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Skiing Japan Pt. I

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Japan is slowly creeping up the skiing bucket list for many skiers and for many reasons. Whilst North American skiing powered to the forefront of many European skiers' consciousness in the 2000s thanks to ski films depicting huge helicopter-only lines in the Rockies or Alaskan wilderness, the amazing nature of Japanese skiing is being passed down almost by word of mouth, with skiers returning with stories of endless snow and pictures of amazing face-shots of powder.


In 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic became very, very real, I got the opportunity to experience Japanese skiing. It was a fork in the road of my skiing experience, telling me a lot about why I ski and why I choose to travel halfway round the world to do this crazy sport.


Here, I wanted to share my experience. I had the most amazing time and experienced some of the most incredible skiing possible, and discovered why so many people consider Japan so special. In part one, I will talk about Japan and the skiing we did, and then in part two I will share what I wish I knew before I went. Through both of these, I hope, I can offer advice and inspiration to help you plan your own Japanese odyssey.


 
Why Japan?

There are sort of two answers to this question; why ski in Japan and why did we choose to go then.


Japan has been slowly emerging as one of the world's greatest skiing destinations over the last few years. This is not secret to the Japanese themselves - Japan has more ski resorts per capita than any other country in the world, and they take it very seriously, especially retired salarymen with time and health on their side.


These resorts lie in the perfect location. Japan's latitude means it is constantly battered by westerly storms off China, Russia and Korea. And because of the geography of eastern Siberia, there is an open channel of cold air flooding down from the Artic. This means that there is a constant supply of fine, dry powder, sometimes dubbed a "firehose" of powder, bearing down on the country throughout the winter.


Japan's rolling, volcanic geography has meant that you don't get the huge lines you see in North America, meaning it does not lend itself to incredible helicopter shots set to an awesome soundtrack. But pictures of faceshot after faceshot of powder shows off everything you need to know about Japanese skiing.


And why did we go then? Very simply, a friend of a friend - who has skied together a plenty before - was studying abroad in Tokyo. With his understanding of Japan and in particular it language, we felt comfortable enough to give it a shot ... after a measure of Dutch courage or two in a local bar. Since then, the three of us have become close friends.


 

Japan

Japan is a really, really special place.


We had arranged for three days to see as much of Tokyo as we could before heading off to the mountains, and boy did we. From the historic to the ultra-modern, Tokyo is a city that takes a thousand years of history and serves it on a plate. We spent the days wondering imperial palaces and gardens, visiting Tokyo Tower and an array of art galleries, visiting museums of "the future" and thousand year old temples.


And we ate like kings - it is impossible not to. Tsukiji fish market is a must for a breakfast of fish that was probably still swimming when you woke up that morning. Ginza for the most incredible steak you will ever eat. And, away from the tourist spots and culinary highlights, in what was seemingly a granny's living room equipped with six chairs and a pair table, we found the most amazing Chicken Katsu curry just a stone's throw from Tokyo tower. If there is one thing Japan has nailed, it's the food. It is impossible to get wrong, and everywhere you turn, from cheap and cheerful izakayas to street markets and vendors, you will eat like a king.


Tokyo is a big, big city, without a true centre like London. It is very well connected by its subway and suburban railway network, which runs from pretty much anywhere to anywhere. The vast, sprawling central core is ringed by the Yamomoto line, a circle line akin to London's circle line or more likely Berlin's Ringbahn on its S-bahn network. Here you will find most of the museums, major temples, imperial palaces, shopping and eating areas, as well as tourist hotspots like Shibuya - for the Shibuya Scramble crossroads - and Tokyo Tower. We stayed in one of many APA brand hotels, which, in combination with Toyko's subway, are plentiful enough to never really be in the wrong location.



 

Skiing Japan

First of all, if you are travelling with ski kit then make use of Japan's nationwide luggage delivery service, known as takyubin. They can take pretty much any piece of luggage – including ski bags – and deliver it to any address in the country within 48hrs (72 on Hokkaido). Two of the major Japanese airlines, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, offer this service; look out for their luggage forwarding desks at the airport and have your accommodation details to hand, preferably in both Japanese and English.


