Hitting the Slopes with the Kids

March 1st, 2009 by
Category: Outdoor Activities
On the slopes in Karuizawa

A family ski trip and what we learned along the way

There are a lot of places to ski in Nagano, with locations appealing to everyone from the beginning Kansai visitor to the most advanced Nagano native. But have you ever gone skiing with small kids? It’s a challenge, to say the least, yet it is well worth the time and effort if you know how to prepare and what to do. I learned a lot in this regard in the handful of times I have taken my kids to the slopes around Nagano. Our most recent trip was to Karuizawa.

Of course, we had been to Karuizawa on numerous occasions for shopping, I have seen the little ski area just south of Karuizawa Station (English website here). Run by the Prince Hotel, the Prince Snow Resort is a small mountain, certainly by Nagano’s standards, and I had long thought it not worth the lift ticket price, which is about the same as all the other big spots in Nagano. But despite its small size and large number of visitors from Kanto, it turned out to be a delightful place.

Our plan was simple: Our five year old, Anri, would take a two hour chibiko (In English: little kid) lesson, and during that time, my wife and I would alternate taking runs on the mountain while the other watches our baby son, Noah. Then, in the afternoon, if the kids are still up to it, we would continue with the plan. It worked out well and we only had to use one lift ticket between two adults (Shh! Don’t tell!)


Taking a chibiko ski lesson

The lesson was interesting to see. It is the style of lesson done all over the world, I am sure. Done on a nearly flat slope of only about 20 or so meters, it involved three instructors: One monitoring the line, another at the top of the slope, and a third at the bottom. The teacher monitoring the line simply was there to pick up the little crumb crunchers who keep falling down while trying to move their way up the slope. The teacher at the top prepared the kids to ski down, and the third teacher gave instruction. And of course, since they are little kids, there was a potty break in between.

The lesson was productive and the kids learned how to snowplow with their skis. At 4000 yen for the two-hour group lesson, it is a reasonable rate. There are snowboard lessons available too. My only advice for those wanting to put their kids in a lesson is be sure to arrive early. When we arrived, we encountered a huge line — not for lessons, but for lift tickets. At this particular ski area, the line for lessons and tickets is the same. We barely got Anri to her lesson on time. Arrive early.

And, be aware, at the place we went to, the lessons were entirely conducted in Japanese. I have heard of some ski areas that offer lessons in English, with non-Japanese instructors. They are out there, but you have to seek them out. The website, SnowJapan.com is a great place to start.

If you plan on visiting a ski area with a baby, stake out a good booth in the lodge or a coffee shop, order some drinks and hold on to your spot as long as you can. Doing this, my wife and I were able to alternate taking turns skiing. I went into the lodge after a run or two and watched the baby, while my wife, Tomomi, hit the slopes a bit. Getting out skiing is a rare thing when you have kids, and for Tomomi, it was her first time in six years.


The view from Prince Snow Resort Karuizawa

We went to Karuizawa on February 11th, which in Japan is a national holiday. The place was not crowded at all. This was the first surprise. It was probably due to the fact that the nearby Asama-yama, an active volcano, had erupted a week earlier and only idiots like me would risk skiing 8 or 9 km from it. Another surprise was that the snow conditions were quite good, despite being entirely man-made. And most amusing, for me anyway, was the signs posted here and there telling snowboarders not to sit down in the middle of the slopes. Written in Japanese and English, it was the latter that cracked me up. “Sitting down middle course, and it is illegal” or something like that. No offense to you boarders out there, and perhaps this is just a Japanese thing, but sitting down in the middle of the slope to talk on your cellphone or have a cigarette is dangerous. And I have seen people doing both.

Anyway, after the lesson finished, we had lunch in the lodge and Anri was itching to ride the lift. So, up we went. The great thing about riding the lift was that the man loading people on it actually picked up Anri and plopped her on the chairlift, while lowering the safety bar for us. The attendant at the top helped her off as well. The first time going up was a bit nerve-wracking for me, but I held on to Anri and made sure she was sitting back in the chair.

Anri was nowhere near having the ability to ski down on her own, so I had her stand in front of me, while I held my poles horizontally in front of her. Then she held on to the poles and I snowplowed all the way down. This method worked well for her and I recommend it. Anri is not quite able to snowplow yet, but in skiing this way, she got a feel for the speed involved and she was able to watch at close hand how I did it.

There are some special clips for sale that allow you to fasten the tips of your skis together, thereby making snowplowing easier for beginners. These are wonderful, but be aware that they make a person virtually immobile on flat terrain — with your skis fastened together, you cannot walk them. If you use these clips, fasten them at the top of the run and then unfasten them at the bottom.

