Miyagi Zao Sumikawa – DROP THE BEAR!

Zao SumikawaBased on talking to some teachers who grew up around Shiroishi I decided that my next single day trip to the mountains here in Japan was Miyagi Zao Sumikawa. I had also read that Sumikawa was known for its deep snow and back country feel. Despite having only three lifts, the summit at Sumikawa is supposed to be one of the better areas in Miyagi to snowboard. Also interestingly enough it is the only place to see the famous snow monsters on the Miyagi side of the Zao volcano cluster. If you are so inclined, here is the entire list of ski joints in all of Tohoku.

The weather here in Tohoku has been a tad temperamental. At sea level it was fluctuating between 40°F to 50°F and then down to high teens and low twenties. These wild weather swings resulted in some massive snow storms but also some, shall we say, unfavorable conditions for snowboarding or skiing.

You would think, with all the snowfall, the conditions would be good. However after assaulting Japan for the better part of two weeks with snow storms that paralyzed many of the major cities, the weather cleared up and was unseasonably warm for a couple days. Thus a thaw-freeze went into effect. At the summit of Sumikawa this created a solid sheet of ice and then covered it the following weekend with about 3 inches of snow. I thought with the fresh snow, “conditions should be pretty good.”

Zao SumikawaI was wrong. Really wrong. You might say that I, “Dropped the Bear.”

My day at Sumikawa was rough. Mostly spent recovering from severe slips as my board scraped all the fresh snow off the ice and refused to give me an edge as if it had never been sharpened. I felt like a baby deer. This was compounded by a couple other major issues with the resort.

The first is that, aside from two runs that the top, the entire place is basically cat tracks up the mountain. There is only 300 meters of vertical at Sumikawa and almost all of that vertical is between the top and bottom of lift 1. The remaining grade is roughly 7° to 12°. Also at the top, all but one of the runs, requires a hike.

Second, the park rats love this place. Not a bad thing by itself but lift 3 ran to the top of the terrain park and nearly everyone who had come to resort was spending their time there. Which means a long line at a place that shouldn’t have one. It looked like it might have been fun if you like landing on your ass.

park rats

park rats

Third the price and the timing is really off. The bus leaves the Sendai area at 8:30AM and arrives at 10:30AM after making multiple stops in the mountain town below Sumikawa. The return trip leaves at 3:30PM. If the snow is good, this is not nearly long enough for 4800円.  For the same price you can get to Eboshi earlier and stay longer, have more lifts and better vertical.

Finally the biggest issue I had with this place is that it could have been awesome. Like really awesome. The terrain at the top was amazing except for the fact that it was covered in a thick sheet of hockey rink. If it had been deep powder snow – “oh man,” Clay Davis is right, that’s how I felt, too.

Sumikawa is intriguing because there are almost no man made barriers or boundary markers. Let it fly. Go wherever. Want to go down that gully? Done and DONE. As long as you can walk when you get to the bottom. No worries. Just, whatever you do, under any circumstance, with extreme prejudice…

DO NOT Drop the Bear.

Check out my other snowboarding adventures: Hakuba Goryu, Niseko, Happo-one, Zao Eboshi, Spring Valley

Ski and Snowboard Resort List – Tohoku

It has been difficult for me to find a comprehensive list of ski resorts in Japan, in English, with functioning links.

Until now…

Well, for Tohoku at least. I have finished a massive project, organizing all of my snowboarding research into 6 spreadsheets (SPREADSHEETS ARE SO INTERESTING) that you can sort with links to all the active websites I could find (websites which, unfortunately, are mostly in Japanese).

Zao Eboshi

If you have solid Japanese skills or the patience to use your web browser’s translate function you can use Snoway.com, my most frequented source for information but Snoway is still incomplete. Also, before you hop in a car or on a train, I would verify directly with the ski resort that they are actually still in business. Post 2011, many of these places have had trouble getting skis and boards on the mountain and tourism in general is depressed all around Tohoku, particularly in Miyagi and Fukushima.

Spring Valley - IzumiThese lists are not complete. Many of the ski resorts in Japan are small municipal parks with or family owned. My research method consisted of cross referencing wikipedia.jp, snoway.com, snowjapan.comskijapan.com and area searches on google maps. It is likely that I missed a small resort or two. If you know of any that aren’t on the list that are cool and worth checking out please send them along or leave the info in the comments. More over, I have included ski trail map links to the larger places.

All that being said, this is likely the most comprehensive list you will find in English.

MIYAGI – You can check out my in depth reviews of Zao Eboshi Zao Sumikawa and Spring Valley.

