Powder heaven in Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan

I’d been wanting to ski Japan ever since I’d seen the ski movies with powder so deep you could barely move. Visions of powder up to your neck, funnel shaped volcanoes and more tree-lined skiing than you could ever need were eventually too hard to resist.

I was unsure where to go at first, but after some initial research, Niseko seem to be the favourite for good powder and backcountry terrain. My friend Ian, now living in Australia, had come to the same conclusion, so we booked ourselves in to Annupuri Lodge in the small village of Annupuri for 10 days. Niseko basically consists of three small resorts on one mountain, Niseko Village, Annupuri and Hirafu. Annupuri’s slightly further round the mountain than Niseko village, but we’d read that access to the backcountry was slightly easier from there.

Flying via Seoul from the UK, it took just over 24 hours door to door, so not a short journey by any means. Landing at New Chitose airport I was welcomed with snow at sea level, although I’d been told by some locals on arrival that it’d been raining that day up on the mountain so not ideal. The trouble with Hokkaido is the mountains aren’t huge in height (around 1300 metres mostly) , so it only needs the weather to warm up slightly and the snow turns to rain. Fortunately the forecast was for it to get colder and more snow due in the next few days so I wasn’t too worried.

The first couple of days were average conditions, the rain from previous few days had caused the snow to ice over and a storm had started to come in meaning the top lifts were shut and the conditions pretty bleak. On day 3, it started to snow…and snow it did. Bucket loads of snow. I woke up in the morning to the below scene.

Morning scene in Annupuri

Good morning Niseko!

From then on it pretty much snowed every day. Because of Hokkaido’s location, arctic storms blow south from Siberia. They pick up moisture crossing the sea of Japan, and then dump it as snow when hitting land in Hokkaido. It means they’re blessed with annual snowfalls of 15 metres or more. Compared to my usual hunting ground of Verbier in Switzerland which averages 3.6 metres, that’s a marked difference.

The downside to the constant snow is the visibility often isn’t great, and the top of the mountain would often be shut due to high winds. To be expected I guess, but nonetheless sometimes annoying. Access to the backcountry is achieved through certain gates on the mountain, and most of these were higher up. Due to the crunchy off-piste conditions, we were skiing mostly pistes the first couple of days, but with a foot or more of fresh snow on day 3, we were itching to get in to the backcountry. About mid-morning, after mountain patrol had declared the areas avalanche safe, the higher mountain and gates to the backcountry opened up.

Niseko Ski Area

Niseko Ski Area

Wow…! We tried the area accessed through gate 7 (see G7 in photo above) first. It was a steepish pitch in places interspersed with trees every couple of metres or so. Perfect! The powder had blown into a gully so even though only a foot had fallen, there must have been closer to two foot within the trees. This was what I came to Japan for. After a few runs through here (it was quite short) we headed up higher to find something steeper and longer. Out of gates 1 and 2 you come to a series of bowls which follow the ridge line all the way down back to the resort. The terrain through here was phenomenal. Nothing really steep, but steep enough to pick up some speed through 2 feet of powder.

We spent the next couple of days just using these gates and exploring the terrain. When one bowl became too tracked out, you just traversed further around to the next bowl. On day 5 the snow relented for a few hours and the clouds cleared to reveal views across the horizon. Amazingly, Mt Yotei, an active volcano had been hidden from view since I’d been there. I hadn’t realised how close it was, although people had said it was nearby, I assumed it was away in the distance somewhere. It’s an awe-inspiring view to the funnel shaped volcano, which resembles Mt Fuji in it’s shape, and the fact it rises out of the flat plains. We decided to head to the summit of Mt Annupuri for some better views. A 20 minute hike out of gate 2 brings you to the first summit of a two stage summit. Below was the view across to Mt Yotei.

View of volcano, Mt Yotei from summit of Mt Annupuri

View of Mt Yotei volcano from summit of Mt Annupuri

Another 10 minute walk brought us to the true summit at 1308 metres. From here, we skied down the back side which swings around Mt Annupuri into a third bowl which again follows the ridge line down to Annupuri village. This was the steepest terrain I found, and although it was fairly steep in places (maybe about 35 degrees), it’s doesn’t have the same steep pitches you’ll find in the Alps or Rockies. I guess this is due to the fact that Niseko isn’t part of a mountain range, simply a peak which rises up from the plains. The runs are much shorter, it took around 20 minutes from the summit to the village. But it was 20 minutes of heaven! A huge bowl opens way to tree lined goodness with the softest powder imaginable.

Powder heaven!

Powder heaven!

Over the next few days we explored the other areas including Moiwa, Hirafu and Niseko Village. Moiwa is great because it’s slightly out the way, meaning not many people go there. It has gates to the backcountry which feature some really interesting terrain, and the majority of time we were there, there were just a handful of people so fresh lines were the norm. Hirafu is the busiest part of Niseko and is where most the accommodation is. Consequently, the area gets tracked out quickly and there’s not so many gates into the backcountry, but the terrain is still impressive. We spent the last few days around Annupuri and Moiwa. Because every day seemed to supply us with another foot of fresh powder, it was like we had a new playground every day. You could easily spend a season here and not get bored.

Of course a trip to Japan would not be complete without sampling the local cuisine and nightlife. Most of the restaurants and nightlife is found in Hirafu. The food is simply amazing, some of freshest and tastiest fish, Hokkaido deer and more I’ve ever had. Over the course of 10 days I developed a taste for their Sake too, which is a rice wine at about 15%. Served hot, it’s a great way to warm up after spending 6 hours knee deep in powder. Even better than Vin Chaud!

Freshly made Sashimi for one!

Freshly made Sashimi for one!

Overall the trip was exactly as I envisaged and more. I wasn’t sure how much terrain you could fit into 1300m vertical, but I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. While the runs are short, the lifts are great, and queues were rare. The terrain and powder in particular were nothing short of phenomenal. If you have 1o days holiday and you want guaranteed powder, go to Japan and Niseko in particular. You won’t be disappointed.

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