TAKE A LOOK AT AIZU, A SECLUDED SKI PARADISE
Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba
BEST-KEPT SKI SECRET OF JAPAN’S MAIN ISLAND
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.
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.
FOR THE BEST OF THE BEST SNOW IN AIZU, MAKE YOUR WAY OVER TO NEKOMA
Aizu attracts the hardcore skiers hunting down the best snow in Japan. Of all the resorts in Aizu, the one that wins the prize for most magical snow is Nekoma. The funnel-shape of its north slope, as it narrows in at the base, is the reason the slopes avoid icing up for most of the season.
But the big attraction is the premium powder the Japanese call “micro-fine snow”, created by the super-low temperatures of Nekoma, at around minus 15 degrees Celsius. For some reason, most of the skiers here are Japanese, and there aren’t that many of them either. It’s just not a place foreigners think to come. It’s possible to get to the top of the Nekoma slopes by simply hiking over the summit from ALTS, which is just over the other side of the mountain. If you are skilled enough to take responsibility for your own safety, go for it.
But as the peak is unpatrolled and the risks are many, this time we all decided to leave ALTS and head for the slopes of Nekoma by shuttle bus. It went around the mountain, and took us 40 minutes. The was no charge for the shuttle, and no need to buy more lift tickets, as both ALTS and Nekoma are operated by Hoshino Resorts. Nice.
We had a day of indecisive weather, with the sun peeking out, then snowfall, followed by more fleeting sunshine, all day long. The slopes were a patchwork of skied upon snow and then big stretches of pristine, untouched powder. When you hit the freshly laid powder, it was like gliding. You really can’t experience it anywhere else in life, this weightless feeling of almost flying. I’ve experienced a lot of good snow, but this really was one of the best I have come across in all of Japan. Being high season, and in the depths of winter, it couldn’t have been any colder, but the freshly falling snow just had us feeling that things couldn’t be better.
It’s not a massive resort, with its ten courses. But they range from beginner to advanced. If you are in the Aizu area, don’t miss the secluded charms of inland Nekoma – intense cold, and that distinctive Nekoma terrain, and the finest power imaginable.
There are rumours that the ALTS and Nekoma areas might soon be connected at the summit, since they are both operated by the same resort. If that happens, the days of solitude at Nekoma are numbered. But for some reason, an interconnected snow playground seems an alluring daydream for me. I’m looking forward to the day it becomes a reality.
FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Further north of ALTS and Nekoma lies GRANDECO, our final visit of the Aizu ski areas. GRANDECO is not the easiest to get to of the Aizu resorts, but despite the drawbacks of its location, it is still immensely popular.
It is not a big resort, with a total of five gondolas and chairlifts, and seven courses. GRANDECO is a long, narrow ski area, which is its main attraction. Skiers spend their time on lengthy, uninterrupted runs down slopes, rather than getting on and off lifts all day. Its defining characteristic is an environment that is friendly to families and people wanting to have a fun connection with their friends.
The range of slopes is suitable for all levels
of expertise, but the majority are gentle slopes suitable for beginner and intermediate level skiers. There are few places in the world where you can enjoy both the best quality powder snow, and so many cruisy, easy, long-distance slopes.
It is super cold. But at an elevation of 1,000 metres above sea level, that’s what you would generally expect. At GRANDECO they are careful to protect guests from the downsides of the powder-creating temperatures, by providing quad lifts protected with hoods which are filled with comfortable and happy families. Also, it’s rare that Japanese families can go on a ski trip for the Golden Week holiday in early May. Here, it’s possible, with the long, luscious snow season when you are this far north, and this high up.
During the high season the quality of the snow is good enough to give Nekoma and the other Aizu resorts a run for their money. It’s not only an approachable place for regular people to enjoy the snow, but also it also has plenty of challenging runs to keep advanced skiers fully engaged. We had a great time going through tree runs, and scaring ourselves with the tough steep slopes.
The best hotel of the whole area is said to be the hotel adjacent to GRANDECO, so there is one more plus to add to the collection. Family time can truly be enjoyed in this highly pleasant place, with unsurpassable snow, good service, and easy, approachable skiing just out the door. GRANDECO has just about everything a family could wish for to create a lovely time in each other’s company.
AIZU WAKAMATSU CITY
THE CULTIVATED CITY OF WARRIORS, AND HOME OF THE LEGENDARY LAST SAMURAI
Today was our ski-free day, a day for exploring Aizu Wakamatsu city. Known as the city of warriors, it goes down in history as a place of heroism and tragedy. The last stand of the warrior known as ‘”Japan’s Last Samurai” took place here, which makes it a poignant place in Japan’s history.
To be immersed in that chapter from the past is a perfectly good reason to come and stay here. But more prosaically, it’s just a 30 minute drive from here to Alts Bandai, and an hour to Nekoma. So even if you only have skiing on your mind, it’s a pretty irresistible base.
As a sightseer, you will probably start off with Tsuruga Castle. The original castle was constructed 630 years ago, and lasted until its bombardment in the civil war during the latter half of the Edo period, the last time wars were fought by samurai. Although finally defeated, the castle and its warriors earned a glorious kind of immortality through their final brave attacks. They withstood an entire month under siege, facing weapons of immense destructive power, never before seen by these ancient warriors.
Now, the replica castle holds all sorts of displays and documents, that bring to life the story of what happened here, floor after floor, until you reach the apex. From the very top of the tower, we caught our breath and viewed the city of Aizu spread out below us. It’s not quite skiing, but a wonderful feeling, high above the world.
