Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort and My First Ski Experience

Thursday, March 08, 2018

My aunts haven’t seen snow yet. And they haven’t been to Japan either. While I’ve experienced snow during the first days of winter in Nami Island or in the middle of summer at Mount Titlis (Summer?! I know, right?), I haven’t seen proper, thick snow. So when I booked our flights to Tokyo, I made sure it was going to be a winter vacation.

snow resort, skis, snowboards, snow

Being my family’s exclusive “travel agent”, I looked for ski or snow resorts that we can go to for just one day coming from Tokyo. There were convenient group tours on coaches, but they just didn't tickle my fancy. With determination and never ending quest of building our itinerary, I stumbled upon Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort.

Why did I pick Gala Yuzawa?

Gala Yuzawa is a snow resort found in Yuzawa-machi, Niigata, Japan. In about 1.25 to 1.5 hours, you’ll be able to reach the resort via the Joetsu Shinkansen. There are many ski resorts in the town of Yuzawa, but Gala Yuzawa is the most accessible because it has its own bullet train station, which is the only one in the world.

bullet train, snow on platform
gala yuzawa train station signboard

The resort caters to beginner, intermediate, and advanced ski and snowboard enthusiasts. There are many slopes that the chairlifts can take you to, depending on the difficulty of the course you want to try. If you just want to experience the snow without having to participate in these sports, the resort offers many other activities such as snowmobile sleighing, sledding, strawberry picking, snow trekking, snow tubing, or visiting their observation deck.

I. Buying Tickets

The Cowabunga Ski Center is easily visible upon reaching the automated ticket gates of the Shinkansen station. It’s definitely true when they said Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort is so convenient. Upon exit, we turned left and saw the counters where we can buy tickets. Depending on your agenda for visiting the resort, these tickets will grant you access to several packages, including snow fun set and ski set.

train station exit, concierge, gala yuzawa

Since my mother and two aunts will only visit and relax at the snow resort, they only bought the roundtrip gondola ticket which costs ¥1,300. On the other hand, my husband, sister, and I went there to ski so we took the package that includes (1) an unlimited one-day gondola and chairlift ticket, (2) a locker ticket, (3) 10% off on rental skis and gears, and (4) 10% off on ski lessons. This cost us ¥3,500. Take note that this set is only available when you have the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) or JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass.

ticket stubs
Top: One-day pass for unlimited gondola and chairlift access. Bottom: Locker ticket stating the date of use (2018.02.09), third floor locker area (3F), locker number (5389), and initial unlock code (25727) before changing it into your preferred 4-digit code.
discount stub
Coupon for 10% discount on Salomon rental station, including skis, ski boots, ski wear, and goggles. There's a separate coupon for 10% discount on ski lessons which I was not able to take a photo of.
II. Rentals

Once we got our tickets, we proceeded to the wide area dedicated for ski and snowboard rentals (also the same floor as the concierge, which is on the second floor). Being first-time visitors of the resort (and first-time skiers), the scene was a little overwhelming. At 9:30 AM on a Friday, there was already a queue at the rentals counter. In addition, the lockers at the second floor were already full, so the ones assigned to us were stationed at the third floor (accessible by an escalator).

How do you proceed with the rentals?

First, go to the counters where you can find the rental forms. These counters are located on the left side, beside the souvenir shop and the cafe. There are several forms, but I picked up the blue one written in English.

ski rental application form

Make sure to follow instructions while writing on the forms. To help you with measurements, Gala Yuzawa provides a scale that measures your height in cm and your weight in kg. Shoe sizing in Japan can be a little tricky so the resort posted a shoe size conversion. If I remember it correctly, I’m a US size 6 which is 24.5 cm in Japanese shoe size for ladies. However, when I tried on the ski boots, the size 25.5 fitted me better.

Whether you’re going skiing, snowboarding, or just sledding, you have to decide on which size fits you the best. For sledding, you can just rent a pair of rubber boots (nothing fancy). For skiing and snowboarding, the boots are specialized and you can try on a pair from the shelves beside the table counters. In addition, if you’re buying gloves at the resort, they have a display of their gloves which you can try on and see what fits you. For the price, these are quality gloves and I like the fact that I found a perfect size for my small hands (size 3).

queue for ski and snowboard rentals

Second, proceed to the Salomon rental station. Before you enter the queue, there are attendants who will assist you in double checking your filled out form and guide you in which queue you should line up to (either ski or snowboard). Salomon is a brand that produces sportswear and equipment and is the official snow gear and snow equipment rental facility of Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort.

Salomon skis in different colors and sizes
Third, upon reaching the rental station counter, provide the Salomon Station Gala Rental Application Form, your passport, and your discount coupon (if any). The staff inside the rental station will pick your skis or your snowboard based on your height and weight, your boots and gloves based on the size you’ve written on the form, and your top and bottom wear (jacket and pants) based on your body frame. Only the knit cap/bonnet and gloves are for sale. The rest are for rent.

