Skiing Japan’s mountain madness
Shimokura at Hachimantai is one of 17 ski areas dispersed around Iwate-san, the highest peak (2038 metres) in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, Japan. Here, powder is god, foreigners are unheard of and if you don’t attempt a three-metre wide, double-black diamond run – even as a beginner – then you’re missing out.
I arrived at Appi, the first stop on my itinerary, a complete novice snowboarder (I’ve attempted it once before). My mission, over the next seven days, is to sample several of the best ski areas in the Iwate prefecture and go home a confident boarder.
I exit the chairlift on the first day – one foot strapped to my board – with the grace of a two-tonne elephant. Parking myself on the side of the wide, powdery white, groomed run, I try to make a snowball. But the tiny snowflakes refuse to stick and float away from my gloves like dust. This is what they mean by aspirin snow. It’s the light, dry and just-right stuff that makes even the most diehard snow junkie regress to a giggly 10-year-old.
“An ogre once lived on the mountain,” says Aki, my guide, pointing to the cup-shaped summit of nearby Iwate as I click the other foot into my board. “He kept annoying the local people so they asked him to stop. The ogre promised he would, but the people made him sign a contract by putting his hand on the rock. That’s how Mt Iwate got its name ‘rock hand’.”
I soon discover the most scenic, and thrilling, run down a mountain in Tohoku is achievable for even the most timid boarder. Appi’s yamabato run is a 5.5-kilometre beginner trail that starts at the summit of Mt Maemori and ends 20 minutes later at the backdoor to the hotel. It’s one of just a handful of spots in the region where beginners can actually descend from a mountain top.
Midway down the run, my concentration wavers from piloting my snowboard to looking around in awe. The outline of Iwate looms behind us as we glide over plains and past young forests. I hear the occasional swish-swish of ski pants and some nasally J-pop drifting from speakers as we pass the gondola.
It’s not long before I take my first tumble. After the initial shock of being rotated as if I’m on a spin cycle, I realise it’s more like rolling around in fluff. As soon as I recompose myself, the adrenaline kicks in. I soon find a rhythm and any fear of falling evaporates. My board gains momentum at shocking speed and I arrive at the bottom with a ridiculous grin on my face.
I spend the next couple of days getting some quality boarding time under my belt. I test out the gentle slopes of Shizukuishi, the intermediate snow at Geto Kogen and the squeaky blue-tinged runs at Tazawako, which offer a spectacular panoramic view of Lake Tarawa – at 423 metres, Japan’s deepest lake.
By the end of the fourth night, I’ve pretty much mastered turning, but my lower body feels like it’s in a coma. It’s time to test out the onsen.
The après-ski scene in Tohoku is far from the VB-swilling hoards at Niseko. Here, bars are non-existent, painful karaoke renditions of ‘Like a Virgin’ are mandatory, and steaming, sulphur-infused hot springs to relieve sore muscles are a must.
I find a particularly unusual onsen one evening at my hotel near Amihari. Instead of a hot tub and wet room with all the little soaps and shampoos, I discover a long space with unflattering McDonald’s-like lighting and a two-metre wide trough stretching down the middle. A couple of shower-capped heads poke out from beneath the surface of a big mound of dirt, which looks and smells like something you’d feed to a horse.
A woman in a pair of green gumboots steps towards me. She motions for me to disrobe and step into a coffin-sized hole in the muck. I resist the urge to put up a fight when I see she is waving a large garden shovel. Instead, I settle myself naked into the ground and watch as she covers me in chaff.
I’m told that the Japanese fermented rice bran bath has super-strong healing powers. The bran, which gets heated up to a toasty 55°C, is supposed to aid muscle relaxation, help weight loss and decrease body fat by up to three per cent. Why hasn’t Oprah cottoned on to this yet?
Twenty minutes in and I’m sweating like a stuffed chicken in a roasting tray. I signal I’m done to the woman in wellies by sweating through my eyes and squealing like a helpless animal. I wiggle my toes and fingers, break the surface like I’m Godzilla and go to wash up. My skin is smooth and my muscles feel like jelly, but my body smells like breakfast.
Iridescent blue skies and an unusually clear head greet me the next morning at Amihari. I jump onto a completely empty chairlift with my rosy-cheeked guide, Koami, heading towards the summit of Mt Inukura. Beneath my dangling legs, snow-cloaked firs give way to rows and rows of cedar trees, their powdery branches twisted like arthritic fingers in the chilly air. At times, the chairlift rumbles as it rises higher into the clouds. At other times, Koami breaks long-spells of silence with offers of “Beautiful?”, “Cold?” or “Mint chew?”
Three chairlifts later, I’m at the top of the mountain crunching through waist-deep snow. My arms struggle to hold onto my board with each gravity-defying moon-like leap. The low sun paints everything with a golden light and long blue shadows. A gentle wind sends peppery crystals into the sky. I follow Komai’s tracks like a snow-blind explorer. My mind oscillates between illusions of Santa’s Grotto and dancing elves in silly hats with bells.
After 10 minutes, we reach the beginning of the run. I struggle to strap in with so much snow, especially when my whole body is shaking with anticipation. I signal to Koami that I am ready, shuffle my hips, lean in and fly.
The snow before me gives way and I lose sight of my legs. Speed builds rapidly; fear disintegrates like snowflakes. It’s like riding the world’s creamiest ice-cream. My board sinks, scoops and glides as I rock all my weight to my back foot. We cut through some adventurous – possibly out-of-bounds – terrain that causes me to go faster and imagine I’m being chased by spies in the latest James Bond blockbuster.
“Sorry for snow,” apologises Koami, when I land back on earth 30 minutes later. “Not good season. We normally have many, many more snow.” I take a moment to catch my breath and finish shaking the entire Iwate prefecture from my goggles.
Over the next few days, if I’m not on the slopes then I find it impossible to concentrate. We sail the Geibikei (Geibi Gorge) in a traditional yakatabune (houseboat) and I picture myself getting airborne between the 100-metre cliffs. We go to see a festival of giant snow castles and Kirin bears at Koiwai Farm and I want to upturn a plastic tray and scream down the toboggan run. Instead of admiring the history of the Buddhist temple of Chuson-ji or the samurai houses of Kakunodate, I become transfixed by a pile of grubby snow under a bare cherry blossom. Snowboarding, it seems, has become an obsession.
And that brings me to the final day of my trip and back to the vertical drop at Shimokura. I suck in a deep breath and silently yell, “Three!” My emotions flit from nerves to excitement to an overwhelming sense of dread. The snow before me parts like I’m Moses and it’s the Red Sea. I hear myself yelp and whoop – or maybe it’s a scream – before a white wave swallows me.
After days of hardcore lower-body work and a whole load of thrills (and spills), I’m done. The mission is complete. Collapsing at the bottom of the mountain, legs shaking, I look back up at the black double-diamond run I’ve just survived. Over seven days, I’ve skied six different spots. I’ve boarded through snow so light and dry it disappears in your fingers. I’ve been up mountains, down runs, through forests and, most importantly, I’ve had a ball. After all, I conclude, often it’s the seemingly stupid ideas that actually end up being the best.
Qantas flies from most Australian cities to Tokyo. From there, catch the bullet train to Morioka in the Tohoku region.
In Appi, try the Hotel Appi Grand.
At Tazawako, Plaza Hotel Sanrokuso Bekkan Shikisai is a traditional Japanese ryokan.
Japan’s ski season starts mid-November and runs all the way to May. The best time to go, however, is in January and February. For more information see the Japan National Tourism Organization’s website.