Its almost one day's journey from Zao Onsen in the Northeast of Japan to Myokokogen in the West. This time we take the eastern route, skirting the Kanto region and Tokyo. Its only an hour on the expressway from Yamagata to the eastern coast at Sendai. We spend the morning at Matsushima, a famous bay of pine-clad islands. While inside the bay at Matsushima was not affected by the tsunami, we see the evidence of its impact on the coast around it: houses with their lower floors ripped out and huge piles of rubble.
We pass Fukushima City with the ski area at Alts Bandai overlooking the area from up high in the mountains. Not just cos it has such a cool name, this does look like a good place to check out one day with Inawashiro nearby also!
|Mt Myoko from the room at Kougakoro|
The train climbs from the flat farmlands around Nagano into the highlands, in and out of tunnels, the snow cover building as we peer out of the windows.
A fellow from our inn picks a group of us up from the train station, the little bus climbing up to the ski village at Akakura Onsen as the famous Niigata snow walls grow higher and higher on each side of the road.
The hot springs town of Akakura Onsen looks bright and lively as we arrive at the hotel in the evening. It turns out that one street makes up the sum of the eateries and bars, but it is varied enough with izakaya, ramen bars, and an Italian restaurant to keep us and friends busy for a week.
The inn, Kougakoro, is again a traditional onsen ryokan with tatami floored rooms and fairly nice indoor and outdoor shared baths. The rooms are a good size with a nice view, and the WiFi-enabled lobby is great for apres lounging and watching videos of the day's exploits!
The Myoko ski area is a collection of ski resorts at the base of Mt Myoko. Akakura Onsen is the biggest village and its ski area links with neighbouring Akakura Kanko (Akakan).
Next along is Ikenotaira Onsen, then Suginohara Onsen. On the other side of Akakura Onsen is Seki Onsen.
A bus links most of the Myoko ski areas, but you can only ski between Akakura Onsen and Akakan. Lift passes are available for all four, individually, or there is a joint pass for Akakura Onsen and Akakan. Hotels and inns usually provide some discounts on the full price, or you can download vouchers from ski area websites.
|The Myokokogen Area|
Altitude - 650-1,200m
Lifts - 14
Runs - 16
Snow Depth - 280cms (21/01/2013), 310cms (27/01/2013)
We kicked off our week's skiing at Akakura Onsen ski area which surrounds the village on its northern and eastern sides.
A five-minute walk from the inn on snow-covered village roads, the Akakura Onsen ski lifts give access to mainly gentle, wooded runs above the village and some short, fast groomers with good views over the valley below.
Its a nice area for beginners or for those who like to tour around, especially when you have two (unusually) glorious, sunny first two days.
|Akakan Ski Area|
However, the link with Akakan is seamless at multiple elevations and doubles the skiable area on one reasonably-priced pass. This makes the two together one very big ski area.
Akakan Ski Area
Altitude - 740-1,500m
Lifts - 8
Runs - 10
Snow Depth - 270cms (21/01/2013), 310cms (27/01/2013)
Akakan is named after the luxury hotel, the Akakura Kanko Resort and Spa, that stands proudly halfway up its slopes.
Four-seater, covered chairlifts provide further alternatives for getting around so you don't need to return to the village each time. All the covered lifts make things easy on a typically snowy Myoko day.
You can ski the main groomed run from top to bottom - it starts out fast and red at the top and gets gentler as you get further down. A cruisey experience with nice views on a sunny day.
A couple of nice, fast groomed runs (red and black) are to one side. A long, difficult powder/mogul run is close to the connection with Akakura Onsen ski area.
However, the main attraction for advanced skiers is up at the top parts of the ski area off the top four-seater chairlift. You can (and must!) ski in the trees here ... especially when you get a run of powder days.
I'll save a bit more on that for later on in this post!
There is also some gentler tree skiing under the gondola further down the mountain, and a fast, narrow, off-piste run created by the removal of a chairlift. See if you can find it ... we had it to ourselves all week!
Click here for a collection of pictures of Akakura Onsen and Akakan ski areas.
Ikenotaira Ski Area
Altitude - 760-1,500m
Lifts - 5
Runs - 10
Snow Depth - 200cms (23/01/2013), 220cms (27/01/2013)
|Ikenotaira Onsen 23 January 2013|
At Ikenotaira the most interesting skiing is reached from the top lift. The whole area is like one big triangle with its point at the top and one long side at the base. From the top, you can access some nice, tree-lined groomed runs on either side, with some off-piste for the more adventurous.
When we visited there had been about 20cms of snow overnight which, with the snowfalls of the previous week and a lack of interest by locals in the off-piste, made for some fun in-bounds tree skiing.
Nothing too challenging (except when my adventurousness looked like taking me somewhere that would need a big hike out!), but good fun and better than expected on first view!
Click here for more pictures of Ikenotaira Onsen ski area.
|Suginohara Onsen (& Mt Fuji) 24 January 2013|
Altitude - 731-1,855m
Lifts - 5
Runs - 16
Snow Depth - 180cms (24/01/2013), 230cms (27/01/2013)
The sun came out again! This is too unusual at Myokokogen ... but I have to admit it was nice that the clear, blue skies showed off a bit of Suginohara Onsen's glory.
This ski area boasts the longest ski run in Japan at a thigh-burning distance of 8.5 kilometres ... as well as the incredible views that you may well expect from such a location.
A gondola takes you from the upper car park to the upper parts of the ski area, but another lift is required to get you right to the top.
This is a paradise for those who love long, fast groomed runs. Even better on a nice day to show off the views.
This place has a touch of Europe about it with the long, wide groomed runs and the alpine ski village at the base area.
Click here for more pictures of Suginohara Onsen ski area.
Back to Akakan
Late on the afternoon we visited Suginohara Onsen it became overcast with high cloud, and then the snow began to fall up high around the peaks.
We got back to Akakura Onsen village, and by the evening the warm spots of rain had given way to snow and it was dumping to village level. The excitement levels were up as we drank our sake and beer in the village that night!
There was 10-30cms by the Saturday morning making for a fantastic start to the day.
But that was just the start - it continued snowing throughout the Friday making for awesome conditions out there, light and fluffy. We were up in the trees whooping through the powder, bouncing down the old lift line, and doing laps on the top lifts.
On Saturday morning it was coming down really heavy, another 20-30 cms just in a few hours, which was at least doubled during the day. Tracks up in the trees at Akakan were being filled in each night and the cumulative was making things really deep out there!
On Sunday it cleared for an amazing morning. If this is a lesser year at Myoko, I can't wait for a snowy year!