Powder to the people
How to make the most of the slopes of Hokkaido
Every time I’ve gone skiing in Japan, there has been at least one magical experience that’s soared into my top 10 ski moments. Night skiing through the trees with chunky flakes falling around me like a swarm of locusts; an off-piste run down a live volcano on Hokkaido’s highest mountain, Asahidake, where the snow was thigh-deep and unblemished by other tracks; a perfect blue-sky day (rare in these parts) on a mountain peak with a stunning view of the Sea of Japan and Mount Yotei, a mini-me version of Mount Fuji; skiing a long backcountry run with powder spraying over my head – this really was the stuff of dreams, a moment so perfect I felt that even if I never skied again, I could still die happy. It was but a fleeting thought, as 10 minutes later I was eager to do it all over again. The lure of Japan’s main northern island of Hokkaido has drawn me time after time for a snow fix nowhere else in the world can match. In its snowiest years, the island’s best-known resorts such as Niseko, Rusutsu and Furano can receive up to 56ft (17m) of the white stuff. To put that in perspective, the annual average snowfall at perennial British favourite Val d’Isère in France is 13ft (4m). Over the past 10 years, Hokkaido’s deep snow cover has attracted film-makers, photographers and increasing numbers of British and North American skiers to what many consider is the holy grail of powder skiing. But accessing terrain away from pisted runs has always been a grey area, with some resorts actively enforcing a ban while others turn a blind eye.
This was certainly the case three years ago when I last visited, but when I was invited on a whistle-stop five-day road trip in February to some of the key resorts to see how much had changed, I jumped at the opportunity. Especially as I was to be escorted by Japan expert and ex-ski racer Kenji Matzukawa from specialist tour operator Ski Safari.
At Rusutsu, a near neighbour to Hokkaido’s best-known resort Niseko, we were shown around by the resort’s international ski school manager and ace skier Paul Hanlon. He led us down line after snaking line through the resort’s many forest-clad slopes. The area is renowned for its well-spaced trees, but before the 2014-15 season anything away from the mostly blue or red pisted runs was technically out of bounds.
“So many people were going into the trees that there were more people there than on the runs,” Paul explained. “The ski patrol didn’t know what to do.”
The resort requested permission from the Forestry Office, a government body that looks after all woodland, to let skiers and snowboarders access the terrain, effectively making it inbounds. The request was granted with one caveat – it cannot be actively promoted on the resort’s website, suggesting the practice is permitted but not condoned.
In a further step, Rusutsu has introduced an in-bounds guiding programme this season, led by qualified ISIA instructors.
There is still out of bounds terrain that tempts the more adventurous, notably one area on a ridge between the resort’s West mountain and Shiribetsu mountain. The 15-20-minute hike accesses an excellent area, although it can be prone to avalanches. Paul suggests that a backcountry gate could be introduced here in future to allow access, but at your own risk.
In Furano, a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Rusutsu, there has been a similar significant shift in attitude towards off-piste skiing. The resort used to be renowned for strictly
enforcing a policy that prohibited any skiing away from designated runs, but that all changed in the 2013-14 season.
Fencing that used to line either sides of the pistes was removed, and you can now ski wherever you want within the resort boundary. The resort has also introduced six backcountry access gates. Long-term Kiwi resident Scott Tovey says: “As a result of the change in policy we have seen a significant increase in European off-piste skiers.”
I don’t deny the truth of this, but it wasn’t evident when we raced around the sparsely populated slopes, ducking off piste and into well-spaced trees as and when the mood took us. I was in superb hands – both Scott, as a local, and Kenji (who was once head of the Furano ski patrol) knew the slopes and the best routes as well as anyone. Part of my super-condensed Japan itinerary was a visit to a resort I hadn’t been to before and was very eager to see. The whole of Hokkaido is a land of falling snow and bottomless powder, but among the 96 resorts on the island there is one that reigns supreme – Kiroro. It’s the island’s snowiest resort, with as much as 65ft (20m) of fluffy white gold falling a year, and has adopted a very clear-cut approach to backcountry skiing.
The resort may not be on the international radar, but in the 2015-16 winter season it introduced a programme to create a premium off-piste (or “backcountry”) product.
“We wanted to create a sustainable backcountry culture,” said Mark Wyckmans, an international marketing assistant, after Kenji and I arrived at the resort, an hour’s drive from Niseko. This means if you ski away from the piste you have to go through one of the backcountry access gates. In Japan, if you ski in the backcountry, you’re supposed to fill in a plan of your route and give it to the local police office and the forestry office. In reality, many people don’t.
In Kiroro, the rule is enforced but they make the process simple. The forms are at the lift office, where you hand them in once completed. After you’ve finished for the day, you need to check back in. Failure to do so could be costly – if a search and rescue party is sent to find you, you’ll pick up the tab. And there’s a very strict policy on people jumping ropes within the resort boundary to access off-piste terrain. If you do it and a ski patrol sees you, they will take your pass away.
Last season, Kiroro launched a Mountain Club membership scheme. For a daily fee of 1,000 yen (£7) you supply your route plan an hour earlier than non-members (8am rather than 9am) to be first in line for fresh powder and have exclusive access to a run within the resort ungroomed until midday.
On-slope guiding wasn’t available last season, although it’s being introduced for 2017-2018. Fortunately, Mark was on hand to show us around and lead us to the most magical moment of our trip. In a brochurecover landscape of thigh-deep powder, with snow falling like cherry blossoms around us, we skied a run through the trees – of course – and enjoyed that intoxicating sensation of weightlessness that only premiumquality snow gives.
Kiroro’s more clear-cut approach to backcountry skiing might be the way forward, but it’s in contrast to what’s still happening in Hokkaido’s largest and most successful resort, Niseko. When Kenji and I explored the island’s most extensive ski area, enjoying a blue-sky day after fresh snowfall, things didn’t appear to have changed much in the past three years. Despite rules clearly stating you should not duck ropes, it still seems commonplace, and although there’s an extensive network of backcountry gates, I suspect few skiers and snowboarders are filling in the required paperwork to use them.
So while the situation is less grey in Hokkaido, it’s still not black and white. One thing is for sure, though – the appeal of Hokkaido continues to grow. On the plane back from Tokyo I bumped into Rob Stanford from the Warren Smith Ski Academy, which has been running courses in Niseko for the past 10 years. “We’ve seen demand grow year on year,” he told me. “This season we ran two trips for the first time – 35 people in the first week, 42 in the second.”
No doubt every one of them returned with their own magical Japanese experiences.
Hokkaido, left, is attracting an increasing number of British skiers; Niseko, right and bottom right, is the biggest and buzziest resort; an open-air hot spring, below