This winter may have been somewhat of a bust in much of the United States, logging the warmest temperatures since 1999, but skiers and snowboarders on the other side of the Pacific are not complaining about snow drought.
in late March, the Japanese ski resort of Niseko
is still getting plenty of fresh powder. An astounding 20m has fallen thus far and
snow depth reached a peak of more than four metres.
abundant snowfall bodes very well for spring skiing in Niseko, the catch-all
name for four linked resorts on the 1,308m Mount Niseko Annupuri, some 100km
southwest of Sapporo, on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island. Niseko has
one of the longest seasons in Japan, with most of the runs staying open until early
became famous about a decade ago, especially in Australia, for the quality and
consistency of its light, powdery snow, the result of Siberian winds
interacting with moisture from the Sea of Japan. An influx of Aussie skiers and
snowboarders and both local and foreign property developers transformed the
centre of Hirafu from a sleepy village into an international resort town, with
new accommodations and excellent dining options. Though visitors are slowly
returning to Japan, deterred in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake
and tsunami, the resort town has been virtually crowd free this winter, with no
Mount Niseko, chairlifts and gondolas whisk skiers and boarders to within
striking distance of the peak. Then, it is a 20-minute hike to glide down
off-piste slopes that link up with groomed trails or roads near the mountain’s
more remote areas. For those who want to try backcountry skiing for the first
time, the Strawberry Fields forest run in the Hanazono resort provides thigh-high
powder that is within easy reach of chairlifts and groomed trails. The three
other areas at Niseko – Annupuri, Niseko Village and Grand Hirafu – also have a
good mix of beginner, intermediate and expert trails, with a total of 48km of
groomed runs. Grand Hirafu, which has the most night skiing on Niseko, features
a number of ungroomed powdery trails such as Miharashi, an expert run that
winds into Holiday, a wooded intermediate trail that is one of the mountain's
longer runs at 2.8km.
serious backcountry skiers and snowboarders, however, leave Niseko altogether
for powder trips. Earlier
in March, powderhounds could be seen climbing five hours up and then carving
giant S's back down Mount Yotei's alabaster flanks, a volcano 13km southeast of
Mount Niseko Annupuri.
in Niseko is often just as fun as zipping through the flakes and is best
enjoyed with a rental car to let you take full advantage of the area's
muscle-tenderizing onsen (hot springs). The Niseko Yu Meguri pass (1,400
yen) gives you free access to any three of the participating baths in the area.
If you are feeling adventurous, take the two-hour drive to Niimi Onsen, located on a remote
mountain road, for a quiet, lantern-lit
outdoor bath often cocooned in winter by an overhanging snowbank.
in Hirafu, the unwinding continues at Ezo
Seafoods, which serves up succulent snow crab legs, sweet Akkeshi oysters from
the coastal region of eastern Hokkaido and a variety of fresh sashimi. Wash it
all down with mulled wine or single-malt Hokkaido whisky at nearby Gyu+, a wooden, cottage-like bar accessed
through an old fridge door that is nearly invisible in the snow drifts.
you are ready for a break from the Aussie ski set, the fishing port of Otaru on
Ishikari Bay to the north seems worlds away. With a picturesque canal,
glassworks studios set in vintage slate buildings and the entire street of Sushiya-dori
devoted to sushi shops, it is well worth the 70-minute drive from Hirafu. A two-hour
drive south from Hirafu will get you to volcano-rimmed Lake Shikotsu, the
second-deepest lake in Japan, renowned for the clarity of its frigid waters.
Set in a national park and blissfully undeveloped, Shikotsu has extremely
panoramic onsen, including Marukoma and
Ito, with outdoor baths overlooking
the ancient caldera. It is the perfect way to boil the ache out of your muscles
before a long flight home.
Narita Airport or Haneda airport outside of Tokyo, flights run to Shin-Chitose
Airport outside of Sapporo, where buses take two and a half hours to reach
Hirafu. Skybus runs regular services
through the end of March, after which private shuttles are the best choice if you
are not renting a car from the agencies at Shin-Chitose.
The article 'Spring skiing, Japanese-style' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.