Aizu

Aizu

TAKE A LOOK AT AIZU, A SECLUDED SKI PARADISE

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Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba

AIZU

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. 

ALTS

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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

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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. 

NEKOMA

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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. 

GRANDECO

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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. 

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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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

HIGASHIYAMA ONSEN

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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.

MYOKO KOGEN – Nigata

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Backcountry skiing in one of Japan’s greatest snowy regions.

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Just over the border from Nagano prefecture into neighboring Niigata prefecture is Myoko Kogen, a skiing area known for its heavy snowfalls. This area, comprised of three main skiing areas, has seen a large boom in visitors from overseas in recent years. There is the Suginohara skiing area that offers a change in elevation of over 1,100m and a skiing route up to 8,500m in length, the Akakura area comprised of the Akakura Kanko Resort Ski Area, and the Akakura Onsen Ski Area set amidst the backdrop of a hot spring town, and the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area that has seen a recent boom in park facilities and is popular to snowboarders that can be found in between.

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Another area seeing a boost in popularity spread through word-ofmouth from the overseas skiers who have visited recently is the Seki Onsen Ski Area. The course itself at the skiing area here is extremely small, but enjoys great popularity due to its easy access to backcountry skiing areas that let you ski to your heart’s content out on the powder snow.

This time, after my trip to Echigo Yuzawa, I chose to venture forth to the skiing areas in the Akakura area and to the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area. The reason for my choice was to see the longstanding Akakura Kanko Hotel on the skiing fields of the Akakura Kanko Resort Ski Area, which has recently been refurbished and affords amazing views out over the surrounding countryside.

AKAKURA IS KNOWN FOR BEING A HOT SPRING TOWN, AND HERE THE TOWNSHIP’S HISTORY ALLOWS YOU TO ENJOY DELICIOUS TRADITIONAL COUNTRYSIDE CUISINE.

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On my trip to Echigo Yuzawa and Myoko Kogen, I was joined by travel editor of the popular skiing magazine Snow Action, David Windsor.

Here, David shares a few impressions on his trip to the area.
The Niigata prefecture of Japan is such a rewarding adventure. The snow’s out of this world and makes for awesome days on the speedy Yuzawa “gelandes”, with over 12 resorts to choose from just 75 minutes from Tokyo; or smashing through pow in the trees and out the side and back country of Myoko. The adventure continues off slope with a relaxing peaceful onsen in our hotel or ryokan before hitting the boisterous bars and rowdy restaurants full of happy folk sharing their experiences and loud shouts of ‘kanpai’ over frosty beers, hot sake and an awesome array of shochu. As for the food, the adventure begins with fish, an omelette and pickled veg for breakfast; an amazing bowl of squid ink with mozzarella cheese udon noodles for lunch at “Udon-no-Fu” in Akakura Onsen; and for a super fun dinner I loved the okonomiyaki savory pancakes and yakisoba made in front of us on our table top hot plate at the “Lumber Jack” or the yakitori at “Asagao”, also in Akakura Onsen. None of that could top a magnificent 10 course kaiseki banquet at the NASPA New Otani Resort in Yuzawa. All up, Yuzawa and Myoko is a wonderfully happy, unique and cultural ski adventure that should be experienced with an open mind and a “try everything” attitude.

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The timing of my trip couldn’t have been better. Even though it was late March, the ground was thick with snow, with a further snowfall later in the night that turned the skiing fields into a heaven of powder snow by the morning. The cold was nothing like that of the harsh winter months, however, allowing me to enjoy a powder run out on the slopes. This is its facilities, most notably the newly established Aqua Terrace, were a sight to behold. Some rooms come complete with an outdoor hot spring bath, and the layout of the rooms that afford a view out over the skiing fields is the very picture of luxury. Your choice in dining ranges from French to Japanese cuisine, bakeries and more, offering a wide variety of options. The spa facilities are a hit with female guests, and you could certainly find no better hotel for a stay in Akakura. I look forward to a stay there someday, but alas my time had come to make my descent back down the mountain.

My goal for my next destination – the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area – was the tree run, an area to which entry was previously prohibited, yet opened up in response to popular demand. Heading straight for the course, I could see that the treeline in the middle of the slopes as you come down from the peak was open to entry, offering a satisfying change of pace as you ski through the trees on powder snows on just the right decline. Such easy access to sidecountry areas such as these is a true delight.

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The Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area also offers easy access to backcountry areas. Heading to the peaks by lift and trekking further out allows you to enjoy amazing backcountry skiing. The backcountry of the Myoko area is comparatively low in risk, and highly recommended. I was able to visit the backcountry this time with the help of what I was here for! The Akakura Kanko Hotel itself offered a refined, elegant atmosphere befitting its reputation, and a guide from the Dancing Snow touring company, and was met with an amazing course. My run here was very fun yet not too advanced, making it the perfect choice for all who visit. Check out the local Dancing Snow touring company for more details if you’re keen to try your hand.

Of the areas in Myoko, Akakura is known for being a hot spring town, and here the township’s history allows you to enjoy delicious traditional countryside cuisine. No matter where you go, you are met with the simple yet inspiring heritage of Japanese cuisine. One recommendation is Matagi at the foothills of the Ikenotaira skiing area. While English service is not necessarily their forte, familiar fare such as ramen is on offer and a must for any who visit, offering a window to the understated tastes of traditional Japanese cuisine.

