Visitors to Japan's northeastern Tohoku region are spoiled for choice when it comes to the great outdoors. While modern cities offer their own appeal, an escape to the mountains brings travelers to the heart of nature. With relatively easy access and a variety of activities to enjoy in every season, the Hakkoda Mountains are an often-overlooked treasure.
You can't talk about Hakkoda without mentioning its legendary skiing. The area is blanketed in so much snow that you can ski among "snow monsters" (snow-covered pine trees) during peak season, and the white stuff sticks around so long you can hit the slopes until early May.
Hakkoda is best suited to experienced skiers and snowboarders. In addition to notoriously unpredictable climate and conditions, there are no roped-off sections, and the number of skiers is limited each hour, with most of the area serviced by a single 100-person ropeway lift. Yet once at the top, adventurers will find few if any crowds, a high volume of snow and plenty of backcountry to explore. Absolute freedom is the biggest attraction - but local tourist associations remind skiers to explore with a buddy, and strongly recommend hiring a local guide.
Address: Kansuizawa 1-12, Arakawa, Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture
Season starts: Late November until early May (ropeway open year-round)
Super Soak: Sukayu Onsen
After a long day of skiing, relax as the locals do with a dip in a hot spring, or onsen. While there are several options in the area, the rustic wooden buildings of Sukayu Onsen are by far the most famous.
This vast "1000 person" hot spring is a great chance to meet locals and travelers, as it's one of the few mixed-gender hot springs in Japan. Keep in mind there's a "ladies only" time, and hotel guests are granted additional bathing hours.
Quick Water: Lake Towada & Oirase Gorge
A little over 20 miles south of Hakkoda lie the natural wonders of Lake Towada and Oirase Gorge. Lake Towada is the largest caldera lake on Japan’s main island, and the third-deepest lake in Japan. The most popular course is to take a 50-minute ferry cruise from Yasumiya pier to Nenokuchi, from whence you can hike north along the magical Oirase Gorge. A relatively easy hike in an awe-inspiring forest setting accompanied by misty rapids and peaceful waterfalls, this is a must for any nature lover. Most visitors hike 5.6 miles to Ishigedo bus stop, though you can also continue on toward the 8.7-mile mark at Yakeyama bus stop.
Bite Time: Aomori Cuisine
During your travels around the mountains, be sure to sample local cuisine at the restaurants, hotels and hot springs. From the Shimokita Peninsula - the northernmost part of Japan's main island - come ika no sushi, squid rings stuffed with cabbage and other vegetables to form a unique kind of sushi. Other popular dishes include miso and scallops, fermented ayu fish and Sakura Nabe, a hot pot featuring boiled horse meat.
The Towada area sizzles the taste buds with barayaki, a combination of boned rib and onions drizzled in soy sauce and cooked on an iron grill. Less meat-heavy options include tasty egg-shaped bean dumplings known as keiran and Tsugaru-style buckwheat noodles.