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Powder Hunting in Japan

Doing the Hokkaido-si-do

It’s no longer a secret that Japan has the best powder.

And the most powder.

Seemingly every ski movie and magazine has featured this winter wonderland for the last few years, and you know exactly what I’m talking about: a barely visible skier emerging from a ridiculous rooster tail of the lightest, driest powder you can imagine whilst weaving between otherworldly trees.

Yeah, like this.

Well, after years of dreaming of how this would feel, I decided I had to experience it for myself.

First, a disclaimer. I’m not a pro skier. I’m a Southern boy from North Carolina who didn’t ski a meaningful turn until I was 22 years old and needed something to do to pass the time during my first winter after moving to Vermont.

Since then, skiing has become a major part of my life. After discovering backcountry skiing during my first year in Seattle, I’ve skied 52 months in a row, through every type of snow imaginable, and off several volcanoes. With all that practice, though still with the form of a baby giraffe learning to walk, I felt I was ready to take on the challenge and investment of a ski trip to Japan, and convinced my good friend and adventure buddy Nick Lake (who took most of these photos) to join in.

Yotei volcano dominates the horizon from all around Niseko and, supposedly, has some amazing terrain skiing off the crater.

The Basics

The first question we tackled was when. That was pretty easy, because the term ‘Japanuary’ exists for a reason. Looking at historical snow reports, we decided that mid January gave us the best chance of getting that all-time dump that Japan is so famous for in the ski world.

The second question was where. This is a little tougher because there’s a surprising amount of great skiing on these islands.

The main island of Honshu has gnarlier mountains, hosted the Nagano Olympics in ’98, and is home to those awesome snow monkeys, the macaques, which would have been SUPER fun to hang out with in an onsen (traditional Japanese hot spring). However, we opted for the northern island of Hokkaido for the simple reason of snow. From everything we heard, it just doesn’t stop snowing there in January.

And we were going for the deep stuff.

The Nitty Gritty

When traveling internationally for a ski trip, logistics play a big part in making it an enjoyable experience. It’s a lot different than hopping on a plane to Salt Lake and cruising up Little Cottonwood for the weekend. Through the wonders of technology the language barrier is truly a non-issue, but the obstacles to the perfect powder tour still exist:

International Driver’s License:  Don’t forget this critical piece. While the trains are good in some parts of Japan, Hokkaido is still pretty rural and we found having a car very useful in maximizing our time. Without this, available through AAA, you won’t be able to rent a car.

Airbag Packs: Safety comes first and I really wanted to bring my Mammut SnowPulse pack with me for all of the backcountry trips we’d be taking, but through online research I quickly realized it would be incredibly difficult to fill my canister over there. There are lots of resources online that talk more about this, but the bottom line is those with battery-powered packs are in much better shape when coming here.

Communication: If you go to the Japan Airlines counter, you can pick up a WiFi hotspot or SIM card for your phone. This proved exceptionally useful for navigating, looking up places to eat, and for translation assistance. Oh, and posting your sweet pow stories to the ‘Gram, duh.

Touring Tokyo: Especially if it’s your first time, you don’t want to travel to Japan without at least seeing a little of Tokyo. But lugging your skis onto the train and through crowded streets sounds neither practical nor fun. Thankfully, Terminal 2 of the Narita airport where you’ll likely arrive offers large bag storage for $8 a day.

Clockwise from left: Tokyo’s subway system is on-time, orderly, clean, and surprisingly easy to navigate. Be sure to buy a SEICO card for trips around Tokyo (it also works at 7/11) and download the Hyperdia app for extra help.

The lights of Tokyo are mesmerizing and seemingly never end, which is a stark contrast to the pastoral setting you’ll find in Hokkaido.

The Tsujiki Fish Market in Tokyo is worth the visit.

Mitch making his “sushi face.” After this trip, sushi will never be the same for us.

We had dreamt, we had planned, we had packed, we had stuffed our faces with unspeakable amounts of raw fish during a quick overnight in Tokyo, and we were Hokkaido-bound and ready to slay that pow pow!

One problem: it wasn’t snowing.

Time 2 Ski (We Hope) + Meeting New Friends

All we’d ever heard and every picture we’d ever seen had assured us that it would be neck-deep, blower refills every day. In the weeks leading up to our trip, we sent messages back and forth of the latest amazing video with what was about to be us!

