Photo by Jacob Smith
Making effortless turns through waist-deep powder we finally stop at the bottom where we all, in almost perfect harmony, agree: “That was the best run of my life.”
BY AMANDA MONTHEI
We’re skinning along a ridgeline on a mountain near Niseko, Japan, on the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido when the sky suddenly opens up. Before us an expansive view of the slender ridgeline we’d just toured up is laid before us, while 6,227-foot Mt. Yotei makes a brief appearance in the distance.
Before long, as tends to happen on this island, the snow begins again in blinding waves indicating we’ve finally arrived in the Japan we’ve been hearing about—the powder is deep and untouched, and snow-encrusted maple trees dot the slope as far as we can see.
Our group is comprised of husband-wife duo Will and Natalie Sloop of the Niseko-based Rising Sun Guides, as well as a group of five friends I met in college in Michigan. We spend a few minutes gawking at our surroundings before dropping in to the kind of snow you travel across oceans for, fleeting moments of perfect turns between maple trees and surrounded by the profound quiet of a forest in the midst of a snowstorm. Making effortless turns through waist-deep powder we finally stop at the bottom where we all, in almost perfect harmony, agree: “That was the best run of my life.”
“Did you hear?” The bartender would say in a whisper one might use to disclose their most secrete of stashes. “Forty-five centimeters by tomorrow night,” they’d continue, eye widening.
Niseko is the undisputed skiing metropolis of Hokkaido— Japan’s north island and agricultural hub—where a combination of cold and dry Siberian air and moisture from the Sea of Japan marry into a constant onslaught of blower pow. The island gets so much snow that while I was there in January I rarely bothered to check the weather forecast. It was a safe bet that there’d be new snow on the ground in the morning. And if a notable amount were predicted I’d hear whispers of it around town, in lift lines or among crowds in restaurants and bars.
It’s no secret that the island of Hokkaido is the place to be in January (there’s a reason it’s referred to as “Japanuary”) and with a monthly snowfall total of 305 centimeters (120 inches) last January, it lives up to its reputation. This has meant a boost in visitors, but not everything is tracked and blown out—Will, whom I met through my job in wildland fire in the summer of 2018, and Natalie have found not only the best skiing but also the finest sushi spots, izakayas (a tapas-style Japanese bar and restaurant) and onsens (natural hot springs prevalent across the hyper-volcanic country). The surprising part is that these treasures are often in sleepy towns well outside of Niseko’s bustling hubs.
“My most memorable moments in Japan have come from experiences that aren’t comfortable or that are uniquely Japanese,” Will said when I talked to him a few months after the trip. Will is tall—towering above almost everyone while we were in Japan—and has the most wholesome belly laugh I’ve ever heard. He loves karaoke and has an endearing goofiness, but is serious about safety in the backcountry—and about pulling your weight and being respectful of the culture. “Some stuff here … is getting really popular,” he continued, “but there are still ways to have your own adventure.”
Some gates are fully lift accessed and others require a bit of hiking, but all are worth the effort when the forecast is right and the inbounds snow is tracked.
Beyond exploring the zones outside of the main hubs, the best way to find your own ski adventure in Hokkaido is to head into the backcountry—whether your sights are set on big, off-piste lines or in the confines of the resort, Niseko is the perfect center for whatever you’re into. The real mecca of the Hokkaido ski scene, however, is Niseko United Resorts, which is made up of four adjacent ski resorts—Annupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu and Hanazono—located 10-20 minutes apart at their bases but all intersecting via chairlift at the top of Mt. Niseko-Annupuri. Our group stayed in a hostel at the base of Annupuri, the westernmost resort at Niseko United, and found it a hidden gem—crowds were light even on the biggest pow days, and the terrain was unexpectedly steep. Another surprisingly fun experience? Night skiing, particularly while it was storming (which is virtually always).
Despite a plethora of in-bounds options, it didn’t take long for our group—a collection of skiers and snowboarders who now live in Oregon, Colorado and California—to seek backcountry access beyond Niseko United’s boundaries. This turned out to be pretty easy, actually. Annupuri alone has access to a handful of backcountry gates, while a dozen more scatter the greater Niseko United area. When the gates were open, a status dependent upon weather and avalanche danger, they were often the best places to find afternoon powder when other zones were skied out. Some gates are fully lift accessed and others require a bit of hiking, but all are worth the effort when the forecast is right and the inbounds snow is tracked. Like backcountry skiing anywhere, you’ll need avalanche gear to venture out of bounds (buying or renting in Japan is relatively expensive so I highly recommend bringing your own), and should consult the avy forecast and weather to stay safe.
“You’ll see so many tiny little public ski hills that are owned by a town; some of them are only like two or three chairs, but they’re so much fun to ski [and have] so much powder because no one goes there.”
Yet, while it’s worth a few days of exploration, the Hokkaido experience doesn’t—and shouldn’t—start and end with a trip to Niseko. Some of my most memorable Japanese experiences came on a 10-day solo road trip around the island in a tiny Suzuki rental with tires no wider than my powder skis. It was during this leg that I discovered more ski resorts than I could possible hit in one trip, along with onsens tucked into mountain passes, and beautiful views of the mountains and vast agricultural fields of central Hokkaido. I also found the cutest (and cheapest) hostels, the best deals on skiing (usually $30 or less for a day ticket), and some of the best snow during this part of my trip.
“If you want a more authentic ski holiday or Japan experience, the road trip is the way to go,” said Wanaka Yokoo, who was born in Niseko and now winters there as a ski instructor. “You’ll see so many tiny little public ski hills that are owned by a town; some of them are only like two or three chairs, but they’re so much fun to ski [and have] so much powder because no one goes there. And usually, they’re only like $10 to ski and have a cute little restaurant at the bottom where a little old lady serves you great food.”
