This story originally appeared in the December 2019 (48.3) issue of POWDER.
The trees, my god, the trees: blush and pink-colored beasts reaching 60 feet into the sky with bark that flakes off like paper scrolls. Their trunks are thick and sturdy, with thousands of individual branches extending 30 feet outward, each with its own delicate layer of snow, like frosting applied to an expensive wedding cake. They are called Erman’s birches, a deciduous tree found in Eastern Russia, Korea, and where we are now, a skin track above a ski area called Seki Onsen on the main island of Japan. It seems that if we held our breath long enough, we’d be able to hear these big trees whisper their ancient wisdom into the wind.
These trees could be here for centuries to come, rendering us and our traveling skis as memorable and meaningless as single snowflakes in the indiscriminate passage of time.
It makes sense that the trees above Seki Onsen are big and old and weathered, because this entire area is protected as a national park, which includes the small village below. Tracing its lineage back to when skiing was first introduced to this country by a European army sergeant more than 100 years ago, Seki Onsen is one of the oldest ski areas in Japan. It has just two chairlifts, a double and a single, an open backcountry policy thanks to the adjoining Myōkō-Togakushi Renzan National Park, and has been run by the same family for decades. They do everything, from selling lift tickets to bumping chairs to cooking the food. As Japan continues to be swarmed every winter by powder hounds from the Western world, Chad Sayers, Mattias Fredriksson and came to this area hoping to find the island’s old ski culture, where ski areas and villages haven’t yet been overly influenced by foreign interests. What we found went much deeper and reaffirmed that some of the biggest lessons come from the smallest places.
After about 45 minutes of climbing the skin track, we top out on a small sub-alpine ridge. We’re immediately smacked by an argumentative blast of wind that includes the earthy, rotten-egg aroma of natural hot springs. Up ahead in the clouds is the summit of Mount Myōkō, the 8,051-foot active stratovolcano that crowns this range of mountains just 20 miles from the Sea of Japan. Snowflakes swirl around us in an upward lifting cone, obscuring the view to just the next 100 feet below our skis.
The descent begins at a low angle through sparse trees. It’s almost difficult to gain enough speed to ski through the bottomless snow, but the fall line soon cascades through hallways framed by those immense trees. We pick up speed, one at a time, as the slope bends to the right before we stop at a blind roll over. We know the terrain curves to the left into a pinch, but it’s too steep to see where it goes from there. We are in the backcountry, and there’s no avalanche control here. After some discussion, I drop in first, bank a right-footer on a large panel of untouched snow and straightline through the pinch. The line spits me out into a giant U-shaped valley. No trees, just an immaculate, untracked canvas of snow, and I let my skis run as fast as they can all the way to the bottom.
After Sayers and Fredriksson join me, we take in the surroundings of the huge drainage and are astonished to see a bear climbing through deep snow on the mountainside. There are a lot of bears in this area, but in winter? It turns out to be a kamoshika, a small hairy goat that, we learned, is often mistaken for a furry, hibernating mammal. From there, we reapply skins and slowly make our way back to the base of the ski hill, hungry for lunch at Seki Onsen’s only mid-mountain restaurant.
Walking in, we shake the snow off like wet dogs and proceed to hang our damp jackets, gloves, goggles, and helmets on plastic hangers above an electrical heater in the corner. Music is coming from the stereo. But instead of pop or classic rock like at most ski area restaurants, here it’s jazz—smoky jazz from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus. At the front counter, I order a pork stir fry and a beer, which is poured from a dispenser via the push of a button, which automatically tilts the glass and includes a top off with a nice foamy head.
When our food arrives, we grab chopsticks and the shichimi spice shaker, and then devour the hot, homestyle meal at a long wooden table covered in green cloth. We watch out the big windows as the snow continues to fall against the backdrop of American jazz, wondering how such an intoxicating place can still exist.
From the moment the wheels touched down at the Narita International Airport outside Tokyo, we experienced sensory overload. Nothing stands still during the controlled and efficient madness that defines the mastery of Japanese transportation. If you’re dragging a heavy ski bag through various hubs, confused by which train to take from which platform, it can be easy to feel like a sweaty American oaf who succeeds at nothing but being in the way. But if you miss one train, another will come along shortly, right on time, which is more or less how we got to our final destination about 220 miles from the airport on a cold night in mid-January.
