The numbers sure worked for us at Tanigawadake Tenjindaira in Honshu’s Gunma Prefecture. One gondola, one big beech forest, just two people tearing it up all morning and a lift pass for ¥3,500!

tree skiing Tenjindaira
Mike Harris on the charge Tenjindaira © Owain Price

Ten years after ex-pat Kiwi turned long term Minakami local Mike Harris swore me to secrecy about his hidden valley with Tenjindaira at its head I finally got to ski it with him. It was love at first line. No, not a bromance with Mike, but an instant understanding why he had been so keen to keep it under wraps.

We skied knee deep and better untracked snow at a nice pitch through big old birches with almost no one else about. The handful who were there seemed to be locals interested in the short groomed runs and easy pow bowl off the two short double chairs above the gondola.
Anytime you hit big old birches in Japan it is usually awesome. So much easier to ski than tight pine trees, and great for definition on those typical socked in and snowing Japowder days.

steep tree skiing Tenjindaira
Plenty of lines to choose from for Mike Harris at Tenjindaira © Owain Price

Of course as time passes word leaks out, and a few hardy punters will always find anywhere. Especially anywhere this good! A few of the organised guided trips that several American and Aussie companies run have Tenjindaira on their itineraries, but they usually only stop by for a couple of days. Even if you overlap with them there is plenty of terrain. Tenjin Lodge, the closest accommodation a couple of kilometres back down the road, is run by an Aussie ex-pat, and the lodge has built up a following in recent years. But like Mike, most guests are in no hurry to tell too many others.

So Mike’s secret got out despite his best efforts. Fortunately it’s still often secret enough, like this middle of February day as we did several laps on Tenji’s impressive dual-cable gondola up from the base station. This sits beside the pass and tunnel over to Niigata Prefecture and the Yuzawa areas. Each lap sees you ski out to the road, cross it, and skate back past the multi storey car park to the gondy for the next run.

Tenjindaira gondola / ropeway
Clear days the views are spectacular © Tanigawadake Tenjindaira

On a clear day the views up to Mt Tanigawa are impressive. Hiking the ridge to the alpine terrain opens up some serious options with serious consequences. Apparently it has killed more people than any other mountain in Japan, most not skiers but summer hikers and climbers getting themselves into trouble in gnarly terrain and sudden weather changes.

We couldn’t see the alpine at all, so we stuck to the trees, trying skiers’ right and left of the top station as Mike worked out the best options. He runs Canyons.jp, a year round outdoor/active tourism company that includes a big international snow sports school in winter with branches at Nozawa, Gala Yuzawa and Minakami. Minakami is the base town for Tenji and a swag of other nearby areas that are mostly far mellower terrain wise.

I was happy to be skiing with someone with so much local knowledge. Despite being hidden in the clouds the mountain remains an ever-present threat, with an avalanche alley that runs right down a gully to the run-out below the gondola. A big barrier protects the lift tower where that valley joins the run out valley and every lap we hit the run out past it at speed.

Tenjindaira base station
Mike checks the terrain advisory at Tenjindaira base © Owain Price

Apart from the long run-out trail Tenjindaira offers a couple of short intermediate groomed runs off the two short double chairs and beginner lift above the gondola top station. The mellow bowls runs off the sides of them are perfect easy powder lines too, so especially on reasonable weather days if your partner, family or friends are not up for the trees they can have some fun up here while you go the charge yards. It’s also great to bomb the bowls and continue on down when conditions are right.

Tenjindeira top lifts
Tenjindaira’s top lifts access mellow bowls and a couple of groomed runs © Gunma Prefecture

From the top of the chair there’s a short hike one way or a scoot along the ridge the other to access the best tree zones. It doesn’t get better in Japan than big old beech trees with a decent pitch, and Tenji stacks up with most place in Honshu for that.
You get most of the 750m vertical in them too, with just the last 100m or so on the rolling run out trail. Even that had the adrenalin pumping for me as I had visions of the avalanches that sweep down the gully storming up behind me every time we crossed the gap.

There were no other skiers in the ticket office when we arrived, and we didn’t meet any more on the gondolas going around. Carmen did a few lonely laps on the double chairs before hauling in to the equally lonely restaurant at the top. Apart from that and the big souvenir shop at the base there’s nothing else actually here – Minakami is a few minutes down the road.

Of course it’s not always so quiet, seasonal sightseers far outweigh skiers for visitor numbers over the course of a year. That’s why it’s such a big car park.

Tanigawadake Tenjindaira getting there

Minakami is easy to get to, as little as 66 minutes from Tokyo on the Joetsu shinkansen to Jomo-kogen. To combine with Nagano/Myoko areas you hop off the Nagano/Hokuriku shinkansen at Takasaki and change to the Joetsu line – this usually involves change of platforms so best to allow enough time for that. To combine with Gala Yuzawa and the other Yuzawa areas is simple – it’s the next station from Jomo-Kogen. If self-driving, which really works for this area, Minakami IC on the Kan-etsu Expressway is only 90 minutes in reasonable traffic conditions from Tokyo.

Tanigawadake Tenjindaira where to stay

There is plenty of accommodation in the Minakami area just down the road and minutes from Tenjindaira, with Tenjin Lodge the closest.
Minakami has over 150 hotels and ryokans – many with great onsens. We recommend Tatsumikan, run by the Fukatsu family who have had a hotel in the area for nearly 100 years. Kenzo Fukatsu discovered the source of local hot springs in a rice field here back in 1924, and today Takuya Fukatsu and his charming wife continue the tradition Kenzo started.
Set on the banks of the beautiful Tone River, this is a peaceful oasis that’s less than 2 hours from downtown Tokyo.
The hotel is renowned for its local Japanese cuisine, especially the sunken fire barbecue feast that has it’s origins in a Samurai tradition called “Kensaki-yaki”, or sword grilling. The Samurai would be isolated at times, especially in the severe winters, and barbecuing local river fish and root vegetables speared on their swords was how they survived.
For the ultimate luxury Bettei Senjuan is simply the best accommodation in the Minakami area, a superb Relais & Chateau member onsen retreat in a glorious forest park setting above the Tanigawa river. You look straight up the river valley to Mt Tanigawa’s impressive alpine peak.

Tenjindaira and Minakami more info

More (in Japanese) at www.tanigawadake-rw.com
Minakami info (English) http://enjoy-minakami.com/en/
Gunma Prefecture’s English language Facebook has plenty of info too.

Tenjindaira trail map