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Skiers find deep powder and hot onsens in Japan's backcountry

By JOHN BRILEY | Special to The Washington Post | Published: December 2, 2016

If you want deep powder without lift lines for $40 a day, the best sushi and ramen in the world in intimate restaurants and a naked soak in a 105-degree spring with a view of the volcano that is heating your water, then follow the drifting snowflake to the Land of the Rising Sun.

I am thinking this as I sit in the bustling lodge at a two-lift ski area called Seki Onsen, picking tunes on a public guitar that I pulled from the wall, with the melting vestiges of a 15-inch powder day still dripping from my boots. I am surrounded by friends and strangers eating noodle soup and drinking beer.

Seki Onsen is the smallest of six ski areas that hug the lower flanks of Mount Myoko, an active volcano 175 miles northwest of Tokyo that juts, like a clenched fist, 8,051 feet into the sky. In one week here we will ski five of those areas, plus two of the other 16 ski resorts that sit within an hour’s drive. (Onsen, which means hot springs, is used liberally as a noun and verb in Japan.)

Ten buddies and I have come from all over the United States in late January to Akakura Onsen, a village in the highlands surrounding the city of Myoko. In a normal winter, cold fronts pulse down from Siberia, suck moisture off the Sea of Japan and spiral ashore, dumping up to 650 inches of snow per season on the mountains here on Honshu and the northern island of Hokkaido. This meteorological blitzkrieg is most active from December through February, a pattern that has spawned the noun “Japanuary” among skiers worldwide.

Alas, this isn’t a normal winter in Myoko. The area, according to a forecast blog I am following, is having its driest winter in memory. But the dry spell breaks the night we arrive. After a shuttle ride from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, we take an exit for Akakura and smack straight into winter.

Snow falls in wind-driven sheets, blanketing the road and the surrounding forests of oak, maple, beech and aspen trees. In the village, revelers backlit by neon signs stroll a snow-quilted main drag of bars, restaurants and stores. The storm, one of two we will get during the week, comes too late to rescue this hobbled season, but to us it feels like a welcome parade.

We find our way to the Morino Lodge, a three-story, Australian-owned hotel. The entire first floor is open communal space, with couches, bookshelves, dining tables and a small bar manned by a lanky, bearded Scot named Paul. In the glow of Japanese microbrew, with the powder factory churning away outside, I feel the haze of 22 hours of travel start to lift. “Yoga at 6, bre-aykfast at 7,” Paul says as he taps out for the night.

In the morning, we watch the continuing snow through big picture windows as waves of pancakes, eggs, bacon, oatmeal and fruit stream out of the kitchen. We suit up and walk five minutes to the closest ski hill, also named Akakura Onsen, where our lodge manager issues crystal-clear direction — buy ticket here, ride this lift, then transfer to this one.

Smiling ladies at the ticket counter take a pile of yen from us, slide 11 tickets across the counter and gesture us toward the slopes. After riding one lift over flat ground and another up a bunny slope, we solve the map and make our way to the top of the interconnected Akakura Kanko resort, where the new snow is more than a foot deep.

The Japanese, who were largely absent at the Morino Lodge, have gathered in minor force on the mountain, sticking mainly to the center of the marked runs. That leaves ample lanes of powder on the margins, and we spend the morning feasting on the new snow.

I meet my friends for lunch in a small mid-mountain restaurant, where we are challenged to order and pay for the food at a wall-mounted machine — with photos and prices but no English instructions — before stepping around the corner to receive our steaming bowls from a more-familiar cafeteria line of humans.

In the 1980s, when the country’s economy was on fire, skiing was a national obsession. Then the economy crashed and some resorts shut down. Others limped along in bankruptcy protection, which left little cash for on-mountain improvements. The lack of new investment is most evident in the layout of the resorts. Too many lifts end just below the most alluring terrain.

We find the best pitches at a burly mountain called Madarao, where 15 lifts serve 30 runs on a vertical drop of 1,500 feet, including numerous glades and a few shots of steep trees. I can see how this would be a powder hound’s paradise in a normal year, but we make the best of it by finding scraps of unsullied snow in the woods before turning to soft moguls and long, ripping groomers.

In Morino at any given hour, about half of the guests are in bathrobes, en route to or from the onsen. These serene, indoor-outdoor sanctuaries of stone and tile are on the lower level, strategically partitioned for each gender because, under the national custom of hadaka no tsukiai (roughly, “naked friendship”) bathers must leave everything — pretense, clothing, even apres-ski cocktails — in the changing rooms.

Akakura’s waters emerge from the ground at 116 degrees Fahrenheit, cool down as they collect in the village’s central tank and are typically treated, and sometimes reheated, only lightly at their final destination. Japan even has a law stipulating the minimum temperature and mineral-content standards that springs must meet to bear the onsen label.

Sitting in the 108-degree outdoor pool with smuggled beers in hand and a moon rising over Mount Myoko, we decide that we’ll wring all we can out of these mountains, conditions be damned.

On our second day, we hire Alaskan Bill Glude and his apprentice, Mitsui, a cheerful, snowboarding son of a salaryman from Osaka, to lead us on a two-hour backcountry tour from the top of Akakura Kanko.

The same design flaw that frustrated me inbounds at the resorts makes Japan a backcountry skier’s dream, with lifts doing half the work and leaving the choicest labor — as well as views and powder shots — to those with the quads, lungs and time to march up the mountains. Many foreigners come here more for the hike-to terrain than the inbounds runs.

We zigzag through a forest of burly beech trees called bunas, which yields to an open ridge cloaked in mist.

Atop a wind-scoured peak, we look down a delightfully steep pitch of untrammeled snow falling away to the north.

“In a normal year . . . “ Glude sighs, and he doesn’t need to finish the sentence. We’ll be skiing back the way we came. In the United States, thin snow cover means hitting rocks. Here, it means risking a face plant by sasa vine, a bamboo derivative that grows in tangled loops and is infamous for snaring skiers. Even with the dicey conditions, we get a whisper of how good it can be, surfing a feathery quilt through the buna trees and back to the resort.

The following day we reap a richer reward.

With Glude and Mitsui we drive an hour southwest from Akakura to a one-lift resort where we find fewer than 10 other people skiing the place. From the summit we can see the dark blue horizon of the Sea of Japan. The powder that fell three days ago is undisturbed, as Glude knew it would be because the resort had been closed throughout the weekend due to high winds.

We spend the morning bounding through 1,600-vertical-foot laps of shin-deep powder, fresh turns on every run. After a ramen break in a log cabin at the top of the lift, where a vintage 1980s Pioneer stereo system idles in a corner, Glude and Mitsui lead us on a short backcountry tour to one of the best views in Japan: an alpine mosaic of peaks and valleys, contours and ridges, snow, rock, trees and more snow, culminating in the smoking cone of a volcano five miles away.

On the drive back, we stop for photos of a distant Mount Myoko when movements in the woods draw our attention: snow monkeys. Two, three and suddenly dozens skitter up and down trees, swinging from branches, cautiously checking us out before darting off.

Seeing these guys in the wild wasn’t on my list, but I retroactively add it — one less thing to check off when I return during a normal winter.

Backcountry skiers pause on a ridge above Akakura Onsen resort near Myoko, Japan, where a coating of fresh snow adds a haunting element to the buna trees. Many of Japan's resorts offer easy access to the backcountry from the top of their lifts.

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