That’s Ao­mori

Joanna tovia dis­cov­ers that the lit­tle-known Ja­panese pre­fec­ture of Ao­mori is a des­ti­na­tion the whole fam­ily will love.

Holiday with Kids - - Japan -

From Tokyo’s busy streets, where work­ers swarm across in­ter­sec­tions and stride pur­pose­fully into sub­way sta­tions, we board a bul­let train for the moun­tains at the north­ern­most point of Ja­pan’s main is­land.

High rises give way to fields of white and towns of snow-cov­ered roofs as we zip by at 300 kilo­me­tres per hour armed with a bento box packed with de­li­cious morsels. It’s a three-hour ride north to Ao­mori City, a 700-kilo­me­tre jour­ney that would take eight hours by car.

Alight­ing from the train is an ex­pe­ri­ence in it­self. Sleet whirls about as we crunch along the icy plat­form and head out into the snowy street. Across the street is a hum­ble haven of warmth and good food at Ho­tate Goya restau­rant. Here you can fish for your own scal­lops in a tank – though you have just two min­utes on the clock to do so – and what­ever you catch, you eat.

Next door is the Nebuta Mu­seum WA-RASSE, which is worth a visit to learn about the colour­ful Ao­mori Nebuta Fes­ti­val that swells the city from 300,000 to around three mil­lion every Au­gust in cel­e­bra­tion of sum­mer.

Sen­sa­tional ski­ing

At Ao­mori Spring Ski Re­sort’s Rock­wood Ho­tel, I’ve just missed the US, Fin­nish and Ger­man Olympic teams that spent the week be­fore the Pyeongchang Win­ter Olympics fi­ness­ing their moves. The ho­tel is com­fort­able and well lo­cated for ski­ing and snow­board­ing, no mat­ter your level of ex­per­tise; a gon­dola and chair­lift are mere me­tres away.

This is the third time 11-year-old New Zealan­der Cam Melville-ives has vis­ited Ao­mori with his par­ents and twin brother, and says it’s the best place he’s ever snow­boarded. “There’s con­stant snow and the pow­der is never tracked out; the whole moun­tain is full of pow­der and it’s all yours!” Cam says. “I’ve done the black runs and all the park runs but my favourite has got to be The Corkscrew.”

As for the ho­tel, Cam says he loves the buf­fet and bistro and goes for a soak in the on­sen each evening after com­ing in from the snow. “I love the on­sen,” he says, adding that he got used to not wear­ing clothes in the hot springs be­cause “that’s just what the Ja­panese do”.

It’s my first time down­hill ski­ing and I have a two-hour pri­vate les­son with a friendly in­struc­tor who speaks lit­tle English be­yond “stop”, “turn” and “brakes”. Ac­tions speak louder than words when it comes to ski­ing, how­ever, and we have no prob­lem com­mu­ni­cat­ing. He soon adds the word “help!” to his English vo­cab­u­lary.

I quickly get the hang of it, and love every se­cond as I make my way down the eas­i­est run – spills, shrieks of ter­ror, whoops of joy and all. My only re­gret is that I didn’t learn to ski as early as the young kids I see zip­ping past me.

Ao­mori is a hid­den gem in the ski­ing world, cater­ing to ev­ery­one from be­gin­ners to ad­vanced back­coun­try ad­ven­tur­ers. And now I un­der­stand what all the fuss is about Japow, the amaz­ing pow­der skiers and snow­board­ers seek out for the ul­ti­mate ski ex­pe­ri­ence.

Win­ter won­der­land

The snow deep­ens as we head into the Hakkoda Moun­tains the next morn­ing, and I do mean deep­ens. Walls of ice three me­tres high line the road wind­ing through snow-laden for­est. Be sure to get out and make a snow an­gel – stand­ing up!

The friendly Ho­tel Jo­gakura is the place to go if you’re a fam­ily of in­ter­me­di­ate to ad­vanced skiers. There is one be­gin­ner run, but if there is an ad­ven­turer in the fam­ily want­ing to go back­coun­try ski­ing, stay here for at least a cou­ple of nights. Soak up the hot springs and de­li­cious food and take the Hakkoda Rope­way (gon­dola) up to see the “snow mon­sters” on the moun­tain­top. These trees be­come so en­cased in snow and ice over win­ter that they

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take on the look of hunched white mon­sters dot­ting the up­per slopes. There are two fam­ily-friendly walks, with views that stretch all the way to the ocean on clear days.

Ja­pan is the land of fes­ti­vals and I’m thrilled that my trip co­in­cides with one. We rug up to go to Lake Towada Win­ter Story Fes­ti­val, a 40-minute shut­tle bus ride from the lovely Oi­rase Mori no Ho­tel (where bathing must be done in the on­sen rather than your room). Twin­kling lights and swirling snow greet us at the small but fun fes­ti­val, where mu­sic, street food and ac­tiv­i­ties such as sled­ding and ba­nana boat rides make for an ex­cit­ing night for kids. There are igloos and in­door eater­ies when they need a break from the cold, and mulled wine to warm up chilly par­ents.

Ja­panese cui­sine is mild and child-friendly. Kids have fun play­ing “guess that food” as it’s not al­ways easy to fig­ure out what you’re eat­ing from ex­pla­na­tions (usu­ally in Ja­panese) on menus. In Ao­mori few peo­ple speak English, so down­load a trans­la­tion app to make your life – and theirs – a lit­tle eas­ier.

Ja­panese tra­di­tions

From the nearby Hoshino Re­sorts Oi­rase Keiryu Ho­tel, where we have lunch the next day, we strap on snow­shoes and head out into the wilder­ness for a one-hour walk. Kids as young as six will en­joy this snowy Oi­rase Gorge ad­ven­ture; walk­ing along the snowy tracks is easy and fun in snow­shoes. It’s a treat to pass frozen wa­ter­falls and snow-laden trees and cross bridges over icy streams. The land­scape is oth­er­worldly and spec­tac­u­lar.

More fun awaits a two-hour drive away at Mi­sawa’s Hoshino Re­sorts Ao­moriya, which has the feel of a tra­di­tional Ja­panese inn and is pop­u­lar with vis­i­tors from all over Ja­pan.

To en­ter the ho­tel is to step back in time. Py­ja­mas and tra­di­tional shoes are pro­vided (these are worn by most guests around the ho­tel) and there is plenty to do: go on a horse-drawn car­riage ride around the lake, wander through the lantern-lit floors to a fes­tive din­ner and a show, soak in the in­cred­i­ble hot springs out­doors and in­doors, and take part in a tra­di­tional craft work­shop.

It’s a fit­ting grand fi­nale to my whirl­wind trip to Ao­mori, a lit­tle-known travel des­ti­na­tion that won’t stay a se­cret for long.

“Now I un­der­stand what all the fuss is about Japow.”

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