in remote Honshu has as much to do with onsen soaking, forest bathing and snow-capped shrines as it does with Japan’s famed powder
Adam H Graham heads to Honshu where onsen soaking, forest bathing and snow-capped shrines have as much to do with the experience
as Japan’s famed powder
I’M IN THE FRONT SEAT OF A TOYOTA DRIVING THROUGH A TOTAL whiteout with two-metre snow banks on either side of the road. Only 20 minutes earlier we were in a sun-drenched valley known for its peaches, kiwis and chardonnay grapes, but a few corkscrew turns led us, Candyland-style, to this alpine wonderland. Thankfully, the driver, Oyama-san, knows the road well. He and my guide, Maya, speak in Japanese with prolonged aizuchi, frequent interjections that indicate the listener is attuned to the speaker. “Un, un. Hai, hai, hai. Sou desu-ka.” I’m not sure what they’re saying, but as we round another embankment I think, how does anything survive these harsh winters? Just then, Oyama-san stops the car and points up to a barren tree. “Snow monkeys!” he says, grinning. “Japanese macaques.” I look up through the hoary swirls of a Japanese north-country winter sky and see shrivelled faces the colour of June cherries.
Their lips move slowly while they nibble cypress bark. “They’re always eating,” Maya says. “Just like Japanese,” Oyama-san adds. “Americans, too!” I quip. We all laugh at the corny group joke, as you do in Japan.
We’re in the prefecture of Fukushima, Japan’s third largest, roughly the size of Jamaica. The Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, where the 2011 meltdown occurred in the wake of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, is 120km east, separated by several mountain ridges that prevented dangerous radiation from reaching this area. (The evacuation zone was a 19km radius around the plant.) But I haven’t come to explore the disaster’s fallout, nor to see the snow monkeys. I’m here to ski, snowshoe and hike for seven nights through Tohoku, the northern-most region of Japan’s main island,
Honshu, which contains the Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Yamagata,
Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. This snowy swath of Tohoku’s Ou Mountains is also the setting for the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road To The Deep North. It has the rusty eeriness of Stephen King’s New England, the volcanic tension of Hawaii and the earthy mysticism of the Andes. Sprinkle in Camelot and Middle Earth wizardry, snowy Shinto shrines and miles of off-radar piste for good measure.
“Why would you leave Switzerland in February to ski in Japan?” a Swiss friend in my hometown of Zurich asked me. Rattled by the arrogance of the question, I quickly responded, “I’m Slow
Skiing in Japan,” which, like Slow Food, I imagined would involve a more holistic, considered approach to the winter sport, bolstered with sukiyaki feasts, meditative onsen soaks and shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) in the presence of mysterious mountain hermits. “You don’t have that in Switzerland.” To be clear, Slow Skiing is not a real phenomenon, as far as I know. But it should be, especially in Japan, which is mistakenly defined by its fast pace. The longer I thought about Slow Skiing, the more sense it made. I ski in Switzerland regularly and have twice skied in Japan, at the popular resorts of Hakuba in Nagano prefecture – host of the 1998 Winter Olympics – and Niseko on the island of Hokkaido. Like St Moritz and Aspen, they were almost too international, catering to foreigners and not Japanese enough for me. And on both trips, I regretted not
spending more time off-slope, despite Japan’s excellent trademark “JaPow” (Japan powder) – super-dry snow caused by a unique marine effect that carries precipitation from Siberia across the Sea of Japan to Honshu, officially among the world’s snowiest places, with up to 38m each year. Even if JaPow lives up to the hype as a worthwhile pilgrimage for powder buffs, flying long-haul only to bomb down piste with a granola bar is like visiting Paris and eating at McDonald’s. I wanted Japan’s sacred moments, exquisite culinary experiences and bizarre surprises, like sake parades and costumed ski-resort mascots. Skiing in Tohoku promised all that.
Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, is the best way to get there. Maya, from the travel outfitter Remote Lands, picked me up at my Marunouchi district hotel and we walked in our snow boots over sunny, dry streets to Tokyo Station. I’d used guides in Japan before, with mixed results. But this remote, snowblanketed region is an especially difficult place to navigate, so it made sense to use one, and Maya was an excellent match. Before the trip, I’d explained my Slow Ski concept to Remote Lands, who helped prepare my itinerary. Maya spent her teen years in Connecticut and returned to her native Tokyo with her parents in the Nineties. Extremely well-travelled, she had skied extensively in Switzerland so she understood both Japan and the West well. We first bonded over our mutual love of cheese. “Japan’s just starting to make decent cheeses, but nothing as good as Emmental and Gruyère,” she said.
