Iwaki-san Saihoji-mori Ski Touring

岩木山西法寺森

Posted on Jan 6, 2021
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Posted on Jan 6, 2021
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4.6km

Distance

2.5 hours

Time

468m

Ascent

1288m

Highest point

5/10
Difficulty
Snow Icon | Hokkaido Wilds
Jan-Apr

Best season

Saihoji-mori (西法寺森, 1288m) is a minor peak sitting below the mighty volcano Iwaki-zan (岩木山, 1624m) in northwestern Japan. Sitting to the west of Aomori City in the Tohoku region of Japan, this short half-day ski touring route makes the most of the apocalyptic snow this area receives every year, in a small package. While hardcore peak-baggers will likely want to push on up to the icy upper reaches of Iwaki-zan, this will not be rewarded with any extra powder face-shots. On a good day, skiers will have views across to the Tsugaru Strait, separating Japan's main island with Hokkaido further north.

We visited this route on Jan 27, 2020

Last updated Apr 2, 2021

Route Map

Need to know details

Location

Iwaki-san is located at the far northwestern tip of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. It sits at the western side of Aomori Prefecture in Tohoku. Saihoji-mori is a minor peak on the northern side of this colossal volcano, sitting just above the Aomori Spring Ski Resort.

General notes

This route will have skiers climb through gorgeous beech forests, up to the lower flanks of Iwaki-san’s summit cone. The mountain itself is within close vicinity of Aomori’s most beautiful city of Hirosaki – you could be skiing Iwaki-san in the morning, and visiting ancient castles in the afternoon. Iwaki-zan is also referred to Tsugaru-fuji, as a nod to the more famous Japanese conical volcano much further south. Being this far north, however, Iwaki-san is blessed with huge snowfall each year, allowing Tohoku to boast the longest backcountry skiing season on Honshu – only eclipsed by central Hokkaido further north. This route does require some good route-finding skills and snow safety knowledge, but it’s a relatively accessible way to enjoy what Iwaki-san has to offer.

Hut
None
Route details

Start at the top of the gondola, and after double-checking you’ve submitted your backcountry plans online, head straight into the forest above the gondola station due the south. After a short grunt up a short but steep slope through the trees, you’ll come out onto a marshland clearing. Cross this and start the second zig-zag climb up to the main ridge through beech and rock birch. Once you’re on the main ridge, you’ll be greeted by the grand summit of Iwaki-zan still another 400m or so vertical above you. With good weather and plenty of time, the temptation to keep climbing will be strong. Push on to the summit of Saihoji-mori, and admire the Iwaki-san summit from afar. You’re here to make the most of the good snow though, so take a deep breath and leave the peak-bagging temptation behind for a quick and punchy descent northwards down into the Oonaru gully (大鳴沢). While reported avalanches in the area are rare, the bottom of this gully would be a dangerous place to be when snow starts to slide, so don’t hang around too long. At around the 900m point in the gully, transition to climbing skins again and climb back up out of the gully to the 1250m point to the east northeast. The decent west northwest of the 1250m peak can be dense with trees, but from around the 1000m point things open out nicely and the skiing is sublime. At around the 617m point on the map, the gully will spit you out onto the ski area for the remainder of the descent.

Route Timing
Up | 1.5hrs
Down | 1.5hrs

Most fit ski tourers will find this route will take about 3 hours in total.

Transport

Public transport:

Aomori Spring Resort operated shuttles from Shin-Aomori JR Station. See their access details here.

By car:

There’s masses of parking at the Aomori Spring Resort parking area here.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Iwakisan (岩木山) – map no. NK-54-24-9-3
Official Topo Map 2: Tozurazawa (十面沢) – map no. NK-54-23-12-4

NOTE: The official 1/25000 topo map(s) above can be purchased for 350yen from Kinokuniya bookstore next to Sapporo Station or online (in Japanese).

Aspect
The main aspect skiers are exposed to on the descent and/or ascent is North. Other aspects that may also be encountered while following the route outlined on this page include: South. Therefore, keep an eye on the weather forecast a few days ahead of your trip to monitor wind, snow, and temperature. Unfortunately there are no avalanche information services for recreational backcountry users in this immediate area (but see the JAN reports and Furano Avalanche Center for sporadic observations eslewhere in Hokkaido).

Snow and
route safety

This route access the backcountry from the ski area, but this is very much the backcountry. There’s no patrol, no avalanche control; any individuals entering the backcountry must be self-sufficient and have the necessary skills and equipment to navigate avalanche terrain. The upper sections of the route are very much above the tree line – make conservative decisions, and avoid this route in inclement weather.

Iwaki-san Saihoji-mori Ski Touring Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

C

30

Time ascending

D

0

Technicality

Altitude

B

6

Hazards

C

6

Navigation

C

6

Totals

48/100

GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy).  More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Iwaki-san Saihoji-mori
Onsen nearby

The small village of Dake Onsen (嶽温泉) on the other side of the mountain has a number of very traditional onsen options. Do note, however, that many close to day visitors relatively early in the day. We visited Dake Hotel Onsen (嶽ホテル, location, 550yen), and loved the traditional onsen vibes.

Extra Resources

Boating: Hokkaido Canoe Touring Book by Tamata (1993) | The Book of Leisurely Hokkaido Rivers by Ishimoto (2009)

Guide Options

If you’d like to ski this route and/or explore other areas of Tohoku together with a local certified guide, get in touch with Kenichi. He’s JMGA certified, and spends a large chunk of his year guiding clients on mountaineering trips around the world. He’s Honshu based though, and guides clients from around the world to prime locations on the island, including Tohoku.

