Tenjindaira is love at first sight for all good skiers and riders. One look at mighty Mt Tanigawadake, pride of Gunma Prefecture and home to ‘Tenji’ ski area, is enough to realise it has incredible alpine terrain options only limited by your skill, fitness and the conditions.
But that first sight can take a while: it snows buckets here, and is often socked in. Last trip I never saw it at all, though with some of Japan’s best tree skiing that didn’t seem to matter at the time.
The numbers sure worked for us at last year at 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!
It stayed socked in all day and we never actually saw the famous Tanigawadake peak and magnificent backcountry alpine terrain it offers.
This year the snow gods delivered again, 60cm or more of dry snow overnight, and the clouds cleared to a magnificent bluebird day – one of the best of the season the locals told us.
Tanigawadake Tenjindaira is known just as Tenji to the big mountain cognoscenti who know and love the place.
The back and side country at Tenjindeira is pretty much as good as it gets in Japan. The tree skiing is amazing. They get a lot of snow and it’s usually good quality thanks to the altitude and way the ranges work.
In fact, if I had to choose just one lift to ride in Japan for the rest of my skiing days, then I would struggle to go past Tenjindaira’s mighty dual cable ropeway.
Especially if we stretch that to include the double chairs at the top, which make for easier access to the trees and the ridge line to the alpine beyond.
These three short chairlifts also supply virtually the total terrain for beginner and intermediate skiers at Tenjindaira.
It’s a gorgeous little rolling bowl with a handful of groomed runs and cruisy open powder lines that are perfect for novice powder skiers and riders to get their act together on.
If your partner, family or friends aren’t up to the trees and side country then they can do some laps here and relax at the restaurant inside the top station while you get your Japow fill elsewhere on this mighty mountain.
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.
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had a huge day lapping the big beech forests at #tenjindaira in @visitgunma with local legend guide #Mike Harris head honcho at #canyons the best guides and ski school in the area – book them at #nozawa #galayuzawa and #gunma #tenjinlodge #minakami #japow #treeskiing #skionsen
We skied knee deep and better untracked snow at a nice pitch through the big old birches with almost no one else about.
The handful who were there that day seemed to be locals interested in the short groomed runs and easy powder bowl off the double chair above the gondola.
Anytime you hit big old beeches in Japan it is usually awesome. They are so much easier to ski than tight pine trees, and great for definition on those typical socked in and snowing days.
Anytime it snows anywhere the snow usually collects deeper in the trees, protected from the wind.
That was certainly the case for us on our return visit in January 2019 – 60cm overnight official snow fall translated to over my waist when I stepped out of a binding and had to go for a wade to retrieve my ski.
Conditions were perfect, yet apart from a couple of other guided groups there was still not much competition for clean lines.
Of course as time passes word leaks out, and hardy punters will always find anywhere. Especially anywhere this good!
A few organised guided trips run by American and Aussie companies 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 – if people go for a big hike they won’t be lapping quickly.
Tenjin Lodge, the closest accommodation a couple of kilometres back down the road, is run by Aussie ex-pat boarder Kieran and his Korean wife Bo, 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 fortunately it’s still often secret enough to do repeat laps. For example, in mid-February 2018 Mike and I did several laps and saw just a handful of others riding the big gondola cabins back up all day.
In late January 2019 we saw two groups that hiked the peak – a 2 hour or so haul – who showed up later on the lift, and a couple more small groups who were lapping at a similar pace to us. But that was it.
Each lap sees you ski out to the road, walk across it, and skate or walk back past the multi storey car park to the ropeway base station for the next run. The big gondola cabins come around every 3 minutes and the ride takes 15 minutes.
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.
Go with a guide. For the best local guides with great knowledge we highly recommend “Minakami Mike” Harriss and his team at 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 Tenjindaira and a swag of other nearby areas that are mostly far mellower terrain wise, though not neccessarily so – like Okutone, the local’s favourite that’s a great alternative if weather and/or avi danger shuts down Tenji.
You really want to be skiing or riding here with someone who has a lot of 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.
As the day wore on a few decent size avalanches let go on the southerly faces here as the sun warmed them quickly.
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.
Tree skiing generally doesn’t get much better than between big old beech trees in Japan with a decent pitch. Tenjindaira stacks up with the best places 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.
That keeps the adrenalin pumping thinking about the threat of avalanches sweeping down the gully behind you every time you cross the gap.
On our previous visit Tenji was almost the last area we visited on a 4 week Japowder mission, so the powder muscles were working fine.
This time round it was only our 2nd full day back on snow and I was shattered after a few laps. So get ski fit before arrival, the terrain is seriously good.
Apart from the easy runs in the top bowl Tenjindaira offers one long intermediate groomed run-out trail skier’s right from the top station, the Tajirizawa course, so you don’t have to download if you are not up for trees.
The huge carpark at the bottom indicates Tanigawadake’s popularity as an all season sightseeing destination, but we have never run into more than a handful of fellow skiers.
There’s a gear hire, souvenir shop and food bar at the bottom, and another small restaurant at the top.
Where is Tenjindaira
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 works really well for Gunma generally, Minakami IC on the Kan-etsu Expressway is only 90 minutes in reasonable traffic conditions from Tokyo.
Tenji and Minakami more info
More (in Japanese) at www.tanigawadake-rw.com
Minakami info (English) http://enjoy-minakami.com/en/
Gunma Prefecture Gunma Tourism site
Resort website for Okutone Snow Park
For guiding and lessons check Canyons.jp
Minakami bookings and packages
Japan Snow Holidays Japanholidays.com.au
Travelplan Gunma deals/info
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. For example, 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.