KANAZAWA

KANAZAWA

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KNOWN AS A BEAUTIFUL TOWN, THAT COMBINES THE HERITAGE OF A TOWN FOR SAMURAI BUILT AROUND THE CASTLE.

The March 2015 opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train line has led to a marked increase in travel to this town of the samurai and previously oftenoverlooked destination, Kanazawa. For those staying in the skiing areas of Nagano, a trip to Kanazawa is a must. This town is a treasure chest of traditional Japanese culture that can be reached in just one hour by train from Nagano Station.

The township of Kanazawa developed as the largest urban centre after Edo (presentday Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto more than 400 years ago when the extremely wealthy daimyo, Toshiie Maeda built a castle there. Known as a beautiful town that combines the heritage of a town for samurai built around the castle, of bustling commerce, and with a temple that looks out over all below the castle itself, much of this traditional architecture still survives given that Kanazawa was largely spared from the destruction of World War II.

Beside the Asano River and Sai River that run through the town are three old teahouse districts, or ‘chaya’ districts, the largest of which is the Higashi Chaya District. The delicate lattice decorations of the buildings here offer a refined and elegant atmosphere, the lights at night adding a touch of glamour to the area.

The flow of the water supplied to the castle is a sight that no other town can offer. Drawn from the upstream section of the Sai River some 10km from the castle itself, the water is drawn up into the castle itself using the principles of a reverse syphon after being brought down to a lower height, an incredibly advanced technique for the time.

Moreover, the remains of the Nagahama samurai residential district and its mud walls and stone paving offer a taste of the Edo Period, and the middle class samurai of the Kaga Domain that used to live there, offer a telling view into the daily lives of the samurai of the time.

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There are many historic sights to be seen in this ancient town, but perhaps none more so than the Kenroku-en Japanese garden, one of Japan’s three most famous traditional garden settings. The Kenroku-en is one of the greatest Japanese gardens of the Edo Period, slowly built up over generations by the leaders of the Kaga Domain. Located in the centre of Kanazawa City, this is one garden that offers a glimpse of the beauty of all four seasons throughout the year, and sees visitors from across the country and across the world.

The recent increase in visitors has given rise to a number of programs where you can experience traditional Japanese culture first hand, from wearing kimono to creating chopsticks using gold leaf, and more rarer fare such as experiencing the traditional art of Japanese noh theatre. However, no talk of the town would be complete without mention of food. There are many delicacies special to the region, including local vegetables and more, but the highlight of the region is its seafood. Given its location by the Sea of Japan, there are many types of seafood here that cannot be found on the Pacific Ocean side of Japan, providing many options that can only be enjoyed here in Kanazawa. One dish of particular note is a type of fish called the black throat sea perch, one of the major draws to even the Japanese visitors who come to Kanazawa, and one that sees immense popularity amongst a people who have a fine appreciation of fish in general. Be sure to give it a try.

AIZU – ALTS –

ALTS

ALTS – AIZU’S BIGGEST RESORT, WITH EXCLUSIVE SNOWCAT BACKCOUNTRY SKIING

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My trip began the minute I touched down at Narita airport. I met my party, and the ten of us all bundled into a bus, heading straight for the snowfields. It was a four hour bus trip, so after the long flight from summery Sydney, we fell into a slumber. Awakening, the world outside the window had turned white. We were in snow country.

We all tumbled out of the bus at ALTS, the nickname for the Hoshino Resorts’ Alts Bandai. After a quick lunch, we turned our heads towards the slopes, and off we went to explore. It turned out to be a preview trip only, checking out the trails, as the slopes were hit by furious snowfall. Were we pleased about this?  Of course! The snow was spectacularly light, fine powder, just feeding our anticipation of the skiing that lay ahead the next morning. 

ALTS, the largest ski resort in the Aizu area, is run by Hoshino Resorts, a chain with luxury resorts all over Japan. ALTS sits on the slopes of towering Mt. Bandai, a volcanic mountain included in the illustrious, Hyakumeizan, a list of the 100 favourite mountains of a famed Japanese alpinist. The list now has a life of its own, as dedicated mountaineers attempt to climb all one hundred. 

29 ski courses is a lot for just one resort. ALTS is the kind of resort that doesn’t do things by half-measures. The ski area is roughly divided into two parts, the front and the back. Nekoma Bowl is the bowl-shaped slope at the back.  Because it faces north, away from the sun, it has the super-high quality powder. The undulations of the non-compacted snow give this run a high degree of difficulty, making it popular amongst hardcore skiers.

The fact that you can also find relatively friendly slopes on Nekoma bowl is probably a big part of its allure – a group of friends with differing skiing experience and abilities can all have a great day together, experiencing the a quality of powder snow that’s unsurpassed, anywhere on the planet. 