We met our shuttle driver, Daisuke Goto, at the Myōkō-kogen station, who drove us into the village of Akakura, a landing spot for skiers wanting to explore the many areas of Myōkō, including Seki Onsen. Goto was also the owner of the Wakui Hotel where we’d be staying for a few nights. Like other hotels in town, the Wakui was very old, and has been run by the Goto family for seven generations. The hallways were lined with paintings by Hatsuno Goto, Daisuke’s grandmother who died last year at the age of 113. Her artwork depicts historical mountain scenes in brilliant colors, and tells the story of how modern skiing arrived in Japan.
In 1911, when Hatsuno was 8 years old, the Austro- Hungarian Army came to Japan to study its military tactics. While visiting the country’s west coast, an Army Major named Theodore von Lerch began teaching locals how to ski on the nearby hills. Lerch used long wooden skis and a single pole (commonly called a lurk). In Hatsuno’s beautiful scene, Japanese families watch three soldiers schuss down a snowy slope with Mount Myōkō in the background.
After those humble beginnings, Japan fully embraced the sport, eventually developing more than 500 ski areas throughout the country. In the Myōkō area, Lerch’s influence is still visible, as gift shops sell plush dolls of the European soldier with a bushy brown mustache and skis. Skiing in Japan boomed in the 1980s and contributed to huge growth in the global ski market. But when the country’s economy collapsed in the early 1990s, many ski areas were abandoned. Though snowboarding helped revitalize the Japanese market, it has never fully recovered. Just like in America today, skiing does not have the same pull among young Japanese as it once did.
Akakura, which has abandoned lifts leftover from the slow down, shares the neon lights and colorful signage of Tokyo, but on a miniature scale. Its narrow main street is confined by four- and five-story buildings, straining under the weight of enormous snowbanks. The town had just been consumed by three feet of snow a few days before we arrived, and, with the current break in the weather, its citizens were in full snow-removal mode. Tractors of all different sizes buzzed about, and we encountered one group of women using a series of ladders, slides, and shovels to push huge drifts off a three-story building.
The village was busy with Western skiers and snowboarders—mostly Aussies and Kiwis, with a smattering of North Americans and Europeans—as Akakura has slowly become another box to check for traveling skiers. The influx has brought a boost to the local economy, as well as Westernstyle coffee shops and pubs alongside the traditional Japanese-style inns called ryokans.
After Diasuke checked us in to a room on the fourth floor of his family’s ryokan, we took a soak in the Wakui’s basement onsen, and fell asleep on small mattress pads that had been laid out on tatami bamboo mats. Our pillows, consisting of buckwheat husks known as sobakawa, were flat, hard, and not very comfortable.
For the next two days, we explored Akakura Onsen and Akakura Kanko ski areas, which sit side by side and offer joint lift tickets. The skiing was low angle with about six inches of left-over powder among enormous Erman’s birches.
The town had just been consumed by three feet of snow a few days before we arrived.
On night three, after taking an onsen before bed, I woke up at 3 a.m. to the sound of a tractor outside and the windowpane rattling. When I cracked the window open to take a look, I was met with a strong blast of snow.
A fierce storm had rolled in, and we were about to head deeper into old Japan.
Akakura and Seki Onsen are only a few miles away from each other, but they are separated by a steep valley rimmed with cliffs, avalanche paths, and deadly steam vents. A road with numerous goosenecks winds between the two villages in the summer, but it’s closed during winter so you have to drive about 40 minutes around, with sixfoot snowbanks on either side of the road.
The snow is coming down at a rate of inches per hour. Our taxi driver, a quiet, stoic, middle-aged Japanese man, has a firm 10-and-2 grip on the wheel, rallying his all-wheel-drive wagon past numerous stuck vehicles. When I ask him if he skis, he deadpans, “yes,” and I feel like an idiot. The road dead-ends at Seki Onsen.
The town is small, quaint, quiet, and goes right up to the foot of the ski area. There are no markets, bars, or cafes, just a collection of old-style ryokans. We’d been warned that there were no places to buy snacks, so we loaded up in Akakura on the Japanese version of Pringles (called Chip Stars) and six-packs of Sapporo.
It’s a short walk to the base of the ski area, where we meet up with Tatsuya Tayagaki and Ayana Onozuka, who have become among the most influential Japanese skiers. Tatsuya, an engaging 40-year-old who was the editor of the Japanese ski magazine called Bravoski for 17 years, has been a passionate ambassador for Japanese powder skiing for more than a decade. Ayana, 30, won a bronze medal in halfpipe at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. She has since transitioned to competing on the Freeride World Tour.
