Seen Niseko and done Hakuba? Next time you plan a ski trip in Japan, add Akita to your itinerary
Nestled on the top corner of Honshu, Japan’s main island, sits Akita. The area has a lot to offer in terms of winter sports and culture. A prefecture often overlooked because of its rural setting, and a less developed tourism scene, it’s Akita’s untouched beauty that really adds to the area’s charm. Lacking the overzealous crowds of tourists, it still feels like a well kept-local secret.
Do be warned though, it’s said to be the home of “Namahage” local demons who run rampant through the streets during the New Year, scaring children into behaving themselves.
If you’re brave enough to face the demons you’ll be gifted with one of the best snow experiences of your life. Dotted with cozy towns and a relaxed atmosphere that oozes classic Japanese culture, Akita is perfect for those seeking local flavor and unforgettable cultural experiences as well as excellent snow. Here are just a handful of reasons why Akita you should visit Akita next winter.
Tazawako Ski Resort
Overlooking the deepest lake in Japan, Tazawako, this ski resort has multiple runs and six different sets of chair lifts, some covered, to get you up and running pretty quickly. Equipment hire is a breeze and the resort is a stomping ground for locals with not so many other travellers passing through, so there’s plenty of room to cut loose down the mountain. Keep an eye out for the renown Lake Tazawako, which silently exudes its presence in the distance with snow reflecting from its deep blue waters.
After a long day out and about, nothing beats the feeling of sitting in a hot spring bath to wind down and simply relax. Nyuto (Japanese for nipple) Onsen is located nearby the ski resort and has private indoor baths for both men and women but the star of the show is the mixed outdoor bath. Its milky water ensures you don’t see anything you don’t want to see, the ladies come in through a fenced off section.
The feeling of snow falling on you whilst the rest of your body is submerged in warm, naturally heated water is nothing short of serene. While the scenery looks like something ripped straight out of a movie scene, there’s really nothing else like it.
The heart of this area. Tazawako is a giant lake that also holds the title of deepest in Japan. As such it doesn’t freeze over in winter and provides some great views of the ski area, and surrounds. A lot of Korean tourists drop by as the popular TV drama “Iris” was shot here, but it’s still relatively quiet compared to many of the other tourist trodden ski resorts around the country.
On the western shore of the lake you’ll find the golden statue of a mysterious woman by the name of Tatsuko. As the legend goes, Tatsuko wanted to stay beautiful forever so made a deal with a god who told her to walk north and drink from a nearby spring.
Tatsuko went on to drink the water but only found she was getting thirstier and thirstier. So she continued until before she knew it, she had transformed into a dragon, who became the guardian of the lake. Various locations from the story are nearby if you want to check them out.
Paper Balloon Festival of Kamihinokinai
It’s estimated that this event dates back to around 100 years ago although there’s no exact record of when it started. The Paper Balloon Festival of Kamihinokinai is a 40 minute train ride from Kakunodate station and occurs on the 10th of February each year. Countless balloons are fired up and sent into the air carrying the wishes of the townspeople.
Some are adorned with gorgeous artwork, drawn by the locals and students in nearby schools. If you’re feeling hopeful you can also add a wish of your own at a nearby stall to the smaller balloons that are also being sent on their maiden voyages that evening.
Seeing countless balloons being let off at the same time along with seeing the sky littered with the small flames that are carrying them up is remarkable and the sense of community around the event is palpable.
When asking people around Japan what they know about Akita, many of them comment on the food. Kiritanpo is a mainstay for most dishes and basically it’s rice on a stick, akin to mochi but savoury, with your choice of sauce on top. Miso is a popular choice and even though it sounds super plain, it’s actually really easy to make yourself and pretty delicious to boot. Along with that, Yokote yakisoba (fried noodles) is a popular festival food and I was even told by a local that if your restaurant is going to serve this dish here, it can only serve this dish, neat. Finally Inaniwa udon is a style of udon that is flatter and thinner than your regular run of the mill udon. As such it’s a lot easier to eat but no less tasty than it’s thicker brethren.
Akita is easily accessible from Tokyo by both Shinkansen (three hours by bullet train) and air (an hour). Buses and local trains can get you around town but as it’s a remote area, looking into hiring a car is a great idea to allow you to do things at your own pace and really take in the sights.