Pow­der to the peo­ple

How to make the most of the slopes of Hokkaido

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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