When you arrive at New Chitose airport in Hokkaido, you are struck by the quiet atmosphere and the omnipresent staff who gently channel the travelers. We recover our skis and our bags with relief and tens of stores of local specialities and other typical restaurants wait for us in the big halls of the airport. But the trip has only just begun, we still have a few kilometers to go before reaching Furano, our first stage of this ski trip in Japan.
After several kilometers, on a more and more snowy highway, we arrive without encumbers to Furano. Our hotel, North Country Inn, is a small hotel well run by a family of pure Japanese and communication can be laborious but always pleasant. The hotel is conveniently located between the Kitano Mine and Furano lift areas. It’s dark and we’re all really looking forward to tomorrow. Furano offers 1,000 meters of vertical drop and many off-piste ski routes that start above the forest before winding through birch trees just wide enough to let us pass to the bottom of the lifts.
1st day of backcountry skiing in Japan, plenty of powder snow
It is the first day of skiing in the Japanese snow and the tone is set. There is snow, a lot of it, and I’m already glad I made the decision to come and ski in Japan, I’ve been hearing about it for so long! After a morning finding our bearings we grab a ramen (large bowl of soup with pasta and vegetables) at the restaurant at the foot of the slopes and we take the opportunity to dry masks / helmets / neck warmers / gloves, everything being full powder snow. It also feels good for the legs to take a break. At Fred’s call I don’t hesitate one second and I leave with him and we meet again at 3 to make some more tracks, the others preferring to stop there for a first day. For my part, I cannot refuse a few more runs in this snow that I had never skied before. Hard to define this snow right now, I’ll try to do it at the end of this trip.
Backcountry skiing is not (yet) fashionable in Japan
The second day, we go to Tomamu. To our great surprise, we do not meet other skiers equipped with backcountry skiing equipment. From the top of the lifts, we traverse in big bowls of “whipped cream style” snow from which emerge here and there clumps of bamboo leaves… Really exotic terrain for skiing! Then we plunge in big breakthroughs in the forest until we return to the road where our guide had left the minibus. We spend the day quietly tracing this virgin snow which keeps falling slowly but surely… Tomorrow it seems that the weather forecast announces a cloudless day! This will be the opportunity to go to Asahidake, the highest mountain on the island at 2,290 mts above sea level. Fortunately there is a cable car that allows you to gain quite a bit of elevation.
In the morning we leave early in the minibus and we are quite quickly at the foot of the cable car which allows us to climb up to the fumaroles. There are a lot of people, we stick our sealskins and quickly we climb on the slopes of the volcano. The candidates for the ascent become less numerous and we soon find ourselves almost alone to contemplate the interior of what must have been a crater having exploded leaving a huge valley perfect for skiing with in its middle a dozen large fumaroles which spit out a very dense white smoke.
It was a sight none of us had ever seen before. One more effort and we are at the top. We do not stay a long time at the top because it is very cold and moreover we look forward to ski. A few photos to immortalize this moment on the highest peak of the island and here we are on our skis towards the fumaroles. In the valley, the snow is average because it is very exposed to the wind that day. As we approach our first fumarole, we begin to hear a deafening noise, like airplane turbines. The fumaroles expel with force the underground pressures, it is incredible the energy that comes out of these holes! We spend a lot of time to admire this unique place before continuing to descend this time in a super snow and between ideally spaced trees.
We go up again one or two times in cable car to enjoy a little more this perfect snow. Back in Furano everyone is still excited about the magical day we just spent and after a delicious meal at Masaya a Teppan Okonomiyaki restaurant, we headed off to the red light district of the city. Fred takes us to a very small sake bar called Robata, which I highly recommend, the decor and atmosphere are incredible …
Hokkaido, the lightest snow on earth
The next day we wake up and a good surprise awaits us. It snowed again last night, that will help us take off because we are all a little heavy from the evening at the sake bar. We decide to ski Furano a second time because we really liked it and besides with all this beautiful snow it promises to be epic! From the first run it’s incredible, the snow is so deep that I can’t feel the bottom. We follow a series of runs until we get Inebriated by the snow… Furano will remain a great experience where varied days of skiing and pleasant evenings can be combined perfectly with the discovery of quality typical restaurants. Just amazing.
Today, we drive towards the west of Hokkaido island to reach our new base in one of Niseko village. We take the coastal road through Otaru, the largest port on the island. This is the opportunity to visit the seafood market and have a typical lunch there. Along the sea, the road also allows us to make another stop this time to admire the black sand beaches covered with snow, another exceptional landscape offered by this ski trip in Japan. On the road we also visit the famous Nikka whiskey distillery. But you shouldn’t hang around because there is night skiing on the program today … It is with wide eyes that we arrive at the foot of the Annupuri volcano. This 1300 mts high volcano is really impressive and the road that runs along it gives us plenty of time to observe it well. Here we are in front of the Green Leaf Hotel! Nothing compares with our small hotel in Furano. The Lobby is large but warm and the many hostesses speak English … The check-in formalities are quickly dispatched and we have an appointment in half an hour with all the gear for skiing, it is 4.30 pm !!!
