Unazuki hot spring resort aims to be mecca for ski mountaineering

Courtesy of Akihiko Nakashima
A ski mountaineering race gets underway at Unazuki onsen ski resort in Kurobe, Toyama Prefecture, in February 2021.

The Unazuki hot spring ski resort in Kurobe, Toyama Prefecture, is aiming to become a mecca for ski mountaineering, or skimo, which will make its Olympics debut at the 2026 Winter Games in Italy

Skimo combines skiing and mountaineering as athletes race on a course.

The resort includes a small ski area equipped with only two lifts, but it hosted the national skimo championship on Feb 26-27.

Faced with a fight for survival due to a decline in skiers, the resort is hoping to revitalize by hosting a national sporting event.

In the red

Located at the gateway to the Kurobe Valley, Unazuki has been a popular spot for skiers since the Taisho era (1912-1926). But its ski resort, which opened in 1956 with two lifts, is small and has been operating in the red recently, with visitors hovering at about a few thousand per year.

The Kurobe municipal government, which runs the facility, is set to decide whether to continue, suspend or end operations based on the resort’s business performance.

“We want to preserve the ski resort and its long history,” said Hiroshi Yamada, a 45-year-old ski mountaineer who hails from Kurobe.

Yamada and Akihiko Nakashima, 53, who runs a souvenir shop in town, came up with the idea to revitalize the area by making use of the resort’s ski slopes and field.

Yamada suggested holding a skimo race, and Nakashima organized one last February. Although the competition took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the event drew about 100 spectators.

Yamada said the ski area is “ideal for people to watch a skimo event” because there are few trees to block the spectators’ view and there is an abundance of fresh snow, while avalanches are rare. Yamada and Nakashima hope the resort will survive and be known for skimo, a sport that is likely to draw much attention in the future.

National championship

The skimo national championship has usually been held in Otari, Nagano Prefecture, at Tsugaike Mountain Resort, which boasts one of the largest ski fields in the country. However, last summer, Yamada proposed to the Japan Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Association (JMSCA), which organizes the national event, that the competition be held in Unazuki.

JMSCA’s response was positive because the association was searching for new venues to stage events and it wants to popularize skimo, which is said to have started as part of training for border patrols in the European Alps.

Some in the local community initially voiced concern and skepticism, wondering whether a national event could be held at such a small ski resort. But Yamada and Nakashima explained to the city government, local travel agents and others the charms of skimo and the significance of Kurobe hosting the event.

“The local economy could be revitalized if the event is held here regularly,” Nakashima said. “We’d like many people to visit the area.”