THE ENVY OF THE WORLD:
SKI AREAS WITHIN METROPOLITAN SUBURBS IN ABUNDANCE
Ski slopes in the Surrounds of Sapporo and Otaru
Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba
The majority of overseas ski tourists visiting Niseko and other ski resorts in Hokkaido tend to travel straight to their destination from the gateway to Hokkaido, New Chitose Airport. The same visitors then make a beeline straight back to the airport without any side trips or diversions. This type of visit is such an unfortunate waste of potential opportunities for exciting experiences. At just a short 40 minute train ride away from the airport is a large city of approximately 2 million people and one of the most fascinating cities in all of Japan – Sapporo. This city of charm and wonder also happens to have a variety of different local ski resorts around it at just a stone’s throw away. This special feature will focus on travels centred on the metropolis of Sapporo and the charming fishing-port town of Otaru. Keep reading to gain some inspiration on a new way to enjoy a ski trip around Hokkaido by visiting ski slopes around its major cities.
FROM FOOD TO ENTERTAINMENT
Putting Japan’s Best Foot Forward with a City of 2 Million People
Sapporo, Hokkaido is the northern-most ordinance-designated and fifth mostpopulated city in Japan (including the special wards of Tokyo). It was the first Asian city to host the Winter Olympics in 1972 (the Sapporo Olympics) and later went on to host a range of other international sporting events, including the FIFA World Cup. Sapporo is also currently considering a bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics.
As can probably be gauged from its history, the greatest advantage of Sapporo is that it is surrounded by a number of easily accessible ski areas nearby, despite being a large, urban city. The renowned ski resorts in the area will be covered in more detail later as this section will focus mainly on the city of Sapporo itself. Before diving into the wonders of Sapporo, it is worth mentioning that the ski-jump ramps used in the Winter Olympics can be visited in a flash from the city. It is a highly popular tourist destination and is definitely worth a gander.
The first cab off the rank in this introduction of all things Sapporo is none other than Sapporo Beer. Many of our readers will have, no doubt, seen and perhaps even tasted this beer at various Japanese restaurants in Australia. Sapporo Beer is a widely known Japanese brand and is consumed all around the world, however, what is little known is that its history dates back long ago to 1876. The prefecture of Hokkaido has a comparatively short history compared to the rest of Japan, having only been officially developed in the late 19th century. This means that the history of Sapporo Beer and the development of Hokkaido walked hand in hand.
There is a place in Sapporo where all things Sapporo Beer can be experienced such as: a museum displaying the history of Sapporo beer, tours explaining the beer brewing process, tastings, and even a restaurant to taste the delicious local fare of the northern country. This wondrous place is a 15 – 20 minute walk from Sapporo Station – The Sapporo Beer Garden. The local Hokkaido dish of “Genghis Khan” (lamb barbeque) can also be feasted upon here, making this a must on your stays in Sapporo. Hokkaido is also known as the biggest food-lover’s paradise in all of Japan. Sapporo is the heart of this prefecture and is home to a huge variety of local Hokkaido cuisine. While scallops and other seafood is in deliciously rich abundance in Hokkaido, there is one highly accessible local dish that absolutely everyone knows about – Sapporo Ramen.
Sapporo Ramen Yokocho is a well-known little alley in the city. This popular little spot is filled with famous ramen restaurants, left and right, up and down. Ramen lovers should definitely check out this street and even make return trips to taste all of the different types of ramen on offer.
Hokkaido has a deep food culture history and is known for various food booms such as soup curries, and chocolates like Shiroi Koibito and Royce. Doing some research into the different delectable foods to fill your belly prior to jetting off to Hokkaido will make for a particularly satisfying trip.
Next on the list of all things Sapporo is the biggest winter event in all of Japan, the Sapporo Snow Festival. This snow and ice festival is held annually in early February around Odori Park and other various locations around Sapporo. Odori Park is located in the heart of Sapporo and hosts seasonal festivals all year round to provide relaxation and entertainment to locals, such as the Sapporo Lilac Festival in spring and the YOSAKOI Soran Festival in summer. The grounds stretch 1.5 kilometres across from east to west and are filled with snow statues, big and small, during the Snow Festival. Come nighttime, projection mapping exhibits are switched on to create beautifully dazzling sights that see tourists from all around the world flock to the city. Over at the Susukino site, a snow playground will keep the kids happy while the adults admire the beautiful ice sculptures on display. Planning a trip to Hokkaido to coincide with this event is highly recommended. Hotels are in high demand during this period, so make sure you book well in advance to lock down a spot!
