Seki Onsen owner Mikio Inoue reflects on 20 years at the resort.
More than 100 years ago, the sloping land above Seki Onsen was gradually cleared for firewood. At some point around the time skiing was first introduced to Japan, a lightning bolt struck that this would make a great place to ski. Seki Onsen Ski Area’s owner for the past 20 years, Mikio Inoue, says it was just after World War 2 when the first lift was erected. “Seki Onsen is a natural landscape not carved out specifically for skiing,” he explains.
In truth, Seki’s genesis is not the only atypical aspect. Inoue-san maintains the ski resort as a family-run business. Having worked for a lift company at various resorts, including Hakuba, Inoue-san first laid eyes upon Seki Onsen 40 years ago and has been here since. His children were born and raised here. His wife is a chef and makes homemade pasta and pizza at their restaurant, Haube, smoking her own bacon and making Genovese sauce. She might also be the one selling you a lift ticket.
A handful of other family members take care of every other aspect of the resort’s day-to-day. “This business is our own,” Inoue-san begins. “There is no other company we get to do maintenance, like snow clearing. My family does all the snow clearing. This is how we are able to keep the costs down and keep it a family business”.
Of course, this hands-on approach does result in times that become a little more hands-on than others, in the literal sense. During the most recent past season of 2021/22, like many other Myokoites, the folks at Seki Onsen endured battles with Mother Nature. “I remember one large dump during the season where we had so much snow it took five days to dig the lifts out,” recalls Inoue-san. “We had no choice but to dig it all out by hand”.
“Seki Onsen Ski Area gets more snow than anywhere else in Myoko,” its owner insists proudly. “Myoko is already famous for its huge snowfall but Seki is number one, then Akakura”.
Beneath the active stratovolcano of Mount Myoko sits Mount Kanna. “Kannasan”, says Inoue-san, directs seasonal winds in such a way that it blesses the area with more powder snow than one could ever hope for.
“My family does all the snow clearing. This is how we are able to keep the costs down and keep it a family business.”
“When we have a big dump of snow,” he continues, “lots of skiers and boarders will come the next day. If the timing is right, there’s so much north-facing deep powder in the Kannasan valley. Also, due to the geology, the backcountry is not dangerous. It’s very steep and this makes Seki Onsen a great place for experienced skiers and boarders searching for powder”.
Seki Onsen is a tiny resort. It has only four official runs serviced by just two lifts. The area below the top of the double chair is sometimes groomed …but maybe not. Beyond that, there is a pizza box single-chair lift that is not always open. Whims and health of machinery will dictate both on any given day.
Most see this as adding to the charm of Seki Onsen. But not all, as Inoue-san explains. He says that during modern times, his ski resort seems to appeal to foreigners more so than his compatriots.
“Japanese people often complain that the resort is too small or that it isn’t groomed. There are some Japanese people who come to ski at Seki but generally, I think they prefer on-piste skiing elsewhere. I like the opposite and I think a lot of foreigners do too,” he says. “Foreigners are friendly and they enjoy the mountain”.
This speaks to yet another anomalous feature of Seki Onsen — there’s no ban on off-piste skiing and boarding. “People coming to Seki tend to be advanced and take responsibility for themselves and their safety,” insists the owner.
If Seki’s size is a con in that, without fresh snow there’s not a lot to keep one interested, the countering pro is that there is almost always fresh snow. Much like the rest of Myoko, there is no shortage of powder snow. Reports suggest an average of somewhere in the realm of 15–16 metres per season with a 2021/22 season in the 20 metre-ballpark, along with nearby Lotte Arai. At the end of the day, if you want specific numbers, you can chase them. But if you’re chasing Japow, Seki Onsen is the place to find it.
The 2019/20 season will be remembered for a few less-than-awesome reasons. Not only was it the season during which we all first saw the term “coronavirus” join the vernacular, but it was also a season with uncommonly low snowfall Japan-wide. While Myoko ended the season with respectable 9 metres, it was very slow to kick off. As a new lodge owner looking out the window around Christmas and seeing the sky struggle to produce, I drove guests to Seki. What was almost snow in Akakura had turned to rain down on Route 18. But by the time we reached Seki Onsen, it was a completely different world. As Inoue-san described, Kannasan was diligently directing those Siberian winds in such a way that it was positively dumping. Mother Nature rarely neglects Seki Onsen.
Happily, the 2021/22 season soon had everyone forgetting about the previous one. Cut to the present day with its open borders and hopefully we can also start to put Covid in the rear-view too. Inoue-san and his family are looking forward to seeing foreigners come back and enjoy the famed deep and steep his resort offers. And maybe some homemade pasta to go with it.
Now that the borders are open, more foreigners are sure to discover Seki if they haven’t already. Let’s hope the duality of change doesn’t threaten what’s real and true about the place. Aside from the glorious amount of powder snow, the old-school aesthetic and family-run vibe are what make Seki a charm. Inoue-san has called Seki Onsen home for the past 40 years and intends on seeing as many more as possible.