Trail Maps: Zao EboshiZao SumikawaZao ShiroishiZao ShichikashukuSpring Valley

YAMAGATA

Trail Maps: Zao OnsenYonezawa – RitsukoTengendaiAsahigatakeJangle Jungle

IWATE

Trail Maps: Appi-KogenShizukuishiHachimantaiGeto8OkunakayamaAmari OnsenIwate KogenHiraniwa

AKITA

Trail Maps: Tazawako – JeunesseOpas TaiheizanDaisen Odai

AOMORI

Trail Maps: Naqua ShirokamiOwaniMoya Hills – Hakkouda

FUKUSHIMA

Trail Maps: Alts Bandai – Inawashiro – Takatsue – Numajiri – Hatoriko – Daikura – Minowa – Nekoma – Takahata – Nango – Grand Sunpia – Adatarakogen

There you go. I hope you get out on the mountain and shred some serious pow!

If you want to the whole list in in excel format: Tohoku Snow Project

Mt. Izumi – Spring Valley Ski Resort

Spring Valley - IzumiAre you in the Sendai area? Do you like snowboarding? Do you feel that, “Hell is other people,” particularly when it comes to going down a mountain strapped to a waxed piece or pieces of composite wood, polyethylene, and fiberglass? If you answered Yes or No to either of those questions then you will likely enjoy Spring Valley Ski Resort. (English here)

Mt. Izumi will never fool any one into thinking that it compares to Nagano, Colorado, Lake Tahoe, Whistler, or the Swiss Alps. It’s a small, dinky little mountain measuring just under 1,000 meters at its highest point. It boasts three “diamond” runs and twelve total runs. You can pretty much board the whole mountain in about 2 hours if you go slow. I maybe underselling this place a little bit.

One of the best things about Spring Valley is that it is cheap. 3,600円 gets you on the mountain all day. Food is between 200円 to 1000円 and beer was between 350円 to 500円. Compare this to Boreal which is a small mountain near Lake Tahoe in California. Boreal has 33 runs so it is much bigger but is universally referred to as being “flat.” Boreal will cost you $59 during peak days and food starts around $5 to $6 bucks although they do offer $25 lift ticket specials and $15 Friday student discounts (read: Fridays are stupid crowded).trail map - Spring Valley Izumi

If you want variety in terrain then Spring Valley will not be your cup of tea. The view from the “summit” isn’t much to look at either but, I don’t really go boarding for the view, it’s just a nice benefit. If you like a solid day of nearly solitary boarding without too much fuss and without breaking the bank then definitely check this place out. My day started with a few bluebird runs, then some clouds rolled and it snowed hard for about an hour making it a mini pow day for the last runs.

In spite of that there are a couple problems. If you don’t have a car, Spring Valley is 40 minutes by bus from the furthest North subway station (Izumi-chuo) in Sendai. It will take a minimum of 90 minutes to get to the mountain on public transportation unless you live within two stops of Izumi-chuo. Second, the bus schedule is terrible. There is one bus at 7:15AM and the next bus isn’t until 10:20AM.  This means: arrive 30 minutes before the mountain opens or arrive just before lunch. There are no other buses. On special holidays there is only one bus in the morning at 8:45AM. Coming back from the mountain is a little easier. There are buses at 3pm and 4pm.

Something else to keep in mind is that the bus is 900円 one way. So that is 1800円 to get there and back from Izumi-chuo plus whatever your fare is from your station (for me its roughly another 900円 each way). That puts me at 3,600円 just to get there plus another 3,600円 for my lift ticket. This bothered me so I made friends with a couple of guys at the mountain and hopefully I can catch a ride with them next time. Also, lugging a snowboard through train and subway stations is obnoxious. Below is the bus schedule as listed on the Japanese version of the Spring Valley website and the Google translation of it.

Regardless of the bland terrain and the terrible bus schedule, I still quite liked Spring Valley. It felt like a locals only place and a bit like a well kept secret, despite being only a short drive from downtown Sendai for those with a car. I will likely check out different resorts in the future but that is only because I don’t have the rest of my life to go snowboarding in Japan.Mt. Izumi

Here is a link to some other ski resorts with direct access from Sendai station.

Check out these other awesome places in Tohoku as well.

A Day in SendaiKokubunchoYamaderaMatsushimaZao Okama, Minamisanriku

Nightlife in Sendai – Kokubuncho

Sendai is Tohoku’s largest city.

What does it have to offer in the way of evening distractions?

Kokubuncho at night, in the snow

Just like any other large city there is a host of expensive bars and night clubs where you can light money on fire and throw it into the air (metaphorically speaking of course). The price of admission into just about any nightlife excursion is usually high but if you have a good time it was worth it right?

Karaoke, Sendai, Clis RdIn Japan drinking establishments sometimes offer what is called, “nomihodai” (飲み放題). This literally means bottomless cup. For a nominal fee of $15 to $20 you will get all you can drink for about 90 to 120 minutes depending on the place. However, many places particularly in very popular areas will charge a seat fee just to sit in their restaurant. On top of that it is likely that while you are drinking you will order food. Your special price for all that alcohol just got really expensive.