PLENTIFUL SIDECOUNTRY AREAS FILLED WITH TOP QUALITY POWDER SNOW
The Main Event Location for the Sapporo Winter Olympics
Sapporo Teine Ski Resort is a short 30 – 40 minute drive away from the Sapporo business district and captured the attention of ski fans worldwide during the 1972 Winter Olympics as the main event location for events such as alpine skiing. Despite its convenient location near Sapporo proper, it boasts the longest ski slope in Hokkaido at a massive 6 kilometres in length and accessible sidecountry areas for exciting powder snow mountain runs. It also features a snow park, as well as tubing and sledding courses for safe family fun, making this resort a truly versatile location.
Sapporo Teine Ski Resort is actually two ski areas rolled into one – Teine Highland and Teine Olympia. Highland is situated at the top of the mountain and is aimed at experienced skiers, whilst Olympia takes up the bottom half of the slope for family fun snow sports. The combination of the two areas gives birth to the 6 kilometre long course, welcoming skiers of all levels from different walks of life. There are also different attractions, such as the snow park for freestyle skiers and snowboarders to keep everyone happy.
The Highland area features courses that were used in the Winter Olympics and requires an adequate level of skill to conquer. The KITAKABE (North Face) course is particularly challenging with areas as steep as 36 degrees; it will take a lot of deft weaving and ducking to get through the sidecountry-like trees unscathed. Although this course might seem like a goliath to even the most-advanced skiers, the forest run is too difficult to groom, which turns it into a powder snow heaven the morning after a night of heavy snowfall. Definitely give this run a shot, if you dare.
The 4 Nature Zones are sidecountry trails accessible from the main courses and are sure to bring smiles to the faces of avid skiers. Exciting tree runs and powder snow runs (after heavy snowfall) can be found in these spots.
More happy news for hardcore skiers – the backcountry areas at Teine are not prohibited from access. Skiers can access the backcountry areas through the Teine Gate at the peak of the Highland area provided that they take full responsibility for their own actions. Access to these areas is purely for those who want the opportunity to shred some backcountry and it is important to note that it may not be possible to return to the main ski area after passing through the Teine Gate. Make sure you come fully equipped and research the layout of the land carefully before taking the leap.
The Highland area is also known for its magnificent views. There are not very many courses around that give you a view of the big sprawling city below as your ski down the slopes in the great outdoors. I have heard stories of skiers hesitant to move from their position and ski down the slope because they have been captivated by the stunning view. This ski resort is a must visit – where else can you find a similarly impressive ski slope so close to a major city? There is nothing quite like the luxury of enjoying the sights of the big city after a satisfying off-piste run.
Sapporo Teine Ski Resort offers 2 handy packages for visitors. The Big Runs Bus Pack includes return bus fare from 7 major hotels in Sapporo and lift access, whilst the Taxi Pack includes return taxi fare and lift access. These packages must be purchased in advance so hop onto their website for more information.
DROP BY THIS SKI RESORT ON A WHIM
20 Minutes Away from the City Lights
Just 20 minutes away from the city, you say? That’s right, Bankei’s biggest draw point is its short distance from the heart of Sapporo. The resort is easily accessible by car, subway and bus, and keeps its nighttime courses lit up until 10pm at night, so you can drop by the resort in the evening after a day of enjoying the Sapporo Snow Festival if you plan your trip to coincide with it.
Bankei Ski Resort also stocks a variety of skis, snowboards and snow gear, making a quick ski trip without any gear a cinch.
There is also the Snow Kids Park on site for kids to try their hand at snow tubing, and a snow escalator for novice snow enthusiasts to find their winter feet. The child-minding services at the resort also helps parents to take a breather on the ski slopes while their kids are looked after. Most of the 17 courses available at Bankei have fairly gentle slopes and are targeted towards families. Whilst the resort may have a reputation as a family ski area, there are definitely offerings for advanced skiers.
