Day 2 of the Niigata road trip. And what a beautiful day it was! Clear blue skies, fresh snow from the day before.
I knew I wanted to head to the back bowl, and was advised to head to the gondola base, not the Maiko hotel base. Good thing, too, because all the signs seemed to want to point me to the Maiko hotel base area, and had I not known there were two different base areas, I'd probably have ended up there. But I managed to make my way directly to the gondola base area, where I was greeted with a humongous ticket line. It snaked back and forth across the entire base building, and out onto the snow. There were only two ticket windows, which seemed to be the cause of the bottleneck. I don't think I've ever seen a ticket line that long at any ski area before.
But with patience and the passage of time (about 30 minutes, I think), I got my ticket and made my way out to the lifts. I had been warned that it was faster to take the chair lifts instead of the gondola to get to the back bowl, so that is what I did. And it was indeed a quick and pleasant ride up. First, the lower chair lift, through what looks to be rice fields to the side of the long beginners run on that side. Then up the second chair lift, to get to the famous back bowl.
Looking out from the top of the lift, the secret of the popularity of the back bowl is immediately apparent: big powder fields to either side of the groomed runs coming off the Okusoeji quad. Skiing down and riding up that quad, one is treated to panoramic views out over the Minamiuonuma valley, and into the bowl itself. The bowl consists of two lifts on either side of the valley, with bases near each other.
Lots of signs warning not to go off course, but not much apparent enforcement of it. Quite a few tracks in the trees, and of course the open fields to either side of the groomed areas lower down seemed to be fair game.
At the top of the ridge above the Okusoeji quad can be seen the top lift station for Iwappara. Can't help but think that Maiko and Iwappara could be joined up by just cutting a couple of cross trails. Probably wouldn't even need a lift.
The open powder fields are at the lower, flatter sections of the GunGun and GuiGui courses. The trick is to hit them at high speed from the groomed sections, giving enough momentum to sail through to the other side without stopping. Smooth sailing.
Speaking of which, the trails in that area are all of such onomatopoetic form: GunGun, GuiGui, ZokuZoku, SuiSui etc. The GanGan course leads back to the base area from the back bowl. By the way, there are some groomed "arms" at the tops of the powder fields to facilitate access.
Lots of people riding through the nominally illegal trees.
The GunGun course is mogul city at the top, with fast runout at the bottom. The SuiSui course was mostly fast carving. The ZokuZoku was spongy, sun-baked powder moguls.
After spending the morning in the bowl, I decided to check out the rest of the resort, heading down the GanGan course to the ByunByun course, then taking the renraku lift over to the hotel side.
On the Maiko hotel side... lift lines! Ridiculously long ones! The hotel side has mostly gentle slopes, with some nice intermediate fast cruisers, and one triple on the skier's left that serves a good expert course on the far skier's left. Good steep mogul course, which I would have spent more time lapping if the lines for the triple lift serving it weren't so long. Even the singles' merge line for it was long.
After a late lunch of delicious pizza, I headed back to the back bowl for some final laps, and then called it a day.
On the looker's far left of the resort can be seen an abandoned lift. Can't help but wonder what that course is like...
Overall impression: I can see why Maiko is popular. Especially the back bowl -- if you just want to lap the good bits, they are mostly there, and they are indeed quite enjoyable. The views are also quite nice.
I would say the back bowl by itself is a great half-day, and would get a bit old to keep lapping for a whole day. (Or, to be honest, my knees would wear out hitting the highlights over and over for a whole day.) The back bowl and the GanGan course leading back from it seem to be the favorite haunts of the younger crowd. But there is the rest of the place to cruise around as well, with some good bits on the hotel side if one is tolerant of lift lines. You can definitely wear yourself out there in a day.
I'd say it doesn't have the charm of Ishiuchi Maruyama, but definitely edges it in terms of available terrain.
From 28 December, 2014
Snow condition on visit:
Fresh powder under blue skies to sides of course. Packed powder on-course.