But, as we know, what you see on social media isn’t always what you find in real life.

Bleak forecast be damned, we were going to have fun! At the suggestion of a friend who had gone the year before, we linked up with a local guide. Now, neither Nick nor I are typically ones to use guides—we practice our skills, are capable in the mountains, and know the Cascades like the back of our hands.

But local knowledge alone was enough of a reason to have Todd there: when you travel halfway around the world to ski, you don’t want to waste a single run. Especially on a rare week when we barely got any new snow, we still skied knee-deep, untracked powder on every backcountry run.

Todd Ross Thornley, or Todd-Oh as he’s affectionately called by locals, is a Canadian expat who worked a season at one of the Hokkaido resorts, fell in love, got married, had a kid, and never left. After a few years working with another guiding agency, he split off to work on his own and the combination of his Canadian charm and deference, his knowledge of every nook and cranny of Japan’s north island (and then some), and his ridiculous skiing chops, makes him an invaluable asset for anyone trying to make the most of a short trip there.

We gained tons of confidence in him each day as he took the time to walk us through weather and avalanche conditions, good terrain choices given those conditions, and tons of extraneous info about the areas we’d be visiting, as well as which canned coffee passes muster at the 7/11. Bonus points: for $100/night he put us up in his A-Frame cabin in the hills outside Niseko. Double bonus points: he gets extra cool points for driving us around in his baller diesel Mitsubishi jeep.

Todd-Oh’s A-Frame haven outside of Niseko was a fantastic base camp with views of Yotei volcano when the clouds finally parted.  Keeping our luggage compact and simple was key for us as we spent a lot of time in transit and needed to stay organized to maximize our time on the snow.

We wanted to strike the right balance of skiing versus skinning during the six days we had to explore. Of course we prefer a pure backcountry experience, but when you want to maximize face-shots, getting a little help from lifts isn’t that bad when tickets for a full day are only $45-55. Besides, we found that even on the weekends, lift lines were essentially non-existent.

Our first day while we were still fighting the jet lag pretty hard, we figured it prudent to lap glades at the Rusutsu resort solely from the lifts. Everything you’ve heard and seen about the perfectly-spaced trees is true. And it’s magical – from how it skis to its appearance. Perhaps the Japanese are used to the way birches look, just like we in Washington rarely give second glance to a Douglas fir, but for us they were captivating.

Soupy conditions accompanied a dusting of snow our first day at Rusutsu resort. We jumped out of bounds at the end of the day for quick bootpack to try and find some untracked powder

The Inevitable Red (Or In This Case, Orange) Tape

You might find it surprising with such perfect terrain and deep powder, but tree skiing in Japan (at least in resorts) is a relatively new phenomenon. We learned that until recently, ducking a rope was a very serious offense, though with the wave of Westerners who have now ‘discovered’ the wonders of Japan, many resorts are loosening their restrictions or in some cases coming up with elaborate sidecountry policies.

We came across one of these at Kiroro, another resort in the southern half of the island. Should a party want to access the backcountry through a gate in the resort (and oh, is that some sweet terrain!) they must register with the resort, get a permit, show it to an attendant at the gate, and check in and out of each zone with the backcountry center desk. This system becomes cumbersome when wanting to tour through multiple zones, as you must go all the way down to the base of the resort and then back up again, but I appreciate their effort in creating a way to better locate a group in the event of an emergency and I could see North American resorts someday adopting the parts of these experiments that work.

After navigating a confusing and, admittedly, annoying backcountry sign-in process at Kiroro resort, we finally got on the skin track and out into some tasty terrain adjacent to the resort.

Souper Tasty Dinners & Onsensational Evenings

Now, you might think a rigid, daily regimen of tepid nigiris or rice triangles filled with a variety of meats, fish, and veggies, cold Japanese beer and hot sake is enough to keep any backcountry shredder sufficiently powered and hydrated, but here’s a little local tip to keep you in top shape throughout the duration of your trip: eat tons of ramen. Adopted from the Chinese, chefs from Hokkaido have mastered this titan of soups. And the best of the best ramen can be found in the restaurants where there is no English menu. Memorize these three words: shoyu, shio, and miso, and practice your pointing skills ahead of time to successfully navigate the language barrier and you’ll be full of salty, brothy goodness in no time, fully fueled to crush that pow day after day.

