‘It’s the snow, stupid.’ Just ask the Baron. When people (usually the snow-addled locals) ask, “Why do you live in Myoko?” I often think about the Baron.
Kihachiro Okura, son of the family that founded the Okura Hotel in Tokyo, was sent, like other wealthy young men in the early twentieth century, to study in Europe. Being something of a playboy, he was distinguished himself more as the coxswain on the Oxford crew and as the second-place finisher in the first-ever auto race in England than for his studies.
News reports of the car race, however, didn’t please his father, who demanded his son’s return to Japan. Back in Japan, the man who would be known as the “Baron” decided he wanted to create something like the Alpine resorts he discovered in Europe.
The result, the Akakura Kanko Hotel, still stands, right in the middle of the ski runs, at the center of what has become a multi-resort area spread across the eastern side of Mt. Myoko. Its red roof still punctuates the slopes, just as it did when the Baron founded it in 1937, making this one of the oldest ski resorts in the world.
He had a whole country to choose from, but Myoko is where he did it. The mountain itself, a striking lava cone surrounded by the caldera of an older, taller Myoko, is certainly one reason the Baron chose this place. He must have been thinking about the 13 meters or so of snow that falls annually. It sure caught my attention.
I’m from cold Minnesota, where a little over 100 cm. of snow falls annually, bit by little bit, and hangs around until spring. In much milder Myoko, the snow just keeps falling and falling, tens of centimeters at a time, building up into walls more than three meters high.
It falls like nothing I’ve ever seen: huge flakes, falling and falling, nonstop, all day, piling up on top of roofs, putting a fresh white hat and neck stole on the statue of Kannon in the little park above my house; snows that, at their heaviest, are accompanied by deep, distant, rolling thunder. I was, and am, totally hooked.
So as the season goes on and the snowpack grows, my house—on a busy street just below the local gondola—becomes more and more quiet and private, sheltered from the sound of early-morning ski buses and the cold north winds by thick walls of snow. Dealing with the snow isn’t as bad as it might seem; all the buildings around here have steep, dark-brown metal roofs that sluff off the snow, while my trusty snow thrower—a 26-horsepower, turbine-diesel-powered beauty that is in fact the second-most-expensive vehicle I have ever owned—lets me blow the piles away with joystick control.
With that out of the way, I can turn my eyes back up past to the hills behind the Akakura Kanko Hotel for the other thing that keeps me here year-round: the Myoko backcountry.
There’s a lot out here—a lot of peaks, a lot of powder stashes and a lot of trees. Myoko backcountry means gliding through groves of dakekamba and buna (apart from the mostly treeless, 2,462-meter-tall Mt. Hiuchi, just hidden to the north of Mt. Myoko—a favorite spring skiing destination).
My original goal in coming here was to decompress after more than a decade in Tokyo. I’m now guiding on telemark skis in the winter with the Myoko Backcountry Ski School—and I love every day I can get out.
They will tell you Hokkaido has the best snow, but the guides around here will counter that anyone can ski that light stuff (which, full disclosure, we do get), but the rich-bodied Myoko powder is vintage for a serious slider. It’s a full-on workout to slog up through 70 cm. of untouched powder, but going back down with a snow-washed grin makes it all worthwhile.
That Baron was a pretty smart guy—but there’s even more in the natural world beyond his hotel that means I’m not going anywhere, sooner or later. This is my Myoko.
By Kazuko Ikeda
Memories of Myoko
Tossing some onigiri (rice balls) into a backpack, I don my helmet, throw my skis over my shoulder and head to the hill. This was my daily routine during every vacation as a child growing up in Myoko Kogen.
My classmates and I would huddle round the gas stoves, dry out our gloves and stuff ourselves with the cold onigiri while sipping “skiers soup,” a hot soup stocked full of garlic and pork. I can still taste the soup like it was yesterday.
The foothills around Mt. Myoko are home to Suginohara, Ikenotaira and Akakura ski resorts. Each ski hill has its own character, as well as its own hot springs, restaurants and local charm. Suginohara is blessed with one of my favorite long “rhythm” runs, and brings back memories of my father and I jumping aboard the first gondola of the morning and competing with each other to see who could get the most runs in by evening. It’s a non-stop, eight-kilometer burner from the top of the gondola to the bottom of the hill and, for me, was one of the great joys of skiing. The resort also has a snow park and challenging mogul run, to keep things interesting for a variety of skiers.
Ikenotaira is the perfect place for families just starting out their ski adventures. The wide open vistas are a welcome scene for beginners and allow riders to improve their skills without worrying about narrow courses or crashing into snow walls or other skiers.
While the Akakura area has its fair share of competition-grade courses, as well as a ski-in / ski-out luxury hotel, the village is a popular place for hot springs. In fact, the area has its own local “hot springs sommelier.” Just like their wine counterparts who endeavor to choose the perfect bottle for your meal, the “hot springs sommelier” helps you choose the perfect onsen by matching your desired potency, mineral qualities and bathing preferences. After a long day on the hill, nothing beats a hot bath to heal your cold and battered body.
After working up an appetite top off the day by gathering around a traditional nabe (Japanese stew) and hoisting a bottle of sake, particularly the local brews made from the finest homegrown rice. You’ll find yourself tipping more than a single glass of the smooth rice wine.
The soothing hot sake is most popular in winter, but the cold variety is also a refreshing option, and after a few glasses your lodge owner will no doubt impart some local tales. I also recommend stopping by the Akakura Kanko Hotel for some hot apple pie and ice cream matched with a cup of tea.
After ending the night with a warm heart and body, you’re ready to wake up to the fresh, gleaming powder and another date with my Myoko.