Iox-Arosa and Taira ski areas off grid in Nanto, Toyama

snow action team 14.03.2020

Iox-Arosa and Taira ski areas in Nanto City, Toyama Prefecture, are another couple of pretty much totally off the western skiers’ grid areas well worth checking out. There’s a lot to see and do around Nanto City (actually a collection of towns and rural areas amalgamated into one local government area – it’s very relaxed round here) including the amazing ‘Gassho’ thatch roof villages.

Our favourite and the most rustic and original of these, Ainokura, is actually just down the road from Taira ski area.

View from the top gondola at Iox-Arosa ski area Nanto City, Toyama Prefecture
It’s a great view on a sunny day © Iox-Arosa

So many people having their big ski trip to Nagano and Niigata areas like Hakuba, Nozawa and Myoko still have little idea what is just down the shinkansen line past Nagano and Iiyama to Toyama and Takaoka (in Toyama Prefecture), and Kanizawa in Ishikawa Prefecture.

Add a few days here at either end of your trip and you can discover some off grid ski areas like Iox-Arosa and Taira, and a whole bunch of fun sights and activities. In fact using Toyama Airport as your gateway can work out cheaper, and quite likely quicker, to get to those major ski areas as well. More on that later, we’ll start with the skiing.

Skiing Iox-Arosa, Nanto City, Toyama
The middle of the mildest winter anyone can remember was not perfect timing to hit Iox-Arosa, but we had fun © Owain Price

Iox-Arosa Resort Report

So many Japanese ski areas have some totally random connection that spills over into what you find on the mountain. In Iox-Arosa’s case it’s the Swiss connection, their sister resort being Arosa in Switzerland. Just below the base area you can stay in a cluster of “Swiss chalet” style little houses quite different from standard boxy hotels at most Japanese resorts. The restaurant at the top is called the Weisshorn too, but don’t expect fondue.

That’s about the end of the random connection. The resort sits in the foothills of the higher ranges on the south western edge of the fertile plain that made this region historically one of the most prosperous in Japan and a centre for crafts and culture.

Sunset view looking up at Iox-Arosa ski area, Nanto City, Toyama Prefecture
Sunset view back up Iox-Arosa © Owain Price

It’s less than 10km off the Tokai-Hokuriku expressway from the Fukumitsu Interchange, and 15 minutes or so from JR Johana station – the end of the line, literally, and a lovely little country town.

The short access road winds up past those Swiss chalets to the base station at 350m, from where Iox-Arosa’s pride and joy, their gondola, whisks you up the full 500m vertical. The top two thirds or so of this have some decent fall-line runs and if the mid-level and top double chairs are open you don’t need to do the run out back to the gondola each time.

Skiing off the gondola at Iox-Arosa ski resort
Skiing off the gondola – on a pow day there are some tasty options up here, we’ll have to come back! © Owain Price

The mid-level chair has the best of that, including what look like tasty lift-line runs on a powder day. Being close to the coast the area gets a lot of snow, but it can come in thick and heavy, or liquid. We got rained on a bit, so I spent most of my time mucking around on the racecourse slope the team from Kanizawa University had set up.

Race training at Iox-Arosa ski resort, Nanto City, Toyama Prefecture
Race clubs training off the top double chair © Owain Price

There’s a cruisy park set up in the top zone too, served by another pair lift, a couple of intermediate runs there, and some nice beginner terrain on the bottom section.

We lucked out late February during the mildest winter in most of Japan anyone can remember – the snow depth of 50cm at Iox-Arosa was 120cm less than the same time in 2019 – but still had fun for a few hours.

Do a half day skiing if conditions are good and then go sightseeing is our tip – see more on that below.

At ¥3,300 for a 4 hour ticket (¥2,000 kids to high school age) it’s super cheap, and that will be long enough for most better skiers.

As usual when we go off grid, we were the only westerners here © Carmen Price

Taira Ski Area, Nanto City

It doesn’t get much more old school or off grid than little Taira ski area. A glass-half-empty type personality might say it doesn’t get much smaller either, with just 3 double chairs and 300m vertical.

But at Snow Action we try to always look on the brighter glass-half-full side of life, and found plenty to like. It may be small, but most of what there is has pretty steep, fun fall-lines that are good enough to allow it to host some national alpine championships prior to our arrival.

Taira ski area Nanto City view
Taira ski area is tucked into the heart of the mountains © Taira

It’s tucked further into the mountains than Iox-Arosa too, not much higher – base 630m, top 933m – but getting more snow. We got sleet on the day, but I found some creamy untracked snow left over from the previous day’s fall on a closed run skier’s right off the top chair, and lower down off one of the two main runs below the lower chair.

There is no English signage, and you wouldn’t rate your chances of lessons in English.

Taira ski area is no frills, what you see is what you get. There were a few kids race training on the Sunday we dropped in, but maybe 20 other skiers and boarders total.

Powder skiing at Taira ski area, Nanto City
You can have some serious fun at Taira on a pow day © Taira

We just lapped and lapped. It was a great place to give the Kastle FX HP96s a workout. Carve in race mode, smash through creamy soft snow, bust slush, nothing these won’t handle here. No one to tell you to slow down either!

