Best snow in the world? Nipple deep powder? Ridiculous amounts of all that?
Welcome to Japan. I was just skiing around Hokkaido (the northern island of Japan) and here are my thoughts and ideas:
- Fly into New Chitose Airport (CTS)
- Rent a car (Helps being mobile and go where the snow is)
- make sure your drivers license is accepted (some countries require a translation to japanese)
- rent a place to stay (airbnb works well, book early for good deals!)
- get lucky with the weather
- be safe
- drive on the left side of the road
- consider bringing a snorkel
- enjoy the silliest amounts of snow you can possibly imagine
Where to stay and where to go skiing?
Hokkaido has a number of resorts to go skiing. Best known is the area around Niseko. Thats where we were staying – i can not tell you about resorts further inland and north of Sapporo
Niseko consists of 3 different ski resorts that are linked together. Is it worth going? Not really. Niseko is crowded and once it starts snowing you will stand in line at the lifts and the fluffy powder gets tracked out within a few minutes.
Rusutsu is starting to become popular too, but will offer great powder skiing, fewer regulations and less people – still, on weekends and if there are any events going on, there will be plenty people.
Kiroro is less crowded while offering great skiing.
So where do i stay? While Ski-in-ski-out places are amazing, you have to be lucky that the snow is coming down where you are. Even though we stayed just about 10min from a ski resort in the niseko area, we went skiing almost every day in the area around Kiroro which was a 1.5h drive. Kiroro had ridiculous amounts of snow falling while we had multiple days with almost no snow at our apartment.
I strongly reccomend renting a place that is out of the way, for example somewhere between Kiroro and Rusutsu close to Kutchan (where you can get groceries and so on). This way you save money and you stay flexible on where you want to go.
Consider the following: If it snows heavily, you only need a few lifts to bring you up the hill, from there you will have unlimited possibilities to go skiing from. The size of the resort is almost irrelevant if you have decent amounts of snow and few people. Go where nobody goes and go where the snow is.
We did not do any backcountry skiing because we felt with the amount of snow that was falling we could get good snow from the lifts without having to put on skins and hike somewhere.
Should i bring skies – if yes, which ones?
I skied anything from 105mm underfoot to 135mm underfoot. I heard stories from people beforehand telling me “you cant ski anything less than 130mm in japan!”. Well sure you can, it just depends what kind of powder skiing you prefer. Those big french fries can get you surfing if you get the speed – though with some narrow disco sticks you get more of that powder up your nose and over your head. Depends on what you prefer. The fresh snow is so light and dry that any ski will sink in but every ski will still turn easily enough. I would say you should not have any problems with normal all mountain skies even around 90mm.
Do i need a guide?
No. Would i reccomend a guide? Depends. If you have the budget go for it. Guides show you where to go and what to do, they show you the snow and they tell you where those secret untouched places are. You save a big chunk of time that you would otherwise loose trying to find the good places around the resorts. We had guides for one day and it was nice getting some information, but otherwise we explored most places ourselves.
how to improve your chances of survival:
Japan can be cold! We had temperatures as low as -23° C plus a considerable wind chill. A friend of mine had these heated soles for her ski boots and said they were amazing. I didnt have those and i had freezing cold feet every other day. Make sure you have appropiate clothing.
Safety around the snow:
This is big. Beside all the Avalanche rescue gear and basic equipment (beacon, showel, probe, first aid kit) there are a few more things to consider:
Skiing in a group is key. Establish a system where you can make sure everybody is keeping up. If you are last in your group and you fall and make a headdive into the snow you might just dissapear in the snow being unable to easily free yourself. Walkie Talkies are an option, we always had “last buddies” skiing closely together as the last two people of the group making sure everybody is there.
Japan has a lot of trees! While its great fun to zoom though these middle dense forests and race your friends through the pow, keep in mind that these fairytale looking trees are really hard and can hurt you really bad. Wear a helmet. Falling and then hitting a tree in an unplanned manner might not be the most fun.
Enjoy that Powpow!