Chatting with Reid in an onsen (hot spring) after a day of riding, we talked about being life long snowboarders and cherishing our Japan experience for the fresh view it had been providing us on the terrain and culture of snowboarding in Japan as well as the industry as a whole. After a decade of watching snowboard videos featuring waist deep powder turns in Japan, I was gaining my own perspective on the island and it’s legendary powder. This type of trip does not come naturally for me. My snowboarding adventures tend to be within driving strike distance. It took the lure of very deep snow and Nikki convincing me that we should follow Reid and Hannah on a foreign adventure. So we rented a small all-wheel drive RV for two weeks of be-bopping around central and western Hokkaido in late January, looking for powder turns and hot springs.
Starting With a Bang at Asahidake
Renting an RV allowed us to chase the forecast from central Hokkaido to the southwest. We learned that touring at Tokachidake and cable cars laps at Asahidake are reserved for cleaner weather and light winds. Throughout our trip wind played a bigger role in our decision making than I had anticipated. The weather window we entered on, lead us to central Hokkaido to start our trip at Asahidake, where we scored the second half of a bluebird pow day. The Asahidake terrain was not as big and impressive as I has expected after online research but the snow quality was pretty incredible and topped the list for our trip. The onsen at the hotel below the cable car was also a trip favorite. By the end of the second day at Asahidake, camping down the road form the lift, stopping by the RV for supplies between runs in the tiny parking lot, the lack of crowds and great vibe, we were sold on the place and left with fond memories, new friends and an appreciation for the mountain’s offering.
Exploring Furano With a Friendly Guide
Reid and Hannah met us at Asahidake for our second day of riding and we then caravaned down to Furano for what ended up being a good chunk of our trip. Furano was a step up from Asahidake as far as resort feel and crowd levels but still very relaxed and a far cry in comparison to the shit show of wealth and lift-lines found at Niseko. Parked outside the fancy Prince hotel, we used their bathrooms and hung in our RVs between full days on the hill. Hannah linked up with a college buddy who was kind enough to guide us around the resort, where Heather has spent the last four winters. Furano is a steep mountain with good lift access. In search of deep snow, it meant that we were exiting out gates and taking hikes most of our runs, which made for great turns but lower run count. You can find some exciting terrain off the lift at Furano and a little extra effort with a hike or an ugly exit out of some taxing gullies will score you powder late into the day.
On one of our hikes to the “Premium Zone,” we had one of the most exciting runs of the trip. Under clear blues skies and and still air, Reid proposed to Hannah at the ridge top. Nikki and I got to watch nearby as we pretended to transition our boards into downhill mode. The couple embraced and tears fell over the newly presented ring. I was also there to snap some fun photos of the moment. We all exited the ridge top shortly after, scoring some great hot pow turns to celebrate.
Touring Tokachidake Backcountry
Touring at Tokachidake is something we attempted while in close proximity staying in Furano. Tokachidake consists of volcano terrain similar to what’s found in the Northwest. The day we choose for our adventure was too cold and windy to get very far but I could see how it’s a great spot to find deep turns and I would definitely put more priority on this zone for any future trips. If the skiing isn’t great there for you, like it wasn’t for our group, than the onsens will definitely make up for your lost turns.
Tourists at The Coast in Otaru
The itch to see more of Japan and an incoming storm that was to hit the southwest mountains harder, provided our caravan the motivation to venture away from central Hokkaido. Nikki and I drove through the coast town of Otaru to find unique experiences and world class sushi. And boy did we. Arriving in the dark, hungry, on a Tuesday night, we missed out on any sushi places that were on our list. Wandering the streets in frigid weather, we stumbled into a wrong door and found the kookiest empty restaurant with an older man greeting us kindly. It was too late to back out, we looked each other in the eye and proceeded to get our fill of Otaru in a single evening. Let’s just say that the food we received was too fishy for the Maine fish boy. We did however manage to stomach some more fish the next day for a lunch at a high-end sushi joint that cleared the palette and refreshed our confidence in the local seafood.
