MAKING THE MOST OF THE BEST POWDER SNOWS IN MAINLAND JAPAN
Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba
Now is the perfect chance to have this powder snow heaven all to yourself.
In February 2018, I went from the middle of summer in Sydney, to the middle of winter in Japan. My destination was the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture. Situated in the Tohoku region at the northernmost reaches of Japan’s main island, Aizu might conjure up images of being far away from the gateway to Japan that is the metropolis of Tokyo, but Fukushima Prefecture itself is the gateway to the Tohoku region as seen from Tokyo, and in a location that is both close and easy to access.
The flight from Sydney to Haneda Airport arrives early in the morning, and you can get to Aizu itself by as early as 9:00 am that day via the bullet train. Not only easy to access, the inland position of Aizu means the humidity there is low, making for fluffy, excellent powder snows that have earned the area a reputation as a hidden powder snow heaven among Japanese skiers.
Something I should mention up front is the matter of radiation that might come to mind when the name Fukushima is mentioned. It is because of this concern that the number of people visiting Fukushima Prefecture has greatly declined in the time since the Great East Japan Earthquake, but the level of radiation is being closely monitored, and your safety is assured. Fukushima is also the third largest prefecture in Japan, and while Aizu might be in the same prefecture where the incident occurred, it is far away from the affected areas, so there is no need for concern. Since overseas skiers have yet to realise this, now is the perfect chance to have this powder snow heaven all to yourself.
I decided to take a taxi from Haneda Airport to Tokyo Station, instead of braving the potential difficulties of the standard railway lines, because of all the photographic gear and other luggage we had in addition to our skiing gear. The cost came to around 5,000 yen, but it’s a reasonable price if you’re travelling in a group. Changing over to the bullet train from Tokyo Station, we arrived in Koriyama City, the largest city in Fukushima Prefecture, in an hour and forty minutes. Changing back to the standard railway lines once again from there, we then travelled on to Inawashiro Station, the gateway to Aizu itself, and arrived at around 9:00 am.
It was a strange sensation to leave Sydney not only the night before to find myself in a world of snow by 9:00 am the next morning, but this only served to reinforce the idea of how easy it is to get there.
Aizu is home to 22 skiing areas all up, but with only two days to see the sights, we would need to head on to our next spot the following evening, this time by rental car. With a goal of visiting as many skiing spots across the country as possible in a few short weeks, such a tight schedule was impossible to avoid. At Inawashiro, we met up with snowboarder and guide Kei, an expert on the local area and one of the subjects for our photo shoot.
With the help of Kei’s advice, we put together a plan that would allow us to make the most of our limited two-day schedule while getting the best possible shots. On the first day, it was Nekoma we decided upon as the place to enjoy some of the best and lightest powder in the area.
The sheer size of this resort offers a great many places to enjoy.
NEKOMA, HIDDEN SKI RESORT WITH FIRST-RATE POWDER
It was a trip of thirty minutes from Inawashiro Station to Nekoma in Kei’s car. Here, we met up with another skier who would be a subject for us, and took the lifts right away to the tops of the mountains. Since Nekoma is situated deep in the very heart of the Aizu area, it takes a little longer to access, and the skiing area itself is not so large at 6 lifts in total, so it sees fewer skiers coming to visit. It would be no exaggeration to say the area is almost completely unknown overseas. The only visitors that come to this spot are locals who know it well already, and hardcore skiers from overseas who simply happened to hear something about it.
Nekoma is said to have some of the highest quality snow in Aizu. The reason for this is because of the thick and frequent snowfalls it experiences, the northern-facing aspect that keeps the snow out of direct sunlight and makes it hard to melt, and the long period that fresh snows remain. While the quality of snow in other areas might gradually deteriorate, it is quite often that Nekoma alone remains fresh.
The weather when we went was, again, snowy. Not the best conditions for taking photos, but the best possible conditions for fresh snow to continue building up while you’re hitting the slopes. The easy nature of the land makes Nekoma home to many readily enjoyable sidecountry areas, and it is for this reason that it has earned the position of a much-loved spot among hardcore skiers. This was no exception, we took the best advantage of the sidecountry areas as possible, coming across natural jumps and tunnels created by the forms of fallen trees and taking shots of skiing and snowboarding side by side. The snows only grew heavier as the afternoon arrived, putting an end to our photographic endeavours in a matter of hours, but we were still able to get a number of good shots.
THE MASSIVE SKIING AREA OF ALTS BANDAI
Still fresh from the excitement of Nekoma the day before, the next morning, Kei came to pick us up at the hotel where we were staying. That day, Kei was dressed in a bright yellow, newly acquired getup given the previous day’s difficulty in showing up on camera. Our destination for the day was the largest skiing area in all of Aizu, Alts Bandai, whose main attraction is the cat ski tour held only on weekends. Inaccessible via the lifts on weekdays, this tour allows a small number of people to access an area via snowmobile (cat) on the weekends. Getting to ski down this course where you can enjoy snows built up all through the week is quite the experience.
While our schedule didn’t fall on a weekend this time, we were able to get some shots out in the sidecountry areas and skiing fields thanks to recommendations from our local expert, Kei. The sheer size of this resort offers a great many places to enjoy. We were able to get some great shots in addition to the ones we captured at Nekoma the day before, and I hope they convey a sense of the sheer potential of the snows that Aizu has on offer. Finishing up our two short, but full days of shooting, I took the wheel as we drove onwards. There are a great many wonderful skiing areas in Japan, but those that match the quality of Aizu are few and far between.
In addition to the skiing resorts of Hokkaido and Nagano that are already popular among overseas skiers, why not add Aizu to the list of areas to visit this coming season?