On March 31 1957, Prince Takamatsu, younger brother of the Emperor Hirohito, and his party trekked over a mountain pass in Niigata from Tsunan to Matsunoyama Onsen. You are shown photos of this trip during the briefing at the start of the Royal Back Country Tour which retraces their route but in reverse, leaving from Matusnoyama Onsen Ski Area and finishing up next to Tsunan Station.
The route itself was a lifeline for the residents of Matsunoyama Onsen, a small town deep in the mountains. Some places in Japan are purposely built as ski areas but Matsunoyama Onsen is first and foremost a town. The people have carved out a particular lifestyle because of the terrain and weather. Its hot spring waters are rated in the top three in Japan for their curative properties and like many areas in the region it receives meters of snow over winter. Before tunnels were commonplace, the town was cut off when the snow came, and because of this it retains much of its tradition and culture. The only way in or out was over the mountain pass. The guides are locals and tell us that years ago if you had to leave during winter you would have to hike over the mountain, stay the night in the neighboring town and catch the train the next day. Kids would earn their pocket money hiking up to the pass to collect mail and deliveries.
Cheating with a bit of modern convenience, we catch two lifts up through Matsunoyama Ski Area. (It one of those resorts with only a handful of lifts but with wide area for skiing. There is a permanent giant slalom course set up if you have dreams of Olympic stardom, and a calendar full of events throughout the season.) A short ski down and we swap our skis for snowshoes. We manage the hike up to the first pass in about an hour and fabulous views greet us at the top. The guides point out Mount Makihata, Mount Hakkai and Mount Naeba along the range spread out before us. Bear paw prints in the snow close by bring our focus much closer in. We trek along the ridge to the top of a beautiful beech forest and it is time to ski again. Soft spring snow and nicely spaced trees make for a great introduction to the back country. We take a pause at the top of an open field to recreate one of the photos from the royal trip and then ski across a dam over a lake.
After a stop for a drink and to change back into snowshoes we are walking uphill again and listening to more tales about Matsunoyama Onsen, Tsunan and Snow Country. Several different kinds of mushroom are pointed out, we pick some recently sprouted mountain vegetables, see many different animal prints and even stumble across a kamoshika (serow in English) which is a kind of deer/goat. Edgy after seeing the bear prints, I am not sure whether the deer or I were the most startled.
The path we are on reaches the top of an abandoned ski resort, and more views even better than at the last pass. Our guides make a table in the snow and we set up another photo shoot from the original series. A stove and kettle appear and it is time for coffee and snacks. The cups in the original photo look like china but our tin ones do the job. Rested and refreshed, it is time for the last ski down. This is a mixed bag as we ski through the old resort, over tiered rice fields, and down a summer hiking trail along a river with waterfalls and shrines dotted along its course.
Just shy of Tsunan Station, we jump on a bus and are shuttled the twenty minutes back to Matsunoyama Onsen Ski Area. We have delicious Barbecue lamb or Genghis Khan as it's called here, on the restaurant balcony and then head off for a hot spring. The waters here are hot and salty, but our guides assure us they are just the thing for our tired legs.
I've spent many days on the snow in Japan but this was without doubt one of the very best. It is a great introduction for those who are comfortable in resort and are looking for more of a challenge and to explore what is outside the boundaries of a ski area in a safe and fun way. With a mix of skiing, culture, history, wildlife, great views, food and hot springs it is an awesome spring tour which will delight winter sports enthusiasts.