A Taste Of Tōhoku: Japan's Hidden Gem For Riding Powder

A Taste Of Tōhoku: Japan's Hidden Gem For Riding Powder

Photos & Words by Weston Ambassador, Josh Laskin.


In recent years, Japan has emerged as the capital of powder skiing and riding, with the island of Hokkaido overshadowing the rest of the country’s mountainous regions.

“You’re going to ride in Japan? You’re going to love Hokkaido,” avid skiers and riders would exclaim when I mentioned my upcoming trip.

But when I joined the Indy Pass crew —who recently began working with local outfitter Japan Ski Tours — in 2023 to chase powder, Hokkaido wasn’t on the itinerary.

Located less than four hours north of Tokyo by bullet train, the Tōhoku prefecture is home to Aomori City, which boasts the title of snowiest city in the world. As the days progressed and we explored a handful of the region’s nearly 90 small ski areas, this became increasingly apparent as each forecasted “chance of flurries” turned into waist-deep powder.

Unlike Hokkaido, which is known for its more popular ski areas and backcountry zones around Niseko, Tōhoku’s ski areas are mostly small, independently-owned operations selling day tickets for $20 or less. And many of these ski areas are home to an endless amount of backcountry terrain, just beyond the lifts. 

As we explored the ski areas and toured backcountry zones, I began to get the sense that I was getting a cultural experience that is missing from places like Hokkaido.

“I’m having a similar cultural experience as you,” said Yasuyuki Shimanuk, a Niseko-based cinematographer and photographer who was born and raised in Hokkaido. “We don’t have the same history and culture in Hokkaido. It has only been a part of Japan for 200 years, and now it’s very westernized.”


‘Yasu’ continued on about the reliability and quality of the snow in Hokkaido, saying how he’s used to “dry” powder, and not the “heavier” stuff we were skiing in Tōhoku. But despite having had my fair share of powder days in Colorado and Utah, it was still some of the driest snow I had ever ridden.

Alex Silgalis, founder of LocalFreshies.com, takes a break from the “Sierra Cement” he’s used to in Tahoe, sampling the goods of northern Japan.

While some areas can be strict about allowing travel into the backcountry, many of Tōhoku’s ski areas offer ease of access into cool, untracked zones.

After four consecutive days of non-stop snow, bluebird skies invited Silgalis up the short boot pack to an overlooked summit that boasted not just untracked powder, but endless views of the surrounding mountain range.

Unlike in Hokkaido, where many of the liftees, ski instructors and baristas are transplants from places like Australia and New Zealand, you’ll be hard-pressed to find English-speaking individuals around Tōhoku. And while this can provide a logistical challenge for tourists, it also reveals an entirely new layer of cultural immersion that’s becoming increasingly difficult to find.

The onsen, or natural hot spring, is an integral part of Japanese culture. Traditionally, any clothing is not allowed, which can make it a challenging tradition to engage in for Westerners. But the peacefulness and tranquility of embracing the tradition is unrivaled by any other western aprés pastime, and no trip to Japan is complete without experiencing it.

The Japow is the perfect tool for deep, untracked powder, as Laconte proved to us during a short tour outside of a local ski area’s boundaries.

During many ski and riding trips, the actual skiing itself is only part of the reason for flying to unfamiliar corners of the world. Skis and snowboards are a ticket to explore lesser-known towns and villages, eat unfamiliar food and become a part of an unfamiliar cultural landscape.

Stopping at local restaurants, learning about unfamiliar culture and traditions, and watching artists perform traditional Japanese music as has been done for centuries is just (or almost) as good as bottomless pow.

After sampling the local pow, Laconte samples some of the baselodge cuisine.

Seemingly, the food was just as important as the skiing and riding itself.

After searching for untracked powder in one of the ski area’s sidecountry zones, Indy Pass founder Doug Fish makes his way back to the base area, smiling about thoughts of lap two.

During our time in Japan, our accommodations increasingly became more traditional, shying away from the western-style meals and beds we were used to at home.

At the end of our nearly two weeks in Japan, it dawned on me — I was hardly there for the waist-deep powder. The moments spent in unfamiliar places with new friends, staring at unfamiliar mountains, eating food that remains a mystery, and overcoming a language barrier in small countryside towns is the most appealing part of traveling. And having a snowboard or set of skis only makes it easier to find and experience these far-flung destinations.

Follow @joshlaskin for more pow slayin' greatness

Watch the video recap by Local Freshies or if you’re thinking of visiting Japan check out their “10 Things I Wish I Knew Ahead of Time."

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1 comment

This is exactly what I’m looking for in Japan. All my friends go resort skiing in Hokkaido area and I’ve been on the search for side and backcountry touring all day long and even better that its 1 flight from the states just north of Tokyo. Where can I find additional info on this zone for back and side country?

Edmund Rudell

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