Minakami Area

Honshu, Japan

Just one hour from Tokyo by train, the Minakami area is an excellent destination for those wishing to have an off-the-beaten-path Japanese ski adventure. There are about a dozen small ski resorts within 20-90 minutes’ drive from Minakami village which makes it a great base from which to explore the area.

Scout Loves

  • Very few westerners. It is definitely for the more adventurous, confident traveler.
  • Many ski resorts to choose from with different resorts suiting different levels of skiers
  • Stunning scenery
  • Just over an hour from Tokyo by train
  • Excellent onsen throughout the area
  • Minakami has one of the best soba noodle restaurants in Japan

Scout Tips

  • Getting around the area can be a challenge without your own car, though some resorts offer shuttles from Minakami village.
  • The village of Minakami is very small and not much English is spoken.
  • As the resorts are quite small you will want to try several of them out if you are there more than a few days.
  • Due to the easy access from Tokyo, the resorts can get very crowded on weekends.
  • The tiny little brewery called Octone in the main street is a must visit.

Scout Review

Located in the Gunma prefecture north-west of Tokyo, the Minakami area is renowned by locals for its natural beauty and adventure activities. Rafting and canyoning is huge here in the summer. Fortunately for skiers there are a bunch of small but decent ski resorts scattered around the area making it well worth the visit in winter. If you’ve done Niseko, Hakuba and Nozawa and are looking for a completely different experience away from the masses, Minakami is it.

Minakami is a small village where you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time and are truly escaping the western ski crowds. It’s very authentic and quiet and nothing has been changed for the sake of the few tourists that do come. There is just one small main street (about 600m long) which has a handful of restaurants and izakayas, one tiny brewery bar, some shops and a games arcade complete with a huge Hot Wheels track. When we visited, not one restaurant we saw had an English name or menu out on the street (though fortunately a few had English menus on-hand). To travel here you either need to have very good Japanese or be confident and prepared for challenges – like opening doors to what you think might be a restaurant but really have no idea what is inside. Fortunately, bravery is usually rewarded with welcoming arms, friendly smiles, incredible food and the sense that you’re on an adventure not many others have.

Minakami village is situated in a valley and surrounded by huge snowy mountains – probably the biggest we’ve seen in Japan. The raging Tone river runs alongside the village which has a range of hotels; from authentic Japanese ryokans to more luxurious Japanese hotels. The area’s natural hot springs are a huge drawcard for the Japanese tourists so most hotels have exceptional onsens.

A visit to the Minakami area isn’t complete without a dip at the famous Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku – one of the largest outdoor hot springs in Japan. About 30 minutes from the village, it is wonderfully historic and a very authentic experience. The outdoor onsens here are magical, nestled among snowy rocks and beside a rushing stream – it would be easy to spend an hour trying out the different pools. Be warned though – it closes around 4pm so don’t ski all day and expect to get a rewarding soak in the evening.

It would be easy to make a visit to the Minakami area an itinerary in of itself, or as part of a larger road trip. The ski resorts of Yuzawa are a 45 min drive (Naeba, Kagura etc) and about 1 ½ hours away is the tourist town of Kusatsu Onsen which has some lovely temples, tourist attractions and onsens as well its nearby ski resorts of Kusatsu (tiny) and Manza Onsen (small). Heading further afield, you could take the spectacular road over the mountains to combine a Minakami trip with Nozawa Onsen (about 1 hr 45 min drive) or Madarao. When planning, bear in mind that some mountain passes are closed in winter – for instance the road to Shiga Kogen. The possibilities are endless if you have your own wheels, however, as always, it’s only a good idea for those that are confident driving in winter conditions.

Minakami Area Skiing

The Minakami area has nine ski resorts each within 20-90 minutes’ drive from Minakami village. Some resorts have accommodation at the base, though most are so small you really only need a day at each. This is why it makes sense to stay in Minakami village and use it as a base to go exploring each day.

While the area isn’t heavily visited by westerners it happens to be home to an excellent ski school. Scout can help arrange lessons and guides as part of a Minakami Ski Package and, if staying in Minakami village, a private guide or instructor will include a pick-up and drop-off at your hotel. Group lessons in English are available at Houdaigi (they do not include a transfer).