On a pow day Taira would be seriously fun. On what was essentially a crappy sog-out day it was still fun. You can hit fast lines down pretty much the whole 333m vertical all day.

Apart from them, the short beginner’s chair accesses a short beginner run, with its own little base area and carpark, but the other 2 lifts are where the action is for most people.

Taira lift tickets are a bargain. You could lash out ¥3,500 for a full day pass, but why bother when the half day or 5 hour tickets (10am – 3pm) at ¥2,500 are more than enough (only ¥2,000 for kids elementary or high school age)?

Taira ski area trail map
What you see is what you get at Taira – and 70% of it is steep enough to be a lot of fun © Carmen Price

Get here early, ski the morning, then discover one of the wonders of Japan, Ainokura Gassho village which is literally 5 minutes down the road in the valley below, is our tip.

There are 3 little restaurants at Taira, but you are better off taking your hunger down to Ainokura for a traditional village lunch there featuring local river fish, mountain vegetables, and tofu! See more on that below.

Ainokura lunch set
Lunch at Ainokura .. yum! © Carmen Price

Nanto City area attractions and activities

This whole area is a mix of peaceful rural countryside with padi fields and vegie plots galore, rugged mountains, and historic towns that are home to temples, crafts and amazing festivals like the Johana Hikiyama Festival. You won’t see the festival in winter – they wheel out the massive floats in late spring and autumn – but you can visit the museum and check out the floats that are hand dragged through the streets.

Some of the sfloats at the Johana Higashiyama Festival Floats Museum © Carmen Price

At Inami village you can try your hand at traditional wood working, sweet making, and get dressed up for the day in gorgeous kimonos. Japanese love doing this – after all, busy ladies don’t have time to slip into full kimono gear very often anymore (and trust me, guys outfits are more complicated than they look too!) – and so do we.

Who doesn’t love dress ups? Get your gear on and go native! © Owain Price

Makes you feel more in tune with the zen vibe at the massive Inami Betsuin Zuisenji Temple at the top of the main street in Inami. As you would expect in a town famous for carvings those on the temple and gates are amazing.

Serious woodwork at Inami Betsuin Zuisenji Temple © Owain Price

Inami is at the foot of the mountains, and a short taxi or shuttle ride past town you can for a cruise up the Shogawa River Gorge through impressive mountain scenery. The lake was created by a hydro scheme.

Shogawa River cruise, Nanto in winter
Shogawa River cruise © Nanto City

But no question, in the Nanto City area the UNESCO World Heritage Gokayama Gassho villages are the icing on the cake. There are a few of these, Gokayama Ainokura and Suganuma in Nanto and the most famous (and busy) Shirakawa-go in neighbouring Gifu Prefecture. They are all fascinating, but Ainokura is the least developed and retains the most original feel.

The thatch technique, and the whole construction, involved (and still involves) a huge team effort on the part of the villagers – a bit like Amish barn building. It’s thirsty work, and plenty of the excellent local sake gets consumed afterwards.

The steep thatch roofs and essentially A-frame construction allowed for 3 levels inside, the lower one for living and the upper two devoted to the traditional crafts which occupied the owners through the long winters – silk worm farming, traditional paper making, and gunpowder making. The results were traded, or taxed, to the feudal lords and merchants on the plains of prosperous Toyama.

Now you scoot through a tunnel from Johana past Taira ski area then down into the formerly hidden valley where Ainokura and Suganuma were previously cut off for the usually very snowy winters in just 20 minutes. Villagers told us it was the mildest winter anyone could remember, or records mentioned. So we lucked out on seeing the village with postcard perfect deep snow, but we a great time checking out the many exhibits and had an awesome lunch.

Treat the skiing as a bonus and come to Nanto for the sights and activities – you won’t be disappointed.

The World Heritage Bus runs from Shin-Takaoka Station to Johana (35 minutes) and on to Ainokura (20 minutes) and then Sugunuma (another 20 minutes). You can hop on and off on the route.

Iox-Arosa and Taira accommodation options

Apart from the chalet style cabins at Iox-Arosa there’s no on-snow accommodation for there or Taira areas, which is no big deal since you come here to see and do other stuff as well.

For nice hotel accommodation close to the Iox-Arosa resort Sakuragaike Kurgarden is set on a hill with panoramic views. It’s popular for weddings, but also boasts a World Cup level climbing wall if you’re into that. It’s the get-away-from-it-all option for couples, nice French cuisine and breakfasts too.

In the little towns that make up Nanto City there are plenty of great value options from ryokans to western style hotels. At Fukuno, one of the larger centres, the Fukuno Town Hotel A Mieux is right next door to a shopping mall. Enter some dates below and it will pop up in the Booking.com links.

For Taira you could stay in one of the Ainokura Village Gassho house guesthouses and they will run you up to the ski area – which will give you a pretty unbeatable dinner or chairlift conversation piece for future reference. Also available in the links below.

There are buses around the area, distances are short enough to take taxis or self-driving is pretty easy – just watch it winding through the mountains.

Staying in a thatch roof house in Ainokura is an option for Taira ski area © Carmen Price

Nanto City and Toyama more info

The well organised tourist offices are very helpful, with excellent English brochures and online info.

For Nanto City check here

For Gokayama check here

The Nanto City Tourist offices like this one at Johana Station are very helpful © Owain Price