Mr. Luxury Ski
When people speak of skiing in Japan it always seems to take on mythical proportions: a magical island in the middle of the ocean that manifests the perfect combination of epic snowfall, creature comforts, and adventure. For years I had grown up reading snowboarding magazines drooling over images of face-deep powder, and resort names I couldn’t even begin to pronounce. As print gradually gave way to Instagram I now was able to follow world-class athletes, brands and resorts across the world in real-time, fueling my quest for how to achieve this Valhalla of winter sports.
Surprisingly there has been little attention paid in the American media on just exactly how to ski Japan, with only the occasional update on the Olympic host city of Nagano. However, recently skiing the land of the rising sun has been creeping into the collective unconscious with winter sports luminaries such as Warren Miller and Teton Gravity Research filming there, and even the brand Patagonia shooting their latest catalogue in these sacred hills.
To solve this riddle I asked every single person in my life that touches the ski industry, with them all coming back to me with a single resounding answer: Hokkaido. Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido is roughly the size of the state of Maine and benefits from cold Pacific waters, Siberian winds, and mountain elevations that pale in comparison by American standards, but provide just enough resistance that create light, fluffy snow that easily submerges a skier in high-speed turns. According to OnTheSnow.com at publication popular resorts Niseko and Rutusu received 449 and 343 inches of snowfall per year respectively. Compare that to Jackson Hole (316”) or Vail (268”).
What is so special about Japanese Powder?
1. Huge, consistent dumps. This massive quantity offers so much fresh snow that the tracks you make at the beginning of the day are usually covered up again by the end.
2. The highest quality lift-accessed snow in the world. Sure, you might be able to find better skiing out there but you'll just take a helicopter to it.
Now that I had my destination, planning was integral as Hokkaido has more than 100 ski areas, and surprisingly few websites are in English, making research next to impossible. A small guided tour company was recommended to me appropriately named Japan Ski Adventures, where in 2007 a duo of Japanese-born Americans (Brent Potter and Luke Cummings) had created a tour operation like no other in the area. The chief operating principle: to not just see one resort, but to leverage the unique cultural offering of Hokkaido as a whole. To hear Brent explain it, “Our guides aren't just ski guides; they're culture and language experts who, along with taking guests to some of the best snow in the world, also provide deep cultural insight to some of the finest local Japanese sights, and traditions.”
On any given trip our guides research real-time weather forecasts and existing conditions in an effort to find the best snow, every day for six days, and with approximately 10 ski areas in driving proximity no two tours are the same (there are hundreds of iterations based on mother nature’s cooperation).
Our itinerary went as follows:
Fly from Tokyo to Sapporo (I recommend Jetstar or Peach Airways)
Meet Brent and Luke at the baggage claim and drive two hours to Niseko
Check in to the One Niseko, the two-year-old ski-in resort just west of Annupuri resort featuring its own Onsen (Japanese Thermal Spa), and Cigar Bar.
DAY 2 – NISEKO
Ski the four resorts of Niseko United, a pass that allows for visits to the four individually owned ski areas on the mountain. All of which are connected at the peak allowing skiers access to each. (Note: In the 2015/2016 ski season Vail’s Epic Pass holders can use their pass here. Details are still being confirmed.)
Starting with the most western area you find Annupuri. Known for the most backcountry access gates. Most visitors won't even get the United pass skiing here due to the vast amount of off-piste terrain, however the base area leaves nothing to be desired for visitors.
Next you have Nieseko village with a more developed base built around the Hilton. Additionally the main draw is the hotel’s gondola giving you weather-protected access to a wide-variety of in-bounds terrain.
Third is Hirafu also known as Little Australia is a supremely located destination for Australians who want to ski during the Southern Hempsiphere’s summer months without the full day flight to North America. Hirafu also features the most “Western” style ski town and infrastructure. This is the best place to stay if you only plan on skiing Niseko.
Finally comes Hanazono, the most eastern ski area. This is the prime access point for a summit hike to the north side of the mountain. Also at the base here is Niseko’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Asperges. Hokkaido born chef Hiroshi Nakamichi’s mountain outpost of his 3-star flagship Moliere in Sapporo specializes in local cuisine prepared in a French fashion.
DAY 3 - RUSUTSU
About a 45 minute drive from Niseko lies the Rustusu ski area. This was by far the best powder skiing of the trip, and for a storm-chasing adventure, its important to know that this resort rarely shuts down their lifts even in the most adverse conditions (very important when you are trying to maximize your days). Rustusu is known for its epic off-piste tree skiing that the locals rarely venture into. There is so much variety it is impossible to take the same line twice.
DAY 4 - KIRORO
About an hour from Niseko this mostly locals mountain lacks easy public transportation to the area weeding out foreigners, and protecting the resorts powder. Even days after a big storm you can still find fresh tracks all over the hill making this an optimal destination for our tour.
After skiing and the requisite Onsen experience, we check out of Niseko for our next destination Ashikawa about two hours away. En route our guides take us to Takara Zushi in the city of Otaru, rated the number one sushi restaurant in Japan by the Japanese version of Michelin. This 35-year old mom and pop sushi spot rivals the best in the world with near next-door access to Hokkaido’s fish markets. Not to mention one of the best values, a sushi and sashimi Omakase runs only $100 (Takara Zushi).
We check into the Ashikawa Grand Hotel for easier access to Hokkaido’s north and eastern mountains.
We head 45 minutes to the Kamui ski links. A true “locals mountain” with no foreigners in sight, and the best groomers of the trip (perfect for a non-powder day). The mountain is practically ours and ours alone. On the ride back to Ashikawa, Brent and Luke have a surprise for us, a sake tasting at the Otokayama distillery, one of the best in Japan, and winner of multiple World Spirit Awards.
Our final day of “powder hunting” takes us to Furano. Unfortunately not for powder (we had a rare three-day dry spell), but for what is widely considered some of the best lift-accessible snow in the world. Sure you can go heli-skiing in Alaska, but for those slightly less adventurous the epics pistes, light snow, and backcountry terrain is enough.
Japan Ski Adventures (www.japanskiadventures.com)
Prices start at $1399 for the 7-day powder chasing tour and up to $2299 for a 13-day package. All accommodations and ground transportation included.
Web Address: www.japanskiadventures.com