February 26, 2024

If you are reading this and failed (amazingly!) to read our first JaPow article then go into reverse and read it. It has the very original name of “JaPow.”  We left you hanging as we ventured north on the bullet train (why can’t we build bullet trains in the US?!?) to the region of Tohoku on Honshu, the main island of Japan. We had spent two days in Tokyo, recovering from jet lag and checking out the city.  Tokyo in many ways held no surprises in that it is everything we had heard – crowded; clean; active and freaking huge! But despite that, it was a delightfully strange world. The culture, language and everything you see is just wildly different. One is energized just by being there. And the food!!

After our three hour bullet ride we are met at the Morioka train station by Taro, our Japan Ski Tours guide who has drawn the short straw. (More on Taro later but if you are questioning the decency of humanity you need to meet him. He will revive your faith.) Morioka is a city of roughly 250,000 in the middle of the Tohoku region in the northeast corner of Honshu, and it is to be our home base for four days of skiing.

I have a Christmas tradition of watching the old Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie “White Christmas.” There is a scene early in the movie when the main characters arrive at a Vermont train station in December to find there is no snow and it is surprisingly warm. Unfortunately, this scene comes immediately to mind when we arrive in Morioka. Why, might you ask? Simple – there is no snow and it is surprisingly warm!

Over conversation with Taro at dinner we learn the brutal truth. Despite his eternal optimism, it became clear that Japan was having a terrible winter. In all ski regions of Japan the snowfall is extremely low and the temps have been shockingly, abnormally high. Prior to leaving the States we had hints that this was not one of Japan’s banner winters, but nothing could have prepared us for how dire conditions have been. Morioka is usually snow covered, but the city was bereft of any indication of snow, and it is clear this isn’t a recent phenomenon. The average February temperature in Morioka is 25 degrees, but it is at least 45 degrees the several days we are there.

Undaunted by the weather and lifted by Taro’s energy, the next morning we find ourselves at Shimokura, a relatively small local hill. While Taro is our guide to all things Japan, Japan Ski Tours contracts with Rising Sun Guides who provide the ski guides that have access to side and back country. And for a bit our Rising Sun guide, Sven, leads us through rolling consistent pitches through perfectly spaced trees – exactly what we came for.  But things get ugly pretty quickly by our second run, and it soon starts raining. We explain to Sven that the last time we all skied in the rain was at Mad River Glen during high school years, and we ain’t doing it again. He is immensely relieved and leads us to a very satisfying ramen lunch in the sparse base lodge. Taro takes us to a remote, very traditional onsen (Japanese hot springs). Despite the fact that we smelled like sulfur for several days, it is a wonderous cure for a rainy day.

I shall spare you the gory details of the next several days. Suffice it to say it rained. Morioka isn’t exactly the center of the universe, and let’s just say that rain doesn’t elevate it’s game. But speaking of games…Taro knows of an indoor sports center, and we laugh our way through bowling, billiards, ping pong and batting cages. All that, another onsen trip and a dinner to die for save the day.

Even bowling is a cultural experience

We rarely chase powder. But the next day that is exactly what we do. The forecast is for heavy rain, and it is unfortunately accurate. At Taro’s suggestion we head further north a day earlier than planned. The prediction for overnight at Hakkoda, the “resort” we are headed to is rain, followed by a crash in temps and heavy snow. And the weather didn’t disappoint on that either. We stay at a unique, quite traditional mountain lodge and awake to 15 inches of snow – an incredibly welcome sight.

While I didn’t know what to expect from Japanese ski areas, Hakkoda fits my daydreams perfectly. There are only two lifts with the main one being an old 100 person tram. That lift doesn’t go to the top of the mountains, but there are at least 8 peaks one can access from its top terminal. The good news is that the new snow has covered the sins of the past few days. The bad news is that the winds keep the tram closed for the day. Despite that, we enjoy lower slopes accessed by an ancient chairlift and, after skinning up for an hour, have a wonderful tree run led by our Japanese guide and his wife.

The next day is what we came for. The tram opens, the sun comes out and we ski, skin up, ski, skin up, ski… The terrain is pretty mellow and the snow isn’t deep, but it is a rare beautiful sunny day and we revel in it. We earn many of our turns led again by our charming guide and his wife. The following video of our ski guide explaining to Taro where we are skiing next and Taro interpreting captures much of the feel for the day.

The day culminates in a long run through the trees down to our guide’s van that he has previously left on the road that encircles the Hakkodo mountains. Then reality bites us again. Our high fives at the end of the day are followed by a sobering discussion regarding the forecast for the next several days. Our original plans were to spend the next three days exploring the Hakkoda peaks with guides. The forecast (temps well into the 40s) obliterates those plans as our guide confirms for us that the off piste skiing will be horrible. We bid him and his wife adieu and head into the city of Amori, one hour north.

We prove our status as ski addicts the next day by skiing groomers with Taro at a local hill overlooking the Sea of Japan. Again it isn’t the skiing we came for, but it is sunny, and as the temps rise we enjoy the freedom embedded in spring skiing.  Dinner is at a very unique museum-like hole in the wall restaurant, and we have yet another onsen visit to end the day. Given the forecast for continued warmth and immature snow we have cancelled out of our last two days of skiing. The next day we bullet back to Tokyo, I head home and my travel companions head to Kyoto for two days. Poof – just like that the trip is over.

But ya know what folks? The above description of “we did this and then we did that…” doesn’t do Japan and, less importantly, our trip, justice. The beauty of Japan isn’t in really “doing” something. It is soaking up the culture. Let’s get one thing out of the way – we went there to ski and generally, except for a day and a half, the skiing wasn’t close to what we came for. It certainly didn’t come anywhere near close to the deep powder skiing we had envisioned.  In our “we are really lucky 1% lives” is there anything more depressing than being at a ski area mid-winter in the pouring rain!?

But amazingly it didn’t really matter because Japan made up for it.  We settled into the culture. We rarely encountered other English speaking people which was the way we wanted it. We put on hotel provided pjs like all the Japanese and went to the onsen and went to breakfast in them. We ate incredible food in restaurants we would never have found. We often forgot we were there to ski.

And then there are the people of Japan. Start lugging your skis, boots and ski bag up a set of stairs in a mobbed train station, and they immediately grab them from you and leave them at the top of the stairs for you. Ask directions and they walk you half way to your destination. Few spoke English where we were and our Japanese is non-existent. But their nods, smiles and bows made us feel welcome.

And I can’t close this out without kudos to my travel mates – Eddie-San, Rickshaw and Tempura-San. We never argued, and they were perfect travel companions. And then there is Taro! He literally saved our week. Particularly since we chose to go to a less developed area of Japan, we needed help with the language and, more importantly, the culture. Taro covered it all – he told us when we needed to take our shoes off and discussed Japanese politics with us. And the best part is, he became a friend. We look forward to welcoming him to our Utah mountains. Hopefully it will be cold and snowy.

Be Well; Ski Well.

conSKIerge co-founder

Kevin Dennis is a life long ski bum with a 34 year legal career on the side. Now retired, he skis 80+ days a year. While he lives in Alta UT in the winters, he has traveled extensively through skiing and has skied almost every major resort in North America (and many you have never heard of). He continues to hit the road often throughout the western United States and Canada and trips over the last several years have included ventures in British Columbia, Montana and Colorado. Whether you want to know about the behemoths like Aspen or Squaw or are interested in the road less travelled (Lost Trail Powder Mountain in Montana or Whitewater in BC anyone?), Kevin has been there, has an opinion and you will most likely have to tell him to shut up after a half hour!