Rusutsu Resort Skiing
The resort town of Rusutsu and it’s fancy hotels with half empty parking lots become our next home. Reid, Hannah, Nikki and I scored a fresh foot of new snow there. A hint of powder panic was in the air as we waited for the morning gondola and we could all feel it, which was the first time on the trip we had waited in a long enough lift-line to sense the fear of missed turns. The resort terrain was less impressive and more crowded than Furano. Rusutsu does have quite a bit of acreage available though and a big lift system to support it. Exploring one ridge-line to the next, dropping down in on the steeper valley walls, we were happy as clams for the first few hours. The powder at Rusutus quickly got tracked by the crowds and by noon we were in search of any hidden pockets remaining on lower angle terrain.
Touring Rusutsu Backcountry
We ended up spending the rest of our trip at Rusutus, with the exception of one night spent in Niseko in search of a better meal. We stayed at Rusutu not for the resort but for the surrounding backcountry. The nearby mountains provided the best turns of our trip. Yes we had ridden good, deep snow at each resort but it was all a bit more shallow and got tracked more quickly than my expectation for Japan had lead me to believe. With one day of touring came the eye opener that deep turns in Japan can happen at the resort but are far more common in the backcountry. Makes sense, right? So for the last two days we lapped the same zone in frigid temps and blowing winds that were creating a -10 degree wind chill. The turns were well worth the cold obviously. The tour was mellow for the amount of vert gained and the trees… The trees in this southwestern zone were perfectly spaced for ridding between, thinner than we had seen in central Hokkaido.
Nikki and I chatted on our last day while touring up the skin track about how it felt like a great decision to skip the deep powder day at Niseko Resort for the quiet and relaxed backcountry atmosphere. No crowds, no powder panic, just our own two feet taking their time to power us up to a pristine run in Japan. We realized that after six days riding lifts we really needed a few days of balance to find peace and fresh snow without anyone in our way.
Leaving the North Island on our domestic shuttle flight back to Tokyo, I sifted through photos and looked back on what I had taken away from my Japan snowboard experience. Here’s a punch list of what stood out:
- Riding a resort on a powder day in Japan is like riding a resort anywhere else. Get there early and make as many turns as you can before it’s tracked out for the day. Choose your resort wisely and maybe that mom & pop ski-hill will save turns later in the day than the mega resort.
- Resorts in Japan operate like resorts in the states but they have more bubble quads and gondolas to combat the cold.
- Yes, Japan can provide thigh-high deep days but those are not normal. Normal is a slow steady stream of low density snow that stacks up each night. After days of compounding snowfalls, the sidecountry and backcountry gets very deep.
- Wind is a serious enemy in Japan. It will compact the powder, equally destroy visibility and make it too cold to ride.
- Japan has some amazing spacing between the trees. It’s one of the unique factors that kept delighting me.
- Hokkaido terrain isn’t necessarily big, but it can be quite steep and playful.
- International ski tourism is alive and well in Japan. Tourists there don’t often have strong riding skills. We felt fortunate to meet great people along the way that shared a similar attitude and sense of terrain. Those folks were 20% of the crowd, at best.
- Guides are worth the money when your are learning a new zone. If we hadn’t had a friend in Furano, we would have missed the best turns we made there. Heather set us up with places to park, eat and ride.
- Hiking always gets you better turns but the longer you walk doesn’t always make the turns better.
- If you want fresh tracks and to skip the powder panic, go for a tour.
Japan Travel Tips Learned:
- Fly All Nippon to Japan, skip Japan Airlines. ANA reps speak way better english and will make your travels much more smooth.
- Rent the wi-fi hot-spot from the airport upon arriving. It will save you money and makes life easier.
- Traveling with board bags or multiple suitcases through the public train systems sucks. Try and plan your rental vehicle or hotel accommodation around easy access to the airport over central locations to downtown.
- Avoid driving in cities, roads are very slow in Japan. The Expressways are quite expensive to use but well worth it.
- Double check all Google Maps directions to make sure the directions stay on main roads and away from shortcuts.
- Roll with lots of extra cash in Japan. There will be many surprises, like a $70 (USD) cash gas station fill up.
- Remember to pack any medicine, pain killers, cold medicine, whatever. Prepare ahead for sickness, where you can read labels and know of products that work for you.
- Pack lots of food bars for energy. Otherwise you will be rolling the dice with rice triangles as your ski snack.
- If you are traveling to Japan in the winter, bring your warmest layers and gloves. Pack many pairs of hand and foot warmers too.