Hidden Fukushima

Travel - December 5th, 2003
tokyoweekender_Fukushima

by James Hardy

Fukushima, the forgotten prefecture in southern Tohoku, offers some of the best snow outside Hokkaido. Without the off-piste attractions of Niseko, the snow monsters at Zao or Nagano’s status as post-Olympic playground, Fukushima’s myriad delights have often been ignored.

But perhaps Fukushima isn’t so much disliked as it is overlooked—like an unfashionable pair of ski goggles, or a friend without e-mail. This, of course, should be taken as a great advantage for winter sports enthusiasts, who’ll find it a rela­tively quiet place to ski (and soak afterwards).

Although the resorts can’t compare in terms of size with the likes of Hakuba, Zao or Appi Kogen (in Iwate), there are clusters of small suki-jo that offer great skiing and excellent conditions for beginners and experts alike.

Mt. Bandai is the focal point of the area, with slopes surrounding it and running down to Japan’s second largest lake: Inawashiro-ko. Formed by the mountain’s cataclysmic eruption in 1888, Urabandai Quasi-National Park to the north of the mountain is home to volcanic-tinted lakes and beautiful scenery. It also has some of southern Tohoku’s best snow and, like Niigata, the area benefits from atmospheric conditions which dump tons of white stuff as Siberian cold fronts collide with Pacific breezes.

Driving on the Banetsu Expressway from Koriyama City, you come around a bend in the road to a singular and dominat­ing view of Bandai-san and Like Inawashiro. On a clear day in February, the sight of so much snow in such a beautiful setting is the perfect welcome. Turning right onto Rt. 115, you’ll drive into a winter wonderland of narrow roads, white-covered trees and magnificent walls of snow.

Urabandai

Urabandai rises out of the Aizu Plain. Its winding lanes thread their way through lakes dotted with ice fishing tents. Although there are ten ski resorts within a half-hour drive of each other, varying in size and quality, the two highlight­ed here are Nekoma and Inawashiro.

ON THE HILL

Nestled in the heart of vol­canic lakes, Nekoma is well-groomed, well-run and popular with locals. At first glance it may not seem impressive, but the resort will exceed expectations.

Despite only having six lifts, the courses are nicely laid out, and the number of expert runs provides a challenging day on the mountain.

Nekoma is especially good for those wanting to tune up their technique as its black courses are consistently steep, leaving legs burning after just a few runs.

It also has a few powder options and a great learning area for kids. For boarders it has big jumps and the Snow Park is easy to get to and very relaxed. Lunch also surprises—in addition to the suki-jo staples, there are top-notch beef and noodle dishes.

Inawashiro

Inawashiro is large, popular and very accessible. Owned by the town, it has a family feel and hosts school events and races through­out the season. With 15 courses, a 42°-slope and beautiful views of die lake, it is one of the nicest resorts in southern Tohoku.

The courses are wide, and careen off the mountain in every direction, so it’s possible to find powder and room for tricks almost everywhere. (Rumor has it that between the two main pistes, there is plenty of powder to play in, although ski patrol won’t be too happy if you find it.) The Snow Park is the least trendy around but it shuts down early.

OFF THE HILL

Bandai and northern Fukushima have more resorts than can be mentioned here, but within driving distance of Inawashiro and Urabandai are some excellent opportunities for other winter activities. Around and on the lakes which make up Urabandai, there is ice fishing, snow mobiling and cross­-country skiing throughout the season.

The region is blessed with delicious sake, and if you are looking for regional flavors, head towards Kitakata City, renowned for ramen and historical store houses.

Note: JR Kitakata Station has helpful ramen maps, intricately designed to aid the most ambi­tious belt-busting endeavors.

Most likely, you’ll find yourself in an onsen before chilling out at the pension. Around the lakes, there are more than 15 hotels, all offering baths to calm the mind and soothe bruised bodies. Near lake Hibara is a particularly boun­tiful spot.

GETTING THERE

Urabandai is best explored by car, but if you can’t drive, there are buses from Inawashiro Station, and most pensions offer a shuttle service.

By train: Take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Koriyama City, and then change to the Banetsu Line to Inawashiro. Taxis and buses are available from the station.

By car: Take the Tohoku Expressway from Nerima l.C, and then the Banetsu Expressway at Koriyama Junction. It takes about one hour to Inawashiro, then take Rt. 115 into the mountains. The area is well signposted for resorts.

ALSO IN THE AREA

In Urabandai, Gran Deco is a three-star hotel and resort with long runs and good powder www.grandeco.com/english/grandeco.html

Urabandai Cross-Country Ski Course is said to be the longest in Japan at ten kilometers and hosts a ski taikai (competition) on the first Sunday of March.

Claiming to be the oldest in Tohoku, Numajiri Onsen Resort is a “locals only” affair with 14 ski courses and lots of hot water www.numajiri-ski.jp.

On the other side of Bandai-san is ALTS Bandai, one of the largest resorts in Tohoku. It offers plenty of luxury and convenience, although snow quality has not been as good as Urabandai the last two seasons.


FACTS & FIGURES: URABANDAI NEKOMA

Season: Late November – Early May
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-4:50 p.m. (night skiing to 9 p.m.)
Number of lifts: 8
Number of courses: 11
Longest course: 2,100 meters
Steepest slope: 45°
Maximum Snowfall: 303 cm. (2003 season)

Terrain
▲ Beginner: 30%
• Intermediate: 30%
■ Advanced: 40%

Ticket Info
1-day ticket (adult): ¥4,000
1-day ticket (child): ¥3,000
Season Pass: ¥40,000

Facilities
Ski/board rental: Yes
Ski/board school: Yes
Board park: Yes (no half pipe)

Contact Info
Telephone: (0241) 32-3001
Website: www.nekoma.co.jp

FACTS & FIGURES: INAWASHIRO

Season: Mid-December – late March
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (night skiing to 9 p.m.)
Number of lifts: 18
Number of courses: 16
Longest course: 3,150 meters
Steepest slope: 42°
Maximum Snowfall: 200 cm. (2003 season)

Terrain
▲ Beginner: 40%
• Intermediate: 40%
■ Advanced: 20%

Ticket Info
1-day ticket (adult): ¥4,500
2-day ticket (adult): ¥7,000
1-day ticket (child): ¥3,000
Night ski ticket: ¥1,800
Season Pass: ¥35,000

Facilities
Ski/board rental: Yes
Ski/board school: Yes
Board park: Yes (with half pipe)

Contact Info
Telephone: (0242)62-3800
Web site: www.inawashiro-ski.com