The Asahikawa area (about four hours northeast of Niseko) is the ideal hub to access the dozens of tiny ski resorts dotted throughout the region. Daisetsuzan National Park, another hour east of Asahikawa, is also a key stop for anyone seeking old-fashioned onsens with prime backcountry skiing a few steps away (there are even a handful of trams in the national park that provide backcountry access for just a few bucks per ride).
During my two-day trip through Daisetsuzan, I’d onsen in the morning, ski all day, and finish the afternoon with another onsen. Where else in the world can you soak in a natural hot spring before and after a day of backcountry skiing in the midst of active volcanoes? I’d be willing to bet not many, and experiences like these are what make a trip to Japan unparalleled by other ski destinations. Japan was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. And the best moments were those that took us a little further, a little deeper into the mountains and a little more off the beaten path.
NISEKO UNITED RESORTS
This Hokkaido mainstay is popular for a reason—endless terrain coupled with insane snow and an endless variety of food and drink options makes it a one-stop-shop for great skiing and even better aprés.
With a huge amount of terrain and a location just far enough away from Niseko (half-hour) to cut down on the crowds, Rusutsu is worthy of at least a day or two of skiing while visiting the Niseko area, and the ideal place to be on a powder morning.
A critical stop on any road trip through “ Central Hokkaido, Furano is a fantastic, family-run ski area with cheap tickets, delicious food and beautiful views of the west side of Daisetsuzan National Park to the east. If you do stop in Furano, check out the Ningle Terrace—a small artist marketu in the woods below the ski area, all housed in tiny, charming log cabins nestled into a snow-covered pine and maple forest.
ONSENS (HOT SPRINGS)
Tucked in the mountains above Annupuri, the Yukichichibu Onsen sits right next to a calderic marshland and is known for its high sulfur content (meaning it’s a little stinky.) Despite the smell, with eight pools, a mud bath on the women’s side and insane views of the surrounding mountains, Yukichichibu was hands-down my favorite onsen in Japan.
Another onsen in the Niseko area, the Makkari Onsen is located directly between Niseko and Rusutsu, making it a good stop after a day of skiing at Rusutsu. For the real aprés triple threat, I recommend adding a ramen and beer onto your onsen ticket (usually around 12 bucks for all three) to enjoy after your soak.
Located deep in Daisetsuzan National Park and easily accessible from Furano, Ryounkaku wasn’t the fanciest or best onsen I visited, but its location was top notch. Located at the base of Mount Furano, a trailhead for backcountry skiing is located across the road and the scenic drive up the mountain was itself worth the trip.
Tucked into an alley below the town of Hirafu, Bar Gyu was an unsuspectingly excellent place to grab a drink after skiing at Niseko our first day. After ducking through the refrigerator door that serves as the bar’s entryway, we were greeted by warm lighting and cozy chairs, where we drank spiced wine and watched snow pile up outside the bar’s huge windows.
Also located in Hirafu, Ren is one of the best izakayas (a bar and restaurant specializing in shared plates like seafood, meat skewers, fried vegetables and tofu dishes) we visited, though any izakaya you can find is worthy of a visit. Order a variety of dishes (I recommend the burdock root, gyozas or sashimi salad) and share with the table for a relatively cheap dinner option. Matsuri Izakaya, located west of Annupuri near Moiwa Ski Area, was another favorite of our group.
SKI AREA RAMEN
Some of the best ramen I ate in Japan was either at an onsen or at a ski area lodge. Maybe that was a result of being ravenously hungry after skiing bottomless powder or maybe I just didn’t eat enough ramen at restaurants (probably because I was too busy finding izakayas or eating hot pots). Either way, I stand by my assertion that one of my best meals in Japan was the spicy miso ramen at Rusutsu’s base lodge. Annupuri’s lodge had some similarly delicious (and surprisingly cheap) ramen options, while the Makkari Onsen had a few great choices.
WORTH YOUR YEN
RENT A CAR
To get outside of the Niseko area, you’ll want a rental car—it allowed me to both road trip to Central Hokkaido (about four hours from Niseko) and also check out ski resorts just outside of Niseko. To drive a rental car, you will need an International Driving Permit, which can be purchased at any AAA. Another thing to note: tollways in Japan are not cheap. My first 60-mile trip on a tollway ran me over $15 and I ended up spending much more than that by the end of the trip.
INVEST IN A GUIDE
Having lived in Niseko and worked for Rising Sun Guide for the last two winters, Will and Natalie were an invaluable asset to our exploration. They took us to some of our favorite spots of the trip, told us how to not look like idiots in the onsen (in short: shower fully beforehand, don’t let your hair get in the water, be respectful, no drinking and no bathing suits) and got us into some of the best snow some of us had ever skied. They even gave us some remedial Japanese language lessons, carted us around in the guide van and generally contributed to us having a blast. One of the most important things Will and Natalie taught us, however, was how to fit in to the Japanese culture—a necessary lesson for a bunch of loud Midwestern girls in a place that reveres courtesy and quiet above almost all else.
Originally from Northern Michigan, Amanda Monthei began her writing career covering wrestling matches and parades for a regional newspaper in Michigan’s U.P. She is now a freelance writer and U.S. Forest Service hotshot who spends her days hiking, ski touring or biking when she’s not writing about skiing and fishing for Mountain Outlaw, The Ski Journal, The Flyfish Journal and The Drake Magazine.