There is a land of powder. It is cold. It is dark. It is distance. To travel there is an epic journey, but if one undertakes this journey they will be greatly rewarded with the spoils of the kingdom.
This land is Hokkaido, the vast northern island of Japan. This past December I undertook this journey in quest of this land of powder and in a word it was… awesome!
As you may be aware if you read my earlier article, I am currently stationed in Misawa, Japan. It is a place not unaccustomed to snow. Last year we received 160 inches. This year we have received 50 inches so far. But I sought more. I sought the elusive JAPOW. For that I need to travel farther north to Hokkaido.
My son, a senior at CALPOLY and an Ikon passholder, was able to visit during the holidays. I will not go into the wrangling it took to get him here but let’s just say it took lots of nasal swabs. However since he was here, it was skiing we must go.
We set our sights on Niseko United. It is on the Ikon pass and is a collection of four resorts located on Mt. Niseko-Annupuri around the town of Kutchan on the island of Hokkaido. To get there was an adventure in itself.
An hour drive north from my house is the port city of Aomori. A city renowned as the “snowiest city on the planet.” It did not disappoint as we drove through swirling snows to get to the port. From there we took a four-hour car ferry across the Tsugaru Strait. The ferry is more like a European car ferry than the open deck ferries of the Outer Banks. They offer suites, tatami rooms and “view” seats. We settled into our view seats and enjoyed the ride.
A short nap later (any sailor will tell you sleeping at sea is the best), we offloaded in the town of Hakodate. Needing to fuel our internal tanks we stopped at Mos Burger, a Japanese burger chain. We enjoyed a unique Japanese invention, the rice burger (think a hamburger bun made out of rice with a fish patty). As the restaurant was not crowed the whole staff came out to “talk” to us. Most students in Japan study English in high school. That study is mostly reading English. They don’t speak it often. So they were excited to practice on us. It was good fun and a great cross-cultural moment for my son.
Once on the road, we drove another two hours on snow-covered roads to our destination. I heard a Japanese/American friend call where I live the “West Virginia of Japan.” It’s rural, it’s country, there is some really good skiing and the primary means of transportation is a 4X4 pickup truck. If that is the case then Hokkaido is the Alaska of Japan. It is vast, it is empty and it is stunningly beautiful.
On arrival, we checked into our Japanese “pod” style hotel. We had a well-appointed room with two beds and the bathroom down the hall. Quickly changing into our ski gear, we headed to what is the billed as “the best night skiing in the world”. It didn’t disappoint.
Grand Hirafu is the most central of the four ski areas making up Niseko United (the others being Niseko Annupuri Kokusai, Niseko Village Ski Resort and Niseko Hanazono Resort). It boasts over 50 trails and a 3,000-foot vertical drop. Most of the trails are lit for night skiing.
Due to COVID, the area was almost empty. We parked just across the street from the main lift and walked less than 50 feet to the snow. It was a bluebird night in that it was clear with almost no wind. The snow was smooth as silk. A lot of places claim “packed powder” but this really was. You could still find some freshies on the edges of the trails. We were quickly smiling and laughing at how much fun we were having. The cost for night skiing was a mere $30.
After a couple hours of exploring and bombing down the hill we were hungry. The Grand Hirafu base area is the liveliest of the four. It seems like a real ski town with a good choice of places to eat and a bustling nightlife. In normal times it probably has the most international feel of any ski area in Japan. We wolfed down bowls of ramen and grilled lamb for less than the cost of the lift ticket.
Back at the hotel, I enjoyed a soak in the public onsen (think a very big hot tub). Another only-in-Japan thing, the hotels have pajamas for your use. The move is to change into the PJs on arrival and wear them the whole time you are in the hotel. It is totally acceptable to wander around in the issued PJs and slippers. It seems silly at first but you get used to it.
The next morning the JAPOW gods woke up. There was a good 6-plus inches on the car and it took awhile to shovel it out. We went back to The Grand Hirafu base area. I purchased a two day lift tickets for about $128 and we were on the slopes shortly after first chair! The day saw powder… so much powder. Always with the powder! An East Coast skier at heart, I was so out of my element. How do you ski when you can’t hear or see your skis? It was crazy.
Having skied the Grand Hirafu the night before, we set our sights on reaching the Hanazono ski area. The interlinking trails of Nieseko United are high up on Mt. Niseko Annupuri, thus exposed to lots of wind and snow. So with a lot of plunging into whiteouts on blind faith, we made our way over to the the other area.
The Hanazono area is one of the newer areas. It has a new gondola that serves most green terrain and a bubble quad serving the “red” (blue) terrain. We worked the bubble quad lift for awhile skiing nothing but knee-deep powder. It was amazing. For the rest of the afternoon we traded time between these two areas.
At some point, I headed back to the car and traded my skis in for my snowboard. A recent convert to the dark side, I wanted to work on my skills and experience some JAPOW on the board. Although still a beginner weenie I did manage a few turns in the powder and it felt amazing.
Interesting side note: remember early snowboards of the 1990s that were shaped like arrows? Those are still a thing here in Japan and perfect for splashing through deep powder.
When the skies began to darken we decided to shift operations to the Annupuri Kokusai base area for night skiing. This area is normally connected to the others, however the connection trail is very high on the mountain and the lift required to reach the trail was not operating, so into the car we went.
Annupuri Kokusai is the most tired of the four areas of Niseko United. It is in need of a face lift. It still gets the great powder but the infrastructure is older. It does have a high speed buddle chair quad which was operating the night we were there. But this side of the mountain had seen less snow and was a bit played out.
We skied and explored for awhile but hunger pains got us and we called it. Seeing limited options for dinner, we drove the 20 minutes back to our hotel, donned our PJ’s, and proceeded to the dinner buffet like we knew what we were doing.
The next day was our last and we still had one more area to hit: Niseko Village Ski Resort. After determining the connector trail was open, we started at Grand Hirafu and tried to get as high as possible before cutting over to the other area. The plan was working out great until we hit the flat narrow connecter trail.
We started out fine skating along until I got too close to the edge of the trail. I went from a groomed track to deep powder and tumbled in head over heels. Digging myself out was a chore! It seemed to take forever. I ended up painfully post holing/crawling back to the groomed track. The joys of powder skiing!
Once over at Niseko Village we explored additional terrain. This area is more similar to the areas I ski near Misawa. Japan was in its heyday in the 1980s and 90s. There was a huge ski area building boom in that era. This area is clearly a product of that boom. Since then the Japanese economy has been largely stagnant in recent years, a lot of those 1980s to 1990s projects are getting a bit tired and in need of upgrades. This area is one of those. The trails were fun for a bit but we checked the box and moved on.
My son spent the afternoon lapping in the deep powder back at the Grand Hirafu area while I broke out the board and enjoyed the green terrain. About mid-afternoon we called it. On the way out we did some shopping in town, got gas station sushi (in Japan it is a thing and really good!) and headed for the ferry.
This was truly a bucket list trip. Hokkaido is amazing in so many ways. Japan is even more amazing. Combining the two for a few days was great. As I am returning to the States this summer, this will be my last winter in Japan. I am glad I got to experience this crazy powder but I will be honest — I am more comfortable when I can hear my skis! Whitetail anyone?
Robbie Allen is an avid small hill skier. He has written several articles on the many small hills he has sought out.
Loved your article! A wonderful trip you and your son will never forget.
The mountain in the photo is Mount Yotei. There are no ski trails on that mountain. In the photo, the ski resort is behind the picture. So on a nice day to can see the other