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

We made an early getaway from Hakkoda, hoping to get some quality time on the northern slopes of Iwaki-zan in the afternoon. The early morning drive paid off, as we arrived mid-morning to a rather sleepy-looking Aomori Spring Resort ski area car park. We had the rest of the day ahead of us, with the only commitment a booking at a small pension on the other wide of the mountain.

“Are you bringing your drone Rob?” asked Chris.

“Nah, it looks pretty overcast up there,” I replied.

Chris pondered for a moment, before we both left our drones in the car.

#foreshadowing

We geared up, bought our one-way lift tickets, and headed up the gondola to the top of the ski area.

At the top station, we skinned our skis and started straight up into the forest above the ski area. We were on an already well-tracked skin track. We weren’t the only ones with their sights on Saihoji-mori peak today.

Also getting ready for ski practice was a group of Japan Self Dense Force cadets. They were strapping their leather boots into their telemark-style cross-country skis. 

Overall the snow conditions were good. Not amazing, but good. This was the 2019/2020 low-tide season after all. In both Hokkaido and Tohoku, it had been a low snowfall start to the season. Still, the change in forest scenery was refreshing for us accustomed to a different species of trees in Hokkaido. The Aomori forests just seem to have an enchanted feel to them.

The view from the main alpine ridge heading to Saihoji-mori was stunning. All clouds had dissipated, leaving just a pure white conical Iwaki-zan summit in their wake. 

There was not a breath of wind.

“Who’s stupid idea was it to leave the drones in the car, Robert!” puffed Chris when he arrived at the ridge.

He was right. So far on our Aomori trip, we’d shunned the extra weight of the drones in our packs, since weather forecasts were clearly for high wind or low cloud.

Today, this would have been our chance.

But we blew it.

We’d just have to enjoy the scenery from ground level.

We continued along up the ridge before following the skin track on a sketchy traverse below the Saihoji-mori summit. We took turns along the track, keeping distance between us.

“Someone has balls,” Chris remarked, pointing to a pit about 1/4 along the skin track. They’d clearly been wanting to check the stability of the snow, but it was a little far out onto the slope for our liking. Their gamble had clearly paid off though, and we at least made it across unscathed.

The alpine scenery was simply spectacular. We all felt at least a twinge of temptation to keep pushing on to the summit of Iwaki-zan. In reality, however, it was already getting later in the day, and any higher on this side of the mountain appeared to be mostly hard wind-packed snow. We’d most certainly want to have crampons, and it wouldn’t be a quick descent either. Next time.

From the minor peak of Saihoji-mori, we ripped skins and made the short descent down to the gully below. The snow condition was variable, with some dry surface powder in places, and some wind-affected snow in others. 

We skirted along the floor of the gully for a few hundred meters before crossing a snow bridge to start the climb back up the other side. The promise was for good skiing on the other side of the ridge.

In any normal snow year, there probably is amazing skiing on the other side of the ridge. However, with about 2m less snow than an average year, we were still dealing with more brush that we’d hoped. Even then, however, we managed to get some turns in on some nicely shaded aspects.

The lower part of the route spat us out onto the piste. We hammered it back down with a thrilling end to a nice walk in the hills.

All that was left now was to head to our accommodation on the other side of the mountain. On the way, we dropped into the small onsen village of Dake 嶽. To our dismay, we were outside of the time for day visitors for most of the onsen in the area. We visited a small souvenir shop and as we were paying up, I mentioned to the cashier that it was a pity we’d missed out.

“That’s too bad!” she lamented. “Let me talk to next door to see if they can help you out.”

She called up the onsen next door, and firmly instructed the owner to open up for us.

“They’re waiting for you now!” she beamed to us as she put down the phone.

10 minutes later we were soaking in a gorgeous outdoor tub overlooking the snowy village.

That night, we were booked in to Pension Wonderland, a European-style pension owned and operated by a local nature guide. After seeing the traditional Japanese onsen hotel, we had a little bit of post-purchase dissonance, but we’d chosen Pension Wonderland on the recommendation of a local hotel when we went to book to stay at that local hotel.

“You’re coming to ski here?” the old lady said to me on the phone. “Well, I’m not sure we’re the best place for you. You should stay with Pension Wonderland – the owner knows everything about the mountain,” she said, essentially talking her way out of taking our tourist yen.

In the end it was worth staying at Pension Wonderland though. The owner was a passionate outdoor lover, and he went on to helping us out with a shuttle the next day.

I asked him if he still frequents the backcountry in the winter.

“About 15 years ago, two friends and I were skiing up Iwaki-zan and were caught in an avalanche. One of my friends died. I haven’t been in the alpine in the winter since,” he replied.

“But you all seem to know what you’re doing, so be safe, and enjoy,” he continued.

That night over dinner, he gave us some tips for our next mission – skiing the well-known Daikoku-zawa valley the next day.

Comments | Queries | Reports

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Iwaki-san Saihoji-mori Ski Touring Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

C

30

Time ascending

D

0

Technicality

Altitude

B

6

Hazards

C

6

Navigation

C

6

Totals

48/100

GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy). Hazards include exposure to avalanche and fall risk. More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.