The Land of Smiles



Stand­ing just off the sum­mit of Mt. Isola, peer­ing be­yond my ski tips at un­touched pil­lows of creamy pow­der, my ski­ing part­ners are chat­ting about the 13 me­ters of av­er­age an­nual snow­fall that Rusutsu re­sort sees ev­ery win­ter.

Thir­teen me­ters. That’s nearly 43 feet, or a four-story build­ing. It’s a full three me­ters taller than an Olympic high dive.

From my per­spec­tive, stand­ing in the fall­ing snow, get­ting ready to take yet an­other deep­est-run-of-my-life, 13 me­ters of snow­fall doesn’t seem like an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. In fact, it seems like an un­der­es­ti­mate.

Any­one who has watched a ski movie from the last decade has likely seen epic pow­der seg­ments filmed in Hokkaido. The moun­tains of Ja­pan’s north is­land con­sis­tently get more snow than al­most any other re­gion in the world, en­tic­ing skiers in search of lift-ac­cessed, bot­tom­less pow­der. What these ski movies don’t al­ways show is that many of the shots are in the back­coun­try or in closed ter­rain: Ski­ing in the trees isn’t nec­es­sar­ily per­mit­ted by all of the ski re­sorts in the re­gion.

But this isn’t the case at Rusutsu. This ski area not only al­lows tree ski­ing, they en­cour­age it. In the glades be­tween the cut runs, snow-cov­ered fallen—and still stand­ing— trees form nat­u­ral launch pads with pil­lowy soft land­ings for any amount of air. And there’s plen­ti­ful pow­der for skiers who pre­fer to keep their bases on the ground.

For our first lap, we take the gon­dola from the Rusutsu Ho­tel and Con­ven­tion Cen­ter to the sum­mit of East Moun­tain. At the top of the gondy, a nar­row path cuts into the trees not un­like the Daly Chutes at Deer Val­ley or the trees off Steam­boat’s Mt. Werner: You can’t quite see where the tra­verse leads, but it’s invit­ing to any skier worth their fat boards.

Sure enough, the trees clear to present per­fectly white nat­u­ral fall lines, tree launch­ing pads, and, most im­por­tantly, soft and boun­ti­ful

pow­der ev­ery­where. We de­scend the trees, scop­ing land­ings like any savvy North Amer­i­can skier wary of rocks would. There’s noth­ing to in­di­cate hid­den stones, stumps, or any sort of for­eign ob­ject in any of the land­ings, as it’s all likely buried un­der me­ters of snow. We blast down, slash­ing pil­lows and wip­ing the snow from our gog­gles, anx­ious for more.

We hop on the Isola No. 2 quad, where the liftie greets us with a hearty “ari­gato gon-zai-ee-maas” (thank you very much) just be­fore the chair­lift bub­ble au­to­mat­i­cally comes down with­out warn­ing. The tallest of our group, Sam, gets a force­ful re­minder that wear­ing a sturdy ski hel­met is crit­i­cal for lifts as well as de­scents.

At the top of the chair­lift on 3,261-foot Mt. Isola, the high­est point on Rusutsu’s 4,200 acres, we meet Jake and Char­lie Cohn, broth­ers who grew up in Tel­luride, Colo., but have spent the last seven sea­sons dig­ging deep into Ja­panese ski cul­ture. They own and op­er­ate SnowLo­cals, a plan­ning ser­vice that helps western trav­el­ers sur­vive and thrive on Hokkaido ski trips. Trust­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence, we fol­low them from the view of the shim­mer­ing Pa­cific Ocean at Mt. Isola’s sum­mit into the trees skier’s left of the Isola No.1 quad. In the glades, even more mas­sive marsh­mal­lows of snow are pre­sented for our ski­ing plea­sure.

The group spreads out, whoop­ing in plea­sure and leav­ing clouds of snowflakes in our wake. Our out­er­wear’s bright col­ors are the only way to de­ter­mine who’s who, as ev­ery­thing else is ob­scured by snow bil­low­ing up from our skis and fall­ing hard from the sky. We ar­rive at the base of the lift with smiles al­most as big as our hunger for an­other lap, which would soon be­come an in­sa­tiable ap­petite that keeps us ski­ing for 12 hours a day, three days in a row. Need­less to say, SnowLo­cals made a strong first im­pres­sion.

Rusutsu’s name comes from the Ainu lan­guage, mean­ing “road at the foot of the moun­tain.” The first recorded set­tle­ment in the vil­lage was in 1870, and it has since blos­somed to 2,500 year-round res­i­dents. The area re­lies mostly on tourism, with ski­ing in the win­ter and a large out­door amuse­ment park in the sum­mer. Agri­cul­ture re­mains the sec­ond largest eco­nomic driver, and there is a seem­ingly never-end­ing sup­ply of lo­cally grown or raised pota­toes, as­para­gus, and pork in the ski re­sort’s cafe­te­rias and ho­tel restau­rants.

Be­sides the pow­der and tree ski­ing, North Amer­i­cans are likely to no­tice the re­sort’s in­door amuse­ment park, open year-round, which makes Rusutsu’s ho­tel and con­fer­ence cen­ter a rather odd place. The large build­ing at the base of West Moun­tain fea­tures a full-sized in­door merry-go-round, dated themed store­fronts, plus ski area cafe­te­rias, au­then­tic Ja­panese restau­rants,

Sam Beck drop­ping in to Mt. Isola’s pow­dery glades at Rusutsu Re­sort.

The Rusutsu Re­sort Ho­tel’s Carousel is one of the many unique at­trac­tions in the ho­tel’s in­door vil­lage. It’s free of charge and open year­round.

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