Backcountry skiing at many well known Japanese resorts is essentially off limits. If there’s no official backcountry gate, you’ll need to duck a rope and exit the resort boundary which will often raise the ire of the local ski patrol and may invalidate your travel insurance.
We’d heard whispers from various friends that Kagura had a more established backcountry policy with some great terrain to explore, but couldn’t find much concrete information online before our trip there. Throwing a bit of caution to the wind, we arrived in late January 2019 to check things out ourselves, so all of the information in this post is current to that time.
Kagura is a short drive up the hill from Yuzawa, one of the larger ski regions in the Niigata prefecture that primarily attracts local Japanese skiers making the quick seventy minute bullet train ride from Tokyo. We chose to stay on the Mistumata side that has more direct access to the peak, but you can also stay in Tashiro that has mainly beginner runs. Kagura is also linked to nearby Naeba via the 6km long “Dragondola”, Japan’s longest lift.
The main thing to note about Kagura is that the in-bounds terrain is almost all green runs, with the exception of a few reds and blacks around Kagura High Speed Lift #1. While it has beautiful views on a clear day over the lake and main range, experienced skiers will get bored very quickly staying on the pistes. Naeba has much steeper runs from the peak and is far more challenging that anything in-bounds in Kagura.
This being said, Kagura does have the mythical “Romance Lift #5” that provides backcountry access to the 2029m peak. In our initial research it sounded like this lift didn’t open until February in earlier years, so we were glad to find that it’s now operational from January 1 until the end of Kagura’s season in late May.
However, Lift #5 will only open if there’s clear weather at the peak and shuts promptly at 12pm to prevent people venturing into the backcountry too late in the day. Given we had four days of blizzard on our visit, it was only open on our first day there!
If you’re planning to head into the Kagura backcountry, there’s a good little ski shop in the Mitsumata car park that can connect you with local guides, equipment and general info. You then need to collect a form at the top station of the Kagura Gondola (Marked in yellow on the map below), complete your trip details and take this with you to the top of Lift #5. This specifies that you need to be carrying all your own avalanche safety gear and radios, as detailed in the copy below. Note that you need to buy or rent two-way radios in Japan that conform to their approved frequencies. The Japan Avalanche Network also publish frequent reports for Kagura.
As we found out on our first day, Japan has a thriving local backcountry scene and when we arrived at the top of the run down to Lift #5 there were already about fifty people patiently waiting with all their gear at the fence with us being the only foreigners. Once this fence dropped around 9:30am, everyone scrambled down the cat track to get first lift.
The terrain that’s accessible directly from Lift #5 is a nice gladed bowl that you might get twenty turns in, or drop off to skiers right towards Tashiro Pair Lift #8. You can also traverse across skiers left and access a long gully that takes you back to the top of the Kagura Gondola. We lapped this area until it was well tracked out, and while it was beautiful in the morning sun it was only marginally more challenging than the rest of the piste runs.
By mid morning were kicking ourselves for not bringing our touring skins, but given it was our first day we’d expected to just get our bearings for the morning and scope bigger lines for later in the week. While we could have skied all the way back to Mitsumata village to get our skins, the haphazard layout of the mountain means you need to catch five separate lifts to get back to the top of Lift #5, taking at least an hour.
If we had our skins, we could have lodged our trip plan form with the Ski Patroller at the backcountry gate, marked in green on the map above. From here, it’s an easy half hour skin to Kagura-mine summit about 250m vertically above. This provides access to ski the bowls adjacent to Lift #5, or traverse the ridge line and ski all the way back to the base of the Gondola. As Lift #5 shuts at midday, you’d be lucky to get two full laps in lift assisted, so it looked like most people were heading out to make a full day of it under their own power.
The backcountry system in place at Kagura is excellent and well managed and hopefully a model for other Japanese resorts to adopt as more people are seeking to head our of bounds.
The terrain in backcountry area does look great and Kagura has a reputation for being one of the best Spring ski touring destinations given its higher altitude and largely North facing slopes. If I had a plan for a next time, I’d base ourselves somewhere steeper for general in bounds skiing and make the dash to Kagura for some bluebird day tours.
Please leave a comment if any of the information provided here is inaccurate or out of date.