But Hokkaido’s bubbling, liquid surprises don’t end there. Japan is famously a major part of the ring of fire—a literal ring of fiery, volcanic islands encompassing the entire world’s Pacific coastlines—and evidence of its geothermal proclivities can be found in steamy, open water all over the north island. Rivers, ponds, tiny holes in the snow—all are pockets of hot water called onsens, and many are perfect for soaking after a long day on the slopes. Be prepared to strip down though, as onsen culture generally dictates that soaking pools are separated by gender and wearing your skivvies or a bathing suit is a faux pas. While Onsens can be found all over the island and in basically every town, some are public, some are attached to hotels, and others are just out in woods. Cost can vary from free to over $20 depending on ownership and amenities. Ask around for advice on the best ones in your area and don’t be shy.

Ski Time 2: Electric Boogaloo

A full belly of local cuisine and a long soak will prepare you for a long day of uphill travel to come. We found skinning on Hokkaido to come easily—the hills aren’t too steep, open forests made for easy navigating, and every destination was thankfully a little closer than it appeared. One day of touring outside Niseko through an abandoned ski resort gave us nearly everything we’d dreamed of getting from Japan: big open alpine slopes, steep trees, and untracked powder all day.

Nick getting some deep turns in the Niseko backcountry.

But still, the deep snow like we had seen on Instagram eluded us.

We drove north for the second half of our trip, holding out hope for a storm to materialize. In the meantime, we wanted to check out an area that’s a bit of an anomaly. Asahidake isn’t a resort, but it’s not just touring either. It’s a single tram that runs every twenty minutes and brings you nearly to the top of the highest mountain on Hokkaido, which also happens to be a volcano chock-full of stinky, hissing fumaroles. Going down, there are no runs. Just two cat tracks on either side of the tram that funnel you back down to the base after you’ve had your fill of powder.

For our final two days, we decided to have Furano as our home base. With how cheap and plentiful hotel rooms are (as low as $30 or so a night), we intentionally made no firm plans on the back end of the trip so we could chase the best fresh snow, which by now seemed like a cruel joke with the dry spell we were experiencing.

But as luck would have it, a couple inches in town at night somehow turned into close to a foot at the top of the Furano resort! While not chest-deep, this was a taste—straight to the face—of how fluffy Japanese snow can be. We finally got to experience what it’s like to have to stop because there’s so much snow you can’t see.

Mitch looking for his snorkel in the Furano backcountry and rocking his “pow face.”

Mitch lays the skin track into the Furano backcountry out to what would be our last, and most memorable, run of the trip.

We Learned a Lesson (a.k.a. Checking Our Powder Privilege)

No, we never got the snow in the images we were fed online. For the first few days of the trip, the lack of snow blowing over our heads got under our skin. WHY US?!

It feels ridiculous writing that now, but we had fallen into the trap of envying others on social media and it was blinding us from how good we had it! Once we took a step back however, we realized it was hands-down the best skiing of our lives. Where else can you go that it doesn’t snow for a week, but you still get fresh runs right off of the main run?!

Even when snow quality or quantity wasn’t ideal, laying fresh tracks all day is a rare treat for skiers used to the hustle and bustle of North American or European ski resorts

While I haven’t skied everywhere, at least not just yet, I feel I can safely say that skiing Japan is unlike anywhere else in the world. And with fancy hotels being built and weather patterns shifting, there’s no better time to visit than now. But don’t take it from me, and don’t take it from social media. Go see for yourself.

Helpful Stuff:

Here are some additional resources we used to plan our trip and to stay on top of conditions while in Japan:

Weather:

www.windy.com

Avalanche Safety:

http://niseko.nadare.info/(Niseko only)

https://www.nadare.jp/ (Honshu resorts)

Car Rental:

http://www.toyotarentacar.net/english/shop/n-c-airport/ – get a 4×4 as most of the smaller roads on Hokkaido are poorly plowed at best and often snow or ice covered

Backcountry Planning:
Google Earth

http://www.powderhounds.com/Japan.aspx
Mitch Pittman is a photographer and adventurer based in Seattle, WA. Follow him on Instagram: @mitchpittman

 

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