Hakkoda - the ultimate mountain in Japan for all back country enthusiasts.

Hakkoda 八甲田- the ultimate mountain in Japan for all back country enthusiasts. Fast becoming the worst kept secret, Hakkoda, located in Aomori Prefecture, has become known as the Number 1 mountain for hardcore snowboarders, telemarkers and skiers. There is no other place in Japan for the steep and deep powder courses that it offers.

Can you imagine a place where you ski/board all day and still be in untracked powder...and not cross another track?

Geography - The North Hakkoda Range

As you look at the Japanese characters for Hakkoda - 八 - the first kanji is the number eight. Hakkoda is basically a range of eight mountains offering an extensive area for getting deep into the heart of the backcountry. Although the highest mountain, Mt. Odake, is only 1584m, there are courses as long as 5 to 7 km that can take more than half a day to complete.

What makes Hakkoda so unique is the road that goes around the mountains, meaning if you have a guide you do not have to come back the same way you went up!

Not a Resort

Although there are two small lifts at the bottom area, Hakkoda is not a place for beginners - even the slopes on the lifts have some drop on them. The gondola takes up to 100 people every 10 to 20 minutes starting at 9am up to the top of Mt. Tamoyachi at 1324m. It takes the gondola 10 minutes to get to the top. (It can get pretty crowded on weekends and holidays. And even worse in spring, so it is best to go climbing during the peak of the season. During the snowy part of the year, starting early insures powder runs even on the official courses.)

From the top of the gondola there are only two official courses (the Direct and Forest courses) which are only marked with orange poles set about 10 meters apart and some fencing with signs to guide you down.....there are No groomed slopes from the top! During very severe weather, even these marked trails can be a challenge.

Depending on when the snow starts to fall and how much has fallen, there are places to board in early/mid November until late May.

Tickets

There is no all day ticket for the ropeway. Here's what they offer:
- A 1 time ticket
- A 5 time ticket (which can not be shared with friends)
- A month pass (which starts from the day you buy it). You can get your return on this ticket even if you are going to be around 4 to 5 days, depending on how much you want to hustle.
- The season pass is unbelievably cheap. You can get your return in a month, give or take.

The courses ... to name a few

Many people come to Hakkoda, come down the Direct or Forest course and say, "What's the big deal?!" What they don't know is where to go.

There are a lot of off-piste places to ski/board on the front of the mountain. BUT...

WARNING: You should not go down any unofficial route without a guide or a local, and many routes can only be done according to conditions and time of the year. Every year somebody gets lost and there have been some deaths as well over the years.

A 23 year old Australian women spent the night on the mountain on January 24, 2004 just going off to the left of the Direct course. A few Americans from Misawa Base also spent the night on the mountain in 2005 as well. Jan. 2009 an American got lost just to the left of the Forest course and spent a very cold night on the mountain. Shall I go on?

From Mt. Maedake (1251m) there is the Hyaku-ban and the Doozo route to the Doozo tea house (where the memorial for the 200 soldiers who died 100 years ago that got caught in a blizzard), the latter being a viable route throughout the winter depending on the depth of snow with a super open bowl from the peak.

From Mt. Akakura (1551m) there is the Hakkoda Onsen route and the Moto-yuu route with a few interesting variations. There is also the Hokibatai route, the 5 km route, usually only done in the spring although I have been down it in January under unusual perfect circumstances.

You can also do the Hokibatai route from Mt. Ido and from the Mt. Odake mountain hut or from the top of Mt. Odake or even Mt. Kodake. Both Mt. Odake and Mt.Ido have perfect conical volcanic craters you can peer into before you take off!

Not recomended for snowboarders because of the flat areas is Jogakura and Sukayu onsen routes (Chuo and Miyazawa courses) from Mt. Odake or Mt. Nise Tamoyachi.

Highly recommended is the co-ed hot spring at Sukayu at the end of the day!

