Japow, Niseko and Tokachidake, Hokkaido, Japan
Ten friends set off on a guided backcountry ski trip on the north island of Hokkaido, Japan; it was one of the most memorable 9 days I’ve ever had on skis. Each day by itself was perhaps the best powder skiing I’ve ever experienced. And we had 9 days.
We went with Hokkaido Powder Guides, specializing in backcountry trips. In 9 days, we climbed 3 volcanos, skied 50,000 vertical feet of 5% untracked powder, and rode only two chair lifts. Travel from PDX was easier than going to Europe. The order of Japanese culture resembles the Swiss. The lodging was excellent, food strange and often delicious (mostly) and the bus transfers were exact.
We spent the first five days skiing Niseko and staying at a family-run bed and breakfast called Ramina within walking distance of Hirafu ski village. For breakfast, we had a plates of salted marinated fish, baked gelatinous eggs, a tiny weirdly-tasting sausage, some sort of pickled meat, rice, miso soup, and green salad. The owner baked fresh bread and put out homemade jam, yogurt, and fruit.
Day one was bluebird sky, about 15degF, and 6 inches 5% snow on top of 12 inches from the day before. Our two Whistler, Canada, guides, Nicholas and Sam, met us at the lodge in the ubiquitous 4×4 Toyota vans. We stopped at 7-Eleven to pick up lunch (sweet rice rolled in seaweed, nuts, and chocolate bars). We skied Nimi Onsen among silver birch groves. The highest peak we climbed was 3,300 feet, which had views of the ocean. The snow was light, untracked, and knee-deep. This would be the theme for 8 more days.
Apre ski, we stopped at an onsen, a natural hot springs lodge, which would become a daily ritual. Men and women are segregated, except for one day we went to a mixed onsen. You pay, get a towel, grab a Sapporo beer from a coin-op vending machine, step into the locker room, strip, take a shower (which you do sitting down on a stool with a hand sprayer), and then step into the outside hot-spring-fed pool–naked. We dined at a small, but very popular restaurant that specialized in ramen noodle soup with a hearty rich broth, alongside tables of other skiers and snowboarders, many from Australia.
On Day 2, we woke to sun and cold temps and hiked Yotei, a volcano in the middle of the valley, about 6,000 feet elevation (our climb was 3,000 feet). After three-hour ascent, we skied down in ankle- to knee-deep powder in the silver birch trees. Apre ski we had the hot-tub onsen and sushi.
On Day 3, we drove an hour to Kiroro Ski World resort, road two lifts to the top, then skied out of bounds (after obtaining a permit and filling a route plan with ski patrol). We then made four long runs about 1500 vertical feet each in waist deep powder among silver birch. We got new snow almost every night, between 3 and 15 inches—I sort of lost track because even without new snow, we skied deep untracked pow. On the way home we stopped for sushi at a conveyor belt place like Sushi Land and ate salmon, cod, wontons, tempura, shrimp, tuna, and such delicacies. Everyone passed on the crab innards.
On Day 4, we climbed and skied Shirabetsu volcano, another 3000-foot climb to find more powder but a bit variable. One run was in a grove of small bamboo plants, which seemed to increase the moisture of the snow. Our last dinner in Ramina, the couple made us dinner: sashimi, which we made into our own hand rolls.
On Day 5 we skied a defunct ski resort near an army base in low-angle, untracked powder. Because we had two nights of 10-inch dumps, we had tons of snow. Then at exactly 3:30 pm, our van shows up, we load up 10 ski bags and piles of duffels and backpacks, and drive to Tokachidake and Daisetsuzan National Park. The five hour drive was almost all on snow-covered roads (except through Sapporo City), the final 1000-foot ascent from Furano to Tokachidake was through snowbanks higher than the van across lots of avalanche paths that were laced with snow fences.
Tokachidake and Daisetsuzan
Tokachidake Hot Springs Lodge was a summer spa that repurposed in winter for skiers. Spartan rooms with futons (but the toilet seat is heated and to go into the bathroom you leave your house slippers at the door and put on the special “toilet” slippers).
Hot springs onsen was lined in cedar and has a view of Furano valley (which was snowcovered, but in summer grows lavender and melons). About 50 other guests were at the lodge: a few were Japanese that have come to “spa” others are skiers: several groups from Europe and North America. There’s a big ski/skin drying room in the basement. The snow banks were about 10-15 feet high, the roofs had 4-6 feet of snow. We had two guides in Furano, Jerome a Whistler ski patroller and Nori a Japanese skier who lived in Furano. At the Lodge, we had elaborate dinners: seafood pots which cooked at our table, corn soup, miso soup, shrimp (complete with head on), potato/squash soup, corn and buttered rice, cod with a sweet chutney, cooked salmon, sashimi (salmon, tuna, cod, octopus, squid), egg custard, cabbage/pork rolls. Every night we ended the meal with at least 10 small plates and bowls: one for every course. Breakfasts were both Western and traditional. The former was eggs, croissants, rolls, jam, sausages, tater tots and the latter fish, miso soup, salad, noodles, rice and more fish.
