Tenjindaira: Japan’s “sky god treasure room” for big mountain skiers

Photo credit: Visit Gunma

I first heard mention of Tenjindaira from an Aussie friend living in Niseko. It was just a quick aside but something in the way he said it convinced me the place must be special. Later, on googling it, I realised I’d been on the mountain a few years before – walking the famous Tanigawadake ridge clear into Niigata prefecture one summer’s day.

Fast forward to January 2020 and two friends from Hong Kong and I land in Tokyo to make a whirlwind road trip up through Honshu. We had a wishlist of resorts to tick off and Tenjin was at the top.

Tenjin means ‘sky god’ which is an omen of the weather this place attracts. The ridge catches some epic dumps – just this winter, for instance, Tenjin added well over two metres of fresh snow in 48 hours in mid-December.

On the flipside, its reputation demands respect.

Ill-prepared hikers and climbers have not fared well here in summer, let alone in winter, and all that snow on such steep ground means avalanches are a real danger, so if you don’t know what you’re doing then take a local backcountry guide.

We caught one of the first cars up the ropeway in near-bluebird conditions on a prime powder day. Below us a cat track zigzagged down through the trees back to the road at 750 metres. At the top, at 1,319 metres, we walked out to quite the spectacle.

I’ve boarded at more than 20 Japanese resorts but Tenjin’s setting is surely one of the most dramatic. The ski field forms a wide bowl, tipped so there’s a lower lip to the left, while to the right, above the bowl’s edge, lies still another 500 metres of mountain, culminating in a rocky triangle – the end of Tanigawadake ridge. As we looked on, we could clearly see people climbing towards the ridge, intent on making the most of the conditions.

Photo credit: Visit Gunma

Just four lifts serve the hill, with two side-by-side to the left accessing a red groomer, worth a go for the view south out over the lowlands of Gunma, and also the launch point for a run down through the trees that pops you out on the cat track far below.

Out front there’s a beginners lift and then a little to the right, a 500-metre chair that crests the top of the ridge. This is your golden ticket, granting access to the bowl of mostly ungroomed powder for intermediates and up, and a starting point for higher climbs into the backcountry lying under the ridge proper.

We ached to join them but time was short and getting into backcountry this gnarly clearly demanded taking a guide for a day at least first. Instead we played on the steeper reaches of the bowl where we found stashes of powder as dry as any we’ve found around Honshu and – because conditions were so good most headed further into the backcountry – we had it almost to ourselves.

At day’s end, we dropped down the cat track for a sense of the terrain in the valley: steep, especially to skier’s left, with lots of inviting tree runs. Suddenly there were a few people around, swinging in from both sides of the track, clearly happy with what they’d found.

For sure, we’ll go back to Tenjin.

For longer next time, factoring in losing days to the wind, and the need for a guide to learn more of the mountain. It’s not a place for families or feint hearts. Instead it has a raw feel perhaps like much of skiing did back in the day. Even in beautifully calm and sunny conditions, the scenery holds a power befitting of any sky god.

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Tenjindaira, a big mountain Mecca for skiers and boarders in Japan

Tenjin in a nutshell

Photo credit: Visit Gunma

There are beginner runs here but this is not the place to learn to board or ski. Tenjindaira is all about more advanced riders looking for steep lines and deep powder stashes. Have the appropriate gear and know how to use it. Tenjin can be more than challenging even for the most capable skier so local knowledge is key and a guide is highly recommended to ensure your safety.

The Tenjin Lodge is the only local accommodation so book early if this field is your sole focus and you can book backcountry guides at the lodge, so it’s a great option for those wanting to ride off piste.  Otherwise, there are hotel and ryokan options in Minakami with access to other ski hills, as well as shops and amenities.

Coming in by train, you can connect with a bus to Tanigawadake Ropeway from Minakami (regular Joetsu line) or Jomo-Kogen (Joetsu Shinkansen) railway stations. Doai station (also on the regular line) is the closest to the ropeway but note that the tracks split here, with the northbound line deep in a tunnel meaning a 486-step walk up to daylight.

The lift ticket covers the ropeway and the four chairs up top for 4,000 yen a day – with 500 yen off for women and over-50s!

JR East offers a variety of passes with the best access to Tenjindaira, either for those stopping off on the way back from Hakuba, or those heading out from Tokyo. If you are planning to cover a lot of ground during your stay or you are looking for a short trip out of the city, the JR TOKYO Wide Pass gives travellers unlimited rides on JR East Trains and Shinkansen in and around Tokyo for 3 days.

Read more about Gunma’s ski resorts here. 

*This content is a sponsored collaboration between Visit Gunma and SnowsBest.

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Gunma, Japan - go, ski/board there before everyone else does!

Writer and editor based in HK, former ed-in-chief of Action Asia magazine. Keen snowboarder and beginner skier, avid hiker, volcano nut.