When the ropeway closes after Golden Week, the site shifts to hiking up from Kasamatsu Toge 1040m (a 15 minute drive south of the Gondola) or Suiren Numa to the top of Mt. Io/ Mt. Odake/ Mt. Kodake and Mt. Takada Odake. There are also some great jumps across the street from Suiren Numa as well. A steep run on an open bowl can be down in the spring by climbing Mt. Takada-Odake from Yachi onsen. Not a hike for the weak, but well worth the effort!
I was snowboarding here until mid-June one year, as we had record breaking snowfall.

What You Need

Although you can probably get away with just a backpack, snowshoes, and extendable poles if you stay on the unofficial courses on Mt. Tamoyachi, you want to be more prepared if you are planning to go off anywhere else. An avalanche beacon, emergency snow blanket, extra warm wear, hot thermos, food, whistle, compass, map, radio transceivers (getting an amateur radio license in Japan is not as difficult as you would think. My call sign is 7J7ACT and cell phones don't always work in the mountains, but bring one anyway), probe and shovel to name a few things.

Hydrating yourself before, during and after hiking is essential. Sunglasses work better than goggles when climbing otherwise you will just get fogged up.

You will be surprised at how much BC you can cover with very little hiking...most of my clients call it extreme scenic walking especially through the snow monsters!!

Staying around the unofficial courses on Mt.Tamoyachi will eventually lead back to the gondola so there will be no need to leave a vehicle. Or better go on a guided tour, who will have a vehicle waiting for you!

Also, don't forget a camera! If you happen to hit Hakkoda on a bluebird day, the scenic beauty of the mountains and the snow monsters are breathtaking! The famous snow monsters can only be seen in 2 or 3 places in Japan.

What To Expect

Expect the unexpected. Mountain weather is so unpredictable, especially when climbing. Sunshine can turn into no visibility without warning.

As far the snow goes, generally it is much, much lighter and dryer than Nagano, Niigata and southern Tohoku, and almost as light as in Hokkaido.

Longer boards work better in the powder, shorter boards are better in the spring and non-powder days. Lots of cutting in and around trees on all the off-courses.

Better to sit on your butt than hug a tree! And never board or ski down the pit of the valleys. In the winter you'll just sink in the depths of snow and in the spring, the snow thins and if you break through you will land in ice cold fast running water. Even if you can get out of the water, you will get hypothermia before you can get down the mountain.

Accommodations / Access / Guides

There are many great places to stay at, within a 15 minute drive from the gondola, many of whom have some great deals on airfare and stay packages you should check into. The lunch menu at Yamagoya Hakkoda Sanso, located just under the lifts is really good! Sipping a cold draft on their balcony in the spring after a morning tour is awesome!

The ropeway doesn't mind if you camp or sleep in your car in the parking lot. But it's cold! Driving up from Aomori City (less than an hour) can also be an option if you have 4-wheel drive. But I think it is just as cheap staying on the mountain rather than the extra expense of the rent a car.

For those living in Tokyo, JTB and JAL tours offer ski packs that are very inexpensive. The best place to stay in The Hakkoda Resort Hotel located less than a minute walk to the gondola. For those on package tours, there is a shuttle bus that will pick you up at the airport.

The other hotels are far from the gondola and you are at the mercy of their shuttle buses which always arrive later than the opening of the gondola in the morning. There are guided tours offered by these hotel/onsens but they do not speak English and when crowded, especially on weekends and holidays you do more walking and waiting in long lines then actual boarding/sking. I keep my tours to a limited number so everyone has fun, including me!

In Conclusion

Even if you are not an advanced skier or snowboarder, Hakkoda has something to offer you. If you just stay on the official courses, you do not necessarily need to bring any equipment and if it is a snowy day, you will find some powder to play in. Whether you come once or come back again and again gaining knowledge of the mountain, you can experience something new each time. And it will only whet your appetite for more adventure. See you in the POW!

Simon

For more info about Hakkoda email me at: bernard@infoaomori.ne.jp