Hokkaido Powder Belt Magical Places

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Photo:Takahiro Nakanishi

Skiing has always dictated my life. Personal decisions have never been made without first researching the mountains and counselling how good the tunes were going to be The first time I cam to Japan was on an English teaching program where I was given three choices as to my placement. There were rumours that you were lucky to get any of your choices. A friend from a small town in New Zealand chose Tokyo, only to be posted to the smallest fishing village in Japan. My choices were made based on the merit of the skiing and luckily found myself in the mountainous region of northern Honshu.

But it wasn’t my first choice. That was actually Hokkaido. My interest in the northern island was piqued back at university and video nights with fellow members of the ski club, watching snowboarding videos of pro American snowboarders in Niseko. These guys were some of the first foreign professionals to Hokkaido to ride some of the mystical powder that the island is now famous for. Fast forward several years and at the time living in Tokyo. Tow northern hemisphere winters had come and gone and the only snow I had seen was a brief flurry. I was a fish out of water. I had a goal of starting a ski guiding business on the northern island, and persuaded my wife that a life living the dream was better then anything we had found in Tokyo. In October of 2003, bags were packed into a small van, ferry boarded, and after a night sailing over the Sea of Japan, we were driving to the Central Hokkaido town of Furano.

At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information on the web about Central Hokkaido or Furano, at least not in English. It was better known as a summer destination and for the numerous lavender farms which are dotted around the valley. But the pieces of information regarding the mountains and skiing seemed compelling. The Daisetsuzan National Park and its volcanoes loom large over the landscape, 2,000 meter peaks with both alpine and tree skiing, lodges with thermal hot springs nestled within, and a deep, deep snowpack. It ticked all the boxes for what you would want from a ski trip in Japan, and a guiding business.

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Photo:Masahiro Nakanishi

“I remember sitting in one of the outdoor hot springs after a particularly good day skiing and being mesmerised by the falling snow. It almost looked as though there were feathers falling from the sky, like a giant pillow fight had taken place above us.”

The town of Furano is serviced by the local airport of Asahikawa. For anyone who flies here, the descent into Asahikawa gives a great bird’s eye view of the mountains. On one side there is the Daisetsuzan Range which stretches 60 kilometres from north to south and 30 kilometres east to west. On the other side of the valley are the smaller mountains and the resorts of Kamui Ski Links, Furano and also Tomamu. Furano is the centre of it all. A plaque embeded on a rock in the centre of the town states it is actually the ‘geographic center of Hokkaido.’

My first season here was an exploratory one to assess the area’s potential for good skiing. On backcountry days at the southern end of the national park, I was joined by a fellow Australian whose job was to clear the roads into the hot spring lodges. A big undertaking, but not his particular task. He would sit in an idling vehicle with a heater on full blast at the bottom of the hill, book in one hand and a cell phone in the other, ready to warn the snow clearers of an approaching vehicle. Once the roads were cleared, he would set off after my ski track and we would spend the rest of the day riding the powder. And what powder it was.

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I remember sitting in one of the outdoor hot springs after a particularly good day skiing and being mesmerised by the falling snow. It almost looked as though there were feathers falling from the sky, like a giant pillow fight had taken place above us. The flakes seemed to float as if suspended in the air forever before making a soft descent.

Asahidake is one of the magical places in the area where there is lift access to this amazing snow. I have had days there where our tracks would be covered on each run down, big deep twenty centimetre trenches gone after only 40 minutes. All but vanished, as if someone was playing tricks on us. Deep days are the days where the snow flies over your head, and those aren’t rare. One only needs to ski through the old growth spruce and see the giant blocks of snow resting on the branches to realise that this is a very high snowfall area.

Hokkaido is covered in volcanoes. There are 13 active volcanoes on the island and two of them are in the Daisetsuzan National Park, one of those being Asahidake. When the skies do finally clear and you see this volcano, it is quite breathtaking. Active enough to let you know you are standing on something live, in both sight and smell. Smoke billows from multiple vents and fissures and noxious sulphurous gases plaster parts of the snowpack in shades of green and yellow.

On the days that are too stormy in the national park, I am happy to be riding the lifts at one of the three ski fields. They definitely feel more local than resorts around Sapporo or
of course Niseko. There are days, especially mid-week where it feels you are one of only a handful riding the lifts.

