If you like big snow, and no one to compete with for heavenly lines, there are few places better than Tohoku in Northern Japan. Fall Line meets Hakkoda and friends for an unforgettable experience
09:10 There is no doubt about it – Japan is getting more popular with European and North American skiers who like to gobble up fresh lines faster than you can say “Chamonix on a powder day”. And while Niseko is not quite blown, or Myoko over just yet, it’s definitely time to look elsewhere. Which is exactly why I’m en route to the north of Honshu, Japan’s mainland…
11:40 Tokyo station is like the end of the world. And it appears the city’s entire 13-million population is on the move. But somehow, it is orderly. I quickly find my platform for the Shinkansen Express and am momentarily baffled by the markings of where to stand. Oh yes, told you it was orderly. Is Line 1 for the first train? Or the first lot of people who are waiting for the first train? There are so many of us, it’s impossible to tell. I stand with my ski bag across Line 1, 2 and 3 and possibly set cultural relations back a few years.
12:49 I like Hayabusa. She will spirit us to the northern city of Morioka in 133 minutes. Not bad as it’s well over 500km from Tokyo.
14:22 The elongated green nose of the Peregrine Falcon – to give the English translation – is majestic, zipping through the countryside past endless houses, fields and, crikey, was that Mount Fuji? On the debit side, as I came straight from Narita airport (rather than spend a night in the city) I’ve been unable to reserve a seat. And I’m finding it quite tricky to read PD James, or find out who killed the Archdeacon, whilst propping up my ski bag outside the loo at 300km/h.
18:06 My friend Zak (arriving separately from KL, as he’s big in chemical engineering) and I are signed up to a blind powder tour. No laughing. This definitely does not involve skiing by mogul braille, or clanging into lift towers. It most definitely does involve going where the snow is deepest. Hakkoda, Appi, Aomori Spring, Geto, Alts Bandai and lots more brilliant hills you’ve not heard are all easily accessible by car from Morioka according to my pre-trip research.
19:12 Er, could you just scrub those resorts from memory? Our group of nine have had our introductory meeting with the guides from Powder Recon at our hotel (handily located right by the train station in Morioka), and been sworn to secrecy, at least for a month or two. In short, they’ve put a load of work in over the last two seasons, and don’t want every special spot, and tree run that took ages to find ending up on Powderhounds, spoiling it for all their groups. Or worse still, giving the game away to other competing tour groups. Cripes…
20:40 Canada and Australia join the UK (plus esteemed ski destination Kuala Lumpur, obviously) as our group share a welcome meal at a local Izakaya (Japanese pub) just over the road from our hotel. This looks promising, our group has skied all over the world, and know what a beacon is.
07:50 Agents 1, 2 and 3, as they shall be known, are slick. The hotel’s been great, breakfast is served early enough so we can have a good feed, and still make first lift at the resort we’re heading to if we leave on time. And we do. There is no faffing, no waiting for people, just bags ready and loaded to the splendid soundtrack of swish-swish-swishing Gore-Tex.
11:23 I was a bit worried arriving at Shizukuishi, a 40-minute drive from Morioka. A not-deserted car park, a decent-sized Prince Hotel (they own loads of ski hills in Japan), 70 people waiting for first tram… But all is very well. Japan appears obsessed with skiing on the piste, and slalom practice. As a result, outside our happy lot – now split into two small groups – I’ve not seen anyone in the trees. The agents are earning their corn too, easing us through the odd flat-spot, putting in tracks where required – there are buckets of snow – and warning not to delve too far into the sidecountry with gullies and long walks lurking.
15:19 I’m not sure where that day has gone as we sneak a final ride on the top double chair. The lightest powder I’ve had in a decade on Japan has been smashed, birch trees brushed but not clattered (it’s tight, but very possible if paying attention) and as we come down skiers’ right (think of Shizukuishi as a pyramid, with all the goodies near the apex), my legs are fried.
That’s what many hours’ skiing candyfloss will do to you. And they’re saying it’s a low snow year! Come, hike the resort’s abandoned lift line (this seems to be a feature in Japan, with so many resorts having got overexcited during the boom/bubble) and mutter about needing to put in a waist-deep track even though it’s after lunch… before realising how lucky you are.
12:54 The brighter sparks amongst you, will have noticed we’ve lost a day in the powder vortex. Because we’ve been sworn to secrecy about the new hotel we’ve moved to (an hour west from Morioka), that will function as our luxurious base-camp plus hill on the doorstep. To be brief, it’s far from a whopper of a mountain, and nothing approaching a resort, but heavens does it make me happy. No crowds, no stress, no competition for powder.
15:45 I’m worried where these days are going. Tazawako, land of the smallest piste map you’ve ever seen (think large stamp) it’s been wonderful. We stopped skiing you 10 minutes ago, and your craft beer at the main base cafeteria is just as tasty as your fluffy snow, high-speed quads, views of Lake Tazawa and 4100 yen (£22.50) lift pass. Plus unlike plenty of the other Japanese hills you let people ski under the lift line. Subarashii!
