Tohoku – Japan’s Unexplored Powder Paradise

Being immersed in language, culture and food in lesser known areas is what drives us to travel further, enriches our experiences and leaves you with a much better and deeper understanding of the country you’re in.

Northern Honshu, the Tohoku and Gunma areas have this is droves; your next ski destination in Japan is here.  

This trip flew us from Haneda to our start in Akita, the town of wooden samurai mansions and lake Tazawa, greeted us with a Namahage monster on arrival before we headed off to our first mountain, Shizukuishi. A Prince Hotel resort with nice accommodation, a variety of chairlifts and a ropeway tram to the top. From here the peak is a short hike for the adventurous to get the deeper powder but the inbounds terrain is steeper than most resorts on the top half. With views to Mt Iwate and a bluebird day, we had a great day through the trees and many lines to be had.

Shizukuishi, a smaller resort for accommodation but has a nice little French restaurant a good bar and most important a great little onsen. On a clear night here they take you half way up the mountain (in a groomer) to enjoy a mulled wine and the night sky, a beautiful sight of shooting stars and the lights of Morioka in the distance.

Day 2, 5am rise for the sunrise CAT run, the best way to start a day, this part of the mountain is the disused resort, a nice pitch with many lines on offer and also a great place to scope more lines of the top of the adjacent mountain for endless pow laps, then finish the day with an Asahi, buffet dinner and the onsen. Repeat!

A Sunrise cat for fresh tracks!

Mt Iwate casts an impressive shadow over the many rivers and the town of Morioka, a great stop to be had. An attractive town with easy shinkansen access and free buses to ski areas Shizukuishi & Appi, the capital of Iwate prefecture is a short 30min drive to the home of the Sakebiraki Sake and Wanko Soba.

Here we head to the Sake distillery where they still compact the rice by hand in a temperature controlled room to start the process in the mash. Winning the best sake award in Japan for 20 years in a row in quite impressive and so are the ranges of Sake, definitely a great stop before heading to “The great noodles or Morioka”

Plenty of Sake awards!

You will need a light breakfast before getting into Wanko Soba, it’s quite the experience, being seated in traditional style and trays of miso bowls come with a handful of soba noodle in each. The server will constantly top up your empty bowl until you indicate to stop. The average is 30-40 for women and men average 50 – 60, our host Kenji sets the bar high with 130! I make it barely to 100 with two others; to say it’s a journey to get your certificate is an understatement, a must do experience with a group. We struggle out the door and head off on the shinkansen to Nagano station and the largest resort in Japan, Shiga Kogen.

100 bowls down, time for a nap!

A 3 hour shinkansen via Omiya and 90min bus, we arrive at the Shiga Kogen Prince Hotel, 3 hotels, East Prince, West Prince & South Prince, all individual and catering to different people form large groups to standard twin rooms and very nice and modern large king rooms. Shiga Prince is located at the bottom of Mt Yakebetai. 52 lifts and 17 resorts combine to a vast landscape to ski and ride on one pass. Shiga doesn’t have a town so its hotel based, even so you can experience a wide variety of meals and local stops as you make your way around the various hills.

After checking in and having dinner and a nice little Izakaya in the hotel, we have to head to the onsen, even though not a full natural onsen it’s a great way to unwind each day. First tracks are had in the morning as we make our way around the various resorts, from wide and vast to steep and deep, open trees, tight groomers and race courses Shiga Kogen has vast and varied terrain. Waking up to 1m of fresh snow in the morning is the best way to top of this trip to Shiga Kogen, deep and ripping through face shots, what a morning!!

All you can see, you can ski!

As we head down off the mountain the snow monkeys are close by, a good place to head for those who need a break from a long stay or families wishing to take the kids on an experience, this is a must do when in the area.

We stop at Karuizawa on the way to Manza for an inspection of a vast array of lodges, houses and a hotel with a huge outlet mall nearby. Karuizawa is close to Tokyo by train and the cool breeze of the local mountains keeps the humidity away in summer. A small mountain with man made snow and large golf courses; this is a place for a break before heading into a region I’m most excited about.

On our way to Manza, we are driving up beside the majestic active volcano of Mt Asama, you may notice this place as it’s where John Lennon and Yoko Ono would spend their holidays, we encounter a bluebird day here in early March and make sure to stop and enjoy the surroundings, there is also an onsen here, bonus!

On our way to Manza we pass an active volcano!

Arriving at Manaza onsen is everything I hoped for, the 3rd best onsen in Japan sitting amongst mountains of fresh snow, a disused resort to one side that’s wide open for touring with bowls, glades and open trees and the main resort with top to bottom access plus inbounds hiking and backcountry adds to easy access of great terrain. The hotel itself is a Japanese experience; there are no westerners here! the food is fantastic, beers are cheap and the rooms are spacious. From family rooms to tatami rooms and large twins, the hotel is Japanese style but very accommodating to your needs. A location to spend at least 3 nights, there’s plenty of skiable terrain to keep you going and it’s sits right on the continental divide of Japan. The views stretch all the way back to Myoko Kogen, Shiga Kogen, Mt Asama and more, bring your good camera.

Views to Shiga Kogen, Myoko and beyond!

