So there I was, sitting in my office, staring blankly at a screen and thinking “what have I just gotten myself into?” I’d just hung up the phone after being offered (and accepted in record time) a fantastic opportunity to see the best of what the Japanese winter has to offer, and in return all I was asked to do was write a story! What do I know about travel writing? Not much… What do I know about Japan? A hell of a lot more now than I did then.
As an adventurer, I’d heard wonderful fables of the best powder snow in the world, in fact, I have a number of friends that make the annual ‘Japanuary’ pilgrimage and swear it’s the only place worth skiing. Aside from the snow, I knew about sushi, samurai and karaoke bars. Realising that this country would be significantly more interesting and complex than that; it was time to start researching. (For the record, I am in no way suggesting that a sushi eating samurai singing karaoke while skiing would not be interesting!)
The initial brief of this trip was extremely light on. All I knew was that we would be visiting 2 ski resorts, Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture, and APPI Kogen in Hachimantai, and that on the first official night of the tour we’d be honoured with a “Jingisukan”, or “Genghis Khan”, dinner. A quick Google revealed it to be a mutton/lamb based Mongolian style barbecue, cooked at the table on a dome shaped hot plate resembling an old Mongolian war helmet. If there’s one way to make an Aussie boy feel at home, it’s to welcome him with a lamb barbecue!
The rest of my research made me realise 2 main things, firstly, no one I spoke to had ever heard of Zao, Yamagata or APPI Kogen, even those ski friends who had frequented Japan’s slopes. Secondly, I was in for a culinary adventure far greater than I initially anticipated. The excitement of the unknown was building.
Ironically, I was welcomed to the ‘land of the rising sun’ with one of the most spectacular sun SETS through the window of the plane upon landing. I was met in the arrivals hall by our tour leader Yukari, and we jumped aboard a train bound for downtown Tokyo. Upon exiting the station I was hit by the crisp cold night air and the glare of neons and fairy lights. Exactly what you’d expect from this electrifying metropolis, though the temperature was still a bit of a shock, having just left an Aussie summer.
I was left to fend for myself for the night, as the official tour didn’t start until the next morning. Predictably, I went for a walk and found myself standing in-between 2 karaoke bars on opposite sides of the road and ordered dinner by pointing to a picture on a menu of something that I had no idea what it was. What I thought looked like little Japanese arancini balls, turned out to be essentially deep fried savoury doughnut balls with a little piece of octopus inside! Surprise! I later found out that they’re called “Takoyaki”, a common traditional dish served with a variety of different toppings and sauces. They were absolutely delicious, and became the first of many things I would eat over the following week without actually knowing what they were. Always surprised, never disappointed!
Something that seems to be quite evident in the Japanese cultural identity is an ongoing struggle between savouring tradition and history, and embracing modernity. This was clearly evident in comparing our two ski destinations for this trip. The first, Zao Onsen in Yamagata prefecture, had clearly embraced its history with several hundred year old hot springs, public baths, guest houses and hotels fit for Emperors (quite literally). While not every building in the village was hundreds of years old, they all embraced certain style that made the village seem so comfortable with its heritage. Even our hotel for the night, while looking like a normal ski town hotel on the outside, quickly revealed traditional tatami rooms, complete with paper wall panels, a low table with cushions on the floor as seats, and a stunning tea set.
Comparatively, APPI Kogen, just outside of Hachimantai City, was the complete opposite. It clearly let go the reigns of tradition and seized the concepts of modern convenience and luxury. The foyer boasted a huge high ceiling with chandeliers the size of small cars and while walking from the front desk to our rooms, we passed restaurants, bars, cafes, public baths, ski rental, and of course, the souvenir shop! Everything you could ever need, right there. Rather than being a village, like Zao, the entire APPI Kogen resort seemed to be purpose built so that you never needed to leave the hotel complex, except to ski of course!
The next morning was spent on the Shinkansen heading north from Tokyo to Yamagata City. We took a lavish lunch stop at the Yamagata Metropolitan Hotel for our first of many banquet meals, setting the bar quite high, before being transferred to our first real destination, Zao Onsen. With Yukari at the helm, transitions and check ins were always a breeze. We would be ushered to sit somewhere, welcomed with an offer of drink and then presto! Everything done for us. As a tour operator and expedition leader myself, it was strange but fantastic to be on the receiving end of such service! We dropped our bags and headed out for a familiarisation stroll around town.
My first impression was “where is everyone?” It turns out both of our destinations, Zao and Appi, see very little international tourism and are usually only frequented by Japanese tourists and mainly on weekends. Being a Monday, it was easy to feel like we had the whole mountain to ourselves!
Maintaining the trend of having no idea what was going to happen next, and happy enough to be along for the ride, all I expected from our afternoon walk as to become familiarised with the layout of the village. Little did I know of the wonders we were about to discover.