After this glorious place, we then wandered down to the modest thatched tea ceremony hut, built centuries ago by the son of Sen no Rikyu, the renowned master and initiator of the Japanese tea ceremony. Here, we partook of matcha green tea, served in the ritual way, with traditional Japanese sweets. The ladies were especially appreciative of those sweets, all elaborate, pretty and sugary-sweet. Melissa seemed so taken by the whole experience that she purchased a set of the special tea ceremony equipment – a pottery bowl, bamboo whisk, and so on – so she could bring this special feeling back with her to her life in Sydney.
There aren’t usually what you would call cities around ski areas in this country, so that limits how you can keep entertained and occupied once you’re done skiing for the day. But if you stay in Aizu Wakamatsu, you really won’t run out of attractions and distractions.
The city of Aizu was built up on what was once ancient swampland. Draining the wetlands and setting the nutrient-rich soil aside created extremely fertile farmlands, which is why the rice grown here so delicious. The difference between this juicy, flavourful rice and ordinary rice is so distinctive that you will immediately realise when you take your first bite.
The snow that piles up in the surrounding mountains also has an impact on making things here delicious. It seeps into the ground as meltwater, gets purified as it filters through the rock, then lies in the ground as clear, cold spring water. This pure water and lush rice go together to make astonishingly good Japanese sake. The town is full of traditional izakayas, quaint eatery-bars, as well as modern bars and restaurants of all sorts.
After hearing stories of the marvels of the sake of this area, we went over to the long-established sake brewery, Suehiro Shuzo, to see if the legends were true. They showed us the careful process of making perfect sake, not dramatically different from centuries ago. At the tasting corner we refined our powers of discrimination, and finally chose some favourites to buy and take home.
On the wall were photographs and calligraphy by the world-renowned doctor and humanist, Hideyo Noguchi. Dr Noguchi had visited this place early last century, and the ladies of our group entertained themselves by photographing each other in the same hall, same angle and pose as that of Dr Noguchi.
In lands with pure water, good sake, and spectacular scenery in all seasons, food always tastes good. As Aizu is an isolated mountain city, deeply inland, the unique local cuisine has dishes that have been passed down with their special Aizu character intact. Herring pickled in Japanese pepper, stewed dried cod, and kozuyu, a clear broth served on auspicious occasions are exclusive to Aizu. Wappameshi, is a dish of steamed rice scattered with other tasty morsels and seasonings, also unique to this region. Aizu is famous for its handmade buckwheat noodles, or soba. Connoisseurs of soba flock to the many specialty restaurants of this seemingly simple dish, and marvel at its subtlety.
It was really hard to tear ourselves away from the charms of Aizu Wakamatsu. The night of eating local food and the amazing sake just stretched out longer and longer, as we watched the snow pile up outside and watched everything become indescribably lovely as the sake took effect.
There are many more ski areas in Aizu than the ones we have introduced here, all special in their own way.
Get yourselves a base in lovely Aizu Wakamatsu, and go explore them all.
A SPA TOWN OF OLD JAPAN, TUCKED AWAY IN THE MOUNTAINS
A ten minute drive from Aizu Wakamatsu central, yet hundreds of years away, is the historical hot spring village of Higashiyama Onsen. Although there are several other historical hot spring towns in the mountains of Japan, it’s unheard of for them to be just around the corner from a busy city. Higashiyama Onsen is special in that sense.
Higashiyama Onsen is proud of its long history, founded by the itinerant monk, Gyoki, 1300 years ago. This intrepid fellow travelled the country instigating public works to benefit the people of Japan, waterworks included. It is known for being a favourite place of respite and recreation of historical figures. One such personage is the samurai leader Toshizo Hijikata, leader of the Shinsen-gumi special forces, active during the last days of the Samurai. Japan’s very first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito was another great person of history who frequented the bathhouses of this village. And then there was us, making it our final destination of our Aizu tour.
The onsen is a mineral-rich sulfate spring. It is said to have a therapeutic effect on disorders such as rheumatism, high blood pressure, and menopausal symptoms in women.
We were lucky enough to stay at the Ashina, a truly grand ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. The Ashina is a 120 year old reconstructed farmhouse, dismantled and rebuilt in the village as a luxury accommodation. There are only seven guest rooms. As we walked in, we found that one of these rooms was where the creator of the animation Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka, happened to stay. The room has now been decorated to give the impression you are staying in the great man’s own workroom. Inspiring!
At the Ashina, the hot water rises up to the baths directly from its source in the earth. There were indoor baths, and outdoor baths, and we just couldn’t decide on which was better, so we bathed and bathed until we couldn’t be any more relaxed and glowing. “Look at our lovely, dewy complexions!” the girls marvelled.
It turned out that our party of 10 had the entire place to ourselves that night. Usually, elaborate meals are served privately in each of the seven rooms. But tonight we all gathered around the open hearth, used for kaiseki cuisine, in the main tatami room. It really felt like a time slip to the Japan of old, as delicious morsels of food sizzled gently over our charcoal fire, our faces lively in its flickering light. Food found only in this place, this season. How did they coax such deliciousness from such simple ingredients?
There was a point in the night when the food, the atmosphere, the glow from the baths and the sake had gotten our spirits as merry as they were going to get. That was the moment the geisha made their entrance. Three genuine geisha, in full regalia. The night was just getting started, as it turned out. It was a night of shamisen, dance, and the witty banter and attentiveness that geisha have honed to an art form. There was also taiko drumming, and nagauta – a unique experience of traditional singing.
An evening’s entertainment with real geisha is something so rare, you never expect it will happen to you. Even Japanese people don’t expect to have such an experience. So this night, in this secluded mountain village, blanketed in thick snow, felt like some kind of dream. It was true, in a sense. It’s the only place in the whole of Tohoku with so many geisha, twenty, and we were lucky enough to be there to be a part of it. Do whatever you can to complete a trip to Aizu with a stay at Higashiyama Onsen. The time you spend here will sparkle in your memory like starlight on snow.