Anri had such a good time that she wanted to go up the lift again and again. We did about four runs in this manner. She fell down once. And it scared her, because I fell down with her. She told me she wanted to stop, even though we were only halfway down the mountain. I told her that falling down is part of learning how to ski (indeed, it is about life in general) and when you do, you just get back up and keep going. By the time we got to the bottom, she changed her mind and wanted to go up again.

By about 4pm, we decided it was time to go home. Anri was asleep in the car less than five minutes out of the parking lot. All in all, it was a good day.

So my advice? Well this list is by no means extensive, and I am sure others will have more suggestions or even opposing ones. I welcome your comments!

  1. Be prepared. Get the kids’ gear ready the night before you leave. Obviously you want to take a hat and gloves for your child, but make sure he/she has goggles too. Sometimes it can be windy on the moutain.
  2. Arrive as early as possible. Lift ticket lines can be long, and just the walk from the car to the snow can be tough when you have small kids with you.
  3. Arrange to have a kid’s lesson. Teaching her yourself is fine too, of course, but when you put her in a lesson, it is so much easier for you.
  4. Grab a good spot in the lodge well before lunchtime and hold it. Just be sure to order coffee or something at regular intervals so that the staff won’t get annoyed. They didn’t give us any trouble at Prince Snow Resort.
  5. Caution your child on the lift. Tell him that a lift is dangerous and he must never fool around up there. Be sure that he is sitting back in the chair. If he is using poles, hold his poles for him.
  6. Take it slowly and have a good time!

3 Responses to “Hitting the Slopes with the Kids

  1. Hello and good day to you,

    I’ve just finished reading your blog on Karuizawa Snow Resort, and it has been very informative, particularly on the subject of language for the ski lessons.

    My name is Charles, and i’m from Malaysia.
    I’ll be honest with you, I am actually working in a company that handles tours and hotel bookings in Japan, in short, Japan ground operator. I am not sure if this is appropriate of me to do this, but i was wondering if i may inquire some details from your trip to Karuizawa?

    1) My main focus is the ski lessons, and i was wondering, is there any difference between the two skiing schools up there? From the main webpage, the only thing that i noticed was the age groups, but i am unable to confirm this piece of information.

    2) Pertaining to the language, i understand that there are not many resorts that conduct their lessons in English, and Karuizawa is no exception as well. So, my question is this, how far was the level of understanding between instructor and student(s), or even the parents, for that matter?

    Well, so far, i only have these inquiries in mind. Again, i apologize if i am overstepping my boundries, or if i am interrogating your family trip unnecessarily, but i will be really grateful if i am able to get your assistance on the above matters.

    Yours sincerely,

    Charles Lee

  2. Thank you for your message, Charles! I apologize for taking so long to respond to you. I won’t offer any lame excuses other than things were busy for me over the last week and a half.

    To answer your first question, there is not much difference between ski schools at Karuizawa that I am aware of, other than price, times, age ranges and a famous name. I have never seen any ski school in Japan taking a radically different approach to instruction than what all the other schools are doing.

    When we went to Kauizawa, my daughter’s lesson was at the Karuizawa Ski School (also known as SAJ). The other lessons offered at this resort are from the Okabe Tetsuya Ski School. Okabe is a former Japanese World Cup racer, and lessons at his school are more expensive than at SAJ. With Okabe’s lessons, you get the famous name. At SAJ, you don’t, but we got a fine lesson all the same. For kids lessons, SAJ has an age range of 4-6 years old, whereas at Okabe, the ages are 4-10 years old. There is more information at the Prince Snow Resort website (http://www.princehotels.co.jp/ski/karuizawa-e/) in case you have not seen it already.

    As for your question about lessons in English, our lesson the day we went was not in English, and I didn’t ask for one, since my daughter can speak Japanese. I have heard that the SAJ lessons are available in English and the Okabe lessons are as well, but cannot comment about the level of understanding, since I was not able to witness it. I would suggest that if the ski resort has an English website, it is likely they offer lessons in English. There is no guarantee of how much the instructor will be able to communicate, though. But even in Japanese these lessons have so much gesturing in them that I suspect an instructor with the lowest English level would be able to wing it, to some extent.

    If a lesson in English is absolutely required, I have read that Evergreen Outdoor Center in Hakuba (http://evergreen-hakuba.com/winter/lessons.html) has certified English-speaking instructors and that some English instructors are available at Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort (my favorite location). Note that at Nozawa you would need to make a reservation in advance in order to guarantee an English-speaking instructor. People have told me that places such as these often hire non-Japanese instructors to do their English lessons.

    If it is any help, Snow Japan has a list of resorts throughout the country that supposedly offer English lessons here: http://www.snowjapan.com/e/resorts/english.html . I hope I have offered some helpful information about what you are looking for here. Again, sorry for taking so long to reply. If you have more questions, please feel free to write again.

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