If you backcountry ski you have heard the buzz surrounding the ski touring on Japan’s North Island, Hokkaido. Last year we succumbed to the siren call of “Japow" and went over to investigate. What we found Japanese backcountry skiing every bit as remarkable at the rumors had indicated. We skied endless, deep, untracked powder in well spaced trees, and even had a few sunny days where we could poke up onto the higher peaks such as Yotei and Furnaodake. What caught us by surprise was the warmth and hospitality of the Japanese people and the food became the third highlight of this beautiful experience.
In winter 2017 we will be taking a few small groups of lucky backcountry skiers on week-long tours focused on the two prime ski touring areas in Hokkaido. The tours begin in the backcountry a few valleys over from the sprawling ski area at Niseko and then move to central Hokkaido, known as the “powber belt” where we will sample more remote terrain on peaks like Furanodake and Tokachidake.
We retain a flexible itinerary as the weather heavily dictates where it is most enjoyable and safest to ski each day. On stormy days, which are frequent in the Hokkaido backcountry we stick to tree-skiing and on days when the sun peaks out we can venture higher on the many volcanoes that dominate the landscape. Each day will end with the option to visit one of the many Onsens (hot springs) that Hokkaido is famous for. Tying it all together will be the amazing food that Japan is known for.
In order to ease the logistics we meet and prep each group of skiers at a nice hotel near the Chitose (CTS) airport in Sapporo and then provide ground transportation to and from each touring area. During the trip we stay in comfortable hotels central to the areas we want to explore and we split the trip into 3.5 days spent around Niseko in the South and 3.5 days spent near Tokachidake and Daisetsuzan National Park in Central Hokkaido. The trips are designed so that you can leave the states on a Saturday and arrive home 9 days later in time to make it back to work on Monday.
Day 0: Group will meet at our hotel in Sapporo, Japan near the Chitose Airport (airport code CTS) for a briefing on the upcoming trip, an equipment check, and dinner.
Day 1: Group will travel to Niseko and drop bags at our lodging for the next 3 nights and proceed to a ski tour nearby. At the end of the day’s tour we will visit a traditional “onsen” and relax in the hot springs before returning to our hotel of dinner.
Day 2: Today we will travel to Yotei (1,898 m / 6,227’), known locally as the Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido, allows for phenomenal powder skiing among the silver birch trees. It is possible to ski here in most conditions, but only possible to ski to the summit in good weather. Following dinner we will visit a different Onsen and have dinner back at our hotel.
Day 3: Today we will travel to Shirabetsu-dake, another volcano, for another ski tour. On the way home we will stop at a restaurant known for its excellent sushi.
Day 4: Today we will ski in the morning at a low-key spot near Niseko and then drive to central Hokkaido in the afternoon Furano-Dake where we will base for the reminding three days of our tour. This area is known as the Hokkaido Powder belt and has a much more remote feel than the areas we have visited earlier. The mountain summits are a bit higher and have a more wind-blown quality. Skiing will be a mixture of summit climbs and tree skiing, depending on the current weather conditions. We will stay at Kamihoroso, a traditional Onsen/hotel with a drying room for all of our touring gear.
Day 5: Today we will make a short drive from our hotel and ski tour on the flanks of Furano-Dake. The skiing consists of several climbs up elegant ribs followed by great powder skiing in the chutes and glades on either side of the ribs. In good weather we can poke up high and in more typical weather we can ski the trees down low.
Day 6: Today we will make a short drive to Tokachidake. If the weather is good we can ski to the summit of Tokachidake and peer into the crater, generally a steamy affair, followed interesting skiing below.
Day 7: On our last day we will undertake one last tour on either Furanodake or Tokachidake and then drive in the afternoon back to Sapporo where we will return to the hotel we started at and get everyone ready for their flights home the next day.
Is the inability to speak Japanese a problem? Generally no. We choose lodging where the staff speaks some English and the areas we visit generally have signs in both Japanese and English. We do highly encourage you to pick up a few basic phrases in Japanese as makes sense in travel in any foreign place.
Do we primarily ski at ski areas or in the backcountry? We spend most of our time in the backcountry. The ski areas on Hokkaido are many and they are very good, but even the ski areas get skied out on a busy day. As such we may use a lift here and there to access true backcountry, but we generally stick to more remote backcountry spots as this is where all the untracked powder is!
I have heard it snows every night on Hokkaido? At times it may feel like this, but Hokkaido can also experience periods without new snow. Our trips are timed in January and February to give us the maximum chance of the combinations of new snow and cold temperatures. Some of the best days of skiing are when the snow finally relents and we have the chance to ski cold powder on a sunny day. If your trip happens to not have tons of new snow the north facing slopes tend to hold powder and there is plenty of interesting terrain to keep us occupied.
How do the Onsens work? Onsens are a traditional Japanese Hot Spring. The water is usually channeled from its source into what looks like a giant hot tub or pool. Men and women are generally provided with separate facilities and everyone is required to take a hot shower before entering the water. Each facility generally sells beer and soft drinks, which may be consumed in the pool. Each Onsen has a variety of pools ranging from warm to almost too hot to sit in.