Our 90-minute ride made an Impressionist painting of the landscape, and we whizzed past Eighties-era skyscrapers, suburban supermarkets and eventually red torii gates gleaming on hilltops coated with fresh snow. At Shin-Shirakawa Station, on the edge of the mountains, we met Oyama-san, a tall and humble single dad who would be our driver and fellow adventurer for the next three days. He drove us another 90 minutes to Aizu, the western-most region of Fukushima (and farthest from the east coast’s nuclear reactor site). We ascended twisty roads and crossed bridges to get to that imposing wall of iced bundt cakes that define the Ou Mountains, each mile leading away from colour and into the wintry gossamer. “Out of the long tunnel into the snow country,” Maya said from the back seat after we exited a tunnel into a void of white. “It’s a line from Nobel
“Slow Skiing in Japan, I imagined, would involve a more holistic, considered approach to the winter sport, bolstered with sukiyaki
feasts, meditative onsen soaks and forest bathing”
Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, written about Yuzawa, about 200km away. But if the shoe fits.”
Like Tohoku, Aizu is an ancient feudal region that predates the modernised prefectural system. It was home to Japan’s last samurai clan, which disappeared during the Meiji Restoration in 1868. But the snow was so blinding that day that it eliminated the horizon altogether, making sightseeing a challenge. Tsuruga Castle, a modern replica of the 14th-century structure that was the last bastion of samurai warriors, appeared as a chalky smudge on a hill. Sazaedo temple is a double-helix-shaped wooden building surrounded by gurgling brooks, ponds and a manicured garden; on a clear day it would have been Instagram-platinum. And later on, what should have been a 10-minute walk through the village of Ouchi-juku – a row of thatched huts and igloos – turned into a 30-minute trudge. It was so bad that Maya suggested an early lunch, and in a smoky hut we dried off by the open fire while slurping down bowls of soba.
Slow Skiing was turning out to be slower and harder than I had imagined. I was soon ready for dinner and a soak in an onsen. At Ryokan Harataki, we slipped into our green cotton yukata robes and met in the dining room, where we feasted on koduyu, a driedscallop stock with ginkgo and shiitake, and grilled slices of marbled Aizu beef, washed down with sweet sake made from a highly polished rice at local brewery Nagurayama. After, in the onsen packed with naked Japanese twentysomethings in white head towels, the snow swirled around us, making it impossible to see.
The next morning, I discovered the pool glittering beside a gushing waterfall, with tree branches and lanterns under a five-centimetrethick fluff of snow. I’ve steeped in more than 100 onsen, but this humble one was top-five material.
Feeling restored, we set out for a hike around the rim of Lake Inawashiro, Japan’s fourth largest, nicknamed Heaven’s Mirror because its surface reflects Mount Bandai, an active volcano. There wasn’t much reflection during that blustery, overcast morning, but we encountered tundra swans and flocks of pintail ducks being fed by bundled-up children. Fortunately, the sun poked through just as we began our three-hour snowshoe trek around a pine-scented ridge trail to Bishamon, one of five volcanic lakes inside BandaiAsahi National Park. While plunging through metre-high banks, I reminded Maya how to make snow angels, and like kids at ski camp we let ourselves fall into the deep, down-like snow.
That night, Maya, Oyama-san and I shared a bubbling tableside sukiyaki of beef, vegetables and tofu simmering in a sweet soy broth at the Grandeco Resort, located inside the national park. While tipping back some Hibiki spirit, Oyama-san – sober but loose enough to show vulnerability – talked about his divorce, and then Fukushima. “Aizu was betrayed twice by Japan. First, when the Meiji Restoration ended the samurai system. And then during the Fukushima nuclear disaster.” Oyama-san was raised here and stayed, even after many urged him to relocate following the earthquake and tsunami. “But nobody has been harder on Fukushima than the neighbouring prefectures. They tell us we should change our name or move out, but the truth is we’ve had less radioactivity here in Aizu than in other prefectures closer to the plant. Still, because we’re in Fukushima, our vegetables are banned from supermarkets and the tourists stopped coming.” Oyama-san’s words hit hard. The region had been ghosted (which I’d been appreciating as a crowd-eschewing Slow Skier), but the radiation in Aizu had never reached evacuation thresholds. On March 15, 2011, it spiked to its highest recorded level, roughly the same as the radiation emitted from an X-ray or CT scan, but today remains lower than in many parts of the world, including the average in NYC and Paris.
Day three was our power ski day. Bluebird days are rare on Japanese piste, but a bluebird hour or two on the uncrowded slope was all I really needed. Maya and I did a first-tracks run down one of Grandeco’s eight courses. Unlike Switzerland, Japan doesn’t have a winter break when schools close and families ski, so on this Monday we had fresh corduroy slopes all to ourselves. No knuckledraggers, no chowder; not even any annoying pop music blaring from Pylon speakers. Maya and I had bonded earlier over our aging Gen-X status, but after filming each other’s fakies (skiing backward) and garlands (half-turns) we felt like high schoolers on a snow day. We debated staying longer, only she got a call from Takako, our ski guide in the neighbouring resort Zao Onsen, who said conditions there were amazing. Since Zao in Yamagata prefecture has more piste, we agreed to go even though it was a buzz-killing two-hour (112km) drive away.