As we ski up to the double chair, we see an older Japanese man greeting skiers as they get on the lift. He’s wearing an exquisite white and blue Dale of Norway sweater over a red turtleneck, wool gray slacks, a wool cap, and big leather boots that you’d use to climb the Matterhorn. His name is Mikio Inoue, the 64-year-old owner of Seki Onsen Ski Area.
Inoue took the reins of Seki Onsen 40 years ago, and today runs it with his family: his wife Hiroko sells lift tickets ($32 all day, or $5 for a single ride) and cooks lunch at the cafeteria; their son Go runs the lifts and maintenance; their daughter-in-law Megumi works the register at the cafeteria; and her dad is a liftie. With a handful of employees, they cater to powder hounds and local ski clubs. There is no snowmaking, and only one groomer runs to the base from the top of the double chair. The only other chair, a single, rises about 600 vertical feet above the double chair. Throughout the day, ski club kids, wearing bright green vests and skiing on outdated rental gear, lap the groomer over and over again. A few of them muster the courage to drop off the cat track into the deep powder, only to explode into a cloud of white prompting hoots and heckles from their friends.
We hop on the lift and slowly ascend through a hallway of snow-covered trees. Whereas many ski resorts in Japan have loud speakers on lift terminals playing pop music, including at Akakura, here at Seki there’s only the sound of the lift rattling along the cable. Billions of dime-size snowflakes float down on top of our laps, and we savor the slow pace of an old double chair in a storm. At the top, we bust a hard left and set a traverse through deep snow into a forested ridgeline leading back to the frontside. With not a track below us, every line is fair game. The terrain is steep with multiple drop offs, which explode with snow up to my eyeballs. The run is short, perhaps 600 vertical feet, but it’s pure powder skiing start to finish.
Once the lower mountain is tracked out, the single chair roars to life, holding the promise of yet more virgin powder. The bottom of the chair looks like a caboose on an old steam engine. The lift house is a plywood box. Out front, a lifty has used black spray paint to write the word “OPEN” on a wooden sign. We ski up past the sign, and wait for our individual turns as the snow falls harder.
The chair’s seats are the size of pizza boxes. The lift towers—old, dented, burnt orange colored— rattle and shake so loudly when the chair passes that it’s a wonder that the bolts don’t strip right off their mounts and send you upside down into the deep drifts below.
The snow is coming down as hard as I’ve ever seen it, reducing visibility to the next few chairs. A female snowboarder sits on the chair ahead, slouched forward in full survival mode against the blowing snow.
Unloading at the top, there are no decisions, no socializing or strategizing about which run to ski. Just make sure all your pockets are zipped up, take a deep breath, and dive in straight down beneath the chair.
Though Seki has been around for more than 100 years, according to Mikio Inoue, only in the last five have Westerners started showing up in significant numbers. Before that, it was hidden away, the sole domain of locals and the occasional vagabond. One of them was professional snowboarder Craig Kelly, who perished in an avalanche in British Columbia in 2003. According to local legend, Kelly would disappear for a few days during industry trips to Japan to ride Seki by himself. There’s a large photo of Kelly at the mid-mountain restaurant, with a tribute written in Japanese about his global influence.
Among the earlier Myōkō devotees is a tall Minnesotan named Bill Ross. As a college student in St. Peter, Ross grew interested in Japanese culture and their language. He moved to Tokyo in 1982, where he worked in education and publishing. To hone his Japanese, he joined a sake-tasting club, and soon started taking ski trips to Myōkō. In 1996, he moved to Akakura permanently, married a Japanese woman, and they had a daughter. In the years since, he has written numerous stories about Japanese mountain culture, helping to educate foreign adventurers to respect and understand Japan. He notes in one article for Outside Japan that while many ski areas, like Seki Onsen, claim to be the country’s first, it was actually in Goshiki, Yamagata, about 200 miles north. Ross, who helped start Myoki’s first Search and Rescue, now operates an Akakura-based guiding company called Dancing Snow. For years, he was the only Caucasian in town, and a tall one at that. Today, he is 61 and a sake connoisseur.
“There were no foreigners at all,” he says of his earlier days. “I’d go into a school and the kids would all fall down and scream.”