The spread of the ski fields and the varying microclimates of Central Hokkaido contribute
to skiing consistently good snow conditions, as long as you know which resort to go to depending on the storm directions. Five centimetres at one field could be over a foot at another. That is probably how the area acquired the name, ‘Hokkaido’s Powder Belt.’ It is an apt description.

So it has been over ten years now and we are still here. In that time we have skied a lot of powder and had many ‘days of our lives’ in powder terms. Word has spread through the internet where there is now a lot more information in English now. In this age of global warming and diminishing snowfalls, it is good to know that there is an island on this planet where it still snows and snows.

This Japanese ski season, we will launch a new powder ski operation. The package includes a week’s stay in a ski lodge and unlimited skiing in the Hokkaido powder belt. It is like heli-skiing in Canada, but with all the fun Hokkaido has to offer, because we will use a lodge at the foot of
a mountain which means not only the delicious meals the lodge serves, but also a hot springs, an izakaya pub, and local restaurants. Nowhere else is offering a powder package like this one; it’s completely new. Tours will depart from January to March, almost every week. Go to the Hokkaido Powder Guide website for more information.


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【HOKKAIDO】 Report From Sapporo

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Plumes of smoke from Asahidake  Photos: Masaaki Kato

▶︎ Report from Sapporo – Father and Son

In the midst of September with autumn well on the way, Shu Ikeguchi, born and raised in Australia, visited Sapporo City in Hokkaido together with his father Ike, who has lived in Australia for 35 years. Shu, well versedin the culture of both Australia and Japan, provided a report on what drew them to the largest city in Hokkaido, a region famous in Australia for the powder snows of Niseko, and what they discovered nearby.

From Sapporo to Niseko


In the morning, we rented a hybrid car in Sapporo City and made for Niseko some 90km away. It was great to be out in the crisp autumn air; the mountain roads on the way to Niseko were lined with trees decked in autumn colors, and we could have kept driving for hours.
Our destination was Mt. Youtei, the main peak of Niseko area. The majestic outline of the mountain reminded me of Mt. Fuji, easily deserving its nickname of the Mt. Fuji of the north. The rivers by the roadside that snaked through the wilderness about us stirred up memories of the landscapes of Europe I had once travelled, and the waters were so clear you could see straight down to the riverbed. Reaching Niseko was easy thanks to the English language navigation system in the car. With its superb snow, the area has seen an increase in visitors from Australia over the past twenty years. And as the number of visitors has grown, so too has the town itself, quickly gaining an international reputation.
During our stay, I met Australian marketer and ski resort development pioneer Paul Haggart. Though it was clear just how monumental an effort it had been for him to come so far, his plans and goals for the future were clear and promised greater things to come. Niseko can become the best snow resort in the world – I am sure of that.
At the Niseko Grand Hirafu Ski Resort, a wide range of accommodation awaits the hundreds of thousands of travellers who visit each year, and famous Australian entrepreneur Ross Findlay is said to have some 200 condominiums
in the area. In the autumn, the area hosts a beautiful display of autumn foliage and a pleasant, dry breeze. The view of Mt. Youtei as seen from Grand Hirafu was incredible.

The Nikka Whiskey Yoichi Distillery


That evening, we visited Yoichimachi on the Shakotan Peninsula overlooking the Sea of Japan to see the Yoichi Distillery of Nikka Whiskey, one of Japan’s most prolific whiskey manufacturers.
The red roofs of the distillery buildings made me feel as though I was in Scotland. It was there that founder of the distillery, Masataka Taketsuru, also known as the father of whiskey in Japan, travelled and threw himself into learning about whiskey, later seeking a place in Japan to build his own brand. That place was Yoichi, its cool yet warm climate reminiscent of Scotland.
The distillery Masataka created in 1934 to bring whiskey to Japan continues to produce fine whiskey today, and visitors can take tours of the whiskey production methods and processes.

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Historic Otaru


That night, we stayed in the port town of Otaru by the Sea of Japan not far from Yoichi. We went exploring the next day.
Otaru is a beautiful town where you can see and touch the history of Hokkaido. It prospered on the back of coal imports and trade with Russia, a fact that the numerous modern buildings throughout the town can attest to. The Otaru Canal is famed for its beauty and is a popular location in movies and television shows, which in turn has drawn an increasing number of visitors from abroad.
Given that you can see a side of a Japan from a hundred years ago, it was no surprise to see so many visitors with cameras in tow. The town is easy to navigate, and historic buildings like the Otaru Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Bank of Japan, and the old rows of buildings with their galvanized steel make for a beautiful sight. Salmon can be seen swimming in the rivers, and the ivy creepers along the antique buildings lining the river were picturesque. Keen photographers will stay on past sunset, to catch the stunning scenery of the canal by night.

