Brad has been talking about going skiing in Japan for as long as we’ve known him. After getting married last year and the spectre of babies started to loom, the pressure was on. Now or 18 years from now. So, the three of us headed out for a two week once-in-a-lifetime-or-at-least-until-next-winter trip.
The first week was in Furano, where we were greeted at our hotel by the Guts snowman:
Hotel Edel Warme was a couple of blocks walk from the base of one of the two main gondolas. Not quite ski-in, ski-out, but pretty close.
Monday we hit the Furano lifts and sidecountry to get our bearings:
Furano has an excellent setup with backcountry gates around the resort perimeter and good out-of-bounds terrain. We soon found some of the famed Hokkaido powder:
Furano is a pretty sleepy little place, with the ski hill base a kilometer or so from the main town. There are a few cute restaurants at the base, including this one that you had to go through a little snow-cave to get into. The friendly women there even made Angie a veggie soup from scratch as they didn’t have anything vegetarian on the menu (a bit of a theme on this trip!)
Probably my favourite spot was the brewery. Upstairs it is all low Japanese tables, good beer, and the local delicacy, curry-omelette!
They are big on snow-sculptures at all Japanese resorts, usually cartoon animals:
The hotel had a nice fire-place area with a beer can vending machine. A great place to hang out after skiing and chat with the other guests. We tried pretty much all the beers there and available at the 7-eleven. Turns out they all taste pretty much the same, but some have better names than others!
Tuesday a huge wind-storm came through and pretty much shut down Furano, so headed out to explore in the car. Further north the weather improved and we found ourselves in Alberta, a little confused. It turns out this little community ski hill is twinned with Canmore, and we had amusing afternoon skiing with several hundred Japanese schoolkids!
Wednesday we had booked a guide to go into the backcountry. John was an indepenent Australian guide who had been spending seasons in Hokkaido for a number of years. We headed up to Furanodake/Tokachidake, across the valley from Furano. There is a loop road that goes up to over 1200m here, with just the last few km closed in winter. At the top there are a number of onsens (hot-spring resorts), and some great backcountry skiing.
The morning was bright and sunny (a rare event in Hokkaido), but the previous day’s windstorm had not done the snow any favours so we had to hunt around to find good skiing.
We had good views into the national park, some of the bigger mountains here, and you could see the volcanic fumaroles in the distance.
The terrain has some classic Hokkaido deciduous forest, making for excellent tree skiing (when the snow is good!).
It was really cold, around -20C plus the windchill, so you had to keep moving.
John did a good job of finding us some good snow where we could do a number of short laps.
After skiing John took us to one of the onsens that has a nice mixed-gender outdoor pool as well as the usual indoor pools. A great way to warm up after a cold day. It is also possible to stay there for under $30/night!
Thursday we headed North to another area we’d heard about, Asahi-dake. This is a single big gondola that was put in for summer hiking, but in the last few years they have opened it in winter for skiing. There are no runs except a couple of cat-tracks at the bottom to guide you back to the gondola. The problem is the gondola drops you on the flanks of the volcano just above treeline, and the weather is notoriously bad. That day there was 50-70km/hr winds and zero visibility. We couldn’t see anything on the plateau, so it was ski-by-feel until you could get to the trees. It would be great on the right day, but if you can’t see and don’t know where you’re going it makes for short steep pitches with long flat exits. I didn’t take any pictures at all!
Friday was our last day in Furano, and we went back in the resort and sidecountry. There was still some good snow to be found beyond the backcountry gates, but I didn’t get any photos.
Saturday was move day. We were heading South to Niseko, but had been recommended an odd ski hill called Tommamu on the way. It’s a pretty wierd place, there are four massive hotel towers in the middle of nowhere, but it turns out the sidecountry is fantastic! One oddity is that in order to ski off-piste you have to get a “powder experts” arm-band, and you are sternly warned that if you don’t return it at 3:30 they will send the rescue team out looking for you!
