’s ticket office. Very handy indeed! This makes one-day trips from Tokyo possible with very little fuss.
Judging Gala Yuzawa on the riding alone, however, it’s pretty mediocre. The vertical drop of its three small areas isn’t much to get excited about, and although there is a run (Falcon) back down to the gondola base station this starts from a chairlift at the edge of the ski area which you have to ski over to – meaning there isn’t actually any top-to-bottom run from Gala’s highest lift down to the base station. The three areas of the resort are simply designated ‘Northern Area’, ‘Central Area’, and ‘Southern Area’, and the gondola takes you up to the central area where you find the main restaurant and facilities and a couple of chair lifts. This area just has a few cruisy beginner and intermediate runs and won’t hold the interest of advanced riders for long at all. The southern area has Gala’s best terrain, with a bit of decent off-piste through the trees when the snow’s good – unfortunately Gala doesn’t allow off-piste riding and patrol do actively attempt to stop people going off-piste in this area. It’s a shame really as this isn’t treacherous backcountry – just a few small sections of off-piste trees between the runs. It’s there, and if you dodge patrol it can be nice, but it’s hardly anything spectacular. The southern area is also where you’ll find the ropeway that connects across a small valley to neighbouring Yuzawa Kogen. Gala’s northern area caters to the park monkeys, and usually has a couple of big kickers in the main park and a smaller park with a few rails and smaller jumps. They also have a couple of small practice jumps by the restaurant building at the bottom of the runs; these are great for learning new tricks on when spring comes around (that’s where I landed my first 540, happy days!), but there’s no lift so you have to hike up every time… a solid workout! The northern area also has the connecting run to neighbouring Ishiuchi Maruyama.
For beginners, Gala is a great place to learn (especially if you’re wanting to take lessons from English-speaking instructors), and more advanced riders who are happy riding park all day can have fun at Gala for sure. However, for those wanting some challenging terrain or looking to ride the area’s famously deep snow, Gala will likely disappoint – but then, if you’re in Tokyo and just need to get a snow fix, it’s good enough given how convenient it is. If you really do want something a tad more interesting though, neighbouring Ishiuchi is probably worth the extra bit of effort to get to. In my first winter living in Tokyo and riding in Yuzawa I had a season pass for Gala, but got a pass for Ishiuchi for my second season.
Ishiuchi Maruyama is owned and operated as a separate business from Gala, but from the top Ishiuchi chairlift you can ski to Gala’s Northern Area, and vice versa. Although Ishiuchi’s top lift is 200m lower than Gala’s, the whole ski area can be ridden from top to bottom in one run so it actually gives you much more vertical drop and longer runs. The gradient is also steeper (though still not particularly steep) and the terrain more varied, and some short but reasonably sweet bits of off-piste can be found in various sections of trees. Ishiuchi also has a bigger park, and a big draw for me was that it has a halfpipe – not that my pipe skills are anything to boast about, but on days when the snow wasn’t particularly good or the weather was a bit crappy I was perfectly happy lapping the pipe round and round, trying to spin and eating plenty of shit!
The other hill of the trio is Yuzawa Kogen. I only rode there once to check it out, by going over on the ropeway from Gala’s Southern Area. Yuzawa Kogen only has a handful of lifts and covers a smaller area than its neighbours, it has no park or pipe, and the runs in the main area are very short and tame – but it does have the longest top-to-bottom run of the three with a very respectable 800m vertical drop from the top chairlift to the lower ropeway station. If you’re on skis and you just want to ski fast down the hill from top to bottom this hill might suit you best, but otherwise it doesn’t have much to offer.
A slight problem for all three ski areas (and for all the other ski areas in the Yuzawa region) is that Niigata’s snow, while famous for being dumped in huge quantities, is often not so great in the quality department – although it can sometimes be awesome, it doesn’t have the 100% great powder guarantee that you get in Hokkaido and tends more to the heavy, wet, sticky side. Just so you know.
As the three hills are run by different companies they have separate ticketing, and if you’re buying a season ticket you unfortunately have to pick just the one of them. They have however managed to get together sufficiently to offer a 3-mountain pass which you can buy for one or two days. If you’re staying in Yuzawa for a couple days of riding, this pass is a good idea – the three ski areas combined do offer a fairly decent total size and a good variety of different riding you can do depending on the conditions, and you can move between all three using the lifts without having to get on any shuttle buses.
