Travelling Around
Full body immersion at Appi Kogen - Photo: Julia Bergin
The real snow report from Geto Kogen Ski Resort - Photo: Julia Bergin
The man with the security clearance: Appi Kogen guide, Seato-San - Photo: Julia Bergin
Prior to acquiring a white moustache. Appi Kogen back-country terrain - Photo: Julia Bergin
Hotel Appi Grand - Photo: Julia Bergin
Appi Kogen gondola. Photo: Julia Bergin
Warming up the legs for some fresh powder at Appi Kogen - Photo: Julia Bergin
Looking across from Morioka to Mt Iwate - Photo: Julia Bergin
Half a human of fresh snow at Appi Kogen - Photo: Julia Bergin
Shizukuishi Prince Hotel Onsen - Photo: Julia Bergin
Cat Skiing at Shizukuishi - Photo: Julia Bergin

Travelling Around

Japan Ski Tour Tohoku Area
Wagner Custome Skis

Iwate Skiing

Julia Bergin took a trip around a few of the best ski resorts in Iwate  - February 28 2020

Describing the skiers’ snow palate is a task tried and tested by many literary masters, but not often does one have to digest the entire tasting plate in one sitting. Credit to climate change, Japan’s 2019-20 snow season was something of a smorgasbord. Flagged as an archetype of what’s to come, Japan’s retention of the title ‘Powder Capital of the World’ lies in the hands of climate mitigation efforts, but in the meantime the trick is knowing where to look.

Enter stage left: Iwate Prefecture. Although by no means immune from the dangerous mood swings of the 19-20 season, come late February, Iwate had hosted some of Japan’s best snow. Online snow reports told a different and misleading story declaring on one particular day that Geto Kogen Ski Resort had received a meagre four centimetres. Thankfully the sinking feeling that accompanied this news was short lived as one’s body sunk into 100 centimetres of fresh snow! The resort was aptly coined “King of Snow”.

The plan at Geto Kogen had been to don a pair of skins for a day of backcountry, but the deluge of snow resulted in closure of all off-piste gates. The ski guide explained that they usually spend more time riding inbounds than chasing back-country terrain due to the regularity of deep snow yields. Combined with very few riders, there really was no need to go searching beyond the resort boundaries. It was however worth keeping the eyes peeled for fellow fallen riders, discerned only by the odd head or ski tip above the surface.

The backcountry ski plans met a similar fate at Iwate’s Appi Kogen Ski Resort. Although not quite the metre that Geto Kogen had received, 60 centimetres of snow two days running, and lighter than the regulation density of 160 kilograms per cubic meter, was not a bad second place. This time, the trees off the side of Appi Kogen and its neighbour Mt Nishimori were on offer. From the top of Appi Kogen’s main gondola it was a short chairlift up to Mt Nishimori, and after a knowing nod from the guide to the chairlift operator, formal admittance was granted to the sacred domain of the trees.

The Appi Kogen side-country terrain was treed, steep by Japanese standards, and most importantly completely untracked. The gradient made the snow more likely to slide, but with the trees taking the edge off, the greatest safety challenge faced was respiratory management. Failure to lift the neck-warmer left the throat victim to an onslaught of dry snow flakes, akin to inhaling an overdose of cinnamon. Add to this the routine loss of vision at each turn and silence – the ultimate autonomous vehicle. Once the limbs had run their race, it was possible to either cut back onto the groomed run or veer skier’s left and set up a skin track to push deeper into Mt Nishimori. When it was finally time to call it a day, the base of the resort itself was an aesthetic treat. The aged architecture had a futuristic air and bright contrasting blocks of colour quaintly completed each other. Team this with the repurposed gymnasium for a food hall and the earnest elderly men that operated the ski lifts – as opposed to the young career ski-bums of many Western resorts – and it was a Wes Anderson set waiting for curtain call.

There was even the perfect cinematic aerial shot post-ski: an assortment of naked humans dotted across a field of snow. Straight off the lifts, Appi Kogen Onsen Hotel’s “Shirakaba-no-yu” Hot Spring was incentive enough to take the clothes off. The outdoor onsen pools were plenty, ranging from single person free-standing ceramic tubs to a shallow rock pool, where the camber was perfectly attuned to the ergonomic demands of the human body, allowing your back to toast whilst your better half took on the snow.

Shizukuishi Ski Resort ticked many of the same boxes. Whilst the terrain was no match for the other two resorts, the quality and depth of snow certainly kept pace. Add to this the opportunity to cat ski and you have yourself a competitive mountain number three.

The Shizukuishi Resort had only one hotel, but it boasted a suite of all-inclusive amenities too often overlooked by the modern day establishment. It was a grandeur that spoke to a bygone era. Shizukuishi’s Prince Hotel buffet breakfast and dinner were nothing short of a Japanese feast, and you are well advised to double the regulation half an hour post-feed lag before a bath in the hotel’s traditional Takakura Onsen. This outdoor hot spring fronts onto another body of water that is home to the local carp. Whilst mimicking their yawning mouths lost its charm, peering out at a garden doused in snow did not.

If you plan on testing out a number of Iwate’s 17 ski areas, the main city of Morioka is a great place to park for a few days. Only one to two hours from the main ski resorts, accommodation is cheap and transport is regular and reliable. Add to that the buzzing culture of the town’s craft trade, a delicious array of Japanese cuisine, and an unrivalled café scene tucked in along the river – you have yourself an ally if the snow lets you down.

That said, Iwate’s ‘one-metre fix’ courtesy of the nightshift is so reliable that its mountains hold the fastest ‘powder reset’ rate in all Japan. If you’re looking for snow of a higher order, Iwate holds the key.