Tenjindaira Ski Resort

Tenjindaira Ski Resort – better known as Tenjin – has recently become a cult favorite for advanced and expert skiers wanting to access some of Japan’s steepest backcountry and deepest powder.  Unlike most resorts in Honshu, Tenjin is blessed with high altitude that makes its snow quality and powder some of the best on the main island. This also comes with the risk of bad weather which is a regular occurrence during winter. If you are here to ski the backcountry have a couple of days up your sleeve just in-case.

Tenjin Ski Resort is accessed via the long Tanigawadake ropeway. Up at the main ski resort area there are three short old lifts with 9 ‘courses’ or slopes… just big enough to have a few enjoyable warm-up runs before hitting the backcountry. One of the lifts accesses an ungroomed bowl – good for strong intermediate and advanced skiers. On a powder day even a few runs in that bowl alone can be an incredible day’s skiing. There is one long partly groomed run all the way back to the base of the ropeway which has some good terrain at the top and in good conditions there is some great advanced “off-piste” terrain off to the side. The bottom half is a fast cat-track style run with a few steep pitches. An intermediate skier not wanting to venture off-piste would enjoy a half day of skiing up top and, if confident enough, one or two runs all the way to the base. You can also download on the ropeway.

However it’s the backcountry that can be accessed from the top chair that’s the real drawcard. It has some great steeps, couloirs and powder bowls that can be accessed by hiking or touring from the top lift. Like any adventure out of resort boundaries, it should always be done with a guide and proper avalanche gear as the area is prone to avalanches and it is easy to get lost.

Tenjin is about 30 minutes’ drive from Minakami village. There is one basic ski lodge for accommodation near the ropeway base.

Houdaigi

Houdaigi ski resort is our pick of the ski resorts in the Minakami area for offering the best and most terrain for all standards. And, with a couple of cute pensions right next to the slopes, it would make a great base for families or groups wanting decent accommodation right at a ski resort (as opposed to in Minakami village). Our favourite place to stay is Chalet La Neige which Scout can include in a Minakami Ski Package. If you are beginners or lower intermediates and want a relaxing and authentic Japan ski trip staying in a family style pension, we feel you could happily stay here a week. That said, having a car would give you the option of exploring nearby resorts and onsens to add a bit more variety to Houdaigi’s slopes.

Although it’s not the highest, thanks to its mostly north-facing runs the snow at Houdaigi can be some of the best quality in the area. It has 7 lifts and 16 courses with the top elevation sitting at 1,400m. There is great terrain for beginners and intermediates and even some groomed runs that advanced skiers will enjoy – long enough to get your speed up and thighs burning! There are a few steep tree-runs for advanced/experts however the trees are quite tight and it’s not exactly legal, but not exactly illegal either… be discrete and ski with caution and you won’t have a problem.

Houdaigi Ski resort has a few cafeteria style restaurants on the slopes serving up the usual delicious ramen and katsu curry among other meals. There is also ski rental available.

It is easy to combine a day at Houdaigi with a visit to the amazing Takaragawa Onsen, about 10 minutes down the road. Just be sure to leave the slopes with enough time for a decent soak before they close at 4pm. Houdaigi is about a 25-minute drive from Minakami village.

Okutone Snow Park

Okutone Snow Park is the closest ski resort to Minakami town, just 10 minutes’ drive away. It has gentle slopes for beginners. However, it can also be a pleasant surprise for advanced skiers - Okutone can make a great option for a couple of powder runs and some decent tree skiing. It’s a good alternative if Tenjin is closed due to bad weather, but legit enough for a visit on any powder day. The resort offers night skiing until 10pm on weekdays and 11pm on weekends. It’s a 20-minute drive from Minakami Village

White World Oze Iwakura

About an hour from Minakami village is the medium-sized (for Japan at least) Iwakura Ski Resort. It has 10 lifts (including a gondola) and is surprisingly great for powder and off-piste that is easy to access and with a decent pitch. Better yet – it is rarely busy during the week. It also has some fairly long groomer runs and night skiing. There is accommodation at the base area.

