If you’ve been regaled with stories from skiers who visited resorts like Niseko or Hakuba in the 90s and early 2000s, then you’ll have no doubt heard how much easier it was to find fresh tracks, how much deeper the snow was, how few tourists there were, how much less developed the resorts were … it can go on and on! The truth is that the last couple of decades have seen a large influx of travellers to many of Japan’s top resorts, and the natural result is that the country’s famed powder can be a little harder to come across than it once was. A little…
So if you’ve found yourself wishing for a time machine to take you back to the days before Facebook, Uber and GoPros on selfie sticks, then we may just have your answer: Tohoku.
Tohoku is the northernmost region of Honshu, stretching from Fukushima prefecture in the south to Aomori in the north and encompassing six prefectures in total (see our map below). Its ski resorts tend to be smaller, harder to get to, and with more extreme weather than their Chūbu counterparts, but the negatives stop there.
Tohoku ski resorts – particularly those in Iwate, Akita and Aomori – are known for getting some of the heaviest snowfalls in the country (hence the extreme weather), and better yet, crowds at these resorts are often completely non-existent. Add in to the mix stunning landscapes, regional cuisine and gorgeous onsen, and you’ll begin to conjure up images of what many like to refer to as the “real Japan” … whatever that is.
Our advice: take a trip to Tohoku sooner rather than later, and in ten years you can be the one lamenting its sudden rise in popularity. Here are the Tohoku ski resorts we’d start with first.
You’ve likely seen photos of Zao Onsen, but you may not know it. The ski resort is best known for its “snow monsters” – a phenomenon that occurs when airborne water droplets freeze against Mount Zao’s Aomori white fir trees, creating unusual shapes and patterns.
But there’s more to the appeal of the resort than the somewhat spooky figures that dominate the landscape on Zao’s upper slopes. For a start, it’s Japan’s fourth biggest ski resort with more than 42 lifts and 50 km of skiable terrain, including a 10 km lung-buster from top to bottom. Beginners and intermediates will enjoy Zao’s relatively mellow pistes, while advanced skiers may prefer to (discretely) go in search of some “Zao pow” in the resort sidecountry. As always – do so with care. The only thing scarier than a “snow monster” is getting trapped in the tree well below it.
Perhaps the resort’s biggest drawcard is the charming town at its base. It’s an onsen town as much as it’s a ski town (refer to the name), and there’s simply no better way to finish a day on the slopes than a stroll through its quaint streets and a soak in one of the many public onsen. There are many purpose-built ski resorts around Japan completely devoid of this kind of culture, which makes it a real pleasure to experience one – with great skiing to boot.
“Be happy in APPI”, is Appi Kogen’s slogan, and it’s hard not to oblige. One of the larger resorts in Tohoku, APPI genuinely has something for everyone, ranging from its five dedicated “tree run” zones for the powder hunters, to its APPI Happy Snowpark for kids, which features learner slopes, sleds, snow tubes and much more. Its 21 runs are serviced by 10 lifts, one of which is a gondola that delivers riders from the APPI Resort Centre (620 m) to the summit of Mt. Maemori (1304 m).
While most of APPI’s terrain is on Mt. Maemori, strong riders are highly encouraged to take the lift to the summit of Mt. Nishimori, where they’ll find some of the resort’s best terrain for powder skiing on offer. Inuwashi run, which branches off to skiers right is known for its moguls and has 30° sections, so beginners should avoid at all costs.
Like many ski resorts in Japan (see above), APPI is a purpose-built resort, and its base is dominated by a few large hotels – the largest of which is the Hotel Appi Grand. There are are some smaller pensions down the road, but the town – if you choose to call it that – is very limited. For a more immersive cultural experience, we suggest heading into the nearby rural town Hachimantai for a meal or a drink, or further afield (50 km) to Morioka, which has a lively nightlife and is highly recommended for a night or two.
