The Lost Pillows of Japan
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
A journey to a remote and relatively undiscovered ski region of Japan to glimpse Japanese ski culture as it was before the gai-jin invasion. Since most of the resorts we visited first opened at the beginning of the crash of the Japanese economy in the 90's, they are essentially ghost resorts.
Disclosure: At the request of our friend and guide Brent, I am emitting the names and locations of the resorts that we visited. If you are particularly keen to visit any of these destinations, please contact me directly or better yet, join one of Brent's guided adventures with Japan Ski Tours.
Japan Ski Tours: www.japanskitours.com
While visiting my old college buddy Alex in Myanmar last fall, we got to talking about linking up in Japan for some turns in the coming winter. He mentioned that a guiding buddy of his was planning an investigative exploration of unknown resorts in Northern Honshu in preparation for a guided tour he was giving a few weeks later. I jumped at the chance to try something new in Japan. Having traveled to Japan to ski on 6 different occasions in previous years, I have skied many of the resorts both big and small in Nagano, outside of Tokyo, and around Niseko in the northern island of Hokkaido. While I love visiting these locations, in recent years there has been a huge influx of foreigners coming to check out what all the hype is about. As a result, part of the charm and allure of skiing the once-empty resorts strong with local Japanese flavor has been lost.
After a quick work trip in Hong Kong, I flew into Narita Airport outside of Tokyo. Since we were planning to travel by train, I purchased a JR East Rail Pass for the Tohoku region at the station. This covered pretty much all of our travel in Japan, including to and from the airport. At 20,000 yen, it saved me considerable cash that would be used for more important expenses like beer and ramen noodles. I took the Narita Express train to Tokyo Station in the center of the city where I booked a hotel room (using points) at the nearby Courtyard Marriott. This is one of the easiest, cheapest and best hotels to stay at if you want to spend a night in Tokyo before taking the train to the mountains. After a dinner with a client and lunch with my old college roommate who lives in Tokyo, I now felt confident writing off the rest of the 3-week trip as a work/play trip.... (I am able to work remotely so I during most ski trips, I am also doing some work). The next day I met up with Alex at Tokyo Station and we jumped on a Shinkansen (super-fast bullet train) heading north.
JR East Rail Pass: www.jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass/
Courtyard Marriott Tokyo Station: www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/tyogz-courtyard-tokyo-station/
Getting Around Japan by Rail:
The one down side of taking the train when in Japan is that you have to lug around your big bags with gear and ski. Considering I had a double ski bag that looked like it was carrying a body in it, this was not very very easy. Especially if you need to get around Tokyo. Rather than do this in the future, I recommend sending your gear from the airport to your accommodationusing the shipping service Yamato (Black Cat). This service is surprisingly inexpensive and will save you a tremendous amount of trouble and awkwardness on the trains and in the cities. If you are planning on just going to one resort in either Nagano or Hokkaido, I would suggest taking a shuttle or taxi directly to the resort like Chuo Taxi in Nagano. It will be more expensive, But much easier, especially when you are in this new and confusing land.
Yamato (Black Cat): www.global-yamato.com/en/hands-free-travel/
Chuo Taxi: www.chuotaxi.co.jp/english/
After a comfortable 2.5 hour train ride up the middle of the big island of Honshu, we arrived at our destination, a medium-sized blue collar Japanese city. Brent picked us up at the station and took us to a nearby business hotel. Business hotels in Japan are no-nonsense, bare-boned accommodations typical for traveling businessmen. When looking to stay for cheap in a city in Japan, these are great options if there are no hostels or guesthouses available. The rooms are just large enough to fit a bed, a small desk, and my rolling body bag (ski bag). This is where we based out of for the next several days. It was in close proximity to the center of town with a plethora of local restaurants and bars which also happened to be the red-light district. This is another common element in Japanese cities. While we did not partake in the typical local customs engaged in the district, we did visit several delicious food emporiums and we became locals at an eccentric Irish bar. Where ever we went, we were the focus of attention since we were the only foreigners around.
