Okutone Snow Park is the locals secret stash area in Minakami, a great place to find fresh snow on the trails and in the awesome trees. On a typical snowy Gunma day night skiing (until midnight weekends!) can deliver the goods too.
It’s close to Yubiso JR station on the Joetsu line, which is the next one past Minakami town, and only 15 minutes or so drive from Jomo Kogen shinkansen station.
Okutone is also just up the road from Canyons.jp, the year round local activity centre for everything from whitewater rafting in summer to snow schools and back country guiding in winter.
Run by expat Kiwi Mike Harris, a long term Minakami resident, Canyons also has ski schools at Nozawa, Gala Yuzawa and Minakami Hodaigi, and their instructors and guides can show you the best of these areas and plenty more.
“When it snows we often head over to Okutone after work for the nighta session” says Adam Portland, another expat Kiwi and top Canyons snowboard instructor who showed us the area.
“You can access all the main area at night below the top chairlift level, and the home run back to the bottom can fill in nicely on powder days.”
We didn’t have to wait till night to test that theory – after our day smashing tree lines off the top chair we did a last run out to the bottom through knee deep untracked snow on the main run at 4 in the afternoon.
Sure, Okutone Snow Park is only a small area overall, but the company seems to be ticking over, with a modern base building and recent investment in a new double chair a couple of seasons back that reaches 1180m, extending the vertical to a healthy 747m.
More importantly the new lift opened up swathes of superb tree runs with crazy natural features. The trees off the top lift run out about half way down the mountain, and collect some deep snow.
This new double chair has just one main easy run cut back from it, some of which must face a bit south, as it had an icy crust underneath.
In the trees off the other side the snow stays shady, dry and deep.
A few local hotshots, like the ski patroller and liftie pair of boarders we caught up with as models, are well aware of this, but very few foreigners (apart from local residents like Mike and Adam) have discovered Okutone’s secrets yet.
Logs left over from the lift construction, or just randomly fallen, provide plenty of options to enjoy it all.
One of those locals, Hikaru Taira, happens to be one of Japan’s top snowboarders. He was a struggle to chase even on the easy runs, and then did the best log slide I have ever seen in 30 years working with some very talented crew. He rode a massive fallen log all the way from the fat end to the twiggy branch that was way up in the air over a deep gully.
We lapped with no competition for our lines, scoping tree features off the chair for the willing crew to hit on the next lap.
If western visitors have heard of Gunma in general, and Minakami in particular, it’s usually mighty Tenjindeira on Mt Tanigawadake further up the pass to Niigata that grabs their attention.
On snowy and windy days when the ropeway at Tenji is on hold or closed Okutone is a good alternative, and a must try for at least a day while you are in the area.
On the lower slopes it can get crazy with local boarders up from Tokyo or wherever on weekends, but the three parks soak up many of them.
Midweek before taking to the trees we warmed up with a few fast laps off the middle double chair, sharing the slopes with a handful of others.
The easy intermediate terrain already had a boot deep accumulation of fresh snow on top of the grooming when we arrived mid-morning, and it kept refreshing all day.
It hardly stopped snowing all day, visibility remained minimal, but we skied till our legs could take no more.
Well, until mine couldn’t at least – Adam looked fresh enough to grab his two little boys and bring them up for a night session, or “nighta” as night skiing is known in J-land.
Ski from 6am – 10pm at Okutone Snow Park
These run late on weekends, “Open for 18 hours at longest, tirelessly!” as the publicity proclaims. Okutone is unique, they open at 6am, and run until midnight Friday and Saturday nights.
In truth a 5 hour ticket would finish me and many others off on a powder day, but whichever you go for it’s cheap skiing at Okutone Snow Park – they have quite a range of passes:
¥5,000 for a day pass; ¥ 4,000 for 5 hours (from when ticket is purchased); ¥1,500 for a before work 6 – 9am session; ¥4,500 for 12am – 10pm; ¥3,800 2pm – 10pm; ¥2,300 4pm – 10pm; ¥2,300 4pm – 10pm; ¥2,000 6pm – 10pm; ¥1,500 8pm – 10pm ..
Food is good value too, like ¥ 1,000 for grilled chicken and rice at the mid mountain restaurant.
Minakami is a great lifestyle hub for young families into outdoor living and the schools are very pro-active getting the kids into activities.
For Tokyo residents it’s a dose of fresh air and wild nature practically on the doorstep, plus lots of great onsen.
So there are plenty of hotels and ryokan options strung out along the Tone river valley, from Relais & Chateau quality at Bettei Senjuan to big resort hotels to cheap and cosy.
Minakami more info
Minakami info (English) http://enjoy-minakami.com/en/
Gunma Prefecture Gunma Tourism site
Resort website for Okutone Snow Park
Ski School/guiding/activities like canyoning and snowshoeing check Canyons.jp
Minakami bookings and packages
Japan Snow Holidays Japanholidays.com.au
Travelplan Gunma deals/info
Getting to Minakami & Okutone Snow Park
By rail it’s very close to Yubiso JR station on the Joetsu line, which is the next one past Minakami town, and only 15 minutes or so drive from Jomo Kogen shinkansen station – a 70 minute ride from Tokyo.
By road it’s only 10km from the Minakami interchange off the Kan-etsu freeway. Hang a right onto route 63, the Okutone – Yukemori Highway.