Hokkaido: powder snow Disneyland

By 13th December 2008 December 21st, 2015 Adventure, Resorts, Snow, Travel


ON its own, Niseko is an amazing place to go skiing. So much so that since it has been ‘discovered’ by the outside world in the past 10 years or so, it has gone from sleepy, locals’ ski hill to world-renowned international ski resort. The four interlinked resorts provide enough terrain to keep many locals from ever wanting to leave their own backyard.

But it’s interesting to think what might happen when the skiing world starts to realise there are more than 100 ski resorts across the length and breadth of this wild, volcanic island. Some of these resorts are nothing more than 100m-high hills on the outskirts of small rural towns with single chair lifts servicing one or two tame runs. Others are vast resorts with massive amounts of terrain and sophisticated networks of ski lifts, and very often surprisingly few customers! Some are completely isolated and lost in the rugged mountain ranges of central Hokkaido, serviced by single cable cars ferrying carriage-loads of hardcore backcountry skiers and boarders at half-hour intervals. For frothing powder junkies, Hokkaido really is like the Disneyland of powder skiing.

The variety of terrain on offer is staggering, and there is quite literally something to suit everyone. Families will have no trouble finding a range of resorts across the island that are specially designed with kids in mind. Plenty of these will have some pretty challenging backcountry for mums and dads who want to get some powder time while the kids are at ski school. Intermediate skiers and once-a-year warriors could spend an entire winter going from resort to resort and still wouldn’t experience everything Hokkaido has to offer. For the hardcore backcountry skier, the central Hokkaido resorts off the Daisetsuzan (Big Snow) Mountain Range boast the highest and most rugged peaks on the island, averaging about 2000m with a variety of alpine and tree skiing.

Apart from Niseko, virtually every resort in Hokkaido has two things in common: one is that they are virtually unknown to the world outside Japan. The other is that they are all the beneficiary of massive amounts of the same dry, Siberian powder snow, which is perhaps the main reason Hokkaido is such a unique and interesting place to ski and snowboard.

We’ve compiled a list of just a handful of the better-known powder resorts across Hokkaido. It would take the average tourist weeks to thoroughly explore just these resorts alone. But if you’re still hungry for more, grab a map, jump in a car and discover your own powder nirvana.

Even after months of skiing Niseko, a day trip to Rusutsu sets another benchmark of how good the region’s skiing is. Heaps of off-piste and long, wide runs make Rusutsu a must if you visit the Niseko area for a few days. Only 45 minutes by car from Niseko, it’s a huge, well-run area consisting of several gondolas and covered quads, which access endless tree runs and natural kickers. This is one resort where a guided tour is highly recommended, as you can quite easily get lost and/or stuck in the deep powder.

Wild Bill’s owner/manager Brett ‘Miami’ Brian is crazy about Rusutsu. After every big dump, Brett rounds up a crew and heads for the ‘Zu. What’s so good about it? “No people. Literally – there’s nobody there, I mean it,” Brett says. “It’s got the best terrain and they let you ride wherever you want to go. If you want to ride out of bounds and get lost they’ll let you. I don’t feel like I’m at a day-care centre at Rusutsu, and I don’t have to ride on-piste… ever! Every time I go is my best time ever ‘cos I only go when it dumps. My best ever day was probably last year – one of those Thursday mornings when the whole posse went over there. It was probably an 80cm day, easy. That was a good day.”

Despite the bad rap this resort sometimes cops, this little gem is pretty sweet, especially in the early season. Kokusai is ‘the place to be seen’, and a lot of local rippers call this their home mountain. It has a well-maintained terrain park, and gets dumped on with as much snow as Niseko, believe it or not. Great powder lines can be tracked down directly under the gondolas, and if you’re into hiking, there are some fun backcountry runs to be found that will satisfy the most discerning boarder or skier.

It’s local ski instructor Mike Richards’ favourite resort. “Like the ski area itself that’s tucked away in the folds of a mountain road linking the coastal city of Otaru with Jyozankei Hot Springs resort, some of the best that Kokusai has to offer is hidden from view,” says Mike. “There are great turns and photo opportunities to be had underneath the gondola, but my favourite part of the mountain is to the right of the Downhill Course. Picture the ridge above Super Course in Grand Hirafu with the same powder conditions, but steeper, longer and even less crowded. Step off the gondola, admire the views of the ocean, click in, ski untracked powder, click out, get back on the gondola. Repeat until done.” >>

This resort has reportedly kept snow lovers in the resort for many, many years, and loads of people are convinced it’s the best. The positives: the resort has a very homely feel to it, the locals are friendly and it’s only 40 minutes from downtown Sapporo. If you’re a beginner or intermediate skier, you might get bored due to the limited amount of runs. But if you’re fit and good enough to handle the traverses and the intensity of what’s known as the ‘Teine Hustle’, it’ll blow your mind how much gnarly terrain one lift can access. The two terrain parks are definitely worth mentioning as well. In summary, big hits, beautiful backdrops and excellently maintained.

