By James Hardy
What happens when you put an Englishman in the middle of Tohoku? I wish I could say I burnt up the pistes, amazed the locals, wowed the laydeez and redefined skiing forever. I can’t. Unavailable for comment from December to March, if asked, failed to talk about anything other than resorts. I have time to write this now because my friends have deserted me for “interesting” people with varied “lives”. What are they saying? I tried to go to a different resort every week ? how much more varied can you get? My first season in Japan, my first full season anywhere. Four and a half short months spent up mountains in Northern Fukushima, Yamagata and Miyagi, plus a few trips. I am not actually a rookie, but “bloke who’s been to the Alps and a week in Hakuba ten years ago” isn’t as snappy.
I had mainly been skiing in Flaine, France, a resort on the Grand Massif ? blessed with big lifts, great off-piste, Picasso sculptures, and more runs than Brian Lara. By contrast, Fukushima is full of small-to-medium sized resorts, slow lifts, off-piste is hard to findand worst of all, no Picasso (although there is a Dali museum). The Aizu region gets dumped on, snow quality is great further into the mountains, and transport is good up to a point, but smaller roads get choked up during the peak months. There are also a lot of resorts built during the 80s boom that are now struggling to survive, mainly ‘cause they are shit.
Captain Fugu ? boards like a tombo, jumps like a flea.
My peeps in these endeavours kept the momentum going, so they deserve a shout, I suppose. First, Big Cris, who talks about bindings, and boards on a gnu. Second, Li’l Eileen, who sits in the back, and boards like a ballet dancer. Then, Yama-chan, who skis like a butterfly and talks like a bee, and finally, Capt Fugu, who talks like a butterfly, boards like a tombo, jumps like a flea, and smells like a dog. The season started early, in our minds at least. Camping outside Xebio Sports for most of October, I finally got kitted out, only for the snow to no show until the end of November. When it did kick off, home was Gran Deco in Urabandai. Deco is ten years old, has the longest runs in the prefecture, and the longest season to boot. It is also a pain in the arse to get to, has lengthy flat stretches and is not as good as Nekoma, which is just around the corner. However, Big Cris and I had already bought season passes to ensure skiing during cash crises, free parking and an incentive to get out of bed on freezing Sunday mornings in January. We had a few days where the snow was so wet, it was so cold, and visibility was so bad that it didn’t seem fun anymore ? those days we wore extra thick ji-ji pants and put handwarmers everywhere else. We tried as many resorts as we could, relying on word of mouth, skijapanguide.com info and proximity to our homes around northern Fukushima. And there are some great resorts around - Eboshi Miyagi Zao for example, which has a wicked Super G type run, open ‘til 11. Skiing down this with Yama-chan and a friend was one of the best nights of my life. They were on shorts and funs, I was on a pair of Salomon 170s; as the snow turned frosty, the edges cut in like I was the Herminator, and I had the biggest wipe out of my short career, jumping a hill that quickly turned into a restaurant.
Yama-chan ? not only does he ski like a butterfly, he also dresses like Boy George.
What is it like skiing in Fukushima? Like a lot of the rest of Japan, apres ski is non-existent. Well, that’s not true. Onsen. Thousands of them. But if you’re looking for alpine lodges, hot cocoa and chalet girls/boys, you’re in the wrong country. For that kind of fun, you have rent a lodge and make your own. Cocoa and fun that is, not chalet girls. That said, day skiing is great ? I still haven’t got over waking up, IN MY HOUSE, and driving until I find a slope I like. People are friendly and slope etiquette exists, just about. This excludes the helmeted little buggers on snowblades, but I think you can say that anywhere. Also, the boarder V skier debate seems to have never happened here ? nearly all the resorts are mixed, and other than waiting for the poncey eejits to adjust their bindings at the top of slopes, I never had or saw any problems between the two sexes of ski.
The best thing about skiing in Fukushima? - the variety. The worst thing? - the traffic. The expressways can take you a long way to the mountains, but they are often closed in the winter (no one heard of gritting I think), and then the local roads turn into a heady mix of car parks and skating rinks. Add Nissan Skyliners with a death wish, and you’ve got Route 49. Rating resorts is difficult without thinking about accessibility, and for that reason, Inawashiro comes out near the top. Just off the Banetsu Expressway, and with well laid out lifts, plus an insane mogul field with trees in the middle, it rocks. I road-tested a pair of fun skis there in February, and other than a freak accident involving a video camera and a 10 year old, had a wicked day.
Big Cris ? he talks about bindings
I spent New Year in Yamagata Zao Onsen, staying in a friendly ryokan next to the Lawson. Zao is as dumb as the reviews say ? the crossovers are just plain silly, and the lifts were designed by dyslexic monkeys on acid. It gets freaking cold, with wind ripping through even the thickest clothes ? but that’s what the onsen are for afterwards. The town is a nice place for a few nights, nearly alpine in atmosphere (but with the added attraction of karaoke), and a couple of bars if you can find them. A long weekend in February at Appi Kogen was fantastic, and rejuvenated my season ? it was my first time on fun skis, and I never looked back. The powder was some of the best, and the resort was big enough to hold the bank holiday crowds (although I wouldn’t recommend hiring kit there ? it took a couple of hours). We stayed in a cosy ryokan in Morioka, tried wanko soba, got trapped in a blizzard for four hours, my wipers froze halfway across the windscreen, and were turned away from an onsen for being gaijin. So you can see that it was a great birthday weekend, even if hiding in tunnels halfway across Iwate ken wasn’t on my list of presents.
Probably the best resort in northern Aizu is Nekoma ? snow quality stayed high until mid-March, the runs are challenging, and it has great views of Bandai-san and the 5 coloured lakes. To a native Fukushiman, these last 2 aspects are without doubt the most important. The capacity of Fukushima-jin to wax lyrical, stop traffic, and become automaton repetitive bores about Bandai-san is almost legendary. It’s a pretty volcano, which looks kind of alpine, exploded a lot about 120 years ago, and is now the prefectural symbol. That’s it. Having once spent 3 and a half hours trapped in a car with a man whose sole aim was to show me Bandai san from every possible angle, it has become the deciding factor in resort selection. “Well, yeah, for sure, Tengendai is a great little place, but can you see Bandai? What do you mean, no?” The five coloured lakes freeze over in winter, but one can still feel their presence under two metres of snow. Of course, skiing in Miyagi or Yamagata removes Bandai and replaces it with Zao. Most convenient is Yonezawa, about 40 minutes up Route 13. This season I am told that it has night skiing, and although last year the snow sucked after February, it’s easy to get to, and good for a small resort. There’s also Minowa, allegedly famous for foot massages, and about 30 minutes outside Fukushima City. Although I would admit that the prefecture couldn’t compete with the Japanese alps or Hokkaido for size and quality of places to ski, it does offer massive variety, friendly resorts, a long season, and some amazing scenery on clear days. Especially of Bandai san.
You see? Bandai san from Nekoma Ski resort
The season ended early. I came back from a couple of weeks travelling to find most of the snow sliding down the hill, cherry blossom, and my peeps in terminal depression. A final fling at Niseko in April was a wicked way to end my first full season, even if the pistes were water slides after 9.30am; the weather rocked, Yotei-san was almost as good as Bandai san, and there is no question I’ll be back next year.