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 nighta – night skiing (until midnight weekends!) – can seriously deliver the goods too.
Okutone Snow Park is a deceptively minimalist mountain that maximises your fun. Minakami locals love the place. On weekends it can busy up with a party crowd from nearby Tokyo, who are able to enjoy nighta riding to midnight. Yes, this little place runs 18 hours a day some days, firing up at 6am with a choice of lift pass rates and times to suit – see details at bottom. Yet apart from the odd ex-pat, western skiers are still few and far between.
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.
Mike told us that ever since Okutone added a new double chair up top a couple of years ago he rates the tree terrain here as similar for snow and slope quality to that at much better known Tenjindeira. The new chair reaches 1180m, extending the vertical to a healthy 747m, which is only 11m less than Tenji. There’s just one main easy groomed run cut back from the new chair on the map, but more importantly the new lift opened up swathes of superb tree runs filled with crazy natural features. Mike has lived in Minakami for 20 years, and as usual his recommendation was spot on.
The trees off the top lift run out about half way down the mountain, and collect some very deep snow. The tree features are insanely good. Or maybe they seemed so because of the quality of the local talent showing us around.
“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.”
It sure can. For last line of the day we popped out of the trees and through the park, then on down the home trail to the base through shin deep or better fresh snow over the groomed sections and knee to thigh deep snow off the still untouched sides of the run at 4 in the afternoon.
Sure, Okutone Snow Park is only a small area overall, but the company seems to be ticking over nicely, with a modern base building and recent investment in the new double chair.
In the trees off skier’s right from the top chair the snow stays shady, dry and deep and it’s tree feature heaven.
A few local hotshots, like the 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 – either left over from the lift construction or just randomly fallen, provide plenty of options to enjoy it all.
One of those locals, Hiika Taira, happens to be one of Japan’s top snowboarders. He was a struggle to chase even on the easy runs. In the trees he produced the best log slide I have ever seen from a skier or a boarder in 30 years editing snow magazines working with some very talented crew around the ski planet. Hiika rode a massive fallen log all the way from the fat stump end to the twiggy branch that hung way up in the air out over a deep gully.
We lapped with no competition for our lines, scoping tree features off the chair on each lap for the willing crew to hit on the next one.
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 regardless.
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 there with just 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.
Ski from 6am – 10pm at Okutone Snow Park
Okutone’s publicity proudly proclaims, “Open for 18 hours at longest, tirelessly!”
They run unique lift hours, opening at 6am and running until midnight regularly Friday and Saturday nights for the full 18 hours. Some special nights they go all night.
It must be tough on the lifties, but the 6am starts works for locals getting in some laps before work.
In truth a 5 hour ticket would easily finish me and most others off on a powder day, but whichever you go for it’s cheap skiing at Okutone Snow Park.
Okutone Lift Passes & deals: There’s a big range, so look before you buy. It’s a reasonable ¥5,000 for a day pass, but only ¥4,000 for 5 hours, which will be enough for many.
Pay ¥1,500 for a 6–9am session; ¥3,800 2pm–10pm; ¥2,300 4pm–10pm; ¥2,300 4pm–10pm; ¥2,000 6pm–10pm; ¥1,500 8pm–10pm & 10pm – 12pm (a bit more weekends/holidays).
For families take note that kids ski free to 12 years! Seniors (over 60) get discounts, and Grand Seniors (over 70) even bigger discounts. Just bring proof of age ID.
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.
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
Official Resort website
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.
Okutone is a few minutes from Minakami hotels, close enough to grab a taxi. Or, a better idea for the Minakami and Gunma areas generally, pick up a Nippon Rent-a-Car at Jomo Kogen.