Frankly, Zao Onsen town is dumpy, with outdated lifts, ramshackle base-station infrastructure and a lack of luxury hotels. A lingering smell of onsen sulfur doesn’t help. But for my Slow Ski criteria, it was a score. Atop the Zao Ropeway are Zao’s infamous Snow Monsters – giant white firs naturally sealed in ice and coated in a frosting of snow, like trees from a gingerbread house. Illuminated at night, these eerie abominable snowmen creaked like boats and clinked like icicles. Next to them, a Jizo Buddha statue
stood buried under snow, only its red hood peeking out. There are Shinto torii gates at the base of the lifts and a few good-luck temple bells. Much has been written about the Japanese aesthetic wabi-sabi, loosely meaning “imperfect beauty”, but the concept of sabi itself is underrated. It means the elegance of untouched, aging things, of which Zao has a surplus.
The skiing itself was quality, with 740 acres of terrain, 36 lifts and an 800m vertical drop, plus intermediate runs for versatile skiers, blacks for bombers and plenty of blues for beginners. Maya and I arrived at lunchtime and spent the afternoon with Takako, making several runs. Takako and I returned the next morning for freshies and had the slopes to ourselves. “Free refills every night,” she said of the near-certainty of nightly snowfall.
Inspired by Basho, I wanted to delve deeper into snow country’s spiritual side. First was a climb up 1,000 snow-covered steps to the rock-perched, ninth-century wooden Risshaku-ji temple in Yamadera. Afterwards, we headed down a path to Mount Haguro, one of Japan’s many sacred Shinto mountains and home to Goju-No-To, a 12thcentury pagoda in a cedar forest heavy with shrines and temples.
The waist-deep snow slowed us enough to appreciate Jijisugi, the 1,000-year-old Grandfather Cedar wrapped in shimenawa rope (to activate its sacredness), and the waterfall shrine Suganotaki. These holy woods are also home to the mystical Yamabushi, mountain hermit monks in Merlin-like white robes carrying horagai, or conchshell trumpets. They follow the Shugendo doctrine, a mix of Shinto animism and Buddhism, and believe that spiritual enlightenment comes from communing with nature over long periods of time, which yields mystical powers. “You don’t get this in Gstaad,” I whispered to Maya as we slushed through the woods, practising the elements of forest bathing and admiring the komorebi, the unique Japanese expression for sunlight that dapples through trees.
That night we slept atop the mountain at the Saikan shukubo (a Shinto priest-run inn), in a massive shrine buried under snow. After a tasty vegan shojin-ryori dinner with woody soup stocks and pickled mountain vegetables, I retreated to my room, where I listened to the snow-fattened winds roar across the sky. The snowbanks were so high they covered the windows and I had to open a shoji screen to let the kerosene vapours escape. I felt all the harshness and sadness of snow country, its centuries of hardship and more recent grief from the 2011 tsunami. The Japanese have a word for this kind of deep, infinite pain – setsunai – and I felt it swirling around Mount Haguro that night.
It followed me the next day as well. At an Aizu pottery studio I stocked up on sake cups and was surprised when the potter, nearly in tears, bowed deeply in gratitude that I’d bought what other tourists had feared was made from tainted clay. While driving around Fukushima City, Oyama-san pointed to black bags of radioactive soil strewn across fallow orchards, saying, “Fukushima was once known for its peaches.” And in Matsushima, Maya ran into an old colleague who’d lost her entire family in the tsunami: a husband, two children and both parents. “Three generations of her family completely disappeared,” Maya said softly.
I remembered that soon I’d be descending back into the world of speed and neon. I often leave Japan with more questions than answers, but my guides on this visit were especially good. In the car, Maya had pointed out sites like the safflower farm that inspired Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday, a 1991 anime favourite. During meals, she encouraged me to try new dishes: Over bowls of Yamagata beef soba, she ordered a bottle of amazake, a mocktail made from fermented Koji rice said to promote healthy skin, and at a sushi restaurant, she encouraged me to taste ankimo, a foie gras-like monkfish liver. More important, she became a friend. Ditto for my ski guide Takako, who visited me in Zurich this past spring. People accuse the Japanese of being aloof, yet I’m always impressed by how intimate they can become in such a short period. The Japanese tea ceremony phrase Ichigo Ichie best captures this. Literally, it translates to “one time, one meeting”, and it conveys a desire to slow down and savour each moment, because every encounter in life occurs only once. If that isn’t a motto for Slow Skiing, I don’t know what is.
Handmade soba at Sobadokoro Shinkyobo. Opposite, from left: Shinto priestess hosts at the Saikanshukubo; a private onsen at Ginzan Hot Spring Fujiya Inn