Zao Onsen and its natural hot springs were first discovered in 110AD, which means people have been coming to these mountains to bathe in the mineral-rich pools for over 1,900 years. That’s roughly 76 generations. With history like that, no wonder this town has embraced it in every way.
As we walked, we passed centuries-old public bathhouses, natural hot waterfalls steaming in the cold air, temples, shrines and a luxurious hotel that was purpose-built for an Emperor to come and visit a few hundred years ago. All of this viewed in the soft dusk light, covered in snow, with shrouds of steam everywhere from the hot springs endlessly flowing all over town. Absolute magic.
The walk continued, we stopped at a small foot bath along the street to soak our feet and the excitement spiked as Yukari pointed out the restaurant hosting us for our much anticipated Mongolian barbecue later that night. The next stop was a 300 year old gift shop, whose attendant looked like she may have been around when it was built, and treated us to a sample of her home made dried persimmons.
The highlight of the stroll however was gaining access to the soon to open Yamagata Sake Museum. Its proprietor, who also operates a number of hotels in Zao and clearly loves his sake, welcomed us jovially, and took us on a tour. Before departing, he insisted that we took part in a tasting of a range of his finest sake. Who were we to deny such a request? Besides, it would have been rude to refuse such hospitality.
If you’ve never tasted sake, I whole heartedly recommend you try! But not the cheap mass produced stuff you may find in your big bottle shop at home. The selection on offer at the museum had a massive range of labels from the 15 odd sake producers in the Yamagata prefecture. 3 were chosen by our gracious host to give insight into the variety of flavour and complexities that were available. We tried a sweet, neutral and crisp dry sake, all of which had characteristics much like you would expect from a high end wine tasting.
With the warmth of generous pours flowing in our systems and the sun dipping behind the mountain, it was time to head back to the hotel and refresh for dinner. As a business owner, the work never stops. As I sat on the floor of my hotel room at the low table, responding to emails and enjoying the complimentary tea, still wondering where the ‘traditional bed’ was, the housekeeper knocked on the door. He politely excused his interruption, in the classic Japanese fashion, and proceeded to open the large wardrobe. ‘Ah! There is it!’ The traditional futon was folded away in the cupboard, maximising use of the space during the day for my one man tea party. In the blink of an eye, the futon was made up and the man was gone. The temptation was too strong; I needed to test it out. The laptop was slammed shut and I dived onto the bed. Probably not the greatest idea as the bed was quite firm, a foldaway mattress on a tatami floor wasn’t exactly springs on springs, but pretty comfy none the less!
At last, the time had come. The long awaited “Genghis Kahn”. We walked back through the crisp, cold evening air and into the quaint little restaurant, dimly lit for maximum romantic value. Sitting down in a little private booth, the table revealed the famous dome shaped hot plate that resembled the helmets worn by Mongolian soldiers. At the height of the Mongol Empire, soldiers in the field would place their helmets over an open fire to cook their meat rations. Luckily, our table was retrofitted with a gas ring burner, and the hotplates hadn’t been sitting on someone’s sweaty head all day. Much more appetising!
Once again, having no idea what we were doing, we passed the reigns over to Yukari to order. Soon enough, the table started filling up with plates of vegetables and meat, and then more plates of sides and other delights like a variation of the Takoyaki I stumbled upon in Tokyo! The burners were fired up and the lesson was about to begin. There was a small plate in the middle that had a slither of what turned out to be a slice of some kind of animal fat, it was placed on the top of the dome, and as it heated, it released its oil and lubricated the hot plate. Next were the range of sliced veggies, capsicum, onion, cabbage, mushrooms and pumpkin and then the thin slices of lamb. As it all sizzled away, there were salads, traditional fried chicken and pickled vegetables to nibble on.
The entire process of the meal was entertaining in itself, as well as being very communal as we were all on this journey of discovery together! As our food cooked, we’d remove it from the hotplate with our chopsticks, trying carefully not to drop anything, and select a sauce to dip or accompaniment to add before eating. Each mouthful was like a new discovery and the table was flowing with recommendations of the best combinations. A couple of local beers to wash it all down and the experience well and truly lived up to expectations.
The following morning, it was time to ski. Like an excited school boy on his first day of school I was up early, had a hearty breakfast and was all dressed ready to go! I had decided for ease of travel I’d leave my own skis at home and use rental gear. This decision almost proved to be the wrong one, as when being fitted for boots the dust was blown off the biggest pair in the fleet. With a mostly Japanese customer base I guess the larger sizes don’t get much of a work out!
Our guide for the day was nearly as wide as he was tall, a 25 year old power lifter and downhill ski racer with a 200kg bench press. He only spoke a little English, but I managed to find out he lived in a small town just off the mountain, and outside of winter when he’s not skiing, he’s a potato and rice farmer in the valley.
This was my first time skiing outside of Australia and I very soon become aware of (and disorientated by) the sheer scale of the mountain. It was like having 2 Australian ski resorts stacked up on top of each other and stretched 3 wide, the longest continuous downhill run was 10km!
