Got the winter blues? Be Happy at Appi ski resort in northern Japan

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by Christopher Johnson in IWATE, JAPAN

— With degrees in fine arts from US universities, Akiyoshi Osumi used his creative talents to coin the perfect slogan for one of Japan’s best ski resorts: Be Happy in Appi.

As I discovered during a fantastic 3-day ski trip in December, Appi really is an oasis of happiness in Japan’s northern Iwate prefecture. About an hour’s drive northwest of Morioka, Appi’s got everything: spectacular views, abundant snow, efficient lifts, fabulous food, stunning designs, 1009 rooms, and friendly English-speaking staff attracting skiers from around the world.

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Think of Appi as Disneyland for skiers: a family-friendly abode with first-class services and an ample supply of magic and natural wonders.

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As I found out, it can also offer mind-bending runs of deep powder snow to challenge expert skiers.

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But I didn’t start out happy at Appi. I was tired from a long trip. Due to high winds causing delays and cancellations, I had to take 8 trains during a 14-hour marathon from Tokyo, about 600 kilometers away. I cursed Japan’s overpriced transportation system, and lack of direct flights from Tokyo to Hanamaki airport (which does serve Osaka and other parts of Japan and Asia). I finally got to Appi Kogen station in the midst of a full-blown blizzard, and I seriously considered turning around and heading back to warm dry Tokyo.

Then I met Akiyoshi Osumi. Raised in Morioka and educated in America, he’s in charge of handling foreign guests and media for Appi. Organized and delightful, he should be running the country, actually. A talented landscape painter and a good skier, he’s the best person to help a visitor appreciate Appi’s artistry, which sets it apart from many other ski resorts around the world.

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Everything, such as the convenience store on site, gives you the sense that Appi’s doing it right. As Aki explains, Kamekura Yusaku and other notable architects treated the resort as a work of art. Color-coded buildings cluster around the Grand Tower shining lemon yellow in the morning and gold in the setting sun.

The reception area, featuring a special desk for foreign guests, has plenty of headroom to gaze at a cascading wall tapestry.

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The corridors, positioned to let in light and let you see the weather outside, are flanked by a variety of restaurants, lobbies, bathing areas, massage services and everything else a skier might want without having to leave the complex.

Aki carries my bags to my standard twin room on the 14th floor. I immediately fall in love with it, especially the two couches where I can sit and watch the sun burn the mist off the mountains in the morning and later observe humans the size of ants racing down the runs in the afternoon.

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At a bar overlooking kids playing in a heated pool, Aki treats me to a bottle of Phoenix sake, from a drum that survived tsunami waves in Miyako on Morioka’s Pacific coast. It’s one of the most meaningful sakes in all of Japan, and it lifts my spirit from the ashes of the long trip.

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The next morning, Day 1, it seems impossible to take photographs. A blizzard coats the mountains with deep snow. My newly-minted Salomon and Atomic rental equipment is excellent, especially the snug Focus RS boots. But unable to see through frozen goggles, I have to ski by feel, directly behind Aki; otherwise, I’m lost in a storm.

While the minus 20 wind chill factor would scare most humans back inside, it adds to the challenges craved by skiers. For us, a blizzard is mana from heaven. It’s like a white sand beach and vivid coral reef for divers; or a pipeline of waves for surfers. Thanks to APPI’s abundance of covered quad chairs and gondolas to the 1300 meter-high summit, we have a great day and night skiing in fresh snow, despite high winds that threaten to push us up the hill or give us unwanted flight. But this weather is murder for a photographer. Already a third of the way through my stay, I don’t have many shots of value.

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As a sort of consolation, we sink into the Japanese set course menu, featuring salmon head cartilage sashimi, white fish soup, and shabu-shabu of succulent Iwate Maesawa beef and cow tongue.

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The fruity Aomori sake tastes almost like apples or white wine, and the Nambu-Bijin is also a true beauty. Drunk for the second night in row, I sleep only 5 hours, and awaken needing more sleep.

But Day 2 is a revelation.

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As the storm passes and the sun bursts through clouds, Appi becomes a work of modern art. The dutiful snow groomers have created a notebook full of lines for skiers to write on.

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Aki, who must tend to other guests, assigns a ski instructor, Tomo Shuhama, to be my “model”.

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He’s perfect for it. A quiet and unassuming guy from the surrounding Hachimantai area, he learned English while working in Canada at Whistler and in the unforgiving winter of Yellowknife, where he often marveled at the northern lights. Compared to the Arctic, Appi never seems too cold.

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We hurry to catch the first gondola to embrace the virgin snow. There’s only a few other skiers near the summit.

