Appi’s snowy joys await seekers of late-season thrills

by Christopher Johnson

Special To The Japan Times

With degrees in fine arts, Akiyoshi Osumi used his creative talents to coin a perfect slogan for the Appi Kogen Snow Resort: “Be Happy in Appi.”

Appi, which is open for spring skiing until May 6, really is an oasis of happiness in northern Iwate Prefecture. About an hour’s drive northwest of the prefectural capital of Morioka, it has seemingly got everything: spectacular views, abundant snow, efficient lifts, fabulous food, stunning designs, 1,009 rooms — and friendly, English-speaking staff attracting skiers from around the world.

Think of Appi as Disney Land for skiers: a family-friendly abode with natural wonders and first-class services. It also offers mind-bending runs of deep powder snow, and an escape from the typically gray spring skies and pollen allergies of the Kanto region.

Tired from a long trip, I certainly didn’t start out in the touted happy way at Appi. Due to high winds, delays and cancellations, my 550-km jaunt from Tokyo involved eight trains and took 14 hours — instead of about 2½ hours on a shinkansen to Morioka. I cursed the lack of direct flights from Tokyo to nearby Iwate-Hanamaki Airport (which does serve Osaka and other parts of Japan and Asia). In fact, so dispirited was I upon reaching Appi Kogen Station in a full-blown December blizzard that I considered heading straight back to Tokyo.

But then I met Osumi. A talented landscape painter raised in Morioka and educated in America, he’s in charge of introducing foreign guests to Appi’s artistry and the color-coding of graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura guiding me through the resort’s fascinating architecture.

The spacious reception area features a desk for foreign guests and a cascading wall tapestry. The sprawling complex has a range of restaurants and a variety of lobbies, bathing areas, massage services and most everything else a skier might need.

Color-coded buildings cluster around the Grand Tower shining lemon-yellow in the morning and gold in the setting sun. A bar, which overlooks a heated indoor pool, currently offers one of the best sakes in Japan: a bottle of Phoenix from a drum that survived tsunami waves in nearby Miyako.

From my 14th-floor room, I can lay back on two window-side couches and watch the sun burn off the morning mist before ant-size humans take over the slopes.

The blizzard that so burst my balloon on Day 1 coats the mountains with deep snow, and my newly minted Salomon and Atomic rental equipment is excellent, especially the snug Focus RS boots.

Appi’s army of covered quad chairs and gondolas lifting us up to the 1,300-meter summit of Mount Appi protect us from stiff winds. After a challenging day of skiing blind in temperatures of minus 10 or 20 degrees, we sink into the set-course Japanese menu of salmon head-cartilage sashimi, white fish soup and shabu-shabu of succulent Iwate Maesawa beef and cow tongue. The fruity Aomori sake conjures apples and white wine, and the Nambu-Bijin is also a true beauty. Slightly sozzled again despite my best intentions, I sleep for only five hours but still feel ready to go.

On Day 2, the sunrise reveals dutiful snow-groomers creating a notebook full of lines for skiers to write on. My guide and mentor, Tomo Shuhama, a quiet local guy who worked in Arctic Canada, takes us to the summit overlooking the 2,038-meter Mount Iwate volcano — an apparent little brother of Mount Fuji that presides over the northern landscape. Bowing to it, we descend into the legendary Second Course on the so-called Sailer side of the mountain.

Perched on the edge, I tremble in fear at the steep run below. Intentionally left ungroomed, it’s a pure field of snow — with little margin for error. A long fall could even trigger an avalanche. My heart beats quickly, as I recall the agony of tearing my knee ligaments surfing. I seem on the verge of plunging into a deep frozen hole.

But we’re compelled by the allure of carving our signatures onto the empty white expanse. Unfortunately, before Shuhama can go, another skier takes possession of the run, painting his designs on “our” canvas. “Don’t worry, there’s more ahead,” Shuhama reassures me.

Sitting back on his skis, hands forward, grip loose, probing with his poles, he makes a treacherous run look easy. Executing slow, looping turns, he plunges into waist-high cream and disappears in the cloud of spray, yet somehow manages to remain upright. Following his advice to relax, a sublime calm comes over me as I drift down the hill like a skydiver passing through clouds.