However, there are some hidden gems. For instance there is a karaoke place on Clis Road (Clis Rd is a covered shopping arcade) that offers one of the cheapest nomihodais in Sendai, free snacks and you get to karaoke. Not to mention you get to make your own drinks. Hello Mr. Hangover, how are you today? Not well, indeed. There is a gyoza shop that offers a $20 nomihodai set that comes with 12 gyoza, pickles, and cabbage salad. The gyoza is fantastic but it tastes even better with reasonably priced booze.

Kokubuncho signIf squirreling yourself away in a small karaoke booth with 5 close friends is not your idea of a night on the town the place to be in Sendai is called Kokubuncho. Kokubuncho is several blocks of densely packed bars, clubs, restaurants, shopping, and Japanese people dressed to the nines for a night on the town. About every ten feet there will be a Japanese person shouting and handing out coupons for their establishment. There is even a miniature Arc-de-Triomphe hidden away in Kokubuncho. Let me know if you find it.

Kokubuncho’s restaurant selection is likely the most diverse in the city. There are several Spanish style tapas places, sandwich shops, all of the traditional Japanese fare, the odd British pub or two, Phô and Thai food. There is even a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah lounge called Middle Mix, which I was told by the owner, is the only one in all of Tohoku. There is no lack of drinking establishments either. The entire place is one giant drinking establishment. I couldn’t even begin trying to do a pub crawl there.

Rainbow Building, KokubunchoOstensibly going to Kokubuncho is for drinking or a drinking party (nomikai, bonenkai, other kinds of kai). Japanese society is relatively repressed and places like Kokubuncho are where stifled salary men, demure females and gai-jin of all kinds of come together in a beer and alcohol soaked good time. This is where the Japanese really cut loose. It’s fair to say that they are not particularly shy about taking it to extreme limits.

Kokubuncho is basically broken in three separate areas. There is the college area that is filled with cheap dining establishments and some of the more tame forms of entertainment like gaming centers and pachinkos. The next area is for the salary men (and women, although its mostly men in dark suits). The restaurants and bars here are little nicer and a little pricier, and usually a little more on the traditional Japanese side. Lastly there is the “Pink area” which requires a bit more explanation.

The pink area of Kokubuncho “features” Sendai’s largest collection of “host and hostess clubs, strip clubs and other slightly less reputable engagements. It’s not a true red light district in the traditional Amsterdam-ian sense but there is clearly enough “entertainment” in that fashion to give Kokubuncho a seedy feel in certain parts. It’s by no means dangerous but a little on the unctuous side.

Funny advert for a horny guy, KokubunchoThese clubs aren’t exactly hidden away. If anything, they are probably the main attraction to the area outside of drinking heavily. The advertisements rarely leave anything to the imagination. The funniest one is this guy to the right, a common manga trope is to signal arousal via a massive nosebleed. As a foreigner there is very little I can offer in the way of experiential anecdotes about hostess clubs. They don’t cater to non Japanese speakers and even if you are fluent in Japanese you might get a brief Japanese grammar test at the door. Hostess and host clubs are looking for long term customers so they don’t really want crazy drunk tourists mucking up their vibe. Apart from the mostly nude women on bill boards there are also many flower shops in the area. Presumably you can buy flowers to curry favor with whatever hostess or host you are meeting that evening.

However, sandwiching Kokubuncho is Jozen-ji dori and Clis Road which are two major thoroughfares in Sendai filled with shopping, restaurants, bars and 100 yen stores. One of the best things about Sendai is most everything is very close together and centrally located around Sendai station. It’s only about a 20 minute walk down Aoba-dori from Sendai Station to Kokubuncho or you can take the subway 2 stops and get off at Kotodai-koen and exit through the Mitsukoshi Department store.

During the winter Jozen-ji dori is a absolutely stunning. It is covered in white holiday lights and they have a park light exposition called, “The Pageant of Starlight,” as well. In the snow it is really quite a romantic place (minus the crowds). There are also temporary structures that sell warm drinks and adult beverages.

Most of the buildings around Sendai station are just like any other shopping arcade in Japan or the rest of the world for that matter. Name brands stores, colorful signs and groovy techno music to help you shop – but Kokubuncho is just a little different.Kokubuncho at night

I happen to quite like Kokubuncho despite its outward appearance. I like the variety, the people watching, the shouting, the confusing mass of tangled power lines. Everything about Kokubuncho looks as if it was delivered straight from a movie set about post-modern Japan. I can hear Kaneda revving his red motorcycle some where around the corner and somewhere above me cybernetic human in stealth mode is planning an assassination. Walking around Kokubuncho on a Saturday night is like stepping in a manga comic. You can’t help but be fascinated by everyone’s costumes, by the colors and the lights.

Check out these other awesome places in Tohoku as well.

A Day in SendaiYamaderaMatsushimaZao OkamaMinamisanrikuMt. Izumi