Five hours away from the modern and bustling city of Tokyo, there’s an ancient village that seems to be frozen in time.
This winter, a group of friends went there on a backcountry ski trip in Shirakawago with local JMGA mountain guide Ryuta Asahi. Read about their experience and discover a wild ski destination that is emerging as an alternative to Japan’s most traveled ski resorts.
Shirakawago stands in a mountainous region in Gifu Prefecture, at the heart of Honshu island. Harsh winters and heavy snowfalls are the reason for the steep thatched roofs in the houses of this village, wisely designed to survive the season.
Due to this traditional and unique architectural style called Gassho-zukuri (which means “built like hands in prayer”), the town was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1995.
Besides its historical and cultural background, in recent years Shirakawago has been slowly unveiling as a promising backcountry skiing destination. However, it still remains under the radar.
“Shirakawago is not a ski resort, and so backcountry skiing here involves non-lift accessed full-hikes. Hard work makes the downhill all the more valuable, and it also means that very few people come to this place”, explains Ryuta.
Steep and deep untracked powder long runs and the chance of staying in a typical “Gassho-zukuri” house are among the highlights of traveling to this Japanese hidden gem. And that’s what this story is all about!
I. Discovering Shirakawago
Bill, an American living in Chamonix and Eduard, a Romanian living in Amsterdam, went on a 3-day backcountry ski trip to Shirakawago, with Ryuta as their guide. Ryoko, a member of the Explore-Share team, helped them organize the adventure and also joined them.
As a ski tourer with wide experience and a recent obsession with splitboarding, Bill was really looking forward to this trip:
“The idea of exploring the mountains surrounding a UNESCO World Heritage Site was simply too good to pass up. The fact that there’s zero mechanized lift access in the valley made it even more appealing. Besides, given that no guidebooks or published routes exist, linking up with a knowledgeable JMGA guide was essential”.
II. Hiking an untracked face
The first day started early: they packed their gear and after a quick stop at a ‘combini’ (a convenience store, very common in Japan but rare in Shirakawago), they reached the base of the mountain.
“In late January, Shirakawago is usually covered in ridiculously deep powder snow to the extent of inconvenience. However, we were surprised and blessed by the blue sky and the sun when we arrived”, says Ryoko.
Once in the car park they started to hike. Even though it was a Saturday, there were only a few people on the mountain: it felt like a welcome change from busy destinations like Hakuba and Chamonix.
Past the tree lines, in the Alpine area of the mountain, the ridge line extended both to the right and the left. The view was stunning.
“The face to our left was a gnarly face with spines, called ‘Japalaska’, but everyone headed to the immediate face to the right -tells Ryoko-. We all felt strong so Ryuta suggested to hike a little further to the face next to the popular face. I looked into the distance and saw zero tracks”.
The entire hike lasted 3 hours. While they stood in the untracked ridge line, Ryuta said it was the first time he ever took clients to that face.
III. “Pick your own line”
“Guides usually say ‘follow me’ or ‘keep this narrow path’” says Eduard. So he was truly surprised when Ryuta said “pick your own line!”.
Ryoko picked an undulating and open line on a steep slope at 40-45 degrees, where the snow was best kept from the sun heat:
“With the ‘go’ sign from Ryuta, I jumped off a small cornice, speeding down the face. There were pockets of hard snow at top in the shades which shook my skis a little but otherwise my DPS Yvettes ran very smooth and fast down the face, playing in the changing terrain, enjoying the speed and powder”.
She stopped after a speedy descent of 400 m and waited for the rest of the group. In about 30 minutes they were all down. For Eduard,
“It was one of the best descents I ever had and the view at the top was amazing. There is a lot of powder in the area and adding a clear sky on top of that is very rare. We were lucky!”.
They spent the rest of the day in Shirakawago, passing by traditional houses crowded with tourists. Before a ‘Hida’ beef dinner with Japanese sake, they went to the local onsen.
“We could still see the peak we descended from in the distance –Eduard recalls-. It felt surreal to think that we were there a few moments before”.
IV. Amazing tree runs and powder snow!
The second day of the trip, weather conditions changed and wind began to get stronger as they reached the alpine area of the mountain.
“We decided to do a few laps in the trees where we could still find good powder as the faces in the shade were safe from the heat. It was another satisfying day of powder!”, says Ryoko.
That day during the evening they visited the small town of Takayama and had a late dinner.
Without any doubts, Eduard says the days in Shirakawago were the best of their trip:
“I will never be able to look at snowboarding with the same eyes again. Choosing your own line, with fresh powder as far as you can see, does not come that often and Ryuta opened that door to us”.
V. Experiencing life as a local
The third day was raining, so they headed to their next destination: Ainokura. This remote village in Gokayama is also a World Heritage village with ‘gassho zukuri’ houses, but much more serene and protected from tourists.
There, they had the experience of staying at a ‘gassho zukuri’ guest house. They learnt how it worked in the old days, discovered interesting facts about silkworm culturing and sat around an ‘irori’, a traditional Japanese fireplace.
“We had hot tea from the irori and enjoyed the local cuisine which featured koi sashimi, grilled iwana fish and iwana sake”, tells Ryoko. “The onsen that night -an outside bath that overlooked a lake around the mountains- was one of the best I ever had”.
VI. Ryuta, an outstanding local mountain guide
Bill, who has been a client in several backcountry ski trips in Europe and North America, says that traveling with Ryuta widely exceeded all his expectations:
“His level of professionalism, planning, client care and willingness to go the extra mile are on par with the best in the business. He is also the first dedicated splitboard guide I’ve toured with, so this was an added plus!”
While hiking in the mountain, Ryuta was making observations on snow conditions, identifying potential hazards along the way and monitoring the progress of the group as well as planning the rest breaks.
He was also very good at finding the best snow and managed to take the group to untracked terrains and incredible tree runs.
“When appropriate, Ryuta would descend first and communicate with the group using radios (each client was provided with one, which is rare)”, says Bill.
Ryuta would feedback the snow quality and communicate his recommended lines back to the group. He was also their photographer and the one who take them to cultural sights, traditional restaurants and local onsens after a ski journey.
“I would definitely recommend him for a guided trip in the future. His skills really showed through and underscored the value of going with a JMGA mountain guide”, adds Bill, whose future plans include going back to Chamonix for the season and then, organizing his return to Shirakawago for next year.
We hope Bill, Eduard and Ryoko’s experience to inspire your next adventure in Japan! You now have plenty of good reasons to include Shirakawago on your bucket list for a ski trip in Honshu.
Besides, you can find amazing off-the-beaten-track destinations for backcountry ski in Hokkaido, like the remote island of Rishiri.