After paying the necessary fees, the staff at the rental station will return to you a carbon copy of the form you handed over. Keep that form because you need to present it back at the Salomon rental station when you return all the equipment.

III. Lockers and Changing Into Snow Gear

After carrying our weighty rental equipment, we proceeded to our lockers on the third floor and changed into our snow gear. Because it was already cold, we didn’t have to remove our initial clothing and just layered the rented jacket and pants.

three people wearing ski wear and carrying skis
Our snow wear, goggles, ski boots, and skis from Salomon
The lockers were big enough so we also kept in there some of the belongings of my aunts and my mother. The only downside was that out of the three lockers assigned to us, two malfunctioned. It was a struggle to go back down the first ticket counter (the one visible from the Shinkansen station gates) when you’re wearing heavy ski boots. We had to moonwalk to be able to move from one place to another.

IV. Paying for Ski Lessons

Going back to the second floor with our full battle gear on, we went to the ski and snowboard lessons counter operated by Canyons Snow School. The lessons are provided in different languages. For beginners, the group lesson cost ¥5,000 and will last for 1.5 hours. We surrendered our 10% off coupon on ski lessons and paid. Since we didn’t catch the 10:00 AM group class, we picked the 12:00 noon class instead (last lesson starts at 2:30 PM).

We still had over an hour before our lesson begins, so I took the time to eat onigiri as my lunch. After which, my sister and I accompanied my two aunts and my mother to the gondola.

V. Gondola Ride

The way to the gondola is on the second floor and way past the Canyon Snow School section. It was a couple of minutes walk to the gondola ride. But with the ski boots, it felt like the walk was more than that. All five of us went inside the gondola which brought us to the actual snow field.

Saying that the view was breathtaking was an understatement. I’ve never seen this much snow in my life! Although it was a sunny day, the mountains were covered with thick sheets of snow and somehow looked very powdery. As we go higher, we could see some people skiing and snowboarding from the top, all the way down to the resort’s base.

snowy mountains and pine trees
snowy mountains, gondola

The gondola ride took about 10 minutes. We stepped out and left our mother and aunts at the restaurant on the left side. From the restaurant, you can already see the large expanse of snow playground, with tons of skiers and snowboarders practicing their moves on the flat surface. We whisked ourselves back to the return gondola trip to catch our group ski lessons.

VI. Ski Lessons

Our ski instructor Max welcomed us at exactly 12:00 noon in front of the Canyon Snow Counter. Together with two other students, the five of us introduced ourselves and listened to our instructor’s short orientation. Max checked our ski boots, making sure that the tongue of the boots rest on our shins. He then showed us how to properly wear the inner lining of the pants, which should be worn over the boots and not under. Finally, he demonstrated how to properly carry the skis in a locking mechanism.

All six of us went to the gondola station and rode one gondola altogether. The gondola had outer compartments for skis. Once we reached our destination, Max showed us where we can get our ski poles and recommended us which length is appropriate for our height.

people in winter clothes, snow resort, snowboards
You will come across this view before you head to the lessons area. This is where people leave their snowboards, skis, and sleds while they rest, stay at the restaurant, or play in the snow.
We grabbed our skis and ski poles and went to the flat, snowy open field to begin our ski lessons. Mind you, it wasn’t an easy task. Aside from walking with ski boots on and treading on thick snow while trying not to slip, you need upper body strength to carry your skis. Thankfully, the ski poles were light, but then you only have two arms.

The summarized version of our ski lesson goes like this. First, Max taught us how to attach our skis to our ski boots. Second, he demonstrated how to make small steps, stretches, and glides with the help of our poles while we were on our skis. Third, he showed us how to detach our skis using the ski poles. Fourth, he explained how we can go up at inclined angles with the use of our poles or by side stepping. Fifth, from an inclined slope, he showed us and let us try one by one how to successfully slide and ski at the base. Sixth, he trained us how to make a V-shape to reduce speed and to learn how to make a full stop. Seventh, we repeated the basic ski exercises until we reached the end of our lessons.

snow resort
There's a wide area for kids to play and try sledding. The course trail you can see here is the Gigi trail for intermediate difficulty.
Let me tell you straight up that skiing is not a walk in the park for someone like me who barely exercises (lol!). I had fun gliding and I was surprised I could balance on my skis, but it was just so hard to make a stop. However, that shouldn’t discourage you to try and learn it. It was still fun! I’m very thankful that our instructor was very patient and gave positive remarks despite how small our victories were. I probably looked hilarious when I couldn’t slow down and eventually fell. Ok, I fell twice and Max had to help me twice, too. Falling on the snow isn’t bad at all. It was fun actually, because the snow is soft on your bum.

