It probably depends on where you do most of your skiing, but it seems to me that too much of our skiing experiences in 2019 are defined by newness. New lifts, new villages, new snowmaking systems, new après lounges, and, occasionally, new snow.
Skiers are constantly fed a line by resorts and much of ski media that conflates value with modernity. If something is old, we are told, it must be “improved” with shiny new lifts that seat more people and move more swiftly up the mountain. The only way to keep pace in ski resort “rankings” is to build new things: bigger, faster, and, alas, more expensive.
The problem with this approach is that every resort starts to feel the same. Flashy new hotels and speedy lifts may look nice on the brochure, but they sometimes bury the historic character that gives skiing so much of its rich personality.
With an emphasis being placed on the new, it is no wonder that many skiers – myself included – are drawn to the ‘old.’ Ski areas like Whitewater, BC, Bridger Bowl, Montana, and Mount Baker, Washington, are revered precisely because they offer a skiing experience free of modern distractions that occupy so much of our time off the hill in our daily lives.
Same with Alta, Utah, which will forever be in a challenging spot of evolving to handle more crowds, who seek that classic vibe, while remaining true to its old-school roots.
So it was with great wonder and gratitude to have visited a little ski area last week that’s been around for 102 years and shows little sign of ‘improving’ upon what it does best: offering a pure powder skiing experience with zero distractions.
Seki Onsen, in the Myoko-kogen area of the main island of Japan, is the country’s oldest ski area, and is known for having the deepest snow in the Niigata prefecture. Seki has been run by the Inoue family for decades.
The big boss, Mikio Inoue, manages operations. His wife, Hiroko, sells lift tickets at the base and then cooks lunch at the area’s only mid-mountain restaurant.
Their son, Go, and daughter-in-law, Megumi, help out wherever they are needed. Megumi can often be seen at the cash register at the restaurant, pouring beer with one hand while caring for her two small children with the other, always smiling. About a dozen or so employees round out the effort.
There are only two lifts: a slow double, and an ancient single that rattles and shakes so loudly it’s amazing it doesn’t just fall to pieces. The terrain is short but steep, and the entire area is surrounded by a national park for touring access. A day lift ticket costs about $32, and you can even buy a single lift ride for $5.
Riding up the single chair during full-blown winter storm that dropped two feet of snow in one day, I felt like I’d been dropped off on a snowy planet deep in outer space. It seemed that I’d finally found a place that understands who I am as a skier, and called to mind a quote from the godmother of powder skiing, Dolores LaChapelle:
“Joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves. This is the joy we feel when skiing powder … This overflowing gratitude is what produces the absolutely stupid, silly grins that we always flash at one another at the bottom of a powder run. We all agree that we never see these grins anywhere else in life.”
In the little village at the base, there are a few hotels, but no big restaurants or bars. When the lifts shut down, everything goes very quiet. We stayed at a hotel called Asahiya Ryokan just steps from the ski area. It is 100 years old, and has been run by the Kubo family for decades.
With nothing else to do in town besides ski, we’d take off our boots in the old basement gear room, soak in the onsen – whose hot waters were brown with minerals straight from the mountainside – then eat a beautiful dinner of authentic Japanese cuisine (lots of fish, steamed veggies in a variety of presentations, rice, and miso soup).
Then, we’d go to sleep on traditional tatami bamboo mats. No TV, just one room in the lobby with Internet access. In the morning, we’d get up, put our boots on, and ski powder all over again. It was like hiding away at the heart of skiing’s central nervous system, and served as a reminder of why we ski in the first place: friends, family, and powder.
These experiences, where skiing is distilled down to its very foundational goodness, are increasingly rare. As such, I have reservations about even writing about Seki, which has been a revered secret to a handful of powder hounds in North America. (Last year, Michelle Parker featured Seki in one of her Originate episodes.) As Columbus taught us, discoveries can go wrong, and may lead to outside influencers who may not have the best intentions.
Perhaps it’s better to just leave it off the radar, because, as former POWDER Editor Tom Bie once wrote, we shouldn’t give away all the answers to people who never learned what questions to ask in the first place.
But the families of Seki Onsen want you to come. (You can find out how by looking at the Myoko Tourism website.) If you treat them and the ski area with the respect it deserves, my sense is that afterward you will feel comforted as a skier for the time-tested lessons they can teach us. I know I am.
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