Our first day on the mountain, we visited the largest ski resort in the area, a medium sized resort for Japan on par with a typical resort in New England. While not particularly large, we soon realized that there were no more than 25 other skiers on the entire mountain. And while the runs were groomed with precise corduroy, the terrain under the lift lines contained untracked, virgin powder. Considering that it had not snowed much over the previous week, this seemed too good to be true. In my home mountain of Whistler Blackcomb, any fresh powder is tracked out within minutes of being open to the public. Happy that we had made the trip here, we savagely charged through the deep powder. We cut in and out of the small trees and down the open face under the gondola. Light, dry snow exploded into our faces on each turn as we barreled down the slope. By the end of the first run, we knew we had found something special.
During our third rip down the gondola line, we head a whistler from across the ravine valley. We had been spotted by the ski patrol. While most Japanese resorts state that it is forbidden to ski off-piste (off of designated ski runs), several resorts turn a blind eye. It seems that this was not one of those. So began the cat and mouse game that we would play with the patrol at all four of the resorts that we skied at over the next week. Having avoided ski patrol for several years in Japan, and for that matter, much of my life, we were able to avoid being busted here or at any point during the trip. However, a friend who was riding with us was not so lucky. Caught red handed coming out of the woods, the ski patrol took his pass. Fortunately, it only cost about $40. And since we were already known by the lift attendants, he continued to ride the gondola without a pass.
The next 3 resorts were similar to the first. We were able to find fresh lines as long as we went just off-piste in the trees. At one resort, we booked 2 rides up a cat to an abandoned part of the resort. At a cost of less than 20 US dollars per ride, this was by far the cheapest cat ride I had ever been on. While the terrain was not particularly steep, it was great to have the mountain to ourselves. From this part of the mountain, we also got a great view of some of the terrain on the rest of the resort that we would spend the afternoon skiing.
While it was great to ski fresh powder on-piste, the fact that the gondola cars had never been attached to the cable showed how dilapidated the resort was. Several other lifts on the main part of the resort were also abandoned before going into operation. These resorts, and this one in particular, represented the most noticeable signs of the ski boom of the 80’s and early 90’s in Japan followed by swift bust of the mid 90’s, or the lost decade as it is commonly known in the country. Other resorts in the south near Nagano or in the north in Hokkaido had recovered due to the influx of foreigners in recent years. However these resorts are too far from the major urban centers to attract foreigners or those Japanese who still have the luxury to ski. One resort was recently purchased by some Chinese investors perhaps suggesting that there will be some renewed interest in the area in the coming years, especially with the huge growth of Chinese skiers.
Volcano Crater Skiing:
Our final day of this leg of the trip, we skied a resort on the slope of the major volcano in the region. At the top of the resort above the highest chair, there was a boot pack up over a ridge that continued along the crater of the volcano. A massive, treeless bowl opened up as we made our way along the ridge. Down in the center of the bowl, a large plumb of steam rose from the thermal vents. Japan is an archipelago with more volcanoes then almost anywhere in the world. As a result, skiing into a crater in Japan has always been on my bucket list. The bowl of the crater looked steep and super fun but had the potential of sliding in an avalanche. Considering the avalanche would then likely send us to our deaths in the scalding thermal pools below, we decided to take a more conservative line on the side of the crater. While not as dramatic as the line I originally wanted to take down, this was none-the-less the best line of the trip. And considering a similar volcano erupted nearby the following week killing a skier, I was thankful we were cautious.
After a fantastic day at the volcano, our friend Walter boarded a train to head back to Tokyo for work the next day. Brent, Alex and I continued north. Our plan was to go to the northern tip of Honshu to Hokkoda, a mountain that is gaining status as the a holy grail of Japanese powder skiing. We stayed at a guest house in a tiny village and enjoyed a fantastic local version of izakyia. The following morning, Brent informed Alex and I that he had to bail on our mission to Hokkoda to take care of paying clients (which we were not). So while bummed, we jumped on the train going south to meet up with our buddies in Nozawa Onsen in Nagano to continue our Japanuary trip in Japow.