Japan's newest & snowiest ski destination is a spectacular freeride mountain, with a sensational luxury hotel at its base.
Consistently Japan's snowiest resort - an average of over 15 metres of pure powder every season – the ski mountain is left largely ungroomed. That's 1,000 metress of vertical across 160 km2 of avalanche-controlled backcountry-style terrain with open bowls, natural gullies and plenty of well-spaced trees. This is a resort with a clear-minded proposition: it's aimed squarely at the off-piste powder-chasing crowd, who appreciate luxury accommodation and state-of-the-art facilities. And, my goodness, it delivers in snow-filled spades.
Arai is hugely impressive from the get-go, even before you click into your skis: five-star accommodation, elegant restaurants, sleek lounge bars, artisan bakeries, luxuriant onsens, two indoor swimming pools and a day spa. There has been a ski hotel here since 1993, though it was closed in 2006 and laid abandoned for ten years before the Lotte group bought the resort and threw money at restoring Arai beyond its original glory...and then some.
Skiing in Arai
There isn't much pisted terrain and the mountain is accessed by only five lifts (a gondola, and then hooded, fast quad chair lifts). Admittedly the marked trails are nice, long cat tracks which are hugely enjoyable, but it's kind of missing the point.
Instead, consider Arai an off-piste ski resort and ignore what the local marketing team may publish to try broaden its appeal. If you are not happy in the deep stuff, then Arai is not for you. Powder junkies fill your boots, because this is the stuff your skiing dreams are made of. Head to the top station, hike up the additional short distance to the summit and drop in wherever the hell you want. Next time, head straight back up, move along a bit, drop in again and its freshies for the entire 1,000 metres to the base.
But you don't necessarily have to be at the expert level. Far from it, as the way the mountain is laid out it also makes it a perfect place to develop your skills because the terrain is forgiving and you are never that far from a groomed cat track.
With an enlightened attitude, the resort has employed Dave Iles from Whistler who is one of the best avalanche forecasters in the business. He and a team of highly trained patrollers spend their days working on the terrain after the frequent epic snow falls to ensure it is safe to open.
This is why you've come to Arai! Nothing too steep - as is often the case in Japan - but you won't ever run out of wide open slopes up top, or mid-section powder fields with only a small amount of vegetation to add interest, or perfectly gladed areas, or even some tighter tree runs lower down. Whist the lifts get you to most points on the mountain, we would recommend a hike up from the top lift to get access to the best of the Okenashi zone. The ski map divides the mountain into numerous named zones, all super-conveniently lift accessed. And after a good dump - a very common occurrence in Arai - the patrollers work hard to get these areas open as quick as they can.
However, despite the patrollers' professionalism and expertise, the mountain has an unfortunate history of avalanches. To mitigate the risk there are only a couple of permanently closed areas that funnel into avalanche gullies within the resort boundaries and it’s a hard and fast rule that you don't ever duck the ropes in Arai.
On-piste there are four black runs and they're reasonably challenging, pretty steep and quite wonderful. But that's not enough to keep you entertained for too long, so dip your skis off the side.
Unless you are willing to venture off-piste and 'give it a go', then there is not too much to keep you entertained in Arai. Having said that, the few intermediate pisted runs are good fun, some open, others on cat tracks, and the top-to-bottom ride holds variety, intrigue and certainly gets those thighs burning.
But, this is an off-piste resort, and therefore it is all about the deep un-groomed powder snow. And there is no resort better - forgiving terrain, open, patrolled and avalanche-controlled. There is no resort in which to better learn the techniques, develop your skills and first experience that 'floating on snow' sensation. We can arrange a private lesson with an English-speaking instructor on day one, enough to get you going and show you lay of the land (find your "happy place")....and off you go!
There are some very gentle green runs at the bottom of the mountain, which are absolutely ideal for total beginners. We imagine its a great place to take you make your first tentative turns. But progression from this is difficult, as the rest of the mountain becomes a little more tricky.
Skiers? Snowboarders? It's all the same when you're in the deep powder. Very few flats, well spaced trees, large bowls and comfortable chairs / gondolas. What's not to like?
'Tomo-san' - our good friend and main contact at Arai (the 'Resort Manager') - is an ex-pro snowboarder, having been previously based in Whistler and also up in Niseko, and he confidently rates Arai as the best mountain on which he's ever worked.
This is a single-hotel resort. There is no nearby village, no dining options beyond what the hotel offers, no sneaky little local bars waiting to be discovered. It's a good job that the hotel is absolutely, flipping marvelous!
First of all, the restaurants are remarkable - truly exceptional - but be aware that this is five-star all the way. Discerning guests like to dine well, not cheaply. The main restaurant is called 'Sou' and they offer an impressive international buffet with a large range of dishes, all quality. Then there is 'Rainbow', the best Italian restaurant we've ever eaten in (some boast!) and 'Hakobune Bettei' offers outstanding Japanese cuisine. All are steeped in class, use the finest ingredients, service is attentive and the overall experience is on a par with that of an upscale hotel in New York, Paris or Hong Kong. More informal dining is available at the bakery, the juice bar, library café, and Lounge Sui.
So...beyond the fine-dining, the onsens and spas and the amazing books in the library (what a library!), what else is there to do? Well, its safe to say Arai is not a party place, though the several lounge bars serve beautiful drinks (local beers, sake, Japanese whisky, cocktails) in a sophisticated setting. And there is a karaoke bar - you are in Japan after all!
The resort has been conceived to accommodate families - they are anticipating a core patronage from Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, who predominantly travel in family groups. So facilities are many, child care readily available and activities abound to keep kids entertained.
Child care is available for two year olds to kindergarten aged kids and babysitting is available for morning or afternoon sessions (or both), but there's a 1.5 hour gap over lunch time.