The Powder Belt of Central Hokkaido

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The Powder Belt of Central Hokkaido
Japan’s Last Frontier

If you’re looking for the best snow in the world, then look no further

Special Contribution
Text & Photos: Masaaki Kato

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Heading to the Furano Town on Furano Blue Bird Day at Furano ski Resort

People, people and yet more people rush into the rush-hour trains, lost in the smartphones in their hands. The elderly passenger right in front of them is all but invisible, pushed around while clinging to the hand rails. This is the daily life of the city, a life I chose to escape via a 20km route each day weaving through the traffic on road bike. And three times a week, I would go to kendo training for an hour after work before riding back home.

In this way, I managed to get about my life as editor of a ski magazine with its equal parts of joy and stress. However, another voice inside was screaming to be set free.

“Go north,” it said. “You must go north. If you have to start again, then go north and learn to live in the wilderness.”

And so it was, at the age of 52, I found myself on a low-lying hill before the snowy mountains of central Hokkaido and began to build a small lodge.

Everyone I met had the same question – “why are you here?” I suppose I must have been a curious sight, for after 28 years’ visiting famous ski resorts across the globe, the region I had chosen was the most untamed, the most dangerous and most beautiful of all. It was a place full of grandeur and freedom: the last frontier. I knew full well of its beauty before arriving, but this knowledge made it no easier a place to live. The locals, grown strong through many years in the wilderness, possess a great wisdom and endurance.

Strong-willed by nature, they look out for one another and are accepting of those who come from the outside.

But as a winter tourist destination, it left much to be desired. The ski resorts were entirely independent and unaware of their value within the grand powder belt. The snow of Daisetsuzan National Park was undeniably some of the best in the world, with diamond dust and sun pillars, and a cold, dry inland climate that makes it hard for snow to melt, but few knew of its wonders. Or maybe the enthusiasts who had been quietly enjoying the area didn’t want to lose their secret.

A trip to the back country on snow shoes, with the lightness and clarity of the snow underfoot, is sure to take your breath away. The most beautiful snow flakes form when the conditions are just right.

When venturing out in the back country, I highly recommend taking a guide, as this is not the kind of place where there are patrols and other people around. This is a basic fact that needs to be accepted before exploring the true back country in any part of the world.

There are ski slopes with lifts for skiing the powder, but the magnificent backdrops that adorn postcards are only reachable by foot. If you are looking for the world’s best snow, then look no further than Japan’s last frontier, the Powder Belt in Hokkaido.

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Masaaki Kato

Representative of Hokusei Kobo and editor in chief of the telemark skiing magazine, Soul Slide. Worked for Ski Journal from 1982 to 2010, and as editor in chief for the monthly Ski Journal for 12 years from 1995. He now works on the Northern Star Lodge in Hokkaido that is set to open this summer.

HOKKAIDO

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HOKKAIDO

A ski paradise with the best powder snow in the world

Hokkaido is located at the Northern end of the Japanese archipelago. Geographically, it is an island surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Japan Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.

Hokkaido is famous for its variety of landscapes and scenery, including vast marshes, sweeping grasslands and beautiful lakes among the magnificent mountains. The weather in Hokkaido is generally cool and has the low humidity of a micro-thermal winter climate. It is also well-known as a comfortable area to be. Winter days are typically accompanied by heavy snowfall, which creates an abundance of ski grounds on the mountainsides. The Winter Olympics were held nearby in Sapporo in 1972, which is the capital of Hokkaido.

Niseko is a popular area among Australian skiers and snowboarders thanks to its exceptional soft powder snow, which makes it highly enjoyable to plow through. Recently, other areas in central Hokkaido are being explored by skiers for their excellent quality pistes. The region currently remains an open secret among international winter sports enthusiasts, which have dubbed it the “Powder Belt.”

MYOKO KOGEN

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Myoko Kogen

Family friendly Myoko: with snow this good, you don’t need to renovate the lobby

Myoko is a old-timer ski town that doesn’t need to put on glamor in its hotel lobbies.

They can just get by coasting on what nature provided, such as record-breaking amounts of snowfall accompanied by sunny days, family-friendly and adventurous slopes, and easy train access.

Walking down the main street at twilight, tiny shops, relics of the sixties, hold their ground amidst four meter drifts of snow.

Young Japanese tourists gather around steamng fonts. Exciting illicit substances? Actually, hot-spring eggs. “It’s not much of a party town,” I was told.

“First, pay money! Next, Eat!” says the sign above the honesty box.

While the tone of the town is Tough Mother love, on the slopes you get pretty much whatever you want. Want to leave your kids on gentle slope with deft instructors? “Done.” Want some risky skiing in trees? “We have a off-slope guide to accompany you and a nice survival kit already packed.” You want instruction in Finnish or French? The school attracts and keeps the world’s most passionate teachers.

A roving photographer records you in your snowy glory.

“We aren’t cooking tonight, so you’ll have to get your own dinner”, the Ryokan lady informs us the night we arrive.

We wandered down the main street, peering into the humble old-timer shops to choose our dinner. We pick a log-cabin style place with an eccentric menu that includes raisins in butter. People eat that?

No party animals to be seen.

Decorations include a stuffed tanuki raccoon, a fake cat curled snugly, and beside me, sit two handsome locals with a lapdog.

It’s rough, charming, and yes, feels just like home.

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