All over the ski town of Akakura Onsen, Japan, locals were digging out. A few days before our arrival on January 13, three feet of snow had fallen on top of an already deep snowpack. Men and women, employing all kinds of different shovels and snow-removal machines and tractors, were hard at work. With a lull in storms expected for at least 48 hours, it was time to clear some snow.
One of the oldest ski zones on the main island of Honshu, Akakura traces its organized skiing back to the 1930s. Accessed by three trains from the Narita International Airport in Tokyo, it’s a bit farther away and harder to get to the regular haunts of Hakuba and Hokkaido. The mountains are not very big, with the region’s tallest peak, Mount Myoko, topping out at 8,051 feet, which is at least a thousand feet above the top lift at the ski area. The terrain consists of mostly mellow slopes covered with classic Japanese deciduous trees.
What it lacks in terrain and features it more than makes up for with snowfall. The hotels and homes are rustic and traditional, with many showing cracks and the wear and tear endured through decades of harsh winter weather. For three days, our small crew—including photographer Mattias Fredriksson and skier Chad Sayers—have been staying at the Wakui Hotel, which we were told had been run by the same family for seven generations (you’ll have to take their word for it; that’s a difficult fact to check).
The matriarch, a woman named Hatsuno Goto, passed away last spring at 113 years. A renowned local artist, she painted scenes of landscapes of the area, including the Japanese army training on skis before lifts were erected, until she was 100.
We came to the area to seek out that old traditional culture. With Japan being squarely on the map for North American skiers, we want to find the small, out-of-the-way places that still maintain the history and tradition of Japanese mountain culture. With a break in snowfall for the first few days, we’re crossing our fingers for a respectable Japanese storm. At the end of the day, as we skied through the lanes of giant Erman’s birch trees, the wind came up and the snow started to blow. Falling to sleep, we dream and hope to wake up to fresh snow.