Great white slopes, part II: northern exposure

Pillows of lovely pow

Our focus in the second half of our series on Japan’s best winter resorts turns to the northern island of Hokkaido. Though most of the headlines are hogged by Niseko, there are many more hidden places to be discovered where conditions can be as good or even better.

By Steve White

Hokkaido is the Alaska of Japan. A sparsely populated frontierland compared with the country’s other islands, it is a rugged place exposed to weather that can be harsh in the extreme. The weather is also a blessing though, for Hokkaido gets the country’s best, dry snow brought in by weather systems crossing from Siberia, and it gets a lot of it.

This makes it prime skiing country – according to the web’s best English-language guide to such things in Japan, www.snowjapan.com, Hokkaido boasts no fewer than 78 resorts! This may come as a surprise given that many people know of one name only: that of Niseko, in western Hokkaido.

Undoubtedly Niseko will remain important but its success is leading other resorts to ramp up their game, resorts such as Rusutsu and Furano which are upgrading their accommodation and other facilities to match the expectations of the buoyant inbound market rather than rely on domestic skiers and boarders.

Besides those resorts already with international reputations, there are also a number of others that deserve more attention, so here we present a quick rundown of the best places to experience Hokkaido’s famed mountains of snow.

WEST HOKKAIDO

Niseko
Easily the best well-known resort on the island, the resort is Hokkaido for many – especially for Australians and New Zealanders who have flocked here in their flip season for several years.

So successful has it become that some now even object to the number of non-Japanese faces on the piste and prefer to take their business elsewhere. Most newcomers though don’t care because this place gets more snow than just about any other resort in Asia and has a breadth of amenities unequalled elsewhere in Hokkaido.

The accommodation is a notch or two up in terms of quality over many of Japan’s other resorts (and headed further upmarket), English is reasonably widely spoken and the village’s food and entertainment options outstrip those in all but the biggest of Honshu’s resorts.

That said, one of the most important factors in the mountain’s rise has been the enlightened attitude of its ski patrol. In a rule-abiding country where people habitually tend towards caution over risk-taking, this approach has paid dividends. Visiting outdoors types love the access to more of the mountain than is on offer on-piste and many of the best tree runs are tracked by lunchtime after fresh snow.

Those happy to stay on-piste will find plenty of it as the three resorts of Hirafu, Annupuri and Higashiyama are inter-linked and can all be accessed using a single lift ticket. There’s also a building summer sports scene. For more details of  activities year-round, try these sites:

Niseko Adventure Centre, www.nac-web.com
Niseko Powder Connection, www.niseko-hirafu.com
NOASC, www.noasc.com
Scott Adventure Sports, www.sas-net.com

Rusutsu
Over-shadowed by its bigger, brasher neighbour, this place is nevertheless well worth considering for its quieter atmosphere. Especially popular with families and tour groups because it is much more self-contained than Niseko, it has accommodation along more traditional Japanese lines: a tower hotel close to the slopes and some scattered pensions.

The majority of its 37 runs are pitched at beginners and intermediates, though more advanced skiers can have a bash at the route down from the peak of Mt Izola.

Rusutsu Resort, en.rusutsu.co.jp

CITY-LIMIT SKIING
If the bright lights of Sapporo are a draw for you then there are a clutch of resorts within an easy commute of the city. These see heavy traffic during the weekends but are much quieter during the week at which time you may even find more room on the piste there than at the bigger resorts such as Niseko.

Teine Olympia, Sapporo Kokusai and Kiroro Snow World are the most well-known names. The first of the three is very small, with less than 200m vertical and a longest slope little more than 500m long, while Kiroro is the largest resort on the city’s doorstep. Accessed from the quaint, nearby town of Otaru, just a short train ride from Sapporo, it has 21 runs and gets piles of snow.

In general, snow quality is comparable to the more famous resorts to the west though the depth varies considerably with places such as Teine getting a lot less snow and therefore having a shorter season too.

CENTRAL HOKKAIDO
Sat at the heart of the island, this area gets some of the finest, driest powder anywhere and also more blue-sky days on which to enjoy the stunning volcanic backdrop. The whole place has a wilderness feel to it and getting around can take a little time and perseverence, but the rewards amply compensate you for the effort.

Furano
A five-minute drive from the town of the same name, this is the biggest resort in central Hokkaido and makes an ideal base from which to explore surrounding resorts.

The access to the slopes is not as convenient as at Niseko but it offers all the other conveniences of  a town of 25,000. There’s accommodation to suit every viewpoint and wallet, lots of dining options and a growing number of foreign visitors which is leading to the level of English spoken picking up too.

On the slopes, the resort has hosted World Cup events so its quality is not in doubt. The ski patrol is more traditional than that at Niseko though, operating a strict off-piste policy, so you’ll need to book with recognised guides such as those from Hokkaido Powder Guides if you wish to explore off-piste.

Further afield, Furano really comes into its own when used as a base to launch forays out to some of the resorts mentioned below and backcountry specialists will want to check out the exceptional potential of the nearby Daisetsuzan National Park in particular.

Furano International Tourism Centre: www.skifurano.com

Tomamu
A medium-sized resort with moderate snowfall, this place distinguishes itself by offering cat- and heli-skiing. While neither compares with the equivalent in the wilds of the Rockies or Himalayas, they do offer an interesting variant for skiers and boarders who have ‘been-there, done-that’.

Kamui Snow Links
Small and with limited facilities, this area deserves a look anyway for its top-notch snow quality. You can always rely on having plenty of elbow room on the piste and when you are done with that, a vast expanse of backcountry beckons for the competent, confident skier.

Asahidake Ropeway
Hard to reach, this one-hotel resort is high and exposed making it one of the coldest spots on the island. The compensation is the knowledge you are well and truly off the beaten track: no fear of long lift-queues here, even at the weekend.

Thanks go to Chuck Olbery of Hokkaido Powder Guides and Chris Chen for their help in the preparation of this article.