ALTS – AIZU’S BIGGEST RESORT, WITH EXCLUSIVE SNOWCAT BACKCOUNTRY SKIING
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.
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.
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.
Japanese rice wine, or sake, is an alcoholic beverage brewed from fermented rice. In addition to rice, its base ingredients are koji and water, where koji is a mould grown on the rice that kick-starts the fermentation process. The rice grain is polished and left to ferment. The flavour of the sake is established by the rice and water used, and most importantly, the amount of rice grain that is polished away.
HISTORY OF SAKE
Sake has been around for over 2,000 years and was traditionally used for religious ceremonies and court festivals. In the beginning, sake production was controlled by the government, but in the 10th century production was taken over by temples and shrines.
The Meiji Restoration saw a sake boom. Many breweries were set up by landowners who would brew sake from leftover rice crops, rather than let rice grain go to waste.
Today, sake is brewed not only in Japan, but also in Asia, America, and even in Australia. The Go-Shu Australian sake brewery operated by Sun Masamune is located in Penrith.
October 1st is official World Sake Day: Nihonshu no Hi, and is traditionally the start date of Japanese sake production.
Like wine, sake should be sipped and savoured, not drunk in shots. When drinking sake in a group, you will often hear the expression, “kampai!” — the equivalent of “bottoms up!” — but after making the toast, you should sip and enjoy the rest of your glass at your own pace. There is no need to down sake in one shot.
WHERE TO TASTE SAKE
In Australia there are plenty of places to enjoy sake with Japanese food. Head to your local izakaya and order away! Some izakaya have push carts on which sake is brought to your table. The restaurant staff may offer you a taste before you order. Take the opportunity to chat with the staff about your preferred flavour profile and ask for suggestions. If you would like to buy some sake in Sydney, Tokyo Mart, located in Northbridge Plaza, is a 15-minute drive from the city. Tokyo Mart has an extensive range of sake and other Japanese beverages.
TYPES OF SAKE
The labels on sake bottles carry a lot of legally required information that will assist you in knowing what to expect of your drink. For example, the label will tell you the type of sake, its alcohol content, its ingredients (in particular, if it contains distilled alcohol), the production date, the amount in the bottle, the name and address of the brewer, and the sake’s characteristics.
Sake is split into different categories depending on the rice polishing ratio, or how much grain remains after polishing. Sake is brewed from the starch inside the rice grain. Less polished rice with more grain remaining results in a full-bodied and richer sake. The more polished the rice, the cleaner and crisper the taste.
Occasionally, brewers may add distilled alcohol into a sake brew to adjust the taste. Sake made with pure rice and not containing distilled alcohol is differentiated by the prefix, junmai, meaning pure rice.
There are three main types of aroma and flavour.
Ginjo has a rice polishing ratio of 60 per cent. Ginjo sake is pure, refreshing and rich, yet light bodied. It includes dai-ginjo, in which the rice is most polished to less than 50 per cent remaining grain. Dai-ginjo is the most expensive sake as it takes approximately 40 hours to polish rice to less than 50 per cent of its volume.
Ginjo sake that does not contain distilled alcohol is known as junmai ginjo-shu, or junmai dai-ginjo-shu, depending on the rice polishing ratio. Ginjo is best served cold.
Honjozo has a rice polishing ratio of 70 per cent. It takes some ten hours for rice to be polished to this level. Tokubetsu honjozo is in the same flavour profile, but has a rice polishing ratio of 60 per cent. Both types of honjozo have small amounts of distilled alcohol added, resulting in a cleaner, more fragrant and drier sake. Honjozo may be served hot or cold.
Junmai has an unspecified rice polishing ratio and no distilled alcohol added. Junmai is rich, savoury, and full bodied, with a subtle aroma. It is not as polished as ginjo sake, and generally has a rice-like flavour. Junmai is best served at room temperature, or warm, to bring out the most flavour.
SAKE METER VALUE (SMV)
SMV is used to indicate the sweetness or dryness of sake. It is a measure of the density of sake relative to water. A negative SMV indicates a sweeter sake, while a positive value defines a dry sake, and is affected by the sugar content, or level of acidity. SMV is indicative of sake flavour and an average SMV is +3.
HOW SAKE IS PREPARED AND SERVED
Sake is served neat at either room temperature, chilled, or warmed. Temperature is dependent on the type of sake being drunk. The label on the bottle may include a suggested serving temperature. Sake should be warmed in a bath of hot water and not over an open flame. The best approach is to use a thermometer to monitor the temperature.
Some sake contains sediment. Sake with sediment should not be shaken. Move the bottle gently from side to side to mix the liquid before serving.
Most restaurants will serve sake in a small, bowl-shaped cup called a choko, poured from a flask called a tokkuri. A tokkuri is good for serving warm sake, as the narrow neck prevents heat from escaping, but a tokkuri can also be used to serve sake cold. A slightly larger cup is known as a guinomi and is used to serve both warm and cold sake.
Cold sake is sometimes served in a tall shot glass placed in a wooden box called a masu. The sake overflowing from the shot glass into the masu represents wealth and abundance. Start by drinking the sake from the shot glass, then either pour the remaining sake from the masu into the shot glass, or drink from a corner of the masu itself. If the shot glass comes in contact with a surface outside the masu, do not return the glass into the sake-filled masu, to avoid contamination.
There are quite a few sake breweries in the market. The more popular ones are Hakkaisan and Dassai. Each is brewed in different parts of Japan and are available in Australia at various izakaya Japanese pubs.
LIKE WINE, SAKE SHOULD BE SIPPED AND SAVOURED, NOT DRUNK IN SHOTS.