I had the chance to revisit Tanigawadake Tenjindaira (Tenjin) again after more than a decade and wrote up a trip report for Snowsbest.com. This set off the inevitable response from a few commenters about blowing up a secret spot, respecting the locals etc. etc.
So, what is the balance between sharing a good story and keeping special spots, well, special?
My personal position is framed by a life as a surfer, where secret spots have traditionally been closely guarded by protective locals. Publicising where waves are on social or mainstream media is considered nothing short of heresy and an offence considered worthy of a violent response in many cases.
The reality of surfing is that there really aren’t many secret spots left and the ones that are being “found” either break incredibly rarely, or when they do break 99% of surfers wouldn’t want to go near them. They make for great photos, but most of them won’t ever be the next Jeffery’s Bay or Snapper Rocks.
Things are a bit different in the ski world given that you usually need multi-million dollar lift infrastructure to access the top of a mountain! While there’s definitely smaller lifted areas in Japan that aren’t on the average westerner’s radar, they’re certainly not secret to the type of skier that seeks out these kind of places.
Anyone that does a Google search for “Best Ski Resorts in Japan” will find a link to Powderhounds as the first un-paid result. At the top of the lists for Best Extreme Terrain; Best Backcountry; Best Powder; Best Uncrowded, is, you guessed it, little old Tenjin.
As I point out in the Snowsbest trip review, Tenjin is often closed due to weather, not that close to any other major ski resorts and has very limited groomed terrain. If you want to go backcountry, you should go with a local guide and have strong skills in avalanche safety and big mountain powder skiing. People who want to ski this type of mountain will generally know about it already and be prepared to suffer a bit to get it when it’s on. It’s definitely not a mountain that will suddenly be the next Niseko with thousands of Aussie snogans on package deals!
With regards to “respecting the locals”, Japan has a small but passionate backcountry culture that definitely does deserve a lot of respect. For this primary reason, I was very careful not to detail any specifics about the terrain we rode or take photos of easily identifiable routes in the trip report. Locals will typically have their favourite lines to ski on a mountain and I definitely don’t consider it kosher to be revealing routes in and out of the backcountry for any punter to follow.
The final argument I saw was “They don’t need the business”. I’d speculate that the majority of small lifted ski areas in Japan are already financially unviable, with the vast majority of international tourist dollars ending up in the big name resorts, often in western-owned businesses. The local Japanese ski population has been falling since its peak in the 1980s and is now likely to be in permanent decline due to Japan’s ageing population.
Tenjin is a special case in that the majority of its business is during Autumn when tour groups flock to catch the gondola up to see the changing colour of the leaves. They keep a skeleton staff on during winter to run the lifts and restaurants, but all of these people are at the whim of the snow as to whether the mountain even opens for them to work. On my recent Saturday, mid-season, epic powder day there were about 50 skiers on the entire mountain. At what point do the lift owners decide to shut up shop in Winter entirely and just focus on their Autumn leaf watchers?
I’m not saying this is an imminent outcome for Tenjin, but the reality is that a sustainable level of western interest is becoming more and more important for these smaller Japanese mountain operations to remain open and viable.
In the meantime, I can only recommend you sample the Tenjin powder yourself – Kieren at Tenjin Lodge will sort you out!