25 years ago Canadian rapper ‘Snow’ released his chart topping hit ‘Informer’, in the same year Shizukuishi (pronounced SHIZ-U-KUW-ISH-EE), 26kms northwest of Morioka in Japan was rocking it’s own tune hosting the FIS Alpine World Championships.
It was the halcyon days for the resort and small township bustling with the eyes of the world focused on the likes of skiing royalty such as Tomba, Aamodt, Kjus & Seizinger racing down the steep slopes. Boom town investment brought luscious high-speed lift infrastructure and a new base lodge from the Austrian racing team.
Fast forward 25 years and the crowds have softened with a diminishing local appetite for snow sports, some lifts taken offline for good and once packed pistes are now wide open spaces for cruising corduroy and trademark untracked Japanese powder.
The near solitude reminded me a lot of the Hokkaido, Nagano & Niigata resorts just 15 years ago, with negligible patronage all week, your own private resort until the bustle of the weekend crowds from the cities. Inbound business is booming in these resorts now with the combination of affordable low-cost flights, targeted marketing campaigns and the inevitable mouth watering social media posts reaching the mobile phones and tablets.
Yet the Hachimantai region of Iwate, 570km to the north of Tokyo is only seeing a trickle of the inbound snow market and remains a hidden gem. Access is not the issue, the area can be reached by Shinkansen bullet train in just over two hours from Tokyo. Nor is the quality of the snow experience.
It’s just that the word of mouth from these powdery slopes has yet to make it to the workplace water cooler. I’m not complaining. This is the Japan I first fell in love with, empty powder slopes and general feeling that you are one very few foreigners on the mountain.
The recently refurbished Prince Hotel Shizukuishi has beautifully appointed rooms with modern decor, furnishings and ensuites. Built at the resorts base the hotel provides the perfect ski-in ski-out facility located next to the Aerial Tramway.
There are two restaurant options (a buffet style featuring Asian and Western cuisine and a French restaurant ‘Kobushi’). Across the car park the Austrian House erected for the 1993 World Championships has been converted into a weekend restaurant ‘Remark’ for lunch. Try their crepes, you’ll thank me.
The surprise packet is one of the most aesthetic onsen hotel spas in the country – Takakura Onsen is heritage listed to bring out your Zen after a long day on the slopes. It’s quintessential Japan – take the plunge.
The skiing & snowboarding experience is one well worth visiting, the aerial tram departs every 15 minutes taking you up to the regular piste (or courses as they are called here). The higher you go, the more challenging the terrain becomes. There is also a plateau area for beginners.
The resort maintains it’s racing roots, machine grooming the southern flank of the resort including the leg burning Mens Downhill course from the World Championships in 1993, a whopping 4.5km of well graded pitch.
The views of the mighty Mt Iwate, the areas biggest peak at 2038m are breathtaking too. To the north side there’s more for the powder buff with several runs left untampered with. It’s rarely skied and the powder offering are somewhat short but worthwhile.
For the ￥4300 ($50 AUD) day lift ticket price it’s great value that will keep you going for a few days. Meanwhile another five resorts (Appi Kogen, Iwate Kogen, Amihari Onsen, Hachimantai Panorama & Shimokura) are within close reach to add to the variety.
The cat skiing
A unique offering at Shizukuishi is the Powder Cat Tours. Set on the now abandoned Ladies Downhill run (all 700 vertical metres), it’s a rolling powdery thrill that’ll enthuse the strong intermediate to advanced skier, less so the expert.
It may be the best value cat skiing & boarding in the country at the moment from just ￥3500 ($39 AUD) per run (cheaper rates are offered for multiple runs).
I’ve been skiing Japan since 2002. I’m glad to say that I’ve claimed Shizukuishi in 2018, even though it feels like skiing Japan in 1999, it’s the ‘Japow’ of old waiting to be discovered.
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Chris Hocking was a guest of Prince Resort Shizukuishi