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EXCLUSIVE CAT SKIING SLOPES

We awoke the next day to a full-blown blizzard, with super-low temperatures predicted. Did that discourage hard-core skiers, like the ones in our group? Of course not! The more punishing the storm, the greater the thrill and joy of skiing through an entire night’s worth of freshly fallen snow.  We had to be careful about what we wished for, though. If the storm blew too hard, then the slopes would be closed, and we’d watch all that beautiful snow go to waste. The view from the window was especially nail-biting for us, as today was the long-anticipated ‘cat skiing’ day.

From Monday to Friday, the slope, which ALTS once managed as a regular slope full of skiers, is closed. Snow falls quietly all week, completely undisturbed. Then come the weekend, the snowmobiles, known as ‘Snowcats’, track their way up to the top of the slope, and let the warm skiers out of their cozy cabins to tear through a whole week’s worth of beautiful, untouched powder.

As it turned out, today was our lucky day. Unlike ascending in a ski lift, you can feel the terrain beneath you as the Cat clambers up the mountain, which is a treat in itself. The Cat drops us off, we ski down the beautiful powder, while it follows along behind us, back to the foot of the slope. Then, we continue to repeat the whole delightful episode, all day long.

This particular slope is by appointment only. Today we were the privileged ones, with this luxurious expanse all to ourselves. It’s a wonderful feeling, hooting and whooping our glee to each other as we raced down, not another soul in sight. 

After many ups and downs in the freezing storm, the ladies of the group, Melissa and Libby from Australia, got the idea of hot springs in their heads. The rest of us didn’t take much persuasion. This area has been famous for its many hot springs long before skiing was invented. To steam and soak in the waters known for their curative properties, and to gormandise on the local cuisine is a perfectly valid way to make the most of your time in this special place. 

We loved the ‘ski in, ski out’ location of our accommodation at the Hoshino Resorts Bandai Onsen Hotel, just a few steps from the ski lifts. You’ve got hot springs, rentals and shops – a huge range of everything you could need, all in one place. It really is a perfect base from which you can come and go, visiting surrounding slopes and attractions. ALTS Bandai should be your first stop when planning a trip to the wilds of Aizu. 

TAKE A LOOK at AIZU – a Secluded Ski Paradise –

Aizu

BEST-KEPT SKI SECRET OF JAPAN’S MAIN ISLAND

Words and photography: Kazuya Baba

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When you think of the ski areas most popular amongst foreigners on Japan’s main island, you would first think of places in Nagano and Niigata such as Hakuba, Nozawa, Shiga or Myoko. Otherwise, it’s the Tohoku area resorts, such as Appi or Hachimantai that come to mind.  There is, however, a ski area that westerners are just beginning to discover. It’s the slopes of Aizu, at the gateway of Tohoku, the main island’s northernmost region.

Because of Aizu’s inland location, humidity is low, and snow quality is as high as it gets. Its fine, dry powder is comparable to the powder snow of Hokkaido at Japan’s northernmost tip, with its reputation as the world’s number one powder paradise.  

The very reason that makes Aizu’s fresh powder slopes so thrilling is, ironically, the absence of crowds. Despite being 100 kilometres north of the Daiichi nuclear accident, Aizu lies on the outer edge of the Fukushima district. Although Aizu itself is basically untouched by radiation, the very word ‘Fukushima’ is synonymous with the word ‘disaster’ to many people, Japanese and foreigners alike. Many people choose to stay away, avoiding to look at the actual data themselves. For people willing to do their own research, this makes a ski holiday in Aizu a prize catch. Not only can you get freshly-fallen powder all to yourself, the whole ski industry is bending over backwards to woo skiers back with all kinds of special deals, such as free lift passes for people aged 19 – 24. 

Fortunately, the data shows that the Aizu and Bandai areas saw little effect from the accident. This is due not only to distance, but also to being upwind of the accident, and having two protective mountain ranges between Aizu and the stricken power plant. Nevertheless, local government watches the situation closely. In addition, the citizen group, Safecast, provides reliable independent radiation monitoring with easy to use smartphone apps and online maps as an alternative source of information.  

A visit to Aizu is about much more than extremely inviting snow. The treasure of the north is the samurai town of Aizu Wakamatsu, built around the spectacular castle to which all wealth and culture flowed. Like the television dramas that it inspired, Wakamatsu town is full of tales of intrigue and heroism that played out all those years ago. These stories continue to inspire the people of Japan, and even a foreign movie star or two; the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, tells of the real-life events that took place in these mountains and streets. Yes, the ‘Bushido’ or ‘Samurai Spirit’ is strong in the people of the north. 

So too is their attachment to their traditional cuisine. In a world where everything starts to be the same everywhere you go, we tasted wonderful dishes that are exclusive to this area, springing from its natural features and traditions, which I would love to share with you.

There are a total of 22 ski resorts in the area that all slope down to the open plain.  The district that flows down from the north is known as Aizu, while the south-western area goes by the name Minami Aizu.

In this trip my 9 companions and I focused on three places in the northern district: the main ski resorts of Aizu, the samurai town of Aizu Wakamatsu City, and the romantic historical village of Higashiyama Onsen (hot springs), just nearby. 

Here is the story of my experience of Aizu, and the must-see places in each of the areas.