Snow sport enthusiasts looking for more of a challenge can try out the Half Pipe and Moguls Course, both of which meet International Ski Federation standards. The Half Pipe is the largest of its kind in Japan at 180 metres long, 20 metres wide and 5 – 6 metres high. It was also selected as
a course in the 2016 FIS Snowboard World Cup. The Moguls Course sees frequent visits from top athletes to practice their skills on the high quality run. The Half Pipe and Moguls Course were both used for events in the 2017 Asian Winter Games held in Sapporo and Obihiro. Freestyler skiers and snowboarders alike should definitely drop by Bankei and try out the world class courses on offer.
Before you leave, stop by BANKEIEN on the western-side of the slope to feast on the local Hokkaido dish of Genghis Khan, lamb grilled on hot charcoals, for a tasty way to end your day.
THE BEST POWDER SNOW PARADISE NEAR SAPPORO
An hour’s drive away from both Sapporo and Otaru on a snow-covered mountain pass is a ski resort located at the base of Mount Asaridake – Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort. Sapporo Kokusai and the nearby Kiroro Snow World are the coldest and receive the most snowfall in the area. The conditions are so harsh in this region that driving around at certain hours of the night is prohibited and extreme care must be taken when driving at other times during the day.
Fortunately, the bitter cold and heavy snowfall provide the perfect conditions for a great ski resort. Professional skiers and snowboarders from Sapporo, Otaru, and the surrounds flock to this ski resort for its consistently high quality powder snow. The 2.2 kilometre long Downhill Trail, which spans from the peak of the mountain to the base, is particularly thrilling with its non-compacted fluffy powder snow, making for a satisfying shred.
With only 5 total lifts and gondolas, the ski area may not appear to be particularly large, however, the Fairy Tale Trail through the forest, aimed at novice skiers, is a satisfying run at 3.6 kilometres long. The plentiful snow combined with low temperatures also creates excellent powder snow to be carved up in the sidecountry areas.
While this ski resort may be a little further from Sapporo compared to other resorts in the area, there a number ofbus packages that offer return fares at affordable prices for those who have concerns about driving to and from Sapporo Kokusai. Some packages include lunch courses and even access to nearby hot springs, so make sure to have a quick browse to find the package which best suits you.
An itinerary plan I would like to suggest when visiting Sapporo Kokusai is a stay at the nearby Jozankei Onsen. This hot spring town is only 20 minutes away from the ski resort and is the perfect place for tired snow fanatics to seek refuge.
TAKE A DIP IN NATURAL HOT SPRING WATERS IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS OF HOKKAIDO
To enjoy the beautiful Hokkaido scenery on offer throughout every season of the year in the relaxing thermal waters of a natural hot spring, take a trip an hour out of Sapporo to Jozankei Onsen. The long history of Jozankei Onsen began in 1866. The Buddhist monk, Miizumi Jozan, was said to have founded the town through many hardships after first discovering a hot spring source during his missionary work. The area was given the name “Jozankei” in recognition of Jozan’s endeavours.
There are 56 different hot spring sources in Jozankei Onsen. The thermal waters bubble up from the banks and river bed of Toyohira River, which runs through the town, in approximately 8,600 litre bursts. The sodium chloride-rich hot spring waters (neutral hypotonic thermal waters) are clear and have a characteristically smooth saltiness – a quality popular amongst hot spring fans in Japan. Salt sticks to your skin as you soak in the waters and prevents sweat from evaporating so as to warm you to the core.
Of the numerous longestablished Japanese inns to line the streets of this hot spring town, HANAMOMIJI is particularly proactive in attracting tourists from around the world. Onsen lovers will be delighted by the facilities on offer at HANAMOMIJI, including: an open-air hot spring bath with a view of the Jozankei valley; 3 private baths; and even the opportunity to soak in the springs of surrounding inns. The dishes filled with local Hokkaido seafood is also a big crowd-pleaser. Check out the HANA-MOMIJI website (offered in English) for more information.
Iwato Kannondo Temple is one site that absolutely cannot be missed on a visit to Jozankei. On the right-hand side of the altar inside the temple is a cave filled with 33 statues of the deity, Kannon. Iwato Kannondo Temple is a a quick peek into the cave to feel the power emanating from the area. Jozankei is also known for its “Kappa Folklore”, which tells of a kappa (a Japanese water spirit) that once lurked in the town. As such, the kappa has become the town mascot and statues of it can be found scattered around town. Anyone fancy a kappa search on their next visit to Onsen.