Articles by Simon Bernard    

Spring in Japan?...not so fast please

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While most folk think cherry blossoms when the weather warms a bit in Japan, many of us head to higher ground. Japan, especially Northern Tohoku, has some of the absolute best and extensive spring ski/snowboard areas. Spring snow, also known as corn snow, is really a ball to play in, and its firmness gives easy access to views at the top of some mountains not available during the summer!

Hakkoda in Aomori Prefecture and Mt. Gassan in Yamagata Prefecture have been two of my favorite stomping grounds for over 10 years now. 八甲田山With 8 mountains in the northern mountain range and a slew of mountains across the street in the southern range, Hakkoda gives you more variety that canít be matched!

Actually, Hakkoda has only been known for the last 20 years as the spring ski capital of Japan. Little by little the secret has leaked out; it provides access to the best powder snow on ungroomed slopes in Japan, making it a winter must-do starting in November. This year with the tremendous amount of snowfall, spring snow will stretch well into June!

With a gondola that can take 100 people every 10 minutes to the top of Mt. Tamoyachi (1324m), you can then hike over to Mt. Maedake and go down the open bowl to the Doozo Tea House, a 4km runÖ Or you can hike over to Narasawa and do a 5km run to the Hakkoda OnsenÖ Or even hike up to Mt. Akakura (1548m) and do the 7km long Hokibatai run to the Tashiro tea houses! Variations of this route can be done from Mt. Ido, Mt. Odake (1584m) and Mt. Kodake.

When the gondola closes after Golden Week, the action shifts to just 15 minutes by car on Rt.103 south to the Kasamatsu Pass(1040m) where you will be going through 8 to 12 meter high walls of freshly dug out snow; an amazing sight even if you do not ski or snowboard. From there you can hike to the Senin mountain hut, Mt. Odake, or Mt. Takada Odake. On the other side of Rt.103, you can do the southern Hakkoda range and even make your way down to Lake Towada on skis!

I must also mention here that Mt. Iwaki(1625m), the largest mountain in Aomori has a 7km. run from the peak to the Yayoi shrine and another 5km. run from the smaller peak to the Hyakusawa ski resort, with very little climbing involved. Best to go right when they dig out the road in the middle of April and before Golden Week. Located just west of Hirosaki City, you can enjoy the 500 cherry trees in full bloom around the castle after your adventure on the mountain!

Gassan is a different story. 月山 is named after itís moon shape. Literally in the middle of nowhere, the valley collects snow all winter long. You canít even get there until they dig the roads out in April! With a lift that is a kilometer long, you can board/ski the valley some years until August even!

But the beauty of Gassan starts where the lift ends. A short walk will bring you to a T-bar that will take you up part of the way of Mt. Ubagadake. Within 20 minutes you are now at the top (1670m), with a 360 degree panoramic view of Mt. Gassan, Mt. Chokai, the Asahi and Iide mountain ranges, and the Sea of Japan. Wow!

From there you can ski/board back to the lift or continue your pilgrimage. If you look over at Mt. Gassan all you'll see is a white open bowl between you and your goalÖ No trees! After hiking the ridge around to the summit (just over one hour), you can stop at the Dewa sanzan (three mountains of dewa) shrine. From the top of the mountain (1984m), you can go off the back steep bowl or start your way down the front bowl back to the lift. If you go early enough, no later than Golden Week, you can start your journey back from the top of the mountain on your skis/board! The snow melts from the top down and the bottom up.

Access to Mt. Gassan has become so easy with the Gassan Interchange on the Yamagata Expressway, then it's just a 10km drive through the switchbacks to the parking lot. If you go during Golden Week, get there very early or you will have to park part way down the mountain and take the shuttle bus up. The lift is a 15 minute walk from the parking lot.

What You Need

Besides the essentials of backpack, extendable poles, and lots to drink, you want to be more prepared if you are planning to go back country. An emergency snow blanket, extra warm wear, hot thermos, food, whistle, compass, map, transceiver, (cell phones don't always work in the mountains, but bring one anyway), beacon, probe and shovel to name a few things.

Hydrating yourself before, during, and after hiking is essential. Sunglasses work better than goggles when climbing, as goggles tend to fog up. You will also need to make arrangements to leave a vehicle in the back of Hakkoda where you are going to come out or see if the hotel or onsen you are staying at would be willing to pick you up. Also, don't forget sunblock and a camera!

What To Expect

Expect the unexpected. Mountain weather is so unpredictable, especially when climbing. Sunshine can turn into zero visibility without warning. Be sure to check the weather report the night or morning before you head off.

In Conclusion

While you do not necessarily need a guide at Gassan, it is highly recommended to have one at Hakkoda! A lot more information about Hakkoda can be found by going to Hakkoda Powder Snow Tours. You also do not need to be an expert skier or boarder to enjoy spring snow! Seeing Japan from the top down instead of from other conventional ways can really give you a new perspective on life!

See you at the top!

About the Author

Simon Bernard is an American who has lived in Aomori for 17 years. A former skier and now a snowboarder of 12 years, he works for local Japanese government offices promoting local tourism and events. Simon is out snowboarding over 100 days each year and has worked to improve the service in, access to, and information about Hakkoda. Any questions about Hakkoda, Gassan, or for those needing English or Japanese speaking guides can be sent to him at