When we arrive at the Grand Hirafu base, it is already dark and I can’t wait to ski. It is still snowing and the spots that light up the slopes are reflected in the clouds creating an orange halo flooding the entire mountain. With the ski pass in our pocket we take a gondola first, then a chairlift, then another one… It’s amazing how big the night skiing area is. We have fun like crazy on the edges of the marked pistes and Fred even brings us to ski an unlit off-piste slope, but thanks to the reverberation of the clouds and our headlamps we can see well… What we didn’t see was the time passing, it’s 8:30 pm and the lifts are closing, we must stop. What an experience, tonight I had completely new sensations, skiing at night in the powder is something I would never have imagined… After a quick dinner at Grand Hirafu, we go back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.
Slackcountry from the Niseko ski area
This morning we take the chairlift in front of the hotel towards the cable car of Niseko village and the cable car of Higashiyama. The ski patrol office announced on its web page that all the summit gates would open. We take the ski lifts towards the G4 gate which allows easy access to the summit of the Annupuri volcano. From the top of the volcano, the slopes are open, long and sustained, I really enjoy it! Further down we pass by huge and hyper-spaced birch trees, really ideal for skiing. From the summit, the snow is deep up to the knees and sometimes up to the hips. Suddenly I realize that we have switched to the other side of the volcano and that we are now in Hanazono on the other side of the Niseko United ski area. We take the opportunity to take a short break in a small food truck that makes coffee and hot chocolates with a marshmallow in it! And we set off again towards the summit of the volcano for another off-piste itnierary on Annupuri slpoes. The day takes place pleasantly between powdery snow and discovery, as the famous chairlift “pizza box” with its seats one place… We return to the hotel quite wet after a memorable day spent in the Japanese white room and an onsen will be necessary to help us to recover… Apparently the weather forecast announces a storm for tomorrow
Indeed we get up from bed and it snows with a lot of wind. The ski lifts leading to the top of the ski area are closed. Fred decides to show us the Moiwa ski area on the western flanks of the volcano. It is a small, well-sheltered ski resort that is only partially connected to the rest of the large Niseko United ski area. We jump in our ski gear and here we are a few minutes later at the foot of the Moiwa ski center. Here everything is calm, there is less wind and there are not many people. There are only 3 chairlifts here but there is really a lot of snow and we made our tracks in 50cm of snow that was both velvety and light. The snow flakes that fall are big. At times it snows so hard that it is difficult to see what is behind the curtains of snowflakes… At the end of the afternoon, we switch behind the highest lift of the ski area in direction of the historical Goshiki Onsen. It is a “Ryokan” a traditional hotel with natural hot water pools from volcanic springs. In two minutes everyone went from skier mode to naked mode! Bathing suits are not allowed but we are provided with small towels to hide our intimate body parts. After a good soaping, we first enjoy the indoor pools and we discover that there are also outdoor pools called the “rotenburo”. As a result, the body is warm in the water at 39/40 ° and we use the small towel to protect the head from the cold and from the snow which does not stop falling. When we get out of the water there are rooms to relax and later a cab comes to pick us up to go back to the hotel. This is followed by a good dinner at Bang Bang, a very famous “Yakitori” restaurant in Kutchan-cho. Today is our last day and the weather is nice. While I prepare my bag I see the Yotei volcano from the window of my room. C’est impressionnant comme ce volcan est symétrique. After a quick breakfast, we load the minibus to Rusutsu, a ski resort on the way to Chitose airport. We drive now along the Mount Yotei which dominates us from the top of its 1800 mts of altitude. It is said that we can spend a week in Niseko without even seeing the slopes of the Yotei volcano, the weather is so disturbed… This volcano can be climbed by ski touring, but we prefer to go to Mount Shiribetsu which is much more accessible because it is close from the ski area of Rusutsu which will allow us to gain precious meters of positive elevation … We spent a beautiful day making our tracks in freeride mode in this resort which seemed quite large to me, probably one of the most beautiful ski resorts in Japan. Around 3:30 pm we stop skiing in order to have a little margin to arrive at the Sapporo New Chitose airport in time because the most hurried participants must take the 8 pm flight to Tokyo. Tonight we will be only 5 for the farewell dinner of this beautiful ski trip. For my part, I still have 3 days in Japan to visit Tokyo and Kyoto …
To conclude, I will remember for a long time this unreal snow as well as all these Japanese who seem to spend their winter between clearing the snow around their house and the well deserved onsen after having rubbed the harshness of the climate of this magnificent and wild island of Hokkaido.