Akita in winter white

Tohoku Travel - January 12th, 2014

In winter a deep snow sets in, turning Akita’s mountains and valleys into an undulating sea of white, spreading into the distance, cut off only by where the frozen drifts meet the clear blue skies.

By Robert Morel

Akita is a popular tourist destination year round, but is at its best during its crisp, powdery winters. With its stunning scenery, abundance of winter sports, historic hot springs, and mouth-watering sake and cuisine, Akita is truly Japan’s winter wonderland.

Giants of Snow

Awash with colorful wildflowers in the summer, and ablaze with changing leaves in the fall, Mt. Moriyoshi is quietly majestic in the deep white of Akita’s winter. Riding a gondola to the top of the mountain, you see the windblown ridges of snow interrupted by what look to be hundreds of white giants, frozen in mid step. These Moriyoshi juhyo are said to be guardians of the mountain. Crunching through the silent snow pathways between these frozen giants, it is easy to imagine they are remnants of a long forgotten race. That they are actually hoarfrost-and-snow covered trees somehow feels more surprising.

Throughout the winter, Mt. Moriyoshi’s Ani Ski Resort rents out snowshoes and offers guided hikes through some the frozen forests at the top of the mountain. Walking through the Moriyoshi juhyo forests, passing below these towering guardians of the mountain, is alternately enchanting and humbling. To see the brilliant white juhyo, snowy giants of the mountain, shining in the bright winter sun is a deeply moving experience.

Speeding through the Drifts

Akita snowmobile

Snowmobiling in the Minami-yurihara Highland

While the mysterious beauty of Akita’s winter would be reason enough to visit, the area also offers up a range of winter excitements. In addition to the runs on Mt. Moriyoshi, skiers and snowboarders can cut through the powder at Yuri-honjo’s Yashima Ski Resort. The resort even has a terrain park for the more stunt-inclined boarders. Yashima is at its best at night, when the resort is lit up, its white slopes shining against the dark sky.

The real highlight here, though, comes in the form of treads rather than skis. Just a short distance from the ski slopes, the Minami-yurihara Highland is one of the few places in Japan where you can try your hand at shooting across the frozen white plains on a snowmobile. After getting comfortable on the short beginner’s course, take off through the wide forest trails, feeling the rush of wind as you open up the throttle, an expanse of white spreading out before you. There’s no driver’s license required to rent a snowmobile, and the on-site instructors see to it that even beginners will be speeding away in no time.

Snowy White Hot Springs

There are few more perfect ways to cap a day of exertion in the snow than an onsen. And there are few hot spring experiences more relaxing, more quietly magical than to soak in the hot waters of an outdoor bath, watching snowflakes drift down and disappear, turning to steam, just above your head. Akita offers no shortage of excellent hot spring towns, but few can rival the distinctive character of Nyuto Hot Spring Village. Boasting a nearly 400-year history, many of the town’s seven inns feel virtually unchanged since the days when feudal lords came to take in the springs’ rejuvenating waters. The oldest of these hot springs is Tsurunoyu Onsen.

The hot spring at Ganiba

The hot spring at Ganiba

Once the exclusive resort of Akita lords, the original, thatch-roofed Honjin house has been carefully preserved and is open to guests. According to local legend, a hunter discovered the hot spring when he saw a crane (tsuru) healing its wounded leg in the waters. Henceforth it became known as Tsurunoyu, the water of the crane. While its four baths each offer different restorative properties, the inn is best known for its milky white waters. The surrounding inns each have their own distinctive baths. One of the more remote is the hot spring Ganiba, with an outdoor bath surrounded by snow-covered virgin forest. A relaxing soak in one of the many baths and a night of refined comfort at any of Nyuto’s traditional inns is an ideal way to spend a frosty winter evening.

The Kingdom of Beautiful Sake

Even more famous than Akita’s snowscapes and onsen is its sake. With more than 50 sake breweries, its own special varieties of sake rice, and a reputation for having the greatest sake drinkers in Japan, Akita lives up to its nickname of Bishu-okoku—The Kingdom of Beautiful Sake. With its long white winters, Akita cuisine tends to rely on the stronger flavors of fermented and naturally preserved foods. To complement the local cuisine, Akita sake is rich and flavorful, without losing any of the delicate complexity that makes it unique. The sake’s special cold-brewing process allows the flavors to mature and develop in slow and subtle ways. The secret of Akita’s sake, though, is its pure cold spring water. Add to this the accumulated centuries of brewing knowledge and Akita’s top-grade rice, and it’s no surprise that Akita is home to some of the most renowned—and best loved—sake in Japan.

Noodles Fit for an Emperor

Akita’s Inaniwa Udon is a noodle purist’s dream. When cooked, these thin white noodles give off a nearly translucent shine. The dough is hand-kneaded and aged three separate times throughout the process, giving the noodles a firm but tender chewiness. For over 150 years the Sato family has passed the craft of making these artisanal noodles from generation to generation. Traditionally the noodles are served cold with a lightly seasoned dipping sauce or hot, in a light yet savory broth made from Akita’s famed Hinai chickens. Because of the time and effort involved in making Inaniwa Udon, it was initially reserved for the imperial household. Today though, this local delicacy is not only available to the masses, but visitors to the Sato Youske Honten store in Yuzawa can even see the intensive noodle making process. After seeing the artistry and care involves in crafting what seems to be such a simple food, the next step, of course, is tasting it.