We’re breaking some hearts with this article, but it has to be done. We’re again revealing Japan’s best-kept backcountry secret known to those in the know. When you hit this area you’ll soon understand why its biggest cheerleaders are keen to keep it so hush-hush.
The secret is Tanigawadake Tenjindaira Ski Resort in Gunma, referred to simply as “Tenjin” by those who know it best. It has a hardcore following among both locals and foreigners who love the endlessly perfect powder, and the untracked lines to be found among the trees, chutes and bowls.
With one of the longest seasons in the country, stretching from December through to May, it’s the perfect place to go when you’re hunting for the steepest and deepest that Japan has to offer – plus some in resort intermediate and beginner terrain to keep the rest of the family happy.
Though we can’t stress enough, if you’re heading into the famed backcountry here, take a guide.
Kieren is the owner of Tenjin Lodge, one of the only local accommodation options at the resort. An Aussie and backcountry guide that fell in love with the mountain over 10 years ago, he knows the area like the back of his ski glove and is happy to share his top tips for discovering the very best of it.
Found on Mt. Tanigawa, deep in Joshin’etsukogen National Park, “Tenjin” is less than two hours from Tokyo.
Grab yourself a JR rail pass and take the JR Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Jomo-Kogen Station, which takes about 70 minutes, then hop on a 25-minute bus ride to Minakami Station.
From Minakami Station, you’ll jump on the bus to Tanigawadake Ropeway.
What to love about Tenjin
Kieren first discovered Tenjin while working in Tokyo. He spent every weekend hunting all over Honshu for the best resorts, runs and backcountry until he discovered Tenjin over eleven years ago.
“I’d been riding good backcountry spots nearby, and there was nothing as good as this,” Kieren says.
“When I had a winter off work, I bought a season’s pass. At the time you could honestly ski on weekdays with maybe eight other people on the entire mountain.”
The mountain itself has ropeway access which leads to a number of beginner and intermediate runs. There’s also a huge amount of world-class backcountry and sidecountry terrain.
The mountains on the island of Honshu thrust skyward and create a spine through these areas. Translated? Dream peaks.
“You get off the lift already at 1500m and at that altitude there’s a lot of places where you can drop in and have a good run. There’s this crazy bunch of terrain that’s really accessible.”
However, due to the conditions, avalanches are common – which is what makes a guide like Kieren so essential.
And the best part is that you can bunker down at Tenjin Lodge, which was transformed from an old, abandoned hotel into the kind of place that’s the dream for self-proclaimed “ski nerds”.
What to do off the snow
With Tenjin so geared for hardcore skiers and boarders, you’ll be able to enjoy the authenticity of small-town Japan on your down days off the mountain or when your legs are tired from all that powder.
Onsens are popular, especially day trips to Takaragawa, the biggest outdoor onsen in Japan located in the remotest area of Minakami. Complete with accommodation and restaurant, be warned that you may never want to leave once there.
Minakami town is best for meals, with a range of izakayas and restaurants – although brush up on your Japanese and download your Google Translate app before you get there, because the area caters mostly for locals and you may have to try ordering in Japanese.
And of course, there’s Canyons Winter Adventures – a tour group offering genuinely unique experiences to suit big and little kids alike. This includes snowshoe tours that feature spectacular mountain views and outdoor picnic lunches; snow canyoning, featuring zip lines, rappelling, jumps and giant snow chutes in a custom-designed slider suit; plus they even offer snow glamping in tents specially designed to withstand the snow.
Where else to ski
Once there, you’re going to want to explore a bit – and this is where other resorts in the area can really shine in their own ways.
Okutone Snow Park is a lot of fun, especially for children. Just a 10 minute drive from Tenjin Lodge and open until midnight, there’s plenty of night skiing to be found, along with some rails and jumps.
Its positioning means it’s the best place to ski in inclement weather. And bonus? Kids under 12 ski free.
Hodaigi Ski Resort is easily accessible from Tenjin Lodge via a free shuttle, with all-round offerings including a great beginner zone and plenty of terrain to suit all skiers and snowboarders.
Kieren and the Canyons team are always happy to advise on what might be the best fit on any given day, regardless of conditions.