There are two major options for skiing in Japan - or "Jappow", if you will; head North or head West. West means to Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics at the nearby resorts of Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen. There are a cluster of resorts in the region, and Hakuba itself is made up of a number of different resort bases spread out along a valley. The benefit of Nagano and the nearby region is its proximity to Tokyo, only a couple of hours or less on Japan’s extraordinary Shinkansen, or bullet train. It is perfect for getting in your skiing alongside taking in the sights and sounds of Tokyo and other Japanese cities.


All of those tales of endless powder and wild off-piste, however, comes from up north. The mountains surrounding Aomori, the last town on the northern tip of Honshu (Japan's main island) are ace, but the island of Hokkaido is the real pilgrimage spot. Hokkaido acts as the dot to Honshu's main body of the "j" shape of Japan, and its latitude, combined with the steady flow of cold air from Siberia, means it simply does. not. stop. snowing. here.


Duck-billed for speed, my Shinkansen stands ready to whisk me away from Tokyo!

There are plenty of resorts to choose from on Hokkaido. As an example, Rusutsu offered a perfect away day from Niseko for us, and is tremendous fun. A small resort, there seemed to be endless skiing to be found off piste, and well worth the excursion. There is also a theme park at the base! Other options include Furano and Tomamu.


We chose the resort of Niseko as our base for the week, perhaps the most well known Japanese ski resort. Niseko is a collection of four resorts that meet at the top of an extinct volcano. Each resort base had its own feel, Niseko Grand Hirafu being the only true village and the perfect place for us to stay, with a wide array of restaurants, bars, hotels and apartments. Elsewhere, Niseko Hanazono boasts plenty of Australian investment and new hotel and apartment builds; Niseko Village exists to serve the Hilton hotel at its base; and Niseko Annupuri serving a varied collection of accommodations. Each are connected on mountain, and a shuttle bus links the four sectors at the base quickly and frequently.


Getting to Hokkaido has never been easier. Sapporo is the island’s main city and acts as its hub. The air route from Tokyo to Sapporo is one of the busiest in the world, meaning there are plenty of flight options to choose from and they won’t break the bank either. Most resorts are no more than a three hour transfer from Sapporo Airport.


JR Hokkaido local train, ready to take skiers and local weaving through the mountains

The other option for the more adventurous is to take the train. Japan’s Shinkansen service will whisk you from Tokyo to Shin Hakodate, on the very toe edge of Hokkaido, in around four hours. From here, an express service will take you to Sapporo via Sapporo Airport, but changing at Oshamambe will provide a connection to the local rattler to take you through the forests and hills directly to Niseko. Well not quite directly – the road between Niseko station and Grand Hirafu is currently closed, and instead you are advised to go to the next stop in the nearby town of Kutchan, and get a local bus back. The Shinkansen service is in the process of being extended to Sapporo from Shin Hakodate via Niseko/Kutchan, but this is still a good few years from coming to fruition.


One of the major benefits of Niseko is it is pretty westernised. Many of the resort staff are from the UK, Australia, New Zealand or North America, and you will be guaranteed to find English speaking instruction if you need a technique top up. In the villages itself, there is plenty to eat and drink, including traditional Japanese cuisine alongside things like pizzas and the larges Philly cheesesteak sandwiches you will ever set your eyes on. On the hill, you will quickly discover that good ramen and katsu curry is the ideal skiing food!


 

Niseko

Niseko mountain is an extinct volcano, standing proud amidst a generally flat landscape pockmarked by similar, fuji-esque peaks. Right across the way is Mt. Yotei, another perfect example of this, and a ubiquitous presence on the horizon when looking out from Niseko. You will rarely see its peak, however, as low, slate grey clouds, heavily pregnant with the snow Hokkaido is famous for, blankets the summit for eternity. I spent

Mt. Yotei, directly opposite Niseko - the slate grey skies brought plenty of snow, but not much sunshine!

the entire week skiing in clear lenses as a result of this!


