Tales of Tazawako

Chasing powder in Akita Prefecture, Japan’s best kept secret

What would you do if you received a last minute call to join a trip to an off the beaten path Japanese powder paradise? As Matt Clark discovers in the wilds of Akita Prefecture, there’s only one sensible option: drop everything and go!

Day 1, silly o’clock. Innsbruck, Austria.

Damn, it’s happened again. Frantic last minute packing and a race to the airport. I’ve got this though: it’s my speciality. Clear a space on the floor; what do I need? Skis, boots, poles, sorted. Jacket, salopettes, base layers… T-shirt and jeans might come in handy too. What have I forgotten? Passport! 

Throw it all in the ski bag, hustle it down the stairs and into the car. Job done. Pit stop at the garage (diesel for the car; coffee for me) then onto the empty night time autobahn for stage 1 – direction: Munich Airport. From there, it’s on to Frankfurt – Tokyo – Akita. At this time of day my brain can’t work process the arithmetic across time zones, but I know it’s going to be a long day. Sip of coffee, and foot down. Onwards.

Day 1, 6am. Somewhere over Asia.

I almost find flying long haul enjoyable, in a perverse sort of way (on the out bound leg at least). Settling down in my seat I turn it into a den for the next umpteen hours: shoes off, Kindle out, laptop to the side, adjust freebie blanket and pillows as necessary, decide which films to re-watch. Press the button and free G&Ts appear like magic; what more could you want? I’ve had enough of it now though, halfway round the other side of the world. Are we there yet?

Day 1, 10:15am. Tokyo, Japan.

This is step 4 for me now, my final flight from Tokyo to Akita. I bumped into the other guys – Iain and Ryan from Canada, and Nayumi from Japan – in the airport just before boarding. Skiers stand out like sore thumbs amongst the Tokyo business travelers.

Outside the window the world is getting whiter. Inaccessible mountains plastered in deep snow drift by below, peppered with silver birch trees. I remember the trees from my last trip to JaPOW. I could wax lyrical about their etherial beauty, standing sentry like ghostly legions in the drifting snow. I won’t though. The only thing that really matters is just how perfectly spaced they are for skiing between.  

Day 1, 2pm. Tazawako ski area, Akita Prefecture.

Car journeys in Japan are often a fairly drawn out procedure – when all the roads are covered in snow, the only place speeding gets you is upside down in a ditch. We’re finally here now though. Bags dumped at the hotel, ski stuff on. Cursory look at the piste map and it’s up the first lift. Skies are clear and winds are low – perfect conditions to appreciate both the views over Lake Tazawa (at 423m the deepest in Japan) and the funky J-Pop music reverberating from every second lift pylon.

It doesn’t look like it’s snowed today, but there’s still bags of fresh lying around. There are pockets 20cm deep on most of the pistes, but the trees are even more inviting. Shall we go check out that stash over there? Yes. Yes, we shall.

Day 1, 5:45pm. Plaza Hotel Snarokuso, Tazawako.

Ah, how I’ve missed that JaPOW! So much colder and drier than the snow we get in the Alps. I’m still buzzing from a great afternoon exploring the Tazawako ski area with Iain and Ryan. Skied some great snow, but more importantly having got the lie of the land we have a few zones scoped for tomorrow. Now though, time for a cold beer and a shower. I hope I can find my way to the dining room later – this hotel’s as bizarre and quirky and as you’d hope for in Japan, and the labyrinth of coridoors is taxing my sleep-deprived grey matter!

Day 1, 9:32pm. Plaza Hotel Snarokuso, Tazawako.

Even as I stumble zombie-like back through the maze to my room, my tastebuds continue to tingle. Wow, that was a truly incredible meal. Wagyu beef, seafood, sake, mushrooms, and the local speciality gakko pickles. Jet lag is kicking in now though. I don’t know how long I’ve been awake, but my eye lids are losing their battle with gravity – even duck tape couldn’t hold them up now. Plus it’s snowing outside. To bed, and oblivion: tomorrow will be on like Donkey Kong.

Day 2, 3:57am. Plaza Hotel Snarokuso, Tazawako.

Damn you, jet lag. How long ’til breakfast?

Day 2, 8:15am. Tazawako ski area, Akita Prefecture.

It’s still snowing! Not just snowing, but dumping. Properly dumping. This is Japan; this is why we’re here. We head first to the Kuromori-yama lift, serving the area that hosts Tazawako’s Mogul World Cup course, with a tasty 33° gradient at the top. The moguls are on the left, and a couple of ski instructors carve big turns on the central groomed section. They don’t seem to know what they’re missing: right under the lift the snow is as deep and dry and cold as my day dreams. We lap it over and over, giggling and whooping like idiots. The ski instructors just laugh at us; all the while, the snow falls.

The lift itself is a funny thing, just a pole with a bucket hanging from a cable. No safety bar, not that it matters: it’s barely a metre above the snow, and falling off would be like falling into a pit of big white feathers.

