Anyone who goes travelling has stories to tell. Our Splitboard friend Sost was in Japan and has checked what's up with the legendary Samurai Powder. More about hugging birches and what Onsens are, you'll read here in his Hokkaido Pow Travel report.
Eleven hours flight from Munich to Tokyo four hours stay at the airport followed by a two-hour flight to Sapporo, and then another four hours by bus to Niseko. Why would you do something like this when the Alps are just around the corner? Why do so many freeriders travel the long way around to the other end of the world year after year? Hokkaido is not a secret spot anymore and I wonder if the ski and snowboard magazines exaggerate when reporting and celebrating the bottomless powder and golden birch trees of Japan? However I was still curious enough to investigate if the legend about the famous Japan powder holds true. Together with four other chaps, I booked an eight-day Hokkaido Powder Safari at the Black Diamond Lodge in Niseko - an all-round carefree package with guide and van to trudge round the island. Bad news for the sun worshiper among the snowboarders but bluebirds should not be seen as one of the main reasons for a Japan powder trip.
This much can be revealed now – Hokkaido is a must for every shredder who is serious about backcountry riding. If you are on the hunt for quality pow and don’t mind a slightly strenuous journey you should give Japan’s northernmost island a try. Even in last year’s snow-poor winter the amounts of snow are incredible. For me there is no real difference if you get served 20 cm of fresh every night on a 7 to 8 meters base or the equal amount on 4 to 5 meters. This sounds even more unbelievable if you recall that the majority of resorts are situated below 2000 meters altitude. Four to five meters snow in February are considered poor for Japanese standards but still remain a huge backcountry playground if you are used to the last snow-poor European winters. Hokkaido benefits from a Siberian storm system that passes over the Sea of Japan and then dump the lightest and driest snow on the island. Another contributing factor for the good snow quality besides continual snow falls is the dense blanket of clouds. Sunshine is a rare phenomenon in Hokkaido even when it is not snowing. And this is a good thing because the snow doesn’t melt away that early and the precious snow crystals remain longer in their original shape.
We had four stations on our list:
- Three days in Niseko,
- one day Kiroro,
- three days Furano
- and finally two days in Sapporo.
The entire journey was an absolute jackpot in terms of snow conditions. In Hokkaido 10-20 cm fresh snow over a day is not unusual and only on two out of eight days we had no snowfall. Hokkaido has a lot of lower-lying backcountry areas with plenty of tree runs. The Japanese birches are exceptional because they are not as dense as European woods. So it is great fun to ride through the trees and the birches offer great scenery where Japan is so famous for. Free and open terrain can be found here rarely. Because tree skiing can be quite demanding I would not recommend this to beginners. Some practice and solid snowboarding technique is appropriate.
After arrival at the Sapporo airport we took a bus directly to the Black Diamond Lodge in Niseko. First signs of an exceptional snow region are the unusual road markings that consist of poles 5 meter in height at each side of the road. On top of the poles illuminated arrows indicate the lane boundaries so that the road center can be found even if the road is beneath a thick layer of snow.
We spent the first day after our 24 hour journey quite relaxing in the Niseko skiing resort. You do not have to hurry here to find untracked snow and then have to wait days or weeks for the next storm cycle. Almost every night it dumped again to have enough new powder the next day. Indeed, you are not alone next to the slopes but even there it is still fun to ride because the snow is not affected by the sun and stays fluffy all day long. Even a couple days later you can still find untracked terrain without much effort.
After the first day I put my big powder weapon away because it is not that particular agile. Even if Japanese birches do not form such densely forests like in European Alps shorter and maneuverable boards in the snowboarding quiver are worthwhile. Some Australians and New Zealanders run very well equipped freeride shops there and your chances are good you will find the right spare parts for your split as well.
When I first received the packing list I was not sure if I should take the skins. Traveling that far to spend most of the time going uphill? Almost defiantly I left the crampons at home. But having a splitboard and skins in the quiver was a good decision. Splitboarding in Hokkaido with multiple smaller ascents of 300 to 400 vertical meters can be totally relaxing. No matter if you are in lower lying areas or higher altitudes – the snow remains equally good and blows up your face. Sometimes you just have to slow down to actually see something the way down. It is not exaggerated to say I had more face shots in this single week than the entire two seasons before.