Former Sapporo, now Niseko local, Derek Kennewell, rates Teine as his favourite resort. “The small number of (powder-hungry) foreigners means there’s always plenty of great powder lines to be had,” says Derek. “Unlike Niseko, where the good powder stashes are really spread out, at Teine all the untracked spots are in the one place. They’re all grouped together, but spread out at the same time, and there are plenty of options for tree runs. It’s blissfully silent when you go off between the trees, but you’re never far from anything. One thing about the powder there is you have to have a bit of local knowledge to get out at the end of a run which stops some people – it’s all cat tracks out so if you don’t know the cat tracks you can get lost. Local knowledge helps. But the groomers are fun as well. It spreads the skiers and boarders out across the whole mountain, so it’s not crowded, even though it’s so close to Sapporo city. And the night riding is greeeeeat!”

This ain’t no resort, it’s a mountain, and as such it needs to be respected. All this Daisetsuzan National Park resort consists of is a formidable beast of a 101-passenger tram, and a relatively flat double chair. Basically, there are two beginner runs, and you can hit the mother load as far as backcountry options go. There is no ski patrol to either help or hinder you, so you need to be prepared. This is a resort that is best tackled with a mountain guide, and a good set of lungs, because for the pick of the runs, there’s an hour-and-a -half hike to the peak involved.
Black Diamond Lodge’s Clayton Kernaghan likes Kurodake so much he’s just bought another lodge there with fellow Canadian, Dale Riva. It wasn’t until Clayton took a group of pro snowboarders from Spain there that he realised just how good it was.

“These guys coming from Spain were saying ‘My god, this place is amazing,’” Clayton said. “It’s the most vertical ski resort in Hokkaido and every single person I have taken there who has gotten it on a clear day says it’s been their best day ever in Hokkaido. There are only two main runs down to the bottom but they’re hardcore. I was just there yesterday (December 3) and it was a classic day. A busy day is 10 people – yesterday there were six people. It’s like having your own private ski resort, and a really challenging private ski resort. But it’s still good for intermediates if you go with a guide. They’ve got a 180cm base already and the good thing is the conditions stay cold enough to the bottom to be powder all the way down. It hasn’t snowed for a week but there’s still great powder right to the bottom of the cable car.”

Just around the corner, but quite a few hours drive away from Kurodake, is Asahidake. This live volcano is Hokkaido’s highest peak, and for that reason is often the first mountain outside of Niseko that foreigners aim to conquer. There’s just a single cable car which runs a handful of riders up to just below the peak of the mountain every 20 minutes. At the top of the lift you look up at the peak, several hundred metres above, which spews out steam from several vents. The hardcore can hike up, powder hounds can check their maps and explore a massive amount of isolated backcountry, and the mellow can simply cruise straight down the main section before mucking around with their friends on the long cat tracks out.

For Niseko pension owner Liam Bartley, Asahidake is the place to be. “There are no crowds and there’s actually some pretty gnarly terrain there as well. If you hike up there’s heaps there, and there are all these really cool drops you can do as well. From the top of the cable car you can hike out both directions left and right, or just straight up. It tends to cop less weather than Kurodake, which closes for a lot of the winter because there’s too much snow. But at Asahidake, you get a lot of similar snow – the quality of the snow is awesome – it’s dry, it’s cold and it’s deep and because the quality is so good and because there are so few people, even if it doesn’t snow it’ll stay good for days. It’s also got fantastic lodging – there’s a really little youth hostel for the lower end travellers, and if you’re willing to spend a little more there’s a great pension where you’ll get the typical great Japanese hospitality experience and fantastic food all grown in the local area and cooked by guys who love to cook.”

Furano feels like the resorts found in interior British Columbia in Canada. There are great steep trees and open sections and more than a few kickers to spin off. If it weren’t for the ‘nazi’ ski patrol, which Furano oddly seems to pride itself on, it would have to be a pick spot in Hokkaido. With that said, if you know how to work the resort (hint: circuit style and quick like a ninja), you’ll stay one step ahead of the fuzz and be waist deep in the pow pow all day. But make no mistake about it – they’re serious about keeping people from ducking ropes and putting themselves in harm’s way and will confiscate your lift pass if they catch you out of bounds.

Luke Hurford, general manager of Niseko Village, can’t go past Niseko when it comes to designating one favourite Hokkaido ski resort, but if he had to name somewhere else it would be his former stomping ground, Furano. “I love the town at the base of the hill and just the whole, well-organised resort feel of the place. It’s one resort and it’s well managed and there’s great fall-line groomer skiing. It’s a shame about the out-of-bounds policy but they’re working on changing that. It may take time because, like here (Niseko Village) it depends on government (whether previously closed backcountry areas can be opened. But another great thing about Furano is you’ve also got access to Asahidake and Kamui ski links an hour drive away, so you can be based out of here and get the best everything Furano has to offer, but still enjoy your powder. Having access to all that area is pretty neat.”

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