Eventually we decide we’re crossing our own tracks too often, and head higher up the hill. It’s cold, and the wind howls like a pack of wolves – wolves hungry for GoPro batteries, which roll over and die with little resistance. We couldn’t care less, and work our way from stash to stash, revelling in the billowing clouds of cold smoke powder. Slash a turn here, drift sideways past that tree, set an edge and rocket back into the fall line. No one else is skiing off the pistes. Barely anyone is skiing on the pistes, for that matter. Powder stress? Forget it. 

This place is a playground, and we have it to ourselves.

Day 2, 2pm. Kuromori-yama lift, Tazawako ski area.

Refreshed and recharged by a hearty lunch of chicken katsu curry (think wiener schnitzel with rice and a dollop of bolognese-like sauce), we suit and boot and head back out into the storm. Our favourite lift from this morning is closed, while a team of resort staff battle the blizzard to clear the fresh snow from the mogul course. We persuade the lifty that we don’t want to ski that part of the slope anyway, and being professional ski journalists of international renown (at least for the purposes of this conversation – poetic license is a wonderful thing!) he relents, and we’re soon swinging our way up into the white. I have to pinch myself to make sure, but yes, this is really happening: we’re in Japan in the middle of a huge snow storm, and we have a private lift and slope to ourselves. I don’t know the correct hashtags to convey this level of epicness; Instagram will have to wait ’til later.

At the top we head off the side into the trees behind the resort, dropping into a long fall line pitch of perfectly-spaced trees. Snow billows, it’s in our faces, it’s everywhere; we have to time turning and breathing to avoid a lungful. Eventually we hit the road at the bottom, and look for a way down the 8 foot tall snow embankments. The resort and lifts are just down the hill, so we ski along the street and hit repeat over and over, until time and light run out on us.

Day 2, 5:30pm. Plaza Hotel Snarokuso, Tazawako.

There’s no better way to recover from a long day playing in frozen water than an hour or two soaking in some lightly steaming water, and knowing what’s good for us a trip to the hotel onsen – a natural open air hot spring – is in order. Strip off, wash, wade in and crack a tin of cold local beer. We tell tales of other trips and mountains and our favourite ski areas, and hunker down under the water when the wind occasionally picks up and strafes us with snow.

Bliss.

Day 3, 8am. Cat ski operation near Tazawako.

I’ve never really been a believer in the concept of having too much snow, but now I’m starting to come round to the idea. We’re smashing our way uphill in a high-powered snow cat and the amount of fresh snow outside can only be measured in metres. Should be the perfect scenario, but we’ve just arrived at the tree line and the storm is far too intense for the cat to go any higher into the alpine. Climbing out the cabin we’re battered by the wind, screaming in from every direction. With no guide and no map, this doesn’t feel like the right time for exploratory skiing – there are probably White Walkers out there anyway.

Instead we scoot back down the cat track, which is at least the freshest of freshly groomed corduroy.

Back at the resort the lifts are spinning regardless of the storm and the -18°C ambient (before wind chill) temperatures, and by now we know where to go for a good time. Jump on the lift, jackets zipped up and hatches battened down. Into the trees. This is our last run – make it count.

Day 3, 2:35pm. Hideyoshi Brewery, Akita Prefecture. 

Oh wow. That’s something else. Who knew sake should be served cold? Not sure which is my favourite though, the young fruity one or that last fizzy one with the champagne yeast? Oh, yes please, I guess I should double check.

 

Day 3, 9:30pm. Seisetsukan farm house.

The snow is still hammering down. Nonstop, endless. The guys are bringing the huge balloon we decorated earlier down – the festival isn’t for another few weeks, but they’re right, we probably should test it. Someone fires up a burner, and as the air within heats up so the balloon rises into the cold black night.

Day 4, 1pm. Minoko restaurant, Oga-city.

Seafood is always better by the sea, no matter where in the world you are. As the 1000°C hot stone is placed in the fish soup, it hisses and boils and steams like a Macbethian witch’s cauldron, filling the restaurant with a deliciously fragrant steam.

Day 5, 7am. Albert Hotel, Akita City.

Damn, last minute packing again! Quick, dive in the shower. Where’s my passport?!

Day 5, 10:40am. Tokyo Haneda Airport.

Arigatou, Japan. Until next time, Fuji-san.

Details

Fly into Tokyo, then take a domestic flight to Akita. English isn’t widely spoken and all signs are in Japanese, so onward transport is best done by private transfer.

Stay at the Plaza Hotel Snarokuso, close to the lifts at Tazawako ski resort.

Visit the Hideyoshi brewery. Learn how sake is made, sample the local varieties, and pick your favourite to take home.

Learn about the mountain guardian  Namahage deities, and dive into Akita’s fascinating history. 

Eat at the Minoko restaurant in Oga, near the ocean.

Indulge at the fantastic Hamanoya restaurant in Akita, with a visit from the famous Akita-maiko.

Sleep at the Albert Hotel in Akita before your flight home.

Words: Matt Clark. Photos: Iain MacMillan, Sohei Takahashi, Ryan Stuart and Matt Clark.

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