VII. Chairlift and Beginner’s Course

My sister, my husband and I were all beginners, but we mustered courage and took the Phaeton chairlift to the actual slopes (Part Edelweiss trail; guide map of the snow resort can be found here). There are several chairlifts at Gala Yuzawa, but we took Phaeton going to the short and easy course for beginners. This particular chairlift station had a queue because there seemed to be more beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders. You also have to wear your skis right away because when you reach the top, you need to leap from the chairlifts.

chairlifts, trees, thick snow
snowy mountain, trees, chairlift
chairlift, snowy mountain, skier leaping from chairlift

My panic-stricken face was too obvious, that the staff from the top station had to assist me in getting out of the chairlift and had to remind me not to panic. Seriously, my knees were literally wobbly, I felt like I couldn’t do it. But man, the view from the top is just amazing! I have no idea how I can descend without making a fool out of myself, but the experience being in this place with thick snow and watching people ski and snowboard without hesitation is just incredible.

ski couples, ski trail, trees
snowy mountain view, trees
woman in ski outfit and goggles
people skiing
sunset on ski trail, trees, thick snow

I couldn’t count how many times we fell (and how long we were in that beginner’s course) but I ended up carrying my skis and walking down after the long curve (hahaha!). My knees couldn’t take it anymore, plus I need to give my sister and husband a hand whenever they fell. The sun was about to set when my phone died and when we reached the almost end of the slope, I attached my skis again for one final glide.

By the time we returned the poles to the racks near the restaurant, we only had 30 minutes left before the Shinkansen leaves for Tokyo. We hurried back to the gondola station, praying we wouldn’t miss the train.

VIII. Returning the Rental Gear and Skis

Weak, tired, and starving, we managed to walk-run up the third floor to get changed and obtain our belongings from the locker. The line was already long at the Salomon Rental Station, but the attendants were quick enough to check our return gear and equipment. We presented the carbon copy of the blue rental form again for faster checking.

After that, we hurriedly exited and ran to the train platform, with only 7 minutes left before the train leaves. Call it adrenaline rush but my sister, husband, and I still had to catch our breath while the Joetsu Shinkansen sped back to Tokyo, the image of Yuzawa town still white and Christmassy against the snow.

thick snow on the side of train tracks, snowy mountain
Until next time, Gala Yuzawa!

Total Cost for Beginner’s Ski (Adult)

Promo Set for JR Pass holders (Unlimited gondola and chairlift, locker ticket, 10% off coupon on ski rentals, 10% off coupon on ski lessons)

Ski Set (Ski, Ski Boots, Ski Poles)
Wear (Jacket, Pants)
Knit Cap
¥1,000 (for sale)

¥1,000 (for sale)

Ski Lessons
TOTAL COST: ¥17,830 (Approx Php 8,915)

Tips for First Time Skiers and Snowboarders

snowboards, skis, ski/snowboard trails

1. When getting your rental gears, bring a large ecobag (or like the one from Ikea) or ask the counter if they can provide you a bag so you can put all your rentals. Trust me: it’s a challenge to carry your heavy skis/snowboard and boots, your rental wear, goggles, gloves, knit cap/bonnet, wallet, etc., while you walk back and forth at the resort. 

2. It's up to you if you want to rent skis, snowboards, boots, and snow wear. If you have these already, you can bring them. Since I live in a tropical country, renting snow gear is more efficient for me.

3. If you're renting skis and snowboards, make sure to keep track of the number indicated in the sports equipment. It's easy to have these mixed up with other equipment rentals because they all look the same. If you mix your skis and snowboards with others, you might have a problem wearing them because of your shoe size. There are stands where you can place the skis or snowboards so you don't have to carry them when you need to go to the toilet, to the locker, or to the cafe.

Salomon ski - Gala Yuzawa code 152-090

4. If you're taking ski or snowboard lessons, ask your instructor to check if you're wearing your boots correctly, such that your shin is protected.

5. Keep your roundtrip gondola and chairlift ticket at all times. It's very useful to wear a jacket with multiple pockets to keep your tickets, passport, money, and other tiny belongings safe.

6. If you do not exercise regularly, I suggest doing exercises and stretching your muscles a week before your intended trip.

7. Gloves and knit caps are for sale only for proper hygiene. I find the gloves useful in the slopes, but the knit cap not so much. I actually didn't wear the knit cap/bonnet when skiing as I found it troublesome.

8. Go back to your lockers at least 45 minutes to an hour before your train departure so you have enough time to fix your stuff and return all your rentals.

9. Make sure to grab a heavy meal an hour before your ski lessons. You’re going to need all the strength to pull off skiing and snowboarding.

10. Visit during weekdays to avoid big crowds.

11. Don’t be afraid to fall – it’s only snow!

snow trail, woman skiing, snowboarders falling
Price: Varies on chosen activity
Overall Rating: 5/5

Read my next post for a detailed guide on how to get to the resort via Joetsu Shinkansen.

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post. The contents of this entry are purely my opinion and 100% honest based on my travel experience.

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