To sum up, Gala is perfect if you’re looking for somewhere good to learn and easy to access from Tokyo, and it will also do the job for more advanced riders just looking to get a snow fix for a day trip out of Tokyo. If you’re actually staying in Yuzawa for a while, the 3-mountain pass is a good deal for a couple of days’ riding – you could also mix it up with days at other (larger and higher) resorts in the area like Naeba and Kagura. If you’re living in Tokyo and trying to work out the best place to get a season pass, then I definitely recommend Ishiuchi Maruyama ahead of Gala Yuzawa – although bear in mind that Ishiuchi closes in early April, while Gala continues through to the end of the Golden Week holiday in early May. Gala sells Spring season passes though, from March 1st to close or April first to close – in my second season riding in Yuzawa, I had a season pass for Ishiuchi then bought the Gala April pass and hit the park for spring. Ishiuchi is also slightly more effort to get to (requiring a 10-minute shuttle bus from Echigo Yuzawa station), but worth the hassle. (Other resorts in the region are probably just a little too far from Echigo Yuzawa station to be feasible for regular day-trips on a season pass). And speaking of how to get there:
Access for skiing in Yuzawa
If you’re using the JR Pass you can simply jump on the shinkansen direct from Tokyo to Yuzawa (see here for info & discussion about the JR Pass).
The easiest way to visit Gala without the full JR Pass is to book a train & lift pass combo ticket from JR. As Gala is owned by the JR rail company, they actually offer a really good deal – you get the round-trip Shinkansen ticket and a one-day Gala lift pass for only slightly more than the usual one-way Shinkansen fare. It really is an excellent price, so if you’re just looking for a one-day trip that’s the way to go. These combo tickets can be bought from the ‘JR View Plaza’ travel kiosks at major JR stations (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Tokyo Station, and various others).
Another way of doing it, if you plan to go up regularly from Tokyo, is to buy a season pass and make use of the ‘JR Tokyo Wide Pass‘. This is a 3-day (consecutive days) pass covering the whole Kanto area, extending out as far as Echigo Yuzawa & Gala Yuzawa stations and costing 10,000 yen. Thankfully for foreign residents, this pass is available to all foreign passport holders regardless of residence status (unlike the other JR passes which are only available to tourists i.e. foreign residents aren’t eligible). I used to schedule my two weekly days off within a three day period so I could ride both days on the one pass, working out at 5,000 yen a time for the return train journeys, which is a big saving. If you’re planning to ride 20+ days in the season, doing it this way with a season pass will work out cheaper than using the JR combo day-tickets each time. If you can’t go that frequently, then the JR combo tickets will work out cheaper. Of course, the JR combo tickets mean you’re also stuck with Gala – if you want to ride elsewhere, the Tokyo Wide Pass is the way to do it. From Echigo Yuzawa station there are shuttle buses to Ishiuchi Maruyama (about 10 minutes), as well as to Naeba and Kagura a bit further away. There’s an information counter in Echigo Yuzawa station with English speaking staff and all the shuttle bus timetables and bus stop details.
As usual, you should check Hyperdia for train times in Japan (there’s a good explanation of Hyperdia here). Having done this journey many times, I can also give you a quick tip – there are two train services on the Joetsu Shinkansen line, named Toki (とき) and Tanigawa (たにがわ), and it’s the Tanigawa service that runs all the way to Gala Yuzawa station. The Toki service only stops at Echigo Yuzawa – but it gets there a good 20 minutes faster than the Tanigawa does (fewer stops en route); this means that if you’re getting of at Echigo to take a shuttle bus, the Toki train is better (this is useful for Gala too, in case you miss the Tanigawa – take the Toki and there’s also a Gala shuttle bus from Echigo Yuzawa)
(Note: don’t worry if it’s a MAX-toki or MAX-tanigawa, it doesn’t affect the service – it just means it’s a double decker train! In this case, obviously it’s a good idea to try and get a seat upstairs for the views)
Yuzawa Skiing Summary
Is Yuzawa the best place to ski in Japan? No, that’d be Hokkaido. Is it the best in Honshu (Japan’s main island)? No, that’d be Nagano. But it is decent, and it’s the best place you can hit on a day trip from Tokyo and it’s the most convenient major ski resort in Japan.
Resources and Useful Links for Riding in Yuzawa
Check out my quick guide to Tokyo
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!
Piste map for Yuzawa Kogen
Snow Forecast for Gala Yuzawa (snow-forecast.com does exactly what it says on the tin – my go to for accurate snow forecasts!)
Japan Guide page on the Yuzawa ski resorts
Click the banner to pre-order a JR Pass for a 40-dollar saving (read more on whether you should get a JR Pass):
Have you been skiing at Gala Yuzawa or Ishiuchi Maruyama? What did you think? Does my information need updating? Have any questions about skiing in Yuzawa? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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