At the top of the Powder Express lift, we discovered if you popped over the ridge out-of-bounds there was a huge untracked bowl of perfect powder that you could then traverse back out of to the lift. We spend the entire day here, doing about 10 or 11 perfect laps in probably the best snow of the trip – the famed Hokkaido light powder that seems to offer no resistance as you ski through it. It can be flowing around you waist-to-chest deep and you can still ski on even moderate slopes:
There were still some snow-snakes hiding out there:
It was pretty fun skiing through patches of bamboo too:
Sunday we took a rest day and took the 2-hour drive from Niseko into the city of Sapporo. The city is mostly pretty ugly and modern, but we came across this cool covered pedestrian street with a good collection of weird Japanese shopping:
There was a Shinto temple:
And Sapporo’s main claim to fame, the brewery and beer museum.
We were just too late for the tour, but did manage to get Brad in a giant glass:
Monday we skied a resort a half-hour away from Niseko, Rusutsu. It is renowned for good in-bounds tree skiing, and we did find some, but it was pretty tracked and the terrain is again short steep pitches with long flat traverses out. The also don’t allow backcountry access in most places. Still, we found some good skiing and got views out the volcanic crater lake of Lake Toya:
This is “tracked-out” in Japan:
In Niseko we stayed at the Niseko-One Towers hotel, a pretty fancy spot in the quiet resort of Niseko-Moiwa. Like many of the nicer hotels in the area, it has its own onsen, which means your room comes with matching robes for everyone:
It snows a _lot_ more in Niseko than Furano, as witnessed by some of the cars in the parking lot:
We were lucky enough to be there for one of the biggest dumps of the season so far. Wednesday morning they reported 60cm overnight in Moiwa, on top of probably 30-40cm in the previous day. This was our car that morning – we had cleared it off 3 or 4 times the previous day as well:
With so much snow we couldn’t head into the backcountry, so skied the lifts at Niseko-Moiwa next to the hotel. Once again, there was a network of backcountry gates so we ski the sidecountry and traverse back in to the lift. It was ridiculously deep out there:
When the landings are soft, it’s time to go jump off stuff:
Spot the Angie? She’s in there somewhere:
Brad got his daily quota of face-shots in one run:
and I got some too:
The snow just kept on coming…
Finally on Thursday the sun came out and we could get out for a proper backcountry tour. A 10-minute drive from the hotel there is a closed pass next to Mt.Chisenpuri with great touring terrain. You start skinning up the closed road. These are giant overhead signs you can drive a truck under, so you can imagine how deep the snow is:
Beautiful birch forests in the pass:
We started out by climbing Mt.Chisenpuri:
A perfect pitch back towards the pass:
Look what we made:
Brad broke out the drone:
and made this of our second run:
The light was fantastic too, filtered through ice particles in the air:
Angie lower down:
and Brad following:
After a couple of laps we crossed the valley and put a track up the other side, passing through more fantastic trees on the way:
So much terrain, so little time:
that light again:
Next morning was another bluebird day. Sunrise gave a perfect view of Mt.Yotei from the hotel-room balcony:
And later while grabbing food for the day:
Many people were heading to Yotei that day, and we wanted to too, but we decided against it as we didn’t have crampons and axes and it is notoriously wind-scoured up high. Next time we’ll go prepared.
Instead we went back to the Chisenpuri area again:
Brad had been eyeing the avalanche barriers all trip, looking for ones to jump off. We never found any, but the edge of the closed road was a good substitute:
I had a go too, but wary of Brad’s close encounter with the trees took a slower approach:
and cratered the landing. Oh well, that’s what soft snow is for!
Back on top of Chisenpuri, we took a run off the North side towards the ocean:
Great snow once again:
And up again…
A second run took us all the way to a frozen lake in the valley. Brad got a nice line on the lower part – his track on the left:
After climbing out again we dropped back off the front where we had skied the previous day, which was getting pretty tracked – the tight wiggles in the middle are ours:
More spectacular views:
Saturday we headed home. We got a glimpse of Mt.Fuji from the plane:
Brad put together this great edit of all the little videos we took:
I have a feeling we’ll be back….