Shiroi Koibito Park


Back in Sapporo, we visited the Shiroi Koibito Park, which combines the head factory of the Shiroi Koibito cookies famous in Hokkaido with an adjoining theme park. Here you can learn about the process used to manufacture the cookies and the history of chocolate, and view works of art. The western-style buildings of the park look straight out of Switzerland, while the merry-go-rounds make it look almost like Disneyland. It is a wonderful spot for couples and for families alike.
Afterwards, we went to see the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium that served as a venue in the Sapporo Olympics, the Sapporo Beer Garden, an all-you-can-eat stop for Hokkaido’s famous Genghis Khan cuisine, and many other wonderful tourist spots, taking in everything we could. There is more to Hokkaido than just the skiing, and this trip showed me just what is on offer, especially around Sapporo.
At an upper floor of JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo where we stayed in Sapporo was a large hot spring bathing area with a spectacular view out over the city. On the floor above was a bar with an equally breathtaking view where we enjoyed cocktails of the hotel’s own recipe after a long, hot bath. The hotel staff spoke English, and were a big help in providing information about the city. Choosing the right hotel is an important part of any trip, and this one left us more than satisfied.

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JR TOWER HOTEL NIKKO SAPPORO


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JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo, run by JAL Hotels, combines the convenience of being directly connected to Sapporo Station with the luxury of a resort. The hotel is built into the JR Towever, a landmark of Sapporo City that is built into the south exit of Sapporo Station. With natural hot springs that can be enjoyed from lookout-style spas, bars where you can kick back and relax, restaurants offering local cuisine, rooms with an eye for comfort, and views from high above, this hotel is a true urban resort.

Information: http://www. jalhotels.com/ domestic/ hokkaido/ sapporo/

【HOKKAIDO】 THE POWDER BELT

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Plumes of smoke from Asahidake  Photos: Masaaki Kato

▶︎ THE POWDER BELT of Central Hokkaido

Ski 5 areas & backcountry in one holiday

Experienced skiers in Hokkaido speak of a paradise of powder snow. This paradise is the area known as Hokkaido’s Powder Belt, home to the very best powder snow on offer in Japan.
This belt region runs along the center of Hokkaido and encompasses the backcountry ski areas of the Daisetsuzan Park that includesKurodake, Asahidake, Mt. Tokachi, Mt. Furano, the Kamui Ski Links, Furano Ski Resort, and the Hoshino Resorts Tomamu Ski Resort.
The inland location of the belt region means it has a dry climate, which results in a light powder snow. Have a taste of this powder snow paradise for yourself, by hopping onto one of the many backcountry ski tours and off-piste tours.

Back Country Skiing with a Taste of ‘Steam’


When snow forms and falls to the ground, building up without melting, it becomes a light, dry powder. The snow here is known as ‘steam’ to the locals for the way it kicks up into the air without resistance in a fine mist of snow as you wind your way down the slopes.
Daisetsuzan National Park, a short drive from Furano City, is a backcountry field where this type of powder snow is in abundance. The mountain ranges reaching out from Asahidake, the highest of the mountains in the north at 2,290 m above sea level, to Mt. Furano in the south, are always host to a soft snow. The breathtaking landscape of the active volcano Mt. Tokachi, combined with courses offering powder snow of the highest quality, make for an outstanding backcountry skiing course. And what better way to finish it all off than with a trip to the natural hot springs in the area with their view over the mountains.

Off-Piste Skiing on the Powder Snow


The term off-piste refers to backcountry skiing that can be accessed immediately from skiing areas. Reached via lifts and ropeways, there is no need to hike out to such areas on foot, making them the perfect place for those looking to take in as much of the powder snow as possible.
The off-piste ski areas near Mt. Furano offer some of the highest quality powder snow across the entire world. You can enjoy the best of each of these areas by joining tours led by experienced local guides.
Amazing off-piste areas around the Furano Ski Resort such as Asahidake, Kamui Ski Links, and Hoshino Resorts Tomamu, which can be accessed via day trips from Furano, are a must see.

Information: https://www.facebook.com/HokkaidoPowderBelt

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