Gunma Prefecture offers a whole region full of great Japowder resorts still mostly off the radar for international visitors. The dramatic sudden eruption of Mount Moto-Shirane peak of Kusatsu-Shirane, home to Kusatsu International Snow & Spa Resort, has blasted it into the headlines. Otherwise, few outsiders knew there was great skiing to be had in the Gunma area.
Gunma is even closer to Tokyo than the Gala Yuzawa / Echigo Yuzawa areas, on the eastern side of the shinkansen tunnel through the mighty Tanigawa Range. Hop off at Jomo-Kogen station and you are within a few minutes of a range of great ski areas around Minakami Onsen.
Ten years ago Mike Harris, CRO (Chief Refreshing Officer) of adventure travel company Canyons.jp, gave me the low down about how awesome Minakami was, then quickly added, “You can come, but you can’t do a story in SnowAction, we don’t want the word to get out!”
Now Canyons has one of their snow sport school branches in the area at Minakami Hoddaigi (they are also at Gala Yuzawa and Nozawa – for a great insider’s guide to where to get fresh snow at Nozawa check our feature here), and Mike is much more relaxed about telling people what he has known for years – Gunma offers some of Japan’s most consistent, and most uncrowded, powder ski options.
There are three main ski area zones in Gunma: Minakami; Katashina past Minakami; and Agatsuma area to the west – which is where Kusatsu is, so it’s a fair way away if you are worried about the volcano there. They offer everything from a back country paradise at Tenjin to romantic isolated getaways at Manza Onsen, which we rated #3 in our guide to Japan’s best ski onsen resorts. Till the volcano settles down we will concentrate on the Minakami Onsen and Katashina areas here.
#1 Gunma Minakami Onsen Areas
Gunma Tanigawadake Tenjindeira
A bit of a legend in back country ski circles, offering amazing terrain accessible with some hiking, ‘Tenjin’ as it’s known for short, is right up there with the best of them in Japan for total snowfall – 15m or more in a good season, and a base often over 4m!
The dual cable ropeway takes you up to the main ski center, where bowl and glade runs are on offer off the 3 chairlifts above that, mostly pretty cruisy, for good playful pow skiing whenever the regular snow dumps occur.
The back and side country hike to options run up to serious expert stuff, including steep alpine faces, rated among Japan’s best big mountain terrain, and you want to be properly equipped, have the skills, and go with guides who know it – avi danger is pretty constant, and the weather can get ugly, it’s no place to blunder around in low visibility.
Stay at nearby Minakami Onsen, just 5 minutes away, with 150 plus options from lovely traditional ryokans to 4 star hotels. Good eating options and izakayas for fun aprés ski too.
more (in Japanese) at www.tanigawadake-rw.com
Minakami info (English) http://enjoy-minakami.com/en/
Gunma Minakami Hodaigi Ski Area
The big all rounder in the Gunma Minakami area, Hodaigi is the best choice for families of all abilities, with long cruising runs blended with some short but sweet tree runs and sidecountry options for the powder.
Canyons Snow Sports School have programs for all levels in English, and can look after your kids no problem.
Hodaigi is 30 minutes from Minakami Onsen, with limited accomodation options nearby but staying in town is much livelier.
more (in Japanese) at http://hodaigi.jp/
Snow Sports School www.canyons.jp
Gunma White Valley Ski Resort
This little area right above the shinkansen tunnel entrance is often overlooked, but they leave a big chunk of the albeit limited terrain ungroomed on the frequent powder days. Just two lifts, 380m vertical, if you’re not so gung ho go try it for some easy pow runs.
It’s just minutes from Minakami.
more at (in Japanese) www.whitevalley.jp/
Which is changing now, and despite locals who did know were keen to keep it a secret for many years, including Mike.
#2 Gunma Katashina Areas
Another higher area, Marunuma Kogen reaches a neat 2000m, and is consequently blessed with quality snow plus great views of Mt Nikko-Shiransen, the highest peak in the area at 2,578m
That gives a solid 610m vertical, with plenty of intermediate terrain on cruisers up to 4km long, and some nice powder shots with a freeride area and a park. The snow tends to be a bit drier here further inland.
Maybe best of all there’s an onsen on site, the Zazen spring gushes out right here, and the Centre Station onsen was renewed and reopened last season.
Stay right at the base in their Marunuma Chalet property.
more at http://www.marunuma.jp/2017w/en
Another reasonable size resort with a decent vertical drop of just over 600m, Ogna Hotaka at Katashina village gets a bit less snow being further east, but it’s good quality and they have a “smart First Track” early lift opening to let you get at it. Lift passes are fantastic value at just ¥3,200 midweek, when it’s often pretty empty.
more (in Japanese) at http://ognahotaka.jp
White World Oze Iwakura
One of the larger Gunma areas, with 10 lifts and some nice runs. It’s quite high, reaching 1703m, and can get some good snow that midweek is pretty much all yours. They leave some advanced runs ungroomed, with gradients up to 40°. Stay here to get those first.
It’s ski in/ski out convenient when you stay at Iwakura Resort Hotel located at the base, with quality Japanese or western rooms, delicious meals prepared using locally produced ingredients, and facilities include their hot ‘Ichiyama-no-yu’ hot spring.
Like so many Gunma areas, the lift passes are fantastic value at ¥3,500 adults. It’s 80 minutes bus ride from Jomo Kogen station,
more at www.oze-iwakura.co.jp/ski/en/
Getting to Gunma
It is easy to get to Gunma, the chart below outlines the main options, rail is fastest as usual but direct airport buses run from both Haneda and Narita too.
More info on Gunma
Gunma’s english facebook has plenty of useful links and info here