The Lost Pillows of Japan
Updated: Feb 15, 2018
A journey to a remote and relatively undiscovered region of Japan to glimpse Japanese ski culture as it was before the gai-jin invasion.
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.
While visiting my old college buddy Alex in Myanmar last fall, we got to talking about linking up in Japan for some turns this 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 get try something new in Japan. Having traveled to Japan 6 times to ski already, 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 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 once-empty resorts with strong Japanese flavor has been lost.
“...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 once-empty resorts with strong 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. 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. I took the Narita express To the Tokyo station where I booked a hotel room (using points) at the nearby Courtyard Marriott. This is the easiest and best hotel 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 college roommate who lives in Tokyo, I could now write off the rest of the 3-week trip as a work/play trip. The next day I met up with Alex at Tokyo station and jumped on a Shinkansen (super-fast bullet train) north.
After a comfortable 2.5 hour ride up the middle of the big island of Honshu, we arrived at our destination, a mid-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 accommodation for sleeping and then going to work. When looking to stay for cheap in a city in Japan, these are great options if there are no hostels or guesthouses. 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 and also happened to be the red-light district. This is another common aspect of Japanese cities. While we did not partake in this local custom, we did visit several of the food emporiums and we become locals at an eccentric Irish bar where we were definitely the oddity being foreign in a place with few foreigners.
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 could not have been 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 is had not snowed much for the previous week, this seemed too good to be true. In my home mountain of Whistler, this would have already been tracked out within minutes of being open. We savagely attached the lines charging through the deep powder. As is typical in Japan, I followed a line that brought me into a deep ravine. In similar previous experiences, I have had to hike out up steep slopes in deep powder for over an hour. Fortunately, in this case, I was able to ski it out.
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, several 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 my whole life in other parts of the world, we were not busted at any point during the trip. One of the members of our group 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.
Lost Resorts of Japan
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 out 2 rides up a cat to an abandoned part of the resort. While it was great to ski fresh powder on-piste, it was slightly sad to see the resort in such a dilapidated state. A gondola had originally been built here but was never operated. 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. While other resorts in the south near Nagano or in the north in Hokkaido had recovered due to the influx of foreigners in recent years, these resorts are too far from the major urban centers to attract those in Japan that still have the luxury to ski.
Our final day in the north we skied a resort on the slope of a major volcano in the region. At the top of the resort above the highest chair, there was a bootpack 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 form the thermal vents seemingly like smoke would rise from the molten pool in an active volcano. Japan is a collection of volcanic islands with more volcanos then almost anywhere in the world. As a result, it had always been on my bucket list to ski into a crater just like this one. After some debate in the group about the risk vs reward of skiing into a steep crater that could cause an avalanche that sends us into out deaths in the scalding thermal pools, we decided to take a more conservative line into the crater. This was the best line of the trip. And considering a similar volcano vent erupted nearby the following week injuring 12 Japanese skiers killing one of them, I was thankful we were cautious. This was a wonderful cap to our adventure in the north. After a local version of izakaya, we happily crashed before parting ways for our trip south.
Japan by Rail
The one down side of taking the train when in Japan is that you have to lug your bags around. Considering I had a double ski bag that looked like it could carry a body in it, this was not always 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 accommodation sat the first resort that you're staying at using 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 in the cities. If you are planning on just going to one resort in either Nagano or Hokkaido, I
would us to suggest taking a shuttle or taxi directly to the resort. It will be more expensive, But much easier, especially when you are in this new and confusing land.