By Simon Bernard
Fast becoming the worst kept secret, Hakkoda has become known as the Number 1 mountain for hardcore snowboarders, telemarkers and skiers. There is no other place in Japan for the steep and deep powder courses that it offers.
Can you imagine a place where you board all day and still be in untracked powder?
Geography - the North Hakkoda Range
As you look at the Japanese characters for Hakkoda - - the first kanji is the number eight. Hakkoda is basically a range of eight mountains offering an extensive area for getting deep into the heart of the backcountry. Although the highest mountain, Mt. Odake, is only 1584m, there are courses as long as 7 to 10 km that can take more than half a day to complete.
There is also another range of mountains called the Southern Hakkodas - just across Route 103 - also offering some excellent back country (not recommended for snow-boarders), where you can actually make your way to Lake Towada in the spring from the top.
Not a Resort
Although there are two small lifts at the bottom area, Hakkoda is not a place for beginners - even the slopes on the lifts have some drop on them. The gondola takes up to 100 people every 10 to 20 minutes starting at 9am up to the top of Mt. Tamoyachi at 1324m. It takes the gondola 10 minutes to get to the top. (It can get pretty crowded on weekends and holidays. And even worse in spring, so it is best to go climbing during the peak of the season. During the snowy part of the year, starting early insures powder runs even on the official courses.)
From the top of the gondola there are only two official courses (the Direct and Forest courses) which are only marked with orange poles set about 10 meters apart and some fencing with signs to guide you down.....there are NO groomed slopes from the top! During very severe weather, even these marked trails can be a challenge.
Depending on when the snow starts to fall and how much has fallen, there are places to board in early/mid November until late May/early June.
The courses.....to name a few
Many people come to Hakkoda, come down the Direct or Forest course and say, "what's the big deal?!" What they don't know is where to go.
Looking down from the top of the gondola going left to right 360 degrees, some of the unofficial courses are: Direct, indirect, under the gondola, Mokkozawa, Mokkozawa henko, Y-zawa, Rinkan, Forest, Higashi shamen, Kita shamen, Nise tamoyachi, Miyazawa, Chuo, Kamoshika and back to the Direct. (A few names I had to make up myself...)
WARNING: You should not go down any unofficial route without a guide or a local, and many routes can only be done according to conditions and time of the year. Every year somebody gets lost and there have been some deaths as well over the years.
A 23 year old Australian women spent the night on the mountain on January 24, just going off to the left of the Direct course.
From Mt. Maedake (1251m) there is the Hyaku-ban and the Doozo route, the latter being a viable route throughout the winter depending on the depth of snow with a super open bowl from the peak.
From Mt. Akakura (1551m) there is the Hakkoda Onsen route and the Moto-yuu route with a few interesting variations. There is also the Hokibatai route, the 7 km route, usually only done in the spring although I have been down it in January under unusual perfect circumstances. There is also the Bakuretsu shamen---the steepest line in Hakkoda! Only done in the spring and under even perfect conditions it is VERY DANGEROUS!
You can also do the Hokibatai route from Mt. Ido and from the Mt. Odake mountain hut or from the top of Mt. Odake or even Mt. Kodake.
Not recomended for snowboarders because of the flat areas is Jogakura and Sukayu onsen routes (Chuo and Miyazawa courses) from Mt. Odake or Nise Tamoyachi.
Highly recommended is the co-ed hot spring at Sukayu at the end of the day!
When the ropeway closes after Golden Week, the site shifts to hiking up from Kasamatsu Toge 1040m (a 15 minute drive south of the Gondola) or Suiren Numa to the top of Mt. Io/ Mt. Odake/ Mt. Kodake and Mt. Takada Odake. There are also some great jumps across the street from Suiren Numa as well. A steep run on an open bowl can be down in the spring by climbing Mt. Takada-Odake from Yachi onsen. Not a hike for the weak, but well worth the effort!
What You Need
Although you can probably get away with just a backpack, snowshoes and extendable poles if you stay on the unofficial courses on Mt. Tamoyachi, you want to be more prepared if you are planning to go off anywhere else. An emergency snow blanket, extra warm wear, hot thermos, food, whistle, compass, map, radio transceivers (getting a amateur radio licence in Japan is not as difficult as you would think, and cell phones don't always work in the mountains, but bring one anyway), beacon, probe and shovel to name a few things.
Hydrating yourself before, during and after hiking is essential. Sunglasses work better than goggles when climbing otherwise you will just get fogged up. You will also need to make arrangement to leave a vehicle in the back where you are going to come out or see if the hotel or onsen you are staying at would be willing to pick you up. Staying around the unofficial courses on Mt.Tamoyachi will eventually lead back to the gondola so there will be no need to leave a vehicle.
Also, don't forget a camera! If you happen to hit Hakkoda on a bluebird day, the scenic beauty of the mountains and the snow monsters are breathtaking!
What To Expect
Expect the unexpected. Mountain weather is so unpredictable, especially when climbing. Sunshine can turn into no visibility without warning.
As far the snow goes, generally it is much, much lighter and dryer than Nagano, Niigata and southern Tohoku, but unfortunately not as light as in Hokkaido.
Longer boards work better in the powder, shorter boards are better in the spring and non-powder days. Lots of cutting in and around trees on all the off-courses.
Better to sit on your butt than hug a tree! And NEVER board or ski down the pit of the valleys. In the winter you'll just sink in the depth of snow and in the spring, the snow thins and if you break through you will land in ice cold fast running water. Even if you can get out, hyperthermia you will get before you will get down.
Accommodations / Access / Guides
There are many great places to stay at and within a 10 minute drive from the gondola, many of whom have some great deals on Airfare and Stay packs you should check into. The lunch menu at Yamagoya Hakkoda Sanso located just under the lifts is really good! (Sipping a cold draft on their balcony in the spring after a morning tour is awesome!) The ropeway doesn't mind if you camp or sleep in your car at the parking lot. But it is COLD! Driving up from Aomori City (less than an hour) can also be an option if you have 4-wheel drive. Some of the hotels will pick you up at the airport. There are guide tours offered by the hotel/onsens near the gondola but they do not speak English and when crowded especially on weekends and holidays you do more walking and waiting in long lines then actual boarding.
Even if you are not an advanced skier or snowboarder, Hakkoda has something to offer you. If you just stay on the official courses, you do not necessarily need to bring any equipment and if it is a snowy day, you will find some powder to play in. Whether you come once or come back again and again gaining knowledge of the mountain, you can experience something new each time. And it will only whet your appetite for more adventure. See you in the POW!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Simon Bernard is an American who has lived in Aomori for 15 years. A former skier and now a snowboarder of 10 years, he works for local Japanese government offices promoting local tourism and events. Simon was out snowboarding over 100 days last season, and he has worked to improve the service in and information about Hakkoda.
Pictures courtesy of Melanie Surry and Anthony Mitchell.