Days 6 and 7, we skied knee- to waist-deep pow on Mount Furanodake, which we accessed by driving a mile from our lodge then crossing a stream. Mostly we skied stands of sliver birch because the temps had been about 15degF, snow flurries and windy in the alpine above tree line. The runs were about 1000-1500 feet of descent in light, deep, untracked powder. So they take about 15 minutes to descend and 45 min climb back up. Had it been clear and windless, we could have doubled the length of our runs. Our group all skied well: hard, fast, safe, with fairly rapid transitions: we couldn’t take much time too futz around because it was cold. We did have to pay attention to skins icing up. The uptracks were very gentle, considering the guides broke trail by sinking a solid foot or more with each step.
On day 8, the sun came out and temps fell. Clear sky and -15F with a slight breeze, bringing the wind chill to -25F. We climbed the volcano, Tokachidake, somewhat like Mt. St. Helens only the summit of Tokachidake has a huge volume of steam pouring out of the crater with a stench of sulfur. After two hours of hiking, we reached the top of the summit rim, the sun came up and the wind died down. After making our way through sastrugi and rim-covered scree, we continued to ski several of the lower treed pitches in the afternoon alongside several groups of Japanese backcountry skiers.
On day 9, we drove to the end of the road, about a mile from the lodge, and made six runs in another backcountry bowl below Ansei Crater. After the requisite vending machine Sapporo and onsen hot tub, our van arrived at precisely 3:30 pm for the drive to Chitose airport hotels.
A few points that made this trip fantastic
This was trip #3 for a group of friends who had done the Haute Route and Ortler Circuit: we were not on Hokkaido to huck cliffs and speed fly. Rather, we were there to ski epic powder, experience the culture, and have a great time. Good friend means good trips.
The food was wild, crazy, gross and delicious. I did not eat the intact shrimp (Carnes did) or crab innards, but tried almost everything else, even the egg custard, raw octopus, and many oddly textured unknowns which were probably seafood or soybean products.
A certain orderliness makes this country work perfectly. The bus driver shows up exactly on time. Everyone removes shoes and dons slippers when you enter the lodge. You doff the house slipper and don “Toilet” slippers when you need to toilet. Chris wore his toilet slippers to dinner because they were “more comfortable.” At Ramina, the owner wiped snow-dusted bags down with a towel before we brought them to our rooms.
The onsens are a unique and soothing ritual: natural hot-spring-fed pools which you jump in naked, after scrubbing your whole body in a seated shower room.
The Japanese are incredibly polite and kind.
If you like fish, you’ll eat many forms, mostly raw or cooked and salted, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you like skiing 5% waist deep untracked powder and tree skiing the best backcountry routes on earth, this is the place. Chuck and Toshi at HPG run a smooth operation that is focused on one thing: skiing backcountry powder.
Fat skis, wide shovel and wide underfoot, are key. Amanda has a split snowboard and she rocked it.
It’s cold on Hokkaido: we all brought big puffys, warm gloves, snowboots, and I even used toe heat packs on the day we climbed Tokachidake volcano. I took a light skimo helmet for tree skiing. I had a Jetforce airbag pack, and Wendy and Chris had Avalungs, but the terrain is relatively low angle and we had stable conditions. The biggest hazard seemed to be the small buried trees that snagged a few of our ski trips, considering our skis were buried under two feet of Japow.
We brought boot crampons and ski crampons, but did not use them. A self-arrest pole would be handy perhaps for the volcanos but not necessary for our conditions.
A GPS is the only thing I did not bring that I wish I would have tossed in, mostly just to track our routes. The guides were great, but the backcountry scene is relatively new in Hokkaido.
Several people asked me if you could do it unguided. Certainly you could, but the groups we ran into on DYI programs spent a fair bit of time driving, seeking out beta, and working out logistics. And they all ended up on the main backcountry routes. We were in Japan 9 days and skied 9 full days. Many times, we saw 20-30 other backcountry skiers in the parking lots, then hardly saw anyone on the hill because our guides knew where to find stashes. Without reservation, I would recommend HPG. Interestingly, three of our four guides were from Whistler, all their first season guiding Hokkaido.
CVT, 2/1/16, Hokkaido.