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In the distance, the Iwate-san volcano, the little brother of Mount Fuji, presides over the northern landscape.

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We bow to it and then descend into the steep and ungroomed runs of the Second Course on the Sailer side of the mountain.

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Approaching an untouched run, we stop to gaze in awe at the world below.

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Shuhama and I are two tiny figures trying to find our way down through a clearing between forests. I tremble in fear at the steep run below. The run is legendary. It’s intentionally ungroomed, and not for the faint of heart. It’s hard to tell the depth of the snow, and if the twigs jutting out are just twigs or the tops of trees.

I’ve been skiing since I was a teenager in the Canadian Rockies, but I’ve never encountered any run like this. One error could mean a long fall; it could even trigger an avalanche. It would be difficult to climb back up to recover any lost skis or poles — and then I’d really be in trouble. After all, we are perched on the face of a mountain, an unpredictable beast which no resort operator can ultimately tame. Anything can happen here.

My heart beats quickly. I haven’t had proper warm-up runs, and I recall the agony of tearing my knee ligaments surfing a few years ago. I am really over my head this time, and on the verge of falling into a deep frozen hole.

But the lure of carving our signatures onto the empty white canvas is even more compelling. I’m supposed to go first, in order to shoot him from below. But Shuhama, sensing my trepidation, raises his pole to signal he’s ready to go first. My camera is poised to capture his work of art in progress. But just then, another skier emerges behind us. He doesn’t wait for us. Without pausing, he zooms ahead and takes possession of the run, painting his designs upon what we thought was our canvas.

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Darn. He’s spoiled our perfect moment. “Don’t worry, there’s more ahead,” says Shuhama. In a way, I’m relieved to see the intruding skier accomplish the run without incident, and I learn from his technique. Shuhama, going next, slowly probes his way, step by step, downward.

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He makes a treacherous run look easy. He sits back on his skis, keeping his hands forward, probing the surface with his poles.

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He plunges into snow above his waist, and almost disappears within the cloud of spray.

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But somehow he manages to maintain balance and stay upright.

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It’s my turn now. I have to catch up to him, then go ahead to get below him, in order to shoot him coming down through powder. I follow his lead, trying to ski within his groove — still too terrified to make my own mark.

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I can’t hold his line for long; his exquisite turns are simply too sharp. My skis, seemingly with a mind of their own, embark upon their own path. I sink deeper, unable to command my skis to execute sharp turns under the weight of the snow. I’m heading straight down, gaining speed, heading for the hard wood of the forest. Struggling to regain control, I keep my knees bent as far as I can, and my hips and trunk forward and over the skis, wherever the skis are. I’m in danger of toppling head over heels, when I remember Shuhama’s advice to “sit back and relax.” I loosen my grip on the poles and exhale. A sublime calm comes over me. I am now drifting silently down the hill, a skydiver passing through the clouds.

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Skiers dream about powder like this; now it’s real, and I’m in it. I remember to make slow, looping turns — just enough to reduce my speed and stay upright. My inside hand and elbow pierce the snow as I break to avoid a fall, and I somehow spring back into a stable position, angling into the next turn. Soon the bottom approaches. A wave of euphoria passes through me like a strong wind. As I see the nose of my skis resurface, I let out a holler of “yeeehhooooo”. I break hard to kick up a plume of spray, and then thrust my poles upward in victory. Above me, Shuhama laughs, and then descends with professional grace through the deep snow.

After that, the runs are easier, and even more divine. Shuhama, spotting a patch of untrammeled powder, clips out of his bindings and ascends the slope, in order to indulge in another powder run.

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Throughout the morning, we find more stretches of powder. This is what we live for. Trying to keep up with Shuhama, I raise my ability to new levels, and accomplish runs without falling.

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After exploring all the runs of the Sailer side, we take the yellow gondola to the top, turn right and embark toward another mountain.

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The Nishimori side, often in shadow, feels like a different mountain. It has Snow Monsters reminiscent of Zao — vast forests caked in ice and clumps of snow.

Only a handful of skiers use the chair lift, leaving the well-powdered moguls to ourselves.

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As the sun lowers, we catch a group of young snowboarders taking flight from a jump near a tree.

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Buzzed on adrenaline, I keep going, and ski into nightfall.

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Night skiing is blissful. It’s like swimming in a lake on a hot summer night, only this time, it’s a bone-chilling minus 20. The skiing techniques are the same — knees bent, hands forward — but the atmosphere and the alien light make it a totally different and otherworldly experience.

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Ghostly figures emerge out of nowhere, kicking up sprays of light in fields of darkness.

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Naked trees seem forlorn in the cold night.