Minakami Kogen Resort 200

Contrary to what you would expect by its name, Minakami Kogen Ski Resort is not located in the village of Minakami - it’s about a 30-minute drive away. This tiny resort is excellent for beginners and families with very young children that want to make learning to ski as fun as possible. The main reason to come would be to enjoy a little bit of easy skiing along with some fun snow activities, such as mini-snowmobiles, tobogganing (on various contraptions), ski igloos, snow rafting, dog sledding and much, much more. It’s a happy, fun place.  

There is accommodation at Minakami Kogen Ski Resort, conveniently located right on the slopes in a high-rise, modern Japanese 80’s style hotel (which has pretty nice onsen facilities).

Other Gunma area ski resorts

White Valley – A tiny resort with 2 short double chairs just 10 minutes from the village.

Kawaba – Small resort with good terrain park facilities and decent lifts. 45 mins drive from Minakami

Marunuma Kogen – Dry snow thanks to the altitude with a top elevation of 2,000m. Modern gondola, wide groomers and a few powder opportunities. Accommodation at the base area. 1 hr 10 min from Minakami.

Kusatsu Onsen – Very small resort. Best for beginners only. The main attraction is the onsen tourist town. 1 hr 30 min from Minakami

Manza Onsen – Small resort for beginners and intermediates with excellent onsen. Near Kusatsu.

Other small beginner resorts in Gumna are Akasawa, Fujiwara, Norn, Oana and Oguna Hotaka.

The Yuzawa ski resorts are also close by – Naeba is just 50 mins and Kagura a bit further.

Minakami Area For Families

Families keen to visit the Minakami area would be best to stay in the accommodation at one of the resorts, with Houdaigi being our pick for families wanting decent terrain and Minakami Kogen 200 for families with really young children. Staying in Minakami village wouldn’t be that well suited to families due to the amount of travel needing to be done each day.

Minakami Area Accommodation

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There is a huge variety of accommodation in Minakami and the surrounding area. From five-star luxury to traditional ryokans to the most modest of Japanese pensions – it’s all a matter of what your budget is, where you want to stay and what style of accommodation suits. Scout can help with working out what best suits you.

Some of the resorts have accommodation at the base area which is either pension style lodges run by families or larger resort style hotels. Minakami village is a great base from which to explore the area’s resorts and there some excellent ryokans all within walking distance of the main street and its few restaurants and bars. We certainly wouldn’t go as far as saying Minakami has a ‘nightlife’ but there are some fun places to try and plenty of locals to meet. If staying there it would be best to have a guide each day to take you skiing or your own car to get around the resorts easily.

Resort Activities

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The best side attraction to skiing in the Minakami area would be to visit one of the 18 onsens in the area. The historic Takaragawa Onsen is a must-visit with its wonderful collection of outdoor onsen. It is a 25 min drive from Minakami village.

Other than onsen, there aren’t a lot of extra activities to do here in winter – summer is when this area really comes alive. There is a glass blowing factory and a ceramics store. Or you can battle one of the local kids on the “Hot Wheels” racetrack in the games arcade halfway along the main street. Pick your car from the huge collection and be careful squeezing the trigger too hard or your car will go flying off the rails.

In Manakami Village at one end of the main street is the tiny Octone Brewery is well worth a visit. It only seats about 10 people and the local couple that run it (and make the beer) will make you feel at home. It’s well worth ordering a flight to sample a few different beers. They serve a few simple bar snacks.

Not to be missed is the Kadoya Soba restaurant, on the way to Tenjin and Houdaigi. The restaurant has been making soba using the mountain water for 250 years. They say the water helps to enrich the flavour when they cool the noodles off.

Getting There and Around

It takes just one hour by bullet train to get from Tokyo station to Jomo Kogen station on the Joetsu Shinkansen. There is a Toyota Car rental office right at the shinkansen station. From there it’s about 20 minutes by car to Minakami village or you can catch a second train if sticking to public transport.

It takes about 2 hours to drive to Tokyo.

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