Tohoku snow delivers the real Japan deal – so much Japow, still so few westerners chasing it, and incredible cultural experiences at every turn reflecting centuries of tradition. Ben Cooke takes us on a sampler tour of some of the Tohoku snow highlights you really should discover for yourselves soon..
When searching for the best japow on offer in the Land of the Rising Sun most of us immediately begin researching a stay in Hokkaido, and it’s no wonder. For years Japan’s most northern prefecture has offered up some of the world’s best snowfall across breathtaking terrain, making places like Niseko and Sapporo a home away from home for snow-seeking Australians.
But what if we told you that there’s another region of Japan offering just as much in the way of snow sports, along with rich history and great food less than 2 hours by bullet train from Tokyo?
Taking you to the lesser-known snow of Japan, we explore the north of Japan’s main island, the region of Tohoku, and in particular the prefectures of Fukushima, Yamagata and Akita.
The Fresh Powder of Fukushima
For those keen to get on the mountains after stepping off the train in Fukushima, it’s easy to head straight to Alts Bandai Snow Park and Resort. With everything from free-to-use beginner slopes to large downhill sections and powder-coated backcountry, Alts Bandai Snow Park is perfect for all skill levels. Coupled with a number of in-house restaurants and food vans serving a mixture of local and international food, as well as premium rental gear and accommodation that offers access to a pool and onsen, it’s a one-stop shop.
Of course, few things in life pair like winter and ramen, making the famed Ban Nai Shokudo with their signature Kitakata ramen a great spot to grab a bite. A 65-year-old store with a number of menu options consisting of curly handmade noodles and plenty of braised pork, a bowl (or two) will have you warmed and ready to get back outside in no time.
For anyone with a love of sake and tradition, Fukushima’s Yamatogawa Sake Brewery has you covered. Built in 1790, today the brewery grows their own rice using locally sourced water to produce a wide variety of standard and infused sakes, many of which you can sample before purchasing. An adjoining museum section also displays the history of the brewery through a collection of ancient tools and brewing equipment.
Flexing its natural beauty, Fukushima is also home to Lake Inawashiro, famous for its splash ice. Naturally occurring ice sculptures formed by the waves crashing onto the bank and then freezing atop one another, these one-of-a-kind creations can be found at the end of a short hike through snowy forest country. Just be prepared, it’s cold and it’s wet.
Snow Mobiles and Yokocho in Yamagata
Moving further north is the prefecture of Yamagata, home to great traditional food, luxury accommodation and some more unique snow-based activities at places like Snow Park Donden. Located in Iide, one of Yamagata’s more rural towns, Snow Park Donden is a seasonal experience set up to make the most of the area’s snowfall. Here, visitors can enjoy a number of family-friendly activities ranging from snowmobile riding to downhill sledding. There’s even a large banana boat that can accommodate up to 4 passengers while being towed at high speed by a snowmobile.
While there are plenty of great spots to eat across Yamagata, none are quite as unique as the Kamakura Mura at Onagawa Onsen in Yonezawa City. Translating to “snow hut town,” these igloo-like structures can usually be seen between January and March each year. Complete with a table and chairs and located directly opposite a local ramen shop, visitors can pull up a seat and enjoy a bowl of ramen while surrounded by the walls of tightly packed snow.
For those looking for something a little more refined, Yonezawa Wagyu Dining Bekoya offers a traditional dining experience coupled with a menu rich in the famous Yonezawa beef. Renowned for its desirable texture and marbling, Yonezawa beef has become known across Japan as some of the country’s best.
Lastly is Toyokocho, a modern cluster of izakayas located in Yamagata’s Tendo Onsen. Here, the variety of food and drink on offer is king, and multilingual signage actually encourages visitors to hop from store to store in order to not only experience the various tastes of Yamagata, but also as a means of socialising, creating the perfect atmosphere to practice your Japanese over a glass of Asahi’s finest.
Winding down for the night, Tendo Onsen’s Takinoyu Hotel offers a level of luxury you’d usually only expect to find in big cities. Sporting extremely spacious rooms, perfect for those with excess luggage or snow gear, there is also a public onsen within the hotel and the option to book traditional Japanese dinner courses that draw on ingredients from the local area.
Akita’s Alpine Life
Moving further north once again to Akita prefecture, visitors are met with one of the most awe-inspiring ways to take in the Japanese countryside: the Akita Nairiku Line. On this single-car train fitted with oversized windows and comfortable booth-style seating, passengers are treated to snow-laden scenes you’d swear were straight out of a Studio Ghibli movie. Seasonal lunches are also available to enjoy during the journey.
Much like its neighbours, Akita has a number of great options in terms of snow sports, such as Mt. Moriyoshi’s Ani Ski Resort. Here, in addition to uncrowded downhill runs and wild backcountry, those with a love for hiking can take a gondola to the summit and continue on a short hike to the field of “snow monsters.” Created by rain, strong winds, and freezing temperatures, the trees atop the mountain become encased in snow and ice during winter, giving them a unique monster-like appearance that’s typically only accessible in more tourist-laden areas of Japan.
Displaying the rich heritage of Japanese warrior culture, Akita’s Aoyagi Samurai Manor Museum is home to an incredible collection of original samurai armour and weaponry, some of which you can even hold. Contained within an original period house used by samurai of the time, this exhibition is worth the detour and offers plenty for those interested in history and samurai culture.
But as we all know, a mountain getaway can be hard on the bones. Whether you’re hiking, skiing or snowboarding, by the end of the trip you’re going to need to stop for a soak. Luckily, Akita’s Nyuto Onsen is one of the most surreal locations you could possibly do so. With both indoor and outdoor hot springs, visitors here can bathe surrounded by snow-covered hills, creating a perfect way to wind down and recharge after getting to know the beauty of Japan’s lesser-known Tohoku snow.
We hope you have enjoyed this entrée to some of the many delights of winter in Tohoku.
To learn more and check out how accessible Tohoku snow is visit their official tourist info site on the link here
For Alts Bandai check the resort’s English website here