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

Niseko – A pinnacle of powder

I’ll admit it. I’m a little arrogant when it comes to ski resorts. I grew up near Lake Tahoe, CA and my father got me started at age 6 on a pair of rental skis. My spur of the moment ski trips were to places like Heavenly, Squaw Valley and Kirkwood. Lake Tahoe doesn’t have the world’s greatest snow or most vertical feet, but its steep, deep and full of variety.  I’ve skied at Mt. Baker, Snowbird, Mt. Bachelor and Happo-one as well (read about my Hakuba trip herehere and here). I thought I was pretty spoiled.

Then, I went to Niseko. Now I am really spoiled.

Niseko

you can't tell but there is a huge smile on my face

you can’t tell but there is a huge smile on my face

The snow in Niseko, as any ski travel site will tell you, is absolutely legendary. I read once that a lot of foreigners think that the Japanese word for powder snow is, “niseko,” because the resort has become synonymous with great snow. It’s not likely I can add anything to the conversation by telling you about how the Gobi Desert and the Sea of Japan make freaky weather-love and science together to create soft dry fluffy powder that falls at world record rates. I won’t tell you that boarding through Niseko snow is like flying, even when it’s tracked out. I’m not going to tell you about any of that.

I spent nearly two full days there and I can say it was some of the best boarding in my life. It wasn’t simply the snow, it was more than that. The variety at Niseko (if you buy the more expensive all resort pass, WHICH I DID) is awesome. There is so much to do, plenty of reasonably steep runs but more over any of the diamond runs that run from the uppermost lifts allow you to get pretty much anywhere on the mountain. There are banked gully runs (like a natural half pipe with TREES!), wide open bowls, tree runs, groomed runs, trick parks, and so much intermediate and easy stuff that I don’t think you could ski the whole place in three full days. And that’s not even counting back country.

It's always in your field of vision, when you can see it.

It’s always in your field of vision, when you can see it.

The view on a sunny day at Niseko is absolutely incredible as well. Yotei-san, which is affectionately referred to as “Kita-Fuji” (North Fuji), is a slightly smaller version of the famous Fuji-san, a perfectly conical volcano that basically fills your entire field of vision. It reminded me of old school racing arcade games like, Cruisin U.S.A., where the background is static and never changes. Sadly I was still having issues with my Contour camera because Apple hates backwards compatibility on non-Apple peripherals. So, I don’t have any awesome powder videos with Yotei in the background. You’ll have to take my word for it.

(watch the clouds, they never move – that’s what Yotei-san is like as you go down the mountain)

But like I said earlier, it wasn’t the snow, the variety, or the view that made Niseko so mind-blowingly awesome. I loved it because it was quiet. For being the most popular mountain in Hokkaido and maybe in Japan, and the dearth of Aussies that take over the town at night not-with-standing, the mountain itself was peaceful. For a solitary skier or boarder it made the experience that much more memorable.

Despite being a holiday weekend, I only had to wait in line once. Once. I can’t remember ever not waiting in a line at Northstar on a holiday weekend. Off the lift there were groups of people picking their lines but there are so many runs, I just had to pick the one they didn’t. Finally to really get your money’s worth, being able to get right back on lift after a run is great, provided you aren’t marooned in shoulder deep powder somewhere. I was struck constantly by being alone on the hill even though I knew the place was crowded. I could see other skiers and boarders but they might as well have been on another planet. There is a lot of space to spread out and make the most of the fresh pow, the stunning view, and the variety of Niseko.

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

Something else occurred to me, do I like boarding with others or can I do board all by myself? I’m still not sure. Sometimes when you do really awesome stuff you want to make sure others saw it because, “That was awesome, did you see that!?” When you board on your own there is never any arguing about what run to take and wasting time not boarding. Plus singles get through the lines faster. Experiences are sometimes better when you share them with others and in general I prefer company to being alone but with snowboarding, I haven’t made up my mind.

Enough philosolophisizing, the G2 gate to the summit of An’nupuri-Niseko ranks at least in the top three runs of my life; along with conquering, “The Wall” at Kirkwood and doing the summit run at Mt. Bachelor. It starts with an “easy” 20 minute hike to the summit and then you drop into a powder filled bowl that funnels you into a 2 to 3km gully which then spits you out through a birch and cedar forest that could a set piece from Game of Thrones, eventually shooting out near the Nook restaurant at the base of the An’nupuri Resort.

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Speaking of restaurants, my only complaint about Niseko, and it’s a minor one, is that the food was too expensive. At least at the Nook it was. That was the only place I ate at (on the mountain). I had become accustomed to the great value offered by the restaurants in Japanese ski resorts but the Nook was more like American ski resort pricing. Hot tea was 400円 and my small beef bowl was 1,000円. Big beers were 1,050円. The food prices were a minor inconvenience for such an awesome place to snowboard.

This hot dog stand was great and inexpensive compared to the Nook, but its not on the mountain.

Hokkai-dog was great and inexpensive compared to the Nook, but its not on the mountain. +1 for the pun.

Getting to Niseko is actually easier than it looks considering its relative distance from Sapporo. There are four main bus companies that all operate daily service from both Sapporo Station and from New Chitose Airport. Some bus packages include round trip and your lift ticket. During the busy season they can get booked up so definitely make reservations if you can. If not you can check out my review of Chuo Bus here for more details (Coming Soon).