It took us 3 lifts and 2 runs to get to the top of the mountain where the temperature gauge informed us it was -9 degrees. It was quite windy up top and the cold was a lot more evident, exposed skin would tingle and burn pretty quickly. A quick stop at the 3 meter tall Buddha statue that was almost entirely covered in snow and it was straight onto the slopes to descend to a more sheltered area.
A low cloud hung most of the day, but below the windblown summit, conditions were actually quite pleasant. The day was spent exploring different aspects of the mountain, commonly stopping half way down a long run for a rest. The mountain was so quiet that we’d stop for a few minutes and more often than not, we wouldn’t see a single other person. If it weren’t for the recently groomed courses, it would have been easy to feel like we were deep in the back country.
After a long day skiing in Japan, the only way to recover was to hit the Onsen. Traditional Japanese bathing is quite public and after awkwardly standing in front of 2 curtains, one red and one blue I took a punt on the blue curtain being the doorway to the men’s side. Luckily I picked right and entered the changing room complete with lockers, and other facilities. Shoes off at the entrance, everything else off into the locker. It is considered rude to wear any form of clothing into the bath house; even the large towels are left behind. There is no room for modesty in these situations and one must adopt the old fashioned “when in Rome” attitude.
Armed only with a small facecloth, I opened the heavy opaque glass door to reveal a large room full of steam. To the left and right are small stools, each with its own hand held shower head. Straight ahead was a large shallow pool and at the far end, a big stone feature with the naturally heated mineral rich water cascading down. After a quick scrub at the wash station, I plunged into the incredibly hot pool and soaked as all the aches and pains were washed away.
Migrating from Zao to Appi Kogen was like time travelling from the 1700’s straight to the height of the 1980’s via Yamadera, a 1200 year old temple complex built into the side of a mountain that apparently can be enjoyed in a totally different colour in each season of the year. During winter, it’s incredibly dramatic in its shroud of white and varying contrasts of blue greys. Its daring ascent was once a rough mountain path but 300 years ago 1015 stone steps were built for an Emperor to come and visit. For us, these steps didn’t help as each step was packed with snow and ice turning the convenient steps into one long ice clad slippery dip. The climb was slow.
It was only a 4 hour drive from one destination to the next, but by the time we explored Yamadera, enjoyed an amazing lunch at a traditional ‘home restaurant’ and learnt from our host about the film industry and geisha heritage of Yamagata, it was an entire days expedition full of exploration and culinary delights.
By the time we got to Appi Kogen, there was just enough time to check out the souvenir shop, a stark modern contrast full of knick-knacks compared to homemade dried persimmons in Zao, before getting our gear and heading out for a night ski.
While being fitted with stunning brand new Salomon boots and skis, and realising there were some fantastic benefits to embracing the modern, we met some of the executives of the Appi Kogen resort management. After a good chat he wished us well and warned us that it’s become a bit cold this evening and the conditions may be quite icy. I chuckled to myself thinking, ‘mate I ski in Victoria, I’ll feel right at home!’
We headed outside and were instantly transported into a wonderland. A crisp, cold, still night, flood lit with massive lights, and just like Zao, barely a soul in sight. There were 3 lifts operating for the night session, getting you about halfway up the hill. A short run between the first 2 lifts and all I could think about was how good tomorrow was going to be if this is what the Japanese call ‘icy’!
Dawn came, breakfast was served, classic Japanese buffet style on a big compartmentalised tray to make sure all the different foods didn’t touch each other, and we headed out to meet our guide for the day. George was a young British lad who had been bouncing around the world for a couple of years following ski seasons. He was keen to skim over the basics, and take us out to find some of Appi’s famous side country.
While the whole mountain was massive, there was a small hill to one side, serviced by a separate lift called the Nishimori slope. It had 2 groomed runs, but its main draw card was the off piste. We started on the more mellow slopes, before gaining confidence and moving into the trees, tackling steeper sections and even a mogul run next to the lift line. Skiing deep off piste powder was a completely new experience for me, and while struggling with resort rented carving skis, we managed to get the hang of it by the end of the day. We did however learn very quickly how awkward it is to get back up after falling into half meter deep soft snow.
As our trip drew to a close, I couldn’t get enough. I continued to ski into the night and all I could think about was planning the next trip to come back here with more time. Both destinations we explored offered amazing skiing without the crowds of the typical Japanese hot spots, but still managed to deliver incredibly varied experiences. Whether you are looking for a flashy ski resort or great terrain splashed with history and tradition, Japan’s lesser travelled prefectures absolutely should be on your radar. Don’t fall into the tourist trap of picking up a brochure and going to the places that everyone else goes to. Get excited while doing some research and get out there and explore, besides, isn’t that why you’re reading this magazine? #outeredge
Zao Onsen Ski Resort
Appi Kogen Resort
Hachimantai (Iwate) Tourism