Hachimantai Shimokura Ski Resort jewel of the north

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Hachimantai Shimokura ski resort is still almost unknown, a powder gem tucked away in Iwate Prefecture, northern Honshu.

Junya Kurogane pops off a feature in the tree ski zone at Hachimantai Shimokura Ski Resort
You can lap lines like this all day no competition at Hachimantai Shimokura. We did. © Owain Price

Sitting opposite mighty Mt Iwate, the active volcano that gives this wild prefecture its name, Shimokura benefits from the magnetic effect the 2043m peak has on passing weather systems – like the Siberian Express or lows off the east coast that funnel moist air in sometimes.

Mostly it is super dry high quality #hachipow, as good as anything you get in Hokkaido.

But at Hachimantai Resort Shimokura Ski Area, to give it the full official title, you can still lap the same areas to enjoy it, unlike the more popular areas for western visitors.

Set in the wildly beautiful Towada-Hachimantai National Park the area is generally sparsely settled.

Local Ski Guide Junya Kuragane enjoys Hachimantai Shimokura ski resort's tree zone.
Plenty of secret stashes are waiting at Shimokura; local ski guide Junya Kuragane enjoyed this one © Owain Price

There was absolutely no one at the base when we arrived. When we stopped for a coffee and cinnamon scroll at the little base station snack bar a group of Italians from the Dolomites showed up. They were on a back country mission, planning to head out with their guide to lines that lead to the valley.

Which was no doubt fun for them. Lazy laps won out for us. Junya Kuragane is a top local guide who grew up skiing all over the region, and knows Shimokura backwards. We kept repeating great tree lines off the summit chair without another soul in sight all morning, before a last run bombing the best groomer.

A couple of groomers spill off this at a decent pitch, up to 37°. Up here you will likely often find, as we did, a nice layer of fresh snow on top of the overnight grooming.

The top chair reaches 1130m, making 550m vertical total. Lower down it flattens out though, so better skiers and boarders will spend most of their time on the top section.

More tasty treats await in the tree zone. Shimokura allows tree skiing in a designated area populated by old growth beech trees, birch trees and the dreaded snow snake wild grape vines – watch out for them!

You are supposed to register at the base station entrance to go into the official tree zone, and they give you an arm band to wear while you’re doing it, which you return when you’re finished to confirm that you made it back safely.

The tree zone has some nice rollers and drop offs and (surprise surprise!) tree features.

The 3 lift layout – a bottom triple chair accessing only easy runs and the summit and one shorter double accessing a few intermediate runs and couple of black ones – was not very well thought out for connecting. If you do head too far skier’s left from the top lift you’ll need to ride both doubles to get back to the top.

View of the top lift map sign and old beech forest at Hachimantai Shimokura Ski Resort
3 is a crowd at Shimokura; check those tasty old beech trees too – yum! © Tasuku Yamada

Heading above and beyond out the sides is very feasible, and like many places best done with a local guide. Contact Jun and his dad Ikuo ‘Boss’ Kuragane at their Lodge Clubman – a great accommodation option a few minutes from the Shimokura basejust message them on their facebook page is simplest.

On the ease of tree skiing scale big old beech trees with their smooth lower trunks have to be among the easiest and best trees you can ski in the world. So much easier to ski than pine trees!

If you are not into tree skiing there are 7 runs total, longest 2.7km, where you can cruise in uncrowded bliss. Presumably weekends and holidays more locals show up, but when we dropped in midweek on a typically snowy January day the place was deserted.

Skiing the empty groomed courses at Hachimantai Shimokura Ski Resort
For our last lap we bombed the best long groomer – still pristine at lunchtime © Owain Price

When the Siberian Express is pumping and things are wild and windy elsewhere in the region – like at much bigger and better known Appi 25km away – Shimokura is a sheltered option. The top lift will keep turning here most days even when winds shut the gondolas at Appi.

Hachimantai Resort Shimokura Ski Area and nearby Hachimantai Resort Panorama Ski Area are jointly owned and skiable on the same ticket. A free shuttle connects the excellent Hachimantai Mountain Hotel and Spa at the Panorama Ski Area base with Shimokura Ski Area base – it’s only 2 kilometres away.

Lift tickets are great value at just ¥4,000 for full day pass or ¥3,300 if you have hit the big 5-0 and qualify as a youthful Senior – why can’t they do that in the west?

Sure, it’s not huge, and the terrain is limited, but for a get away from the hordes powder option it’s excellent. Have one day here, go cat skiing with Hachimantai Cat Tours another day, and head over to Appi for a day. Or vice-versa, don’t miss checking it out if you are staying there.

Cinnamon scrolls are the tastiest treat on offer at Hachimantai Shimokura base cafe
Cinnamon scrolls and a coffee are the pick of the little cafeteria’s offerings © Carmen Price

Where to stay at Hachimantai Shimokura

The Hachimantai Mountain Hotel & Spa is definitely the #1 place to stay in the area, offering superb rooms, a truly magnificent breakfast and dinner buffet (one of the best we have seen in Japan, and we have taste tested more than a 100 of them), nice onsen and ski in/ski out access to the easy family friendly slopes at Panorama. After a big breakfast take the free resort shuttle the short 2km to Shimokura.

Or on a tighter budget check out Clubman Lodge as mentioned, less than 10 minutes from the base. There are also many accommodation option with attached hot springs baths near the Hachimantai Mountain Hotel. Staying downtown you can enjoy the local izakayas.

More Hachimantai info and links to accommodation options can be found on the Visit Hachimantai local government site here.

Where is Hachimantai Shimokura

Morioka is the main access point, with the fastest of all the shinkansen, the mighty 320kph Hyabusa, whisking you up from Tokyo in 146 minutes or down from Hakkodate in Hokkaido in 135 minutes.

That makes it a perfect linking option for 2 island trips using JR Tohoku and Hokkaido passes, or the Tohoku Pass for a host of other great Honshu options including nearby Iwate ones like Shizukuishi and Geto Kogen.

Flight options into Hanamaki Airport are increasing – including international flights from Shanghai. Internally fly there from Hokkaido, Osaka or Nagoya.

Self driving is a good idea in this region generally – empty roads make it pretty easy, apart from the regular blizzards. Or train pass and shuttle/taxi it – distances are small between areas.

The Hachimantai Mountain Hotel & Spa
It snowed most of the time we were at Hachimantai Mountain Hotel & Spa © Owain Price