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Hokkaido Powder Belt Magical Places

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Photo:Takahiro Nakanishi

Skiing has always dictated my life. Personal decisions have never been made without first researching the mountains and counselling how good the tunes were going to be The first time I cam to Japan was on an English teaching program where I was given three choices as to my placement. There were rumours that you were lucky to get any of your choices. A friend from a small town in New Zealand chose Tokyo, only to be posted to the smallest fishing village in Japan. My choices were made based on the merit of the skiing and luckily found myself in the mountainous region of northern Honshu.

But it wasn’t my first choice. That was actually Hokkaido. My interest in the northern island was piqued back at university and video nights with fellow members of the ski club, watching snowboarding videos of pro American snowboarders in Niseko. These guys were some of the first foreign professionals to Hokkaido to ride some of the mystical powder that the island is now famous for. Fast forward several years and at the time living in Tokyo. Tow northern hemisphere winters had come and gone and the only snow I had seen was a brief flurry. I was a fish out of water. I had a goal of starting a ski guiding business on the northern island, and persuaded my wife that a life living the dream was better then anything we had found in Tokyo. In October of 2003, bags were packed into a small van, ferry boarded, and after a night sailing over the Sea of Japan, we were driving to the Central Hokkaido town of Furano.

At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information on the web about Central Hokkaido or Furano, at least not in English. It was better known as a summer destination and for the numerous lavender farms which are dotted around the valley. But the pieces of information regarding the mountains and skiing seemed compelling. The Daisetsuzan National Park and its volcanoes loom large over the landscape, 2,000 meter peaks with both alpine and tree skiing, lodges with thermal hot springs nestled within, and a deep, deep snowpack. It ticked all the boxes for what you would want from a ski trip in Japan, and a guiding business.

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Photo:Masahiro Nakanishi

“I remember sitting in one of the outdoor hot springs after a particularly good day skiing and being mesmerised by the falling snow. It almost looked as though there were feathers falling from the sky, like a giant pillow fight had taken place above us.”

The town of Furano is serviced by the local airport of Asahikawa. For anyone who flies here, the descent into Asahikawa gives a great bird’s eye view of the mountains. On one side there is the Daisetsuzan Range which stretches 60 kilometres from north to south and 30 kilometres east to west. On the other side of the valley are the smaller mountains and the resorts of Kamui Ski Links, Furano and also Tomamu. Furano is the centre of it all. A plaque embeded on a rock in the centre of the town states it is actually the ‘geographic center of Hokkaido.’

My first season here was an exploratory one to assess the area’s potential for good skiing. On backcountry days at the southern end of the national park, I was joined by a fellow Australian whose job was to clear the roads into the hot spring lodges. A big undertaking, but not his particular task. He would sit in an idling vehicle with a heater on full blast at the bottom of the hill, book in one hand and a cell phone in the other, ready to warn the snow clearers of an approaching vehicle. Once the roads were cleared, he would set off after my ski track and we would spend the rest of the day riding the powder. And what powder it was.

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I remember sitting in one of the outdoor hot springs after a particularly good day skiing and being mesmerised by the falling snow. It almost looked as though there were feathers falling from the sky, like a giant pillow fight had taken place above us. The flakes seemed to float as if suspended in the air forever before making a soft descent.

Asahidake is one of the magical places in the area where there is lift access to this amazing snow. I have had days there where our tracks would be covered on each run down, big deep twenty centimetre trenches gone after only 40 minutes. All but vanished, as if someone was playing tricks on us. Deep days are the days where the snow flies over your head, and those aren’t rare. One only needs to ski through the old growth spruce and see the giant blocks of snow resting on the branches to realise that this is a very high snowfall area.

Hokkaido is covered in volcanoes. There are 13 active volcanoes on the island and two of them are in the Daisetsuzan National Park, one of those being Asahidake. When the skies do finally clear and you see this volcano, it is quite breathtaking. Active enough to let you know you are standing on something live, in both sight and smell. Smoke billows from multiple vents and fissures and noxious sulphurous gases plaster parts of the snowpack in shades of green and yellow.

On the days that are too stormy in the national park, I am happy to be riding the lifts at one of the three ski fields. They definitely feel more local than resorts around Sapporo or
of course Niseko. There are days, especially mid-week where it feels you are one of only a handful riding the lifts.

The spread of the ski fields and the varying microclimates of Central Hokkaido contribute
to skiing consistently good snow conditions, as long as you know which resort to go to depending on the storm directions. Five centimetres at one field could be over a foot at another. That is probably how the area acquired the name, ‘Hokkaido’s Powder Belt.’ It is an apt description.

So it has been over ten years now and we are still here. In that time we have skied a lot of powder and had many ‘days of our lives’ in powder terms. Word has spread through the internet where there is now a lot more information in English now. In this age of global warming and diminishing snowfalls, it is good to know that there is an island on this planet where it still snows and snows.

This Japanese ski season, we will launch a new powder ski operation. The package includes a week’s stay in a ski lodge and unlimited skiing in the Hokkaido powder belt. It is like heli-skiing in Canada, but with all the fun Hokkaido has to offer, because we will use a lodge at the foot of
a mountain which means not only the delicious meals the lodge serves, but also a hot springs, an izakaya pub, and local restaurants. Nowhere else is offering a powder package like this one; it’s completely new. Tours will depart from January to March, almost every week. Go to the Hokkaido Powder Guide website for more information.


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