This powder-rich region is no secret, but it sure looks that way.
When I ski at Niseko, I feel like I never left Australia, but travelling through the Tohoku region gives me a sensation that’s the exact opposite. Skiing here makes me feel as though I haven’t just left home, but have left Earth for a parallel universe, because nothing in Tohoku is anything like Down Under.
The strangest thing about this region, and strange things abound here, is that it’s so close to Tokyo. I take a relatively short (1.5-hour) bullet-train trip north from the capital, and any trace of the modern world completely disappears. Instead, I find myself in a landscape of ancient temples, wooden ryokans (inns) and volcanic springs full of naked locals.
Although this area offers the archetypal Japanese skiing experience, I spot very few Westerners. In fact, people speak so little English that basic communication becomes an extended pantomime. Even at the region’s biggest resorts, such as Zao Onsen and APPI Kogen, I often look around and notice that I’m the only gaijin (foreigner). In short, I feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
The skiing in Tohoku is some of the best you can get in Japan, yet no foreigners challenge me for first tracks. On a Saturday morning in Urabandai Nekoma, a resort close to the town of Inawashiro, I don’t make it onto the slopes until 11am, but I’m carving through waist-high layers of pristine powder.
What’s more, Tohoku is no tiny nor secret part of Japan. The region makes up roughly 35 per cent of the main island of Honshu, and is much easier to reach than Niseko and even simpler than getting to Hakuba.
My favourite resort, Zao Onsen, covers a whopping 305 hectares, on which the longest run is more than 10 kilometres, and the terrain is the most diverse of any I’ve found in Japan. And yet news of its wonder obviously hasn’t hit Australia yet.
I don’t mind though. I’m happy here alone, absorbing the culture, revelling in the isolation – and riding that soft, dry powder all by myself.
Words: Craig Tansley