The Geto secret is out! The self-proclaimed “Japan’s king of snow” lives up to its name, with a rapidly developing reputation for some of Japan’s best in-bounds tree skiing and powder. The bowl-shaped resort “catches windblown snow from the nearby peaks”, creating a “powder pocket” according to the resort’s website. Anyone who’s skied Geto knows that it’s no exaggeration.
Better still, Geto is about to get bigger, with reports that the resort is going to open up even more of its terrain to advanced skiers chasing fresh tracks.
However, riders who carry a terrain map and take pleasure in ticking off a run and moving onto the next one should stay clear. With 14 official marked trails and just five lifts, Geto is more about quality than quantity (unless you’re talking about metres of snow per season, in which case “15” is your number”). Beginners and intermediates are also well catered to, with some appealing groomers.
Another purpose-built resort, Geto is quite limited when it comes to accommodation, and there’s no real town to speak of. That said, the budget-friendly Geto Camp 88 will be a major draw-card for the younger crew who can do without the creature comforts of a top-end hotel. It has 88 beds in a dorm-style setup and, at just ¥5,800/night during the week, it has to be one of Japan’s best value ski-in ski-out accommodations.
If you’ve heard of Tazawako ski resort then you’re ahead of the game, though very keen mogul skiers may recognise it as a stop on the Freestyle World Cup. But despite its low-key profile, the resort has certain qualities that make it a must-visit for any Tohoku ski trip. Firstly, and most importantly, it has powder on tap, and with very few people to ruin it and lots of ungroomed areas of the resort, there are some epic days to be had.
Tazawako (Tazawa lake) is also one of the top sights of the region – a stunning caldera lake, which is also Japan’s deepest at 423 metres. It attracts visitors from all over during the warmer months, but we happen to prefer admiring it from altitude and with two planks locked to our feet.
As is quite often the case at Tohoku ski resorts, Tazawako’s in-bounds ski area is reasonably small, with 14 marked runs and six chairlifts (four pair lifts and two covered quads). There is an even mix of beginner/intermediate/advanced terrain, and you won’t need to search hard for stashes of powder off to the side. Competent skiers would be well advised to head out the gate at the top of the Ginrei Lift #3 and into the backcountry, though we also recommend enlisting the help of a local guide and taking all the usual precautions. If you can stretch your budget further than Tazawako’s ¥4,100 lift ticket, then Tazawako CAT operation – ¥3,500 for single ride up or ¥9,500 with a guide – is, by all accounts, well worth the extra expense.
Want to party at the end of a big day skiing one of Tohoku’s hidden gems? Think again. Even the accommodation options are reasonably limited, although there’s a lovely hotel called the Tazawako Plateau Hot Spring Resort just short drive from the lifts, and a number of others around the lake. Après skiing in this part of the world is all about slipping into a piping hot onsen, following it with a kaiseki-style meal and then hitting the tatami for an early night … so that you’re ready to do it all over again.
By now you’ll be noticing a common thread when it comes to Tohoku ski resorts – and it’s that anyone who ventures to this part of Japan does so for tremendous quality and quantity of the snow. Hakkoda is no exception, and has even been referred to as the holy grail of powder skiing in Japan. The resort, if you can call it that, is serviced by a single ropeway, which gives skiers access to a few designated courses as well as large areas of ungroomed paradise that will make seasoned powderhounds drool. There is a small pair lift low down on the mountain, but for the vast majority of skiers who visit for the backcountry terrain, it doesn’t add much.
If sunny days are your thing, then forget Hakkoda. The resort’s weather is infamous, and the mountain is known by locals for a blizzard in 1902 that killed a group of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers. If you’re planning on skiing powder in Hakkoda (and let’s face it, you probably are), then skiing with a guide is highly recommended, as is a strong foundation in avalanche rescue and awareness.
With the exception of a few hotels at the base of the mountain, there’s very little “resort” to speak of and not much to do besides skiing – which is the way most prefer it. For those who crave a more active nightlife, your best bet is to base yourself in nearby Aomori and drive to the ropeway (roughly 40 minutes).