Getting up in the morning - weather doesn’t matter - splitting up the mountains, getting white faces while surfing down, and then pressing the repeat button. In the evening it may happen that you peel small birch branches out of your teeth and shorts. Everybody from our group had the chance to kiss a birch or lower lying limb of some tree. After three days nobody was leaving the lodge without proper face masks.
After three days in Niseko we switched to the next chapter of our powder safari. Our aim was to reach the region around Furano which is Japan’s most famous resort. But on the way we had a little stop in Kiroro, a resort which is half the size of Niseko.
The extra marked backcountry area around the resort consists of several mid-steep hills and wide well-spaced birches. For us it should be the day of days of the entire safari. It started at the moment where we passed the gate. The usual snow drizzling was superseded by a howling snow storm. Anyway, we put our face masks on and struggle through. We couldn’t be that unreasonable since other five groups fought with kick turns up the ridge. During the three ascents it had dumped 20 centimeters and more. Three runs with chest deep blower pow was worth the effort.
Since this day it was clear: This is Japan in winter, this is Hokkaido with its legendary powder.
From Kiroro it is only a two hour drive to Asahikawa. This town with its 350,000 inhabitants in the heart of Hokkaido was our base for the next nights. The plan was to spend two days in and around the Furano skiing resort. In Furano we saw the sun for the first time on our trip and spent the time with lift support free riding. The other day we switched to splitboards again and ascended the surrounding mountains below the tree line. After the last run we usually went straight to an onsen. Onsen are Japanese hot springs that can be found in nearly every village. You jump in, place a small towel on your head, and relax. This looks a bit weird but it is some sort of tradition in Japan.
Japan is also famous for its comics in manga style. Whether young or old, everybody is reading them. We had look at them every time when we bought our snacks at the gas station for the upcoming day. What you read into them is kind of special and reading them without laughing is impossible!
Finally our journey was going to end and we were pretty much exhausted from the countless epic powder days in Niseko and Kiroro. Recalling the last two winters when do you get five to six epic days in a row? I can’t remember. Now Sapporo was ahead of us and nobody expected even more to come. Sapporo is a large coastal town and the resort doesn’t reach 1100 m altitude but already starts at 200 m above sea level. As ill luck would have it the resort was quite busy with a ski racing event and not all lifts were opened due stormy weather. Luckily with our splitboards we had access to all good freshies. The locals did not show a keen interest in touring, at least we observed only a few of them.
The expansive view above Sapporo and the open sea is kind of special, particularly in winter on a cold clear day. The weather showed some mercy and the storm abated. Hence with the help of the gondola we had eight untracked little runs at the end of the day. One of the locals intensively considers buying a splitboard now. The chaser followed our tracks in hope we would find a way back to the resort at the end of the run. What a sight for the goods after we grabbed the skins from our backpacks and he looked perplexed in our eyes. At least he could enjoy a demo of putting the splitboards back into hike mode. Luckily it was no big deal for him boot packing the 100 vertical meters back and one run later we could see his tracks back to the resort.
In summary, Hokkaido was an impressive experience, I can highly recommend it! I can think only of a few places where you can have such a great time and everything works smooth and is perfectly organized. A visit to the onsen is also highly recommended. Been there once, you'll miss it when there is no onsen waiting for you after the last run.
Fortunately but without intentions we booked our safari the same time where the Sapporo Snow Festival took place. If you have the chance, pay it a visit there. It is really astonishing what they manage to carve out of ice and snow. Huge houses, castles, dinosaurs, and all kinds of other sculptures and buildings. During the nights everything is illuminated colorfully. When you are still not totally broke also try to spend a weekend in Tokyo. The stopover loosens the way back but after ten days pow surfing this megacity is not for the faint of heart. The Tokyo nightlife defeated us but was worth the visit.