Niseko's four resorts all meet just under its summit and above the treeline. The final leg up from the treeline is taken on a series of rickety, one person chairlifts - although chairlift is an overstatement. The "pizzabox" lifts are just that, a small square of a seat with enough space for a persons backside, and no safety measures to speak of whatsoever! They were great fun to ride, however, and made a neat change from the modern four-, six- and eight-packs that made up much of the rest of the resort.


From this lift, you also got access to some of our favourite lines. At Niseko, you need to leave the resort boundaries to make the most of the terrain, but this is provided for by a series of gates in the boundary rope. We hesitantly explored out many of these gates, but found our absolute heaven off the far left (from the looker's point of view) of the mountain, an area known as Kozan no Sawa. It was everything we had ever dreamt of.


Kicking off in a big bowl, the terrain shallowed out as it hit the larch trees - forests dense enough to bock out sound and create a unique sense of alone-ness, but thin enough to provided plenty of space to dodge and whip between the trees. The powder regularly flowed above the knees, and this supposedly on an off year for the region! It was really accessible, too, with a run out down a gully to reach Niseko Annapurni base. The shallow terrain, rather than dampening the experience, heightened it, allowing your skiing to flow and swing through the powder

Eyeing up a line above Niseko Hanazono


I quickly lost count of the number of times we lapped this line. One of the things with Hokkaido snow forecasts is that the sheer volume of snowfall means forecasts won't show snowfall unless there is a big dump. Therefore, ubiquitous overnight snowfall meant our line were freshened up overnight, perfect to re-shred the next day. And when a big dump came later in the week, the first thing we did was hit up Kozan no Sawa and enjoy it at its best, complete with waist deep powder!


Lets get one thing clear; you have come to Japan to ski off piste. Don’t even bother skiing on piste, they are just here to facilitate you getting on and off the lifts and reaching your gates. I would strongly advise against learning to ski in Japan – the endless snowfall renders piste skiing incredibly tricky for those not adept to handling the full spectrum of conditions! You should always access off piste areas via the gates, and only access the gates when they are open. Ignoring these rules will very quickly get your ski pass pulled by ski patrol. Ducking under the rope just up or down from the gate is fine, but purposefully straying into no go areas or ignoring a closed gate will have consequences.


Me, preparing to tackle another line through the larch trees

We also sampled Rusutsu, which every said we should hit up at least once. Rusutsu is often the poster child for Japanese powder; some of the lifts here only open for the first 10 days of the season, before the sheer volume of snow buries the stations and the chairs! With stunning views out over Hokkaido and as far as the pacific, we skied and skied Rusutsu until the cows came home. It's hard to describe Rusutsu - its not a very big or very pointy resort, without huge off piste lines in the same way as Niseko. But it is fun. It is simply, indescribably, fun. It is possible to take excursions from Niseko for the day, which pick you up at the main car park in Hirafu and drop you in Rusutsu, and take you back again that evening.



Niseko was king for us though. Whilst we found our favourite lines, we explored the whole mountain, easily accessible as it was from the summit, including on occasion hiking up to the summit proper from the top chair. Strawberry Fields, above Hanazono, provided a perfect learning ground to grow your technique and float between the trees, and the off piste out of gate 5 at Hanazono was extraordinary - if you don't mind the hike back out!

Heaven or ... heaven? A rare breakthrough of sun after a powder dump


We spent eight days skiing the pants of Hokkaido. Evenings spent in izakayas and drinking Japanese whiskey, watching snowfall after snowfall come down around us, was the cherry on an incredible cake for us.


We flew on on 9 March 2020, on a nearly empty flight, and returned to a world that had forever changed ...


Part II next week will look at some of the things we got right and some of the things we got wrong on our Japanese adventure.













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