Niseko is a fantastic place to spend a week or more going up to the top of the mountain and back down again but it will be expensive. Accomodations and food in the area are not cheap. Is it worth it? If you love skiing or snowboarding, totally. I will have to find my way back eventually. Save your coin and get up to Hokkaido for some of the best boarding in the world.

Miyagi Zao Eboshi – In the long run…

In the Miyagi area the snow resorts tend to be on the small side. Smaller mountains, lower elevations, less chair lifts and lower prices than what I was used to California. Zao Eboshi is similar but for one key element. From the top of the resort to the bottom there is a 4,300m run. You must be asking yourself, “How does a resort with a maximum elevation of 1,350 meters have a run that is longer than the distance from the peak of Mt. Fuji to the bottom?” The answer is simple. It’s flat.

Zao EboshiThere are three maybe four decently steep sections of Eboshi. The furthest left lift off of the main gondola (if you are facing the mountain) will take you all the way to the top of the resort. From there, right before the mogul field you can cut over to your right and there is a good steep section of un-groomed snow there (2-3 on the course guide). I would not recommend going off piste near the top as the chairs are about head height. Also from the top is the start of the 4,300 meter run which winds its way down the left side of the mountain if you are facing East. About a quarter of the way down, to the right there is an off shoot that has a short diamond run (1-3) that is the steepest area of the mountain. From there you can circle back around to the a single seat lift at the bottom of the run. As you exit the single chair lift, to your right there is a decent area for tree skiing. I saw others going out that way and that slope leads back to the gondola house. Finally there is run 10. It has a Japanese name but… yeah it’s number 10. Run number 10 was my favorite run. It was challenging, it had terrain, it was decently steep in parts and had deep snow.

Anything besides those three areas is basically a green run. A beginner snowboarder may have some serious trouble if they are unable to maintain speed through long flat and slightly uphill sections of the lower half of the mountain and the 4,300m run. The run that spits out directly in to the gondola entrance is mild but has a decent grade if you made it there from 1,000m run of flat traverse that precedes it. There are two parks for the tricksters, a small one on the top half of the mountain and a large one on the bottom half.Zao Eboshi

Getting to Zao Eboshi is an absolute breeze. There is a bus that for 4,800円 includes round trip fare and an all day lift ticket. You must make reservations a day in advance, I was able to make the reservation in English. The girl on the other end didn’t speak it well, but she was able to understand me. It leaves Sendai station at 8:00AM and also has pickups at Izumi-chuo and Nagamachi-minami stations. The bus pick up isn’t too obvious at Sendai station. Common sense would tell you it would be near the other buses, but this is wrong. It’s actually to the left of the taxi stand on the first floor, West exit, door 13. The bus arrives around 9:30 giving you the majority of the day to ski or board. The return trip from the resort leaves the mountain at 4:30 (16:30). You pay your whole fair on the bus in cash and the nice lady will give you a lift ticket when you leave the bus. If you are south of Sendai this resort is easier to get to than Spring Valley and less money if you can take the bus (or drive). If you are north of Sendai, I would head to Spring Valley instead because they are basically the same ski resort.

For being a Saturday the place was not very busy, which was awesome. I never had to wait longer than a minute or so to get on any lift. There are also three resorts of similar size within a few minutes drive of each other, so that may help spread out the crowds. The other resorts are Miyagi Zao Sumikawa, Miyagi Zao Shiroishi and Miyagi Zao Shichikashuku. Storage King Noble’s Headgear (literal translation of Zao Eboshi’s name) suffers from one major issue and two minor ones. The major issue is that their lifts are too long and slow. I consistently found myself thinking that for as short as the good runs were, I was spending a lot of time in the lift. While I was on the lift I kept thinking, “this is inordinately slow.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the lifts to go too fast. The single seat lift seemed to the quickest turn around with the best run.

always with the moguls...

always with the moguls…

The first minor issue is that two of the three best runs were closed for the later half of a Saturday. One closure was for a competition. One of the better runs was open all day but there was a slalom course school going on. I shouldn’t complain about a closure for safety but I’m going to anyway. The number 6 run has a steep drop into a crevice that acts as a natural half pipe with turns. They gated it off in the afternoon because it got too warm and the snow wasn’t holding. The other minor issue was weather related. In the late afternoon some cloud cover rolled in and immediately the top half of the mountain became an ice skating rink instead of a ski runs. I had read as much on some other sites like snowjapan and ski japan but it seems to be a consistent problem at Eboshi.

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I have yet to see a “bowl” at any of the Japanese resorts thus far, something I quite liked in Lake Tahoe. The boarding hasn’t been bad and the snow has been relatively good. Even at Happo-one which is my favorite thus far, I wasn’t really blown away. Eboshi’s 4,300m run was plastered all over the ski resort. The ideal of Japanese skiing is either destroying your knees on moguls or cruising along at leisurely pace for extended periods of time. Both of these things are not great for snowboarders. On skis it’s not that bad, but when snowboarding it can be a real drag to get stuck on a long flat area and have to hoof it out to the nearest grade. My advice for Zao Eboshi is to maintain speed and go to the steep stuff early before it closes.

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