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But the snow is sublime, like icing sugar sprinkled over a cake of darkness.

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With 3 lifts carrying skiers high up the mountain, APPI really excels over other resorts — with only one or two lifts — that seem to treat night skiing more as a novelty or side-show than a serious endeavor for hardcore skiers. For me, Appi has the best night skiing ever. Having started at 8:30 am, I ski until the last lifts at 8 pm. I finally give up when I feel tipsy with tachikurami. I can barely stand up, but I can still ski one last run to the locker room.

Back in my room, 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 darkness.

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Listening to Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, I’m tripping on a natural high. Then, after soaking in the hot spring bath with other guests, I join Akiyoshi for a hearty feed of Korean BBQ, washed down by surely one of the best beers in Japan, APPI’s own draft, which reminds me of European white beers.

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Day 3 is a photographer’s dream, a winter day of perfectly blue skies that evoke images of the Tibetan plateau. In all my days of skiing in Japan since the 1980s, it’s the best winter weather ever. The contrast of the blue sky and blinding white snow is electrifying. Everybody has cameras out.

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The rabbits and other wildlife must have been jumping for joy; they’ve left their tracks under the lifts.

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Snowboarders just sit back dazzled by the scene. Iwate-san looks like a Hokusai landscape, oozing a trail of blue mist around it.

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I’m so thrilled by the light, I don’t really care where we ski today. The pure shining blue of the cloudless sky is the highlight of this day, as was the blizzard of Day 1 and the powder of Day 2. We get sunburns now to go with the freezer burns of previous days. The color-coding of Appi’s lifts and gondolas — green, blue, orange and yellow — raise our appreciation of Appi’s magic to new heights.

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We find a long stretch of powder skirting a well-groomed run. In a field of striped light, Aki and our new friends — Nogi and Tanaka from Tokyo — appear to be surfing or sailing on the high seas.

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At the bottom, Iwate presides above a vast field of pure snow. Inspired by Aki’s abstract landscapes, I see the scene in bold and simple terms. Awestruck, we repeat the same run just to see this scene again at the end of the run.

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Heading to the Nishimori side, we pause to admire the vast landscape all around us. Aki points out the distant peaks of Aomori, perhaps more than 100 km in the distance. All of Tohoku spreads below us in majestic contours of ridges and valleys.

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After a few sparkling runs down Nishimori’s slopes, we realize we are late for lunch. “It’s 1:30 now,” says Aki. “The food court closes at 2 pm. We’ll have to go all the way down, non-stop.” Following Aki, we speed through the soft moguls and gather momentum through a long, winding run — more than 5 kilometers — that just goes and goes. I tuck into a racing position and rest my hands on my knees and thighs to sooth the burn. I feel a greed for speed, and I get greedier the faster we go. This is one of the longest unbroken runs in all of Japan. I feel like I’m Franz Klammer in the Olympic downhill. I’m soaring, trying to keep my streamlined position to avoid a neck-breaking crash. We whiz past other skiers lolling on the course; they pause to admire the whoosh of our speed. Winding around the side of the mountain, we at last reach the final bend, and hit the breaks for a long rooster tail of spray.

On the relatively flat, calm of the “bunny hill”, we ski in slow motion alongside the crowds of families and kids.

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Compared with our earlier speeds, we seem to be hardly moving at all. Arriving at the food court, Akiyoshi checks the time. “1:40,” he says with a grin. Our non-stop flight from top to bottom took us only 10 minutes — 10 minutes of adrenaline rush that has us feeling like astronauts splashing down back on Earth.

After a delicious lunch of locally-raised pork cutlets, we head to watch kids learn to ski and snowboarders take flight off jumps in the Snow Park.

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The snowboarders are amazing acrobats. They look like giants among the towers of Appi.

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After a snooze in my room, I head back out for more blissful night skiing, where I seem to have the mountain to myself before the lifts close at 8 pm.

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To cap my stay, I have a buffet dinner of crab, shrimp, scallops and Iwate beef. My new ski buddy Aki drives me all the way to Morioka station. On the overnight bus to Tokyo, still tripping from the skier’s high, all I can think about is going back to Appi someday soon.

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INFO: APPI looks like fun year-round for tennis, golf, hiking or concerts. There’s good and cheap packages in the Annex or Villas if the luxuriant Grand Tower is beyond budget. There’s a free shuttle bus for guests between Appi and Sendai, while various bus companies offer decent overnight services between 2300 and 8000 yen. The Shinkansen bullet train is about 2:30 minutes to Morioka, connecting to several trains and buses going up the mountain to APPI, which has a spacious free parking area for guests. Since APPI has everything, all you have to do is leave the world behind.

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