Friday 18 December 2015

Manza Onsen: The Perfect Ski Resort for Beginners

It's a four hour drive from Haneda Airport to Manza Onsen Prince Hotel, the ski resort where we were to spend the first two nights of our annual family winter vacation. On our way there, we stopped by Patisserie Creations GATEAU FESTA HARADA (ガトーフェスタ ハラダ), a confectionery company located near Takasaki, in Gunma Prefecture. In Tokyo, people apparently queue for hours to get their hands on boxes of their signature Gouter de Roi Gateau Rusk. Essentially just slices of baguette toasted all the way through, it's evenly buttery throughout and topped with lots of sugar, though still a bit too dry for my tastes. What I liked far better was their factory exclusive, the Gouter de Roi Brûlée. Freshly baked loaves of their baguette is topped with butter and powdered sugar before being caramelized with a blowtorch and served on the spot.

It was a sweet start. Coupled with invitingly blue skies, this set a very promising tone for our stay in Manza, located further into Gunma Prefecture. A tiny, relaxing alpine village blessed with amazing vistas and powdery snow, it's the perfect place for beginners like D to learn how to ski. 

Prince Hotel Manza Onsen, which was to be our home for the next two nights, also boasts extremely convenient ski-in, ski-out facilities, and the traditional warm hospitality characteristic of rural Japan. 

All of the above is true. The only catch? The hotel is a whole five years older than our country. Unlike the full year of hectic celebrations that marked SG50 however, things were a little less festive at the Manza Prince Hotel on its 55th anniversary. 

Much of this had to do with a pipe that burst in mid-December, which left their entire outdoor onsen complex out of commission. Over 6 different pools filled with therapeutically sulphurous hot spring water, closed for the rest of the winter ski season. 

While D finally plucked up the courage to learn how to ski and join BB on the slopes, M and I remained adamantly opposed to putting our lives (and in my case, the lives of others) in danger. We'd planned on exploring the grounds of the resort before hitting the spa, but the blizzard that descended on us on day 2 of our stay left us with little option but to rattle around the hotel with nothing much to do in the morning before our massage appointment. 

We weren't going to spend our holiday just sitting around the lobby and using the Wi-Fi, so M and I roamed the hallways of the hotel until we creeped ourselves out. Snowed in, in an old hotel, and going slightly crazed from cabin fever... It was a pretty bad case of so far, so The Shining. 

Though the hotel looks a tad tired and there's very little for non-skiers to occupy themselves with, the staff of the Manza Prince Hotel are utterly lovely. Even the considerable language barrier didn't stop them from ensuring we were as comfortable as possible, whether during meal-time, or at the spa, which is simply called "Foot Care Salon". 

For M & I, the in-house spa corner became our little oasis. Part of a chain owned by a really nice lady called Emi, I later found that she'd opened a spa business after her aunt came back from Singapore raving about the benefits of the foot reflexology session she'd enjoyed there. Isn't the world so peculiarly small sometimes?

We were in for a treat. Our masseuse for the day really knew her stuff, and was also kind enough to get us the nicest hot water bottles to cuddle while she worked her magic. I opted for a rather more unusual treatment that focused on the face and head, and by the end of it I was totally blissed out and rejuvenated. I'm afraid that by this point though, I've completely undone all the excellent work she did in working out the tightness around my eyes caused by staring at computer screens all day. 

You can find other branches of Foot Care Salon in Tokyo and Nagano (Where it's called Mommy Therapy), as well as at the West Wing of the Shiga Kogen Prince Hotel in Nagano, which is another ski resort. Their blog is frequently updated with the latest weather conditions of the ski resorts they're located in, which will help anyone about to head up to Manza Onsen for a run on the slopes. I highly recommend their services - try it, and thank me later. 

There's also good eating to be had at the resort. Apart from a main buffet hall, the hotel also has three specialty restaurants (Japanese, French and Chinese), and a small lounge cafe that opens in the day time. For our two dinners, we had French on the first night (The steak was perfectly done) and Japanese on the second (Shabu-Shabu!). On our one lunch, I tried their Okkirikomi, an udon specialty of Gunma Prefecture. Quite unlike any other udon I've ever tried, the noodles were wide and flat, cooked in a very hearty vegetable broth. Some people consider holidays one of the rare times they indulge in food. We on the other hand, indulge all the time - going overseas just throws up more temptations that we're hard pressed to say no to. Barely a day into Manza's wintry climes, and I was already eating like I was preparing to hibernate for the rest of the month.

Which was how M ended up sitting with me in the lounge, having a delicate bowl of sweet red bean soup while I dissected my bowl of what the label said was "Baked Milk". The name was so bizarre I just had to try it. Rather than some curdled monstrosity, it turned out to be chopped strawberries with a dollop of strawberry jam, topped with fresh milk and a huge layer of cream from a nearby farm. A thin layer of powdered sugar was then caramelized on top. It was fantastic.

The burst pipe meant that our pools were off-limits, but our resort arranged for all their guests to get access to the Manza Kogen Hotel's equally extensive array of hot spring baths. Nearly every hour, a shuttle would come to take Prince Hotel guests down the road and back again. Given Japanese punctuality, by 2.55 pm we had to leave the cafe. In what turned out to be excellent timing, as the bus pulled up, D emerged from the ski locker rooms just off the lobby area, glowing from his first proper ski lesson.

D: I think I sprained my hand. If I'd stayed any longer or gone an extra round on the slopes, they'd probably be mopping up my blood and broken bones.
Me: Glad you enjoyed yourself. Bus is here, chop chop. 

The only times we've ever gone mixed bathing is in Korea, and we've always been warned pre-tour to be sure to bring our swimsuits along. This time, there wasn't a peep that the baths were to be shared by all till we arrived and saw the most bizarre outfits for sale at the hotel gift shop.

Us: And if we don't buy this? What are we to do then?
Them: Oh, just wrap a towel around yourselves!

And that was that. 

We were informed at the last minute, but a few minutes into heading outside, I soon realized that not all the men had even got the memo about the outdoor baths being shared, and that I was probably facing the wrong direction. In the water, I swivelled slightly so all I could see were trees gradually accumulating thick white layers of snow, which was a vast improvement. 

M and I concurred that sticking to ladies-only baths is a much better idea. When you keep having to hoist up a massive bath towel around yourself to make sure it hasn't slipped off and floated away, you're much less able to appreciate the gentle flecks of snow landing on your face. Nor can you pay close enough attention to the way the wind rustling through the leaves brings up swirls of fine powder that shimmers like fairy dust, or the way the tips of your hair has frozen into hundreds of icy little points. 

By the time we returned from our little excursion, BB had completed over a dozen runs down the resort's slope, and was snoozing in his room. We all piled in, broke open bottles of sake and juice, and spent a very nice time in each others' company. It is good to be with family. 

The next day, the skies miraculously cleared for our departure. From Manza, we headed down winding country roads to Karuizawa, in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. 

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