Hakkoda is a Japowder classic one-ropeway, one mountain area in Aomori at the top of Honshu that gets huge amounts of snow. It can, and does, also get slammed by weather from all sides. Great for regular snow falls from all directions, but also leading to inevitable down days.
Them’s the breaks. I was happy to hook up with local legend guide and owner of Hakkoda Sanso Lodge, Chu Hei-san, to see what we could find off the short double chair at the base, the only other lift – which is actually run by a separate company. Best to buy the individual ride tickets here and just do a few laps.
Chu Hei has been skiing Hakkoda for as long as he can remember, and knows it better than most. His Sanso Lodge business, perfectly situated right next to the double chair and across the small carpark from the ropeway base, offers comfortable budget accommodation, a cheap restaurant, gear hire, and guiding.
The hire is a giveaway, full of fat telemark and AT ski rigs targeting the serious powder chaser. That’s the core clientele, both locals and foreigners lured by Hakkoda’s combination of great snow and massive back country options. Apart from the short groomed run off the double, it’s all as it comes.
After a fast trip up from Koriyama the afternoon before I was keen to get into it again. With a little planning and timetable consultation it’s easy to ski every day of a multi area trip in Japan. That goes from off-an-overnight-flight first day skiing to morning/afternoon inter area moves as you cruise round different resorts.
The Hayabusa shinkansen is Japan’s fastest, reaching 320kph as it whisks you in as little as 3 hours 13 minutes from Tokyo to Aomori. Nowadays you can continue to Hakodate in Hokkaido in just 64 minutes more, so two island trips have never been easier.
Standing on the platform at a smaller shinkansen station as the Hayabusa zooms past is a moving experience, literally, and definitely a don’t blink or you’ll miss it one – it took a couple of goes to capture the insta clip above. If you are downstairs in these stations there’s a huge roar as it thunders overhead.
From Shin Aomori station up to Hakkoda is only 45 minutes or so drive, and we arrived early evening to our idyllic mountain lodge accommodation at Hotel Jogakura, a few minutes down the road past the ropeway base.
This secluded deluxe lodge offers an intimate experience that draws repeat business from a global network of keen skiers. A group of telemarkers from Whistler we met have been coming there for 20 years, forsaking the bustle of their home resort for a couple of weeks peaceful powder at Hakkoda.
A delicious traditional kaiseki Japanese banquet menu dinner is included at Jogakura, big on fresh local Aomori seafood. Despite our pathetic Japanese language skills we didn’t have much trouble getting staff to adapt the menu to our low-fat tastes either ie no porky pig, more seafood and vegetables.
A little bar is it for après, so after dinner I opted for an outdoor onsen, things looking promising as snow started falling.
We awoke to fresh snow, but also lots of wind, 27m a second on the ropeway’s digital conditions board translating to 97kph at the top station if my dodgy maths is correct. Not much chance of that opening, so Chu Hei and I hit the tree runs off the double chair instead. A morning there and we called it a day, the forecast 30 – 40cm due overnight, and maybe less wind, offering a better prospect for day 2 here.
Plus down the road from Hakkoda is our favourite onsen in all Japan, historic Sukayu Onsen, where the solid cedar wood bath has been soaking locals and visitors aches and cares away for 300 years. It’s mixed bathing, nobody really cares about that, though ladies can protect their modesty with a ¥1,000 popover ‘apron’ from the souvenir store on site. The milky natural onsen water is unbeatable on the muscle soothing front.
The rambling complex at Sukayu is built right on top of the hot springs, and includes a large hotel, with a choice of restaurants or kitchen facilities to cook your own, and a decent souvenir/convenience store, that happily caters to different budget levels. Best value for western guests are the new wing tatami rooms with ensuite toilet, which are no more expensive than regular share toilet rooms.
As with Jogakura, there’s a ski back to the door route available from the top of Hakkoda when conditions permit, though a fair bit of poling is required across flat sections to get there.
Next day I was out early, hoping for first tram on the ropeway, or failing that being first on the double chair. The promised snow had arrived, at least another 40cm, and a lot drier than the previous day, but still with too much wind higher up.
So it was back to plan B. At least Chu Hei and I did score first chair on the double this time, and got a few laps in before it got tracked there.
That’s the nature of the Hakkoda beast, there’s invariably plenty of snow, but sometimes it’s not readily accessible.
For back up you can do the onsens, take a trip down to Aomori city for shopping, seafood, and cultural activities, like learning how to make Japanese sweets, or head over to the prefecture’s other major ski option, Aomori Spring Resort, which offers an all round terrain experience including plenty of long groomers served by good lifts.
Over the years we have been coming here it has definitely got more popular with western and local back country skiers. But they tend to come in waves, so you can get lucky and be there with next to no one around still.
More of a problem are the ever increasing numbers of day trip sightsee visitors riding the ropeway only to see the snow monsters and views at the top. A bus load or two of these can fill up a couple of gondolas leaving the powder chasers with a frustrating wait. Like all the one ropeway wonder resorts, best to be here early to get a lap or two in and then head further out.
Getting to Hakkoda
Hayabusa shinkansen to Shin Aomori (fastest is 3 hours 13 minutes from Tokyo, or 64 minutes from Hakodate in Hokkaido) then hotel shuttles or JR bus from station to resort base & hotels around the mountain.
Where to stay at Hakkoda
Hakkoda accommodation options include a couple right at the base, either the budget www.hakkoda-sanso.com or mid-range Hakkoda Resort Hotel.
Or scattered along the road that rings the mountain (with shuttles to the Ropeway base and when open the option to ski/tour back to them) we recommend either the boutique Jogakura or the sprawling, very affordable Sukayu that has a range of rooms and options including a self-catering kitchen. Their newest wing with Japanese style rooms including an ensuite toilet are perfect – you don’t need a shower in room with one of the best onsen’s in Japan in the complex!
Or you can stay in and around Aomori and come up on the JR Rail Bus cheaply – takes about an hour depending which side of town you stay.
Guides and safety at Hakkoda
Apart from the two poled but ungroomed main courses off the Ropeway – which are fairly easy to follow for any reasonable skiers or boarders (boarders watch out for the long run out lower down) – you really need a local guide to explore the rest of the extensive options here.
As mentioned, Chu Hei and his team at Sanso are excellent.
Also the Ski School crew are highly recommended. The Ski School take small groups back country every morning and afternoon, provide what ever equipment you need for hire, and they speak enough English to keep you safe. Takuma and Matsu keep things simple, safe and very funny. Their knowledge of the area is unprecedented. The group trips are the best value guiding option, or you can organise private sessions with them too – unless you are really fast/good the group pace should be fine for average powder punters.
Skiing out on one of the many longer trails that open up in late winter and spring with a road pick up is the ultimate Hakkoda experience – the road circles the mountain.
Always ski/ride with a friend if not going with guides – the tree wells up top around the snow ghosts are massive, and when the visibility can drop to a couple of metres in minutes you don’t want to be alone.