It appears that now, about half of the skiers at Seki are not Japanese. We meet a skier named Greg Sundberg and his daughter, Emily Krieger, who first came to the Myōkō area a few years ago after hearing about it from their friend, professional skier Adam U, who has made numerous trips to the area. I meet another skier on the chairlift from Seattle. His name is Steve and originally had plans to use his Ikon Pass up at Niseko, but decided to come here instead after hearing about it from friends back home.
I talk to a group of women from Colorado who are loaded up with touring gear, having just bought single ride lift tickets from Hiroko. They’d heard about this place from a guide in British Columbia.
Then, last year, professional skier Michelle Parker devoted an entire episode of her Red Bull TV series to Seki Onsen, and now, Pᴏᴡᴅᴇʀ has arrived. Just like that, it’s not the secret it used to be.
As an outfitter, Ross appreciates the additional company and business. But he sees the downsides as well. Though he’s quick to point out that Japanese culture is incredibly slow the change, he knows the constant stream of outside influence can erode the local character that makes a place so unique to begin with. Today, there are more skiers seeking powder lines around Myōkō, just as there are more foreign investors buying up hotels and building Western-style cafes.
As an example of how things can change, Ross tells a story about how he went to Niseko about 10 years ago to translate for some American and Australian ski patrollers who were on location to help that resort begin a backcountry gate system.
“As soon as 4 p.m. came around, the restaurant opened and it was all Australians with one plate of French fries and beers,” he says. “I was like, ‘Grrrr… I really hope that doesn’t happen down here.’”
When the lifts shut down that afternoon, we check into the Asahiya Ryokan just 100 feet from the double chair. The hotel is a century old and run by the Kubo family: the son, 42-year-old Shunsuke, is the chef, maintenance man, and doeverything manager; mom, Sachiko, is server and housekeeper; and dad, Sakae, shuffles slowly to and fro looking after things. Its exceptional onsen is a relatively small pool made from brown stone; the hot-hot waters are rust-colored due to the heavy minerals flowing from deep within the mountainside and soaking in them makes it seem as if the rest of the world has just slipped away.
Hanging on the wall next to the front desk is a framed photo of Shunsuke as a younger man charging through slalom gates. Over the next three days, I see Shunsuke shovel snow off the roof, sprint down the hallway when something requires his attention, and prepare the most delicious Japanese cuisine I’ve ever had: exquisite meals of small plates featuring cooked and raw fish, steamed pork and beef with veggies, mussels, pounded rice that has the taste and texture of cheese, and of course, hot tea and miso soup.
The hotel is internet-free except for the small lobby. Every common area is frigid except the onsen, dining area, a very rustic ski and boot storage, and our rooms, which are simple square domiciles with tatami mats. We see no other employees, and for a few days, we are the only guests. Shunsuke speaks limited English and his parents none at all. We get to know each other with hand gestures, laughter, and polite nods.
It feels like we have disappeared, emerging in a place where skiing and life are equally meditative without any modern distractions. Once the lifts stopped spinning, we have nowhere else to go but back to the Asahiya to soak, eat, read, write, and fall to sleep before getting up to do it all over again. This would bore some skiers. Those skiers shouldn’t come here.
There’s a Japanese proverb that says, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” It’s often used to describe how resistant the country is to change. But make no mistake, change is coming to Myōkō. You can see it on the skin tracks above Akakura where large posses of foreigners have set multiple, random routes, and on the streets after a powder day where groups of young men and women gabble about which restaurant or bar to drop into.
But you can’t see it on the trees, those sturdy reminders of the past and our own insignificance.
After finishing lunch at Seki’s mid-mountain restaurant, we say goodbye to Hiroko and Megumi, click into our skis, and go back up the mountain for another short tour. It’s mostly traversing, with powdery descents on short pitches. Where the sun has come out, the snow is radically different. Given the low elevation and latitude—Tokyo is roughly the equivalent to Los Angeles—the sun is a powerful factor, and can rapidly turn the snow to heavy glop.
When we return to the base area, there’s time for one more ride on the double chair. I’m in the middle of a large group of local ski clubbers in their old rental gear and bright green vests. As I slowly ascend on the chair, Mikio takes off on a snowmobile up the cat track, his little wool cap bracing against the headwind. In the hallway of trees, everything is quiet as usual. Then the local kids start laughing and singing in unison, their chatter floating easily back and forth through the trees. I don’t have to hold my breath to hear them, and there is no misinterpreting their joy.
To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.