Paradise in Fukushima
The ski resorts of Nekoma and Alts Bandai show the majestic side of a prefecture maligned by a nuclear meltdown and radiation fears
By Christopher Johnson
Standing atop a mountain overlooking the vast majesty of Fukushima prefecture, it’s easy to forget about the ongoing meltdown 120 kilometres away.
Below me, a distant frozen lake sits in the lap of tree-studded hills and towering peaks and ridges along the roof of Japan. Entranced by blue sky and white snow, we take it all in while gathering courage for a run down a steep slope of deep powder and challenging moguls. At 4 pm on a sparkling winter day, a sun dog appears, reminding us that God and supernatural forces did not flee the area after March 11.
Here, on some of Japan’s best ski slopes, is the real Fukushima. Not the Fukushima in the news, battered by a tsunami, bruised by the nuclear disaster by the coast, blemished by the rumours that anything associated with Fukushima — any person or product — is somehow tainted and cancerous. On a gorgeous spring day, nothing in Japan could be more pure and healthy than skiing at the resorts of Nekoma and Bandai at the foot of Mt. Bandai on the western side of the prefecture, roughly between Koriyama and Aizu-Wakamatsu.
The skiers, managers, and staff at these resorts are actually doing what everybody in Japan says Japan should be doing. Instead of ignoring, neglecting or running away from Fukushima, they are flocking to Fukushima, embracing it, holding it up with pride for the world to see what a wonderful place it still is.
Regardless of their efforts, the name Fukushima will be forever tarnished by the greed and negligence of Tokyo-based executives, engineers and politicians who lost site of what really matters in life. But Fukushima, in truth, is one of the most spectacular places in Japan, a country loaded with amazing sites.
A snow-topped peak towering over the prefecture, Mount Bandai belongs alongside Mt. Fuji, Mt. Iwate, Sakurajima and others in the pantheon of Japan’s august mountains. Mount Bandai also hosts several resorts, including the Alts family, which is split into two resorts: Bandai on the south face of the majestic mountain, and Nekoma on the north.
While Bandai tends to attract families and all levels of skiers who enjoy its variety of runs and proximity to its luxurious resort hotel, Nekoma, which roughly means “demonic cat”, is tailored to challenge more advanced skiers with some creamy mogul runs, steep slopes, and tantalizing jumps for demonic cats on boards. Raised on skis near the Canadian Rockies, I loved my two days at Nekoma. I never had to wait in line, and on a gorgeous Friday afternoon, I often had runs to myself.
As an added bonus, I could watch Japan’s best daredevils showing off their acrobatic somersaults and 1080 turns completed with smooth landings that seem to defy human kinetics. Unlike TEPCO executives, who try to shirk responsibility for what former Prime Minister Naoto Kan calls “human error” at the Fukushima reactors, these snowboarders have no room for anything less than perfection. A human error here could be instantly fatal; indeed two Canadian riders have died from harsh landings this year. Yet, despite wind, snow, rain or other distractions, they somehow manage to land like demonic cats on their two feet, and hold their balance just enough to embark on the next awe-inspiring jump.
I’ve never seen friendlier staff anywhere else in the ski world. Cheerful older Japanese men, brooming off snow or rain, cheerfully greeted me every time I got on or off the chair lifts, and they sent me off or welcomed me back with polite, homey phrases in Japanese like “itte-rashai” or “o-kaeri-nasai“. They seemed grateful to have their jobs, and still be living in their beloved Fukushima. The cheerful staff at the rental area and also the resort hotel were genuinely friendly in a loose and chatty way; they treated me like a family member of the international tribe of skiers.
Nekoma’s manager, Kei Ishiuchi, is a loveable character who speaks English like a Canadian ski bum. His father lives in Whistler near Vancouver, and Kei himself spent years working in Banff and also guiding sailors and kayakers around the oyster gardens of the Sunshine Coast and the fjords of Desolation Sound, one of British Columbia’s hidden wonders. Kei’s friendly, funky vibe rubs off on the youthful staff and the skiers at Nekoma. It feels like a surf city beach party on snow, where you can hang out with some of Japan’s coolest snowboarders who also surf Niigata beaches in summer. Many of the staff, including the resort’s friendly webmaster Jun Oikawa, used to surf in Minami Soma just north of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors. Their love for Fukushima’s nature and culture has kept them in Fukushima even though others have left.
The Hoshino group, which also runs the family-friendly Tomamu resort in central Hokkaido, seems a model example of the type of companies Japan needs to go forward into the future. Hoshino’s president has a reputation for chairing meetings in a t-shirt, and many of his younger staff both in Hokkaido and Fukushima say they really appreciate the youthful, friendly vibe within the company. Even though business at Alts is down about 20 percent this year due to radiation fears and fuhyo higai (rumour damage) the Hoshino group still employs 300 staff in the winter and 70 in the summer at ALTS Bandai and Nekoma. In an area with few jobs and a need for more entrepreneurs, they’re a major provider of income, and hope for a sustainable economic future in Fukushima.
Since they were also forced to shutdown after March 11 last year until the summer, resort operators are keenly aware of testing for radiation, which they say is about the same or even lower than Tokyo on some days, and they publish results on their website, in order to allow potential customers to judge for themselves. Depending on the number of skiers, they also close down some lifts in order to save energy and costs.
The resorts offer free shuttle buses to Koriyama and back. This means you could wake up in Tokyo, take the 06:12 am shinkansen arriving in Koriyama at 7:32 am, jump on the free 8 am shuttle, reach Nekoma mountain by 10:15 am, ski for 6 hours (more than enough time to punish your body), take the 4:30 pm shuttle from Nekoma back to Koriyama, take the Shinkansen or even local trains to save money, and sleep in your own bed in Tokyo that night. It’s much better, however, to stay in the well-run resort at the base of Alts Bandai. (http://www.alts.co.jp/english/lodging/index.html)
In the lobby area, piano music creates a pleasant, relaxing vibe. The dinner buffet included juicy steaks grilled on demand, some local soba and other specialities, and a variety of Japanese and international dishes to fuel your batteries for another day of skiing. Beers on tap include the delicious mountain brew Yona-Yona, and some of Fukushima’s best sakes. The bottom floor boasts a sizeable indoor pool and onsens at the end of a hallway stylishly carpeted in black and red stripes with a hypnotic effect on a weary skier. The hot spring water, coming from Mt. Bandai, is a rich, reddish broth that’s good for chapped skin scorched by wind and sun.
After a deep sleep on a supple bed, I awoke to see the light emerging on Mt. Bandai, and the runs of Alts Bandai beckoning guests gathered by their windows. That day, as I took another pounding on Nekoma’s moguls, I thought about the hospitable people of Fukushima, who are going to need resorts like this to keep the economy running. Whether skiing in winter or hiking in summer, people from Tokyo and other parts of Japan can help Fukushima by spending money here, as many valiant souls are already doing.