Skiing in Japan is so much more than just world-class powder. It is a completely unfamiliar world, a country of idiosyncrasies with for example vending machines selling beer accessible to anyone and located in every imaginable location. It is a society that values personal responsibility and hard work, as well as modesty and a sense of solidarity. This paradoxical and fascinating culture combined with amazing food, Japanese hospitality and the best chances of powder, even during an El Niño winter, are reasons for us two ski journalists and powder addicts to come back every winter. With an average of six days of snowfall a week, fifteen meterss in a season lasting just 3.5 months, Japan is no game of roulette; it’s a guaranteed jackpot!
We often get asked where to go in Hokkaido and which guide to ski with, so we have summarized our trip for you:
Big, white, fluffy snowflakes dance through the pitch-black sky and huge light towers illuminate the deserted runs of Niseko, Japan. It is 8 p.m. and while most skiers are enjoying yet another Asahi beer, I’m on a totally different kind of high! The eerie, elongated shadows of the birch trees appear to bring the forest to life. The runs and the surrounding woods are illuminated by 1,287 lights, making the visibility even better than in daylight. In this magical, three-dimensional dream world I fly through the feather-light powder.
During the day Niseko Powder Guides showed us the quiet resort Niseko Moiwa, where we skied fresh lines all day. We’ll be back for more, hoping to climb Mt. Yotei, the volcano we only partially got to see from our apartment, the spacious and modern Niseko Landmark View apartments, located right next to the gondola. Rusutsu is a smaller, quieter resort, just a short bus ride away from Niseko and we would highly recommend you spending a few days there.
Kiroro is a resort you might know from the latest Teton Gravity movie Paradise waits. Just a short skin away from the resort we found ourselves in the same amazing backcountry: bowls with well spaced trees with literally no tracks! It is actually the first year you are allowed to ski the backcountry at Kiroro, but only if you fill out a climbing plan before leaving the resort or you ski one of the many tree lines within the resort. Keep in mind you can’t find a guide in Kiroro (yet), so it is easiest to book one in Niseko.
Sapporo Kokusai is a small and still fairly undiscovered resort not far from Sapporo. We were looking forward to go touring here but upon arrival we had 40cm of fresh waiting for us (with another 25cm falling during the day). So we put our skins away and lapped the gondola all day. After a full day of shredding with our group of 4, there were still many untracked lines to be found!
Another cool resort is Sapporo Teine, where on a clear day you can see the Japanese sea from the hill. The large quantities of fresh pow prevent us from being able to see the sea, but we find plenty of action in the trees. Yes, it dumped a lot during our trip and believe it or not, we skied powder everyday. Inshredible!
The town of Higashikawa is located in the centre of the Hokkaido Powder Belt: the powder Mecca of Japan consisting of seven different ski areas. This region is home to the driest powder in Japan and our Japanese guide Makoto Asakawa takes us for a three day all-you-can-ski buffet: a tour around the Etanbetsu area near the Daisetsuzan, Japan’s biggest national park. We immediately understand why Daisetsuzan national park is known as “the playground of the gods”; the snow there is divine!
Asahidake is smoking hot: it is an active volcano (with 22 craters!) that you can climb ánd it is the snowiest place on earth! We skin right up to the 2 heavily smoking craters, looking straight into the smoking volcano, definitely a first for us! Although Asahidake is not an official ski area, the gondola runs every twenty minutes in wintertime. Keep in mind there is no ski patrol. Asahidake is situated in the heart of the North Island in the Hokkaido Powder Belt, along with the ski areas Furano, Kamui Ski Links and Tomamu. This region is home to the driest powder in Japan, which suits our tastes just fine. A very convenient and relaxed place to stay is the Deer Valley Hotel and they also run a shuttle from Sapporo airport. If you prefer to stay in a typical, luxurious Japanese ryokan with the best onsen we experienced this trip, Yukoman-so is a great pick.
The biggest resort of Central Hokkaido is Furano and it is gaining popularity quickly. The last years the resort has relaxed its off-piste policy and it is no longer strictly forbidden to ski off-piste. When we skied in Furano two years ago it was still a touchy subject. Our guide Hiroshi Etori told us “to act as ninjas and to quietly follow his exact steps while hiking into the backcountry” so patrol couldn’t see us.
Good thing we don’t have to sneak around this year as we stand out in our colourful outfits! Once again we get to ski with our favourite guide Etori-san who takes us to one of his favourite lines, the west face of Furano. We drop in from the top and ski our steepest line of the trip of nearly 1000 vertical meters all the way back to the parking lot the Prince Hotel where we our staying. In Furano the Natulux hotel is a beautiful hotel with (according to us!) the best coffee of Hokkaido. Furano Tourism Association can help you find other accommodation options too. The Northern Star Lodge near Furano serves as a good spot to explore the national park. You can stay here for only $420 per week.
Never dreamed I would ride a snowmobile on a closed highway through 50cm of powder! After a 15-minute approach we put on our skins and follow our cool guides Hiroyuki Fukuda and Kiko to their secret spot outside Minamifurano where we don’t cross another skier or track all day. This was another day of all you can skin faceshots!
Having worked up a ravenous appetite, we go for dinner at our hotel, the beautiful Canadian style wooded lodge, the Larch Lake Kanayama and order a bowl of steaming udon noodles, which we loudly slurp in keeping with Japanese custom. The healthy and delicious Japanese food has had a very positive influence on our trip and, in no time, our diet consists of miso, rice, noodles and other local delicacies.
Our trip ends on a high note with an epic karaoke session joined by our new friends Shigeo and Tohru, our ice fishing guide who had the patience to teach us how to fish, Japanese style: while drink hot coco in his heated hut!
For more general information on Japan, have a look on the site of the Japanese National Tourism Organisation