All morning, we find stretches of powder on the Sailer side, then take the yellow gondola to the top, turn right and explore the shadowy Nishimori side. It feels like a different ecosystem, with “snow monsters” that remind me of ones encountered around the slopes of Zao Onsen in Yamagate Prefecture — vast forests caked in ice and clumps of snow.

Buzzed on adrenaline, I ski into the blue light of nightfall which fades into black. Even at minus 20, night skiing is magical, like swimming in a lake on a hot summer night. The skiing techniques are the same — knees bent, hands forward — but the atmosphere and alien light make it a totally different and otherworldly experience. Forlorn naked trees and ghostly figures emerge out of nowhere, kicking up sprays of light in fields of darkness.

With three lifts going high up the mountain until 8 p.m., Appi really excels over other resorts that have only one or two lifts, and where night-skiing often seems to be regarded more as a sideshow than a serious endeavor for hardcore types.

For me, Appi has the best night-skiing in Japan. After a 12-hour workout, I feel near-tipsy with dizziness, and though I can barely stand up I manage one last run to the locker room.

Then, from back on the 14th floor, I watch a team of skiers descend holding red torch lights in some sort of mysterious ritual, and then the lights go off and the mountain is left to sleep in silence. Listening to Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, I trip on a natural high, soak in the hot-spring bath with other guests and tuck into a hearty feed of Korean BBQ washed down with surely one of Japan’s best brews — Appi’s own draft, which reminds me of European white beers.

Day 3 is a photographer’s dream: a winter day of Tibetan blue skies. Out of all my Japan ski trips since the 1980s, it’s the best winter weather ever. The rabbits and other critters, jumping for joy, leave tracks under the lifts. Everybody has cameras out. Imposing Mount Iwate looks like it’s been lifted straight out of a Hokusai landscape, oozing blue mist around it.

Skiing with Osumi on this, my final day, I get sunburn now to go with my freezer burns of previous days. The color-coding of Appi’s lifts and gondolas — red, green, blue, pink and yellow — really stands out in the stunning light. En route to the Nishimori side, we can see the distant peaks of Aomori Prefecture, perhaps more than 100 km in the distance, and much of Honshu’s northeastern Tohoku region spreads below us in majestic contours of ridges and valleys. The view alone is worth the trip.

“It’s 1:30 now,” says Osumi after we’d made a few runs together. “The food court closes at 2 p.m. We’ll have to go all the way down, nonstop.”

I follow as we speed through soft moguls and gather momentum through a winding 5-km run, one of Japan’s longest. Thighs burning, heart racing, I feel like Franz Klammer in the Olympic downhill. We whiz past skiers who pause to admire the whoosh of our speed. Winding around the final bend, we hit the brakes and spume out behind us long rooster-tails of spray.

On the relatively flat calm of the “bunny hill,” we ski in slow motion beside crowds of families and children, who seem delighted by the encouraging care of their instructors. Arriving at the food court, my own snow guru checks the time: Our nonstop flight from top to bottom took only 10 minutes.

Unlike Western resorts often serving up greasy burgers and fries, Appi’s big food court offers healthy varieties of noodles and other Japanese, Asian and Euro-American dishes. After a lunch of pork cutlets from locally raised animals, we head to watch snowboarders take flight-off jumps in the Snow Park, and then indulge in a final blissful night of skiing and a buffet dinner of crab, shrimp, scallops and Iwate beef.

On the overnight bus to Tokyo, still spaced out on a skier’s high, all I can think about is being “happy in Appi.”

Getting there: A free shuttle bus operates both ways between the resort and Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, for guests staying in its Grand Tower, its Annex or in one of its villas. Various bus companies offer overnight services to and from Tokyo, and shinkansen (bullet trains) also run between there and Morioka, from where local trains and buses link with Appi. There is also plenty of free parking for guests. Tokyo-based journalist Christopher Johnson (www.globalitemagazine.com) is the author of two novels, “Siamese Dreams” and “Kobe Blue.”