11:23 Appi Kogen, in Iwate prefecture, an hour north of Morioka, you have been in my sights for years! And you are the best yet this week. Sidecountry marked gates just like Niseko (but without the crowds), over-the-head blower-pow under the disused gondola line, slot after slot to mine skiers’ right under the working gondola (told you these Japanese resorts like to mothball infrastructure). It’s easy to be ‘Happy In Appi’ as it says on the piste map. But despite your stellar performance, Hakkoda, the big one, is calling…
11:31 You will note again some days have passed, as Fall Line’s shuttled up to the tip of Honshu. And the only problem with a huge ropeway that soars above the coastal city of Aomori (170km north of Morioka, or a four-and-a-half-hour Shinkansen from Tokyo) is that it can get rather windy. And this has been happening. Lots. But today we finally have the all clear. And pal Zak, and the tour, has been swapped for Hiro and Garrett from the tourist board. I show what an experienced, vital journalist I am by getting far too excited taking pictures of snow monsters, and somehow lose my gloves.
14:05 My favourite Dakine mitts defy being found, but the 5km Forest course is a banger. It starts with views of the city and sea, set off by a sensational foreground packed with thousands of ‘monsters’, huge slabs of snow created when water droplets are carried by seasonal winds and freeze on evergreens. The trail is not bad either, with huge options to dip into left and right. We delve in only 30 or 40 metres, with the real guiding and hiking coming tomorrow but it is all a bit… exciting!
09:48 I can take, or mainly leave, a skin track most days. But this morning, dodging the snow monsters while zig-zagging to the backside of Hakkoda (from the ropeway’s top station on Mt. Tamoyachidake) is an almost spiritual experience. I’ve wanted to do this for years and finally it’s all set up. Not a hint of wind is spoiling the picture, and for once in this part of the world it’s totally bluebird as we look past the bay and search for Hokkaido across the sea. Garrett, who’s had to go back to the office is missing a treat. “The day of the season,” says his boss Hiro, not very gravely.
11:15 Masa, our excellent guide (who has more than a hint of Danger Mouse’s Penfold about him) is sure we can see the North Island. Me, I’m not so certain, but as we climb and climb (the estimate is a total of two hours of up today) surrounded by beautiful, snowy Mount Akakuradake, Idodake, and Odake, who cares? Mount Iwaki, Aomori’s highest mountain is the pick of them all, towering to the west.
11:48 Heaven knows how many days Masa (whose family are ski royalty round here from what I can gather, doing everything from coaching Japan’s World Cup prospects to serving marvelous melon ice cream in the base cafe) has had on the mountain. But we are in a bind. And one I’ve certainly not experienced before. There are simply too many snow monsters, too tightly placed to know where to head next. Tricky…
11:50 Our man in The North Face’s finest yellow Gore-Tex may be small but he is mighty. And after studying the bouncer-type blockade for a moment he simply shrugs his shoulders, swivels his Salomon touring skis 270˚ and jumps into a rollercoaster-style dip between 20-foot frozen pines.
12:20 We’ve been skinning in 30-minute blocks, either taking a rest and shooting a picture or 300, or simply arcing fabulous open, spring-like turns down glorious faces. This is what touring should be all about. Roosters with a view, and not too much effort.
12:36 Lunch is served in a quiet spot in the shadow of Mount Kodake, with Masa pulling out what can only be described as a deep-fried croquette style, almost pie for each of us. I ask Hiro what these are called in Japan and he is baffled. “Special guide food,” he says after a pause.
14:36 More powder, more pleasant arcs across unspoilt hillsides, plus a joy-packed meadow-section back to the road, which leads back to the resort/ropeway, means the day is done. After a quick fist bump for dear Masa and Hiro, plus a nod back towards the mountains conquered, we all agree it was rather special, that just for once in this ever-so-snowy part of the world, that the taps turned off and we were able to see Hakkoda in all its glory.
1. Hakkoda Backcountry
The big one in terms of up-north terrain. Think snow monsters, incredible views of the Aomori coast, and endless skiable trees with a good pitch (top to bottom is over 5km). The ropeway is frequently wind affected, but when it’s running, so worth it. Book a guide via the Hakkoda Ski School (hakkoda-ski.com), and if you’re lucky you’ll score Masa – kind, knowledgeable, fun-sized and very funny.
2. Nebuta Museum Wa-Rasse
The Japanese are crackers in a good way. And every year they have a huge festival, with Nebuta (nebuta.jp) being all about warding off sleep – the enemy of farm workers (and possibly night skiers). Every year two million assemble in August for floats, huge painted and lit faces, and lots of dancing/banging of drums. You can have a crack at all this at the open year-round huge museum in the heart of Aomori city.
3. Onsen time
Nowhere loves a hot spring as much as Japan. And there are plenty in the Tohoku region. The best have an open air (plus inside) sulphur-infused bath at various heats, and some even let you take a beer as company. If you’re skiing Hakkoda, stay at Sukayu Onsen (just up the road from the ropeway, with a free bus, see sukayu.jp) for the perfect, traditional leg soak. It’s very Japanese – take your supplied kimono – and claims its mixed Senjin Buro onsen can hold 1000 people. So, er, it’s a big one.
TRAVEL Land at Tokyo, then train is best. Get a JR Pass for unlimited, anywhere is good Japan Rail travel, with seven days for £283, or 14 days for £452. Or the JR East Pass (30,000 yen/£165 for five consecutive days) if you wish to tick off the mainland resorts we did.
TOUR Powder Recon‘s mantra is ‘less crowds, more powder and uniquely Japanese’ and they delivered. It can’t be easy shepherding nine disparate skiers around the frozen north of Honshu and they did it with three guides (so a great ratio) plus good humour and splendid organisation. The Northern Odyssey Tour costs $3,690 AUS (£1,950) including excellent hotels, dinners, breakfasts, transport, and six days’ lift passes and guiding.