The onsen is all-natural and leaves you tingling and red! Don’t wash though you’ll wake up in the morning with the smoothest skin like a baby ready for round two! Hike your heart out or ride the lifts it’s a place for everyone, there is a small gift shop, massage chairs and a secret early 90’s arcade game area if you can find it. Manza is the experience we were all looking for, a great halfway point with fresh snow, wide open terrain, spacious trees and glades. Take perspective in watching the sunrise over the ridgeline of the continental divide while in the onsen to start your day, end it the same with the glow of sunset.

The perfect end to a great day

We bid farewell to Manza with all of the hotel staff coming out to wave us off, every hotel in Japan does this when you leave, making you feel very special, don’t stop waving until your out of sight either as they won’t, this could last for a couple of kilometers!

Heading to the big mountain of Naeba we cross through centuries old thatched houses, a castle onsen, rice fields and national parks. This drive of only a couple of hours provides some amazing scenery, the green season will be a sight to see through this area. Arriving at Neaba the first thing that grabs you is the steepness, Japan is not well known for this but Naeba has the steepest terrain by far. Out of bounds is strictly off limits but there is good steep powder to be had inbounds and many lines to keep you going. Naeba has a small village but you are based at the ski in ski out Naeba Prince, various rooms in many ways, from family rooms with rock climbing walls, rooms with hammocks, standard twins, corner suites and king rooms it has it all across 3 hotels joined at the base.

Neaba is everything you need in one spot, really good rentals, accommodation and a good time with many restaurants and bars in the hotel and a couple of secret ones down the road within walking distance. Home to the Dragondola, the longest gondola in Japan, takes you from Naeba to Kagura. Kagura has a vast array of lifts across a high plateau, there’s hardly anyone here which is just the way we like it! We make our way to a lodge halfway up the hill, Wadagoya, traditional lodge where you sleep upstairs on futons and have a true japanese experience in the lodge with other like minded people.  

We are here for what we see in the distance, vast peaks of powder that are open with backcountry gates, Kin san our host helped us prep with our trip plans with the team for the next day, the sun sets, Kin san hands out a few beers and the traditional courses of Japanese food come out of the kitchen with many litres of sake to get through. This is “the spot” middle of nowhere, everyone trying to speak different languages, eating great food, and sharing powder stories, we’ve nailed it!

Good times, with good friends

Taking the first lift of the day to the top station we decide to rip one down the the groomer to warm up, there’s no one here so why not! Gear checks are made we cross the boundary and off to the main lookers right ridge, 20mins and you’re there, views all the way back to Myoko, Mt Naeba and Hakkaisan to the east, we have a tight schedule this day so we drop into a series of bowls and tree runs. After Manaza this place is where you come to fill your next dose of “soul food”, pow, pow, pow. I really can’t recommend this place enough, get your split board and touring gear out for at least 3 nights here. If you like to overnight in the New Zealand Club fields, Kagura and staying at Wadagoya is your next trip.

The same afternoon we grab the tram down to the base and head to Hakkaisan for a late session 30mins down the road, again it’s empty. The one tram services Hakkaisan bottom to top and our guide and patroller to my surprise went the same school as I did in Christchurch, so our freedom to rip was unleashed! The first run has you peering over steep terrain while looking back across at where you have come from at Kagura. consistent pitch of 38 degrees and 100% pinning it in powder for over 500m with the last 200 still in the 30 degree range until getting back to the lift.

As a bonus the mountain policy is to leave slopes ungroomed after a storm, paid first tracks are available on the weekends, the same as Naeba, making for a great day. Always check in with patrol here, like everywhere you go. There is a massive terrain trap in a waterfall in the backcountry with an easy terrain read mistake, you must be very aware of your surroundings at Hakkaisan.

Top of the world, now time to head down!

We ski and ride until close, the area of Yuzawa has many resorts, just from Kagura we lost count, it’s a great place to explore close to Tokyo. Our final dinner is the best Washoku Nabe in the region, Tanigawa. Japanese rock stars and sumo wrestlers dine here and it is the best in the area. Eat, drink , laugh, sleep!

After a big buffet breakfast in true Prince Hotel style, we are being waved off again for about 3kms this time! Naeba is close to Echigo Yuzawa station where there are free buses to the resort, Echigo Yuzawa is an amazing station, food, knives, automed sake vending machines (watch out), souvenir shops it has it all! I would suggest you spend at least an hour here before you train back to Tokyo for some amazing local shopping. Train stations are a major hub in Japan so it’s best to spend some time checking out the big ones for some great deals and local food!

We take charter transport with Chuo Taxi back to Haneda, fast and efficient direct airport transport, this is great for a group like ours as we are not spending time in Tokyo. If spending time in Tokyo take the train but ship you ski bags with TA-Q-BIN to your next hotel or the airport so you don’t have travel on the trains with them.

We are done, thousands of kilometers travelled by plane, shinkansen, bus and van over the week. Powder, onsen, sake, soba noodle, sushi, nabe, laughter and a full immersion of the culture and ski experience you need in Japan, you don’t just want to do this trip in these areas, you need to do this trip.

This is your next trip, and we at Whiteroom Tours will take you.

Kampai!!

Graeme

 

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