It’s far from a secret by now that Japan has become – especially for Aussies – one of the world’s premier snow destinations. From the sleek modern developments of Niseko in Hokkaido, and the party-loving town of Hakuba in Nagano, to the more traditional hot spring dotted landscapes of Zao Onsen in Yamagata, there’s as much variety as there are heavy seasonal dumps of soft, white powder.
But if there were one season to rival the snow season in terms of popularity, it’d have to be spring, cherry blossom season.
Known locally as ‘sakura’ season, between March to April, the nation’s parks and mountains transform into fields of soft bubblegum pink for just a fleeting two weeks reminding us of the beauty of transience.
But up in the three northernmost prefectures of Honshu (the largest of the four main islands of Japan), there’s a very special event that occurs around the end of April, after Tokyo and Kyoto sakura petals have long been trampled into the soil.
It’s spring skiing season when the northern alps are still dusted with skiable snow, but the long sunny days inspire the area’s cherry blossoms to burst into bloom.
It’s a time of year well-kept from international attention when the locals can enjoy spring skiing when peak travel costs are down and northern Japan is at its most beautiful, and is a time of year definitely worth considering for your next Japan adventure.
To reach this corner of Japan, from Tokyo, it is a three-hour journey on the Tohoku Shinkansen, departing Tokyo and arriving at Kitakami Station, Iwate.
Begin your ski-sakura adventure in Iwate, a prefecture that sits on the north-eastern coast of Japan. Size-wise, it’s the second-largest prefecture in Japan, meaning that there’s a lot of potential in terms of landscape.
Kitakami Tenshochi Park, in Kitakami, is the prefecture’s unofficial cherry blossom hotspot.
The park’s cherry blossoms, which run along the Kitakami River, number in the tens of thousands, and the sheer variety you’ll find running along the river are staggering. For the blossom connoisseur, there are about 150 different varieties here.
This site is home to The Kitakami Tenshochi Cherry Blossom Festival, which is held from April 15th to May 5th. The event sees folks from across Japan (and the world) flock to the site to cruise down the river on leisure boats, and enjoy street food snacks from the pop-up little food stalls that sit on the site.
Not far from the area also sits the Michinoku Folk Village, an open-air museum showcasing reconstructed buildings from villages across Japan.
Visiting this special area during cherry blossom season is a time that needs to be fully embraced, meaning that just visiting for the day and leaving town is a job half done.
If it’s possible, book yourself a night in town, so you can come back and enjoy the peaceful ambiance of strolling down roads lined with blossoms illuminated after dark.
About a 30-minute drive east of Kitakami City is Geto Kogen Resort, a towering collection of mountains that stare down onto the city centre in all their snow-capped glory.
This site is the first of a multi-destination adventure through Tohoku’s spring skiing attractions. An excellent place for families of intermediate skiers and groups of friends with a bit of experience under their belts looking for something fun but not too serious, Geto Kogen Resort boasts some of the heaviest snowfall in all of Japan in winter.
A lot of Geto Kogen Resort’s snow remains through spring, and the small to medium-sized resort is practically untouched by foreign tourism. Its facilities make it a great day trip destination or one-stop-shop for a couple of days hanging out and skiing.
Within Geto Kogen Resort, there are two main accommodation options to suit two quite different needs and budgets. The first is dorm-style lodging, located right by the public baths. These hostel-like lodgings offer the simplest amenities, with curtain-style privacy for the capsule beds and a small selection of separated rooms.
The other offering is the lush, private rooms located on the other side of the facility. Complete with private bathrooms, a small shared kitchen area, and floor-to-ceiling glass windows that look out onto the ski field, this is ski lodging, elevated. There’s also the option for a private dining chef.
From here, there are a few options for those wanting to explore further or just spend a little time in the area.
One option is of course to extend your time here to three or four days, splitting the days up between skiing and exploring the stunning forested surroundings of the Geto Kogen area, including its abundant onsen (hot springs). If possible, it’s recommended you rent a car for some of your stay here, to offer easier access to the region’s more rugged and less accessible landscape.
Another option is to head out further east, to Akita’s Lake Tazawa, known locally as Tazawako. By car the journey will take a little over two hours with a detour by Morioka, Iwate’s attractive castle city.
Lake Tazawa is a naturally stunning destination that has successfully managed to avoid industrial development despite its popularity. With the snow-capped mountains in the background and its deep allure, taking a sightseeing cruise or paddle boat on this caldera lake is a great way to soak up this fascinating side of the country from a whole new perspective.
From Lake Tazawa your options are limitless.
If you’re looking to meet the prefecture’s famous Akita Inu (Akita dogs), head to Akita City and pay a visit to the Akita Dog Museum. Here you’ll learn about this irresistibly cute breed of dog that’s shaped the cultural landscape of the prefecture.
Other options include heading to Oga Peninsula to meet the area’s fascinating figures ‘Namahage’, local demons who visit homes during the New Year to scare the village’s children into behaving.
Also, while you’re here, be sure to try ‘kiritanpo’, an Akita specialty, a type of grilled mochi-like rice sticks, often enjoyed in stew.
If you’re wanting to explore the area’s spring skiing in a little more depth, then you can head to Aomori to visit Hirosaki Castle, bathe in the remote and off-the-grid Aoni Onsen, and feel like you practically own Hakkoda Ski Resort.
This article on spring skiing and sakura season was produced in collaboration with JNTO. japan.travel/en/au
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