You can stay in a luxury holiday apartment in Hirafu, eat at A-Bu-Cha and Kamimura, ski Strawberry Fields and the Annupuri Bowls, and tick Niseko off your list. But there is a lot more to skiing in Hokkaido, especially when you stay somewhere like Hakuginso.
“The bold and the daring, the weekend warriors, the aging and the aching, and even powdered professional film crews. All walks of life congregate…”
TEXT: JARED PANGIER
PHOTOS: DARREN TEASDALE & YASU YUKI SHIMANUKI
APPEARS IN: POWDERLIFE WINTER 2017 EDITION
Standing atop the mountain, one meter back from the great wave cornice of white, I narrowed my eyes waiting for the swirling snow to pass. The wind howled up the slope directly at me as I peered over the edge, visualizing my line, thankful to have packed my facemask. Doing my mental meditation, I moved my head right, then left around a patch of trees, aiming in my mind for the undulating drop just 300m away. I had my route conceptualized.
One second before plummeting off the face of the frozen earth, I nodded to my friends. They returned my signal with two thumbs up and I shifted in my boots, pointing my board straight down.
My carbon-fiber Yonex sailed over the lip, launching me 10m directly onto a trampoline of powder. I bent my rear leg, absorbing the force of gravity as I rotated left, heading towards Birch Tree Ridge. I was determined to get airborne once again.
The Tokachi area, the farming heartland of Hokkaido, doubles as a powder surfers’ paradise in winter. But what doesn’t in this perfectly positioned island, wedged between the arctic currents of Siberia and the Pacific Ocean?
Yet, Tokachi offers something different. Bigger mountains, more diverse landscape, and the most welcoming shelter unknown to man.
Hakuginso Lodge is a sanctuary in the winter storm, a haven in the powder playground, a retreat built for rejuvenation. This place welcomes all.
The bold and the daring, the weekend warriors, the aging and the aching, and even powdered professional film crews. All walks of life congregate at Hakuginso because nothing else compares. There’s even a free shuttle bus from Kamifurano, providing train enthusiasts and the local geriatric society easy access to all the lodge has to offer.
From the first floor communal kitchen, you can get a glimpse of the top of Mt Tokachi itself, just a short snowshoe away, while the basement lends itself to more underground pleasures with the lodge boasting three impressive hot springs – male, female, and a family bath for the partially clothed. The second floor is reserved for lodgers who have a choice of family-style tatami rooms or slatted bunks. The nightly rate (from ¥2600) includes futons, bedding, a drying room, plenty of places to unwind after a big day, and unlimited geothermal delight. Truly, the lodge is so amazing that I nearly didn’t write this article. But perhaps the selfless deed does exist, after all.
Don’t get me wrong. It is true: there are no friends on a powder day. But, Tokachi doesn’t offer days, it flaunts weeks. And the proof is in the rotenburo (outdoor onsen). As I sit, steaming my sore muscles after an extended morning on the mountain, my head tips back to observe my surroundings. This place is deep; it has layers. In fact, judging by the mounds of snow piling up on the glass lantern overhead, it hasn’t stopped snowing here for at least 21 days. Someone once told me that’s the amount of time required to make a routine. Gee, I hope so. I could get used to this, I think to myself, as I sink lower into the bubbling water of Fukiage Onsen, my cares melting with every passing second. My mind reimagines my perfect day.
Wake up early, stumble down the stairs for breakfast, happy it’s your mate’s turn to cook. The smell of waffles draws you into the kitchen, as you head straight for a shot of caffeine. You walk past one table filled with Japanese youth on holiday. At least one is face-down on the table, catching up on sleep from yesterday’s beverage-filled night. At the table across from the uni students an international film crew is huddled around a pan of scrambled eggs, loading in energy for the perfect backcountry shots. In the far corner an older couple, both telemark skiers, has already eaten. They recline in their chairs, content to take in the morning scene just a little bit longer. They’ve been coming to Hakuginso since the year they got married, now 20 years in the making. Pulled up to your table is an old guy you’ve never met. He tells you he’s been at the lodge for the past month, doctor’s orders. Therapy he says. Farming’s hard work, he continues. When you ask him where he’s from, he tells you he flew in all the way from southern Honshu. “Why?” you ask him. He shrugs. “Why not? What’s better than Hakuginso?” And isn’t he right?
After stuffing your belly on waffles you make your way back upstairs to get ready. You have a big day ahead of you.
In place of the traditional walk from the lodge, you and your friends decide to take a 10-minute drive to begin your day at Hokkaido’s version of Rivendell. After sliding down a steep bank to start your journey in, you step carefully across Boy Scout Bridge, stopping momentarily to take in the picturesque river valley to your left as the current rushes beneath you. Soon you enter a birch forest, following the tracks of three early birds even more eager than you, with less love for waffles. Before you know it the birch have transformed into enormous evergreens sagging with a meter of powder. No winter wonderland can compare. And you’ve only just begun.
The two-hour trek through thigh-deep snow is completely worth all the effort, as it takes you to a ridge with direct access to a labyrinth of perfectly spaced trees, complete with mushroom kickers.
The ride through the forest is so delightful that you forget to stop, your perma-grin compelling you forward. Your overexuberance has cost you an extra 45 minutes of snowshoeing, but you know that, too, was worth it. Besides, now you have even more reason to guiltlessly spend the rest of your day back at the magic that is Hakuginso Lodge, immersing yourself in sulfuric water, board games (Ticket to Ride), the Japanese sumo tournament on TV, and two (or perhaps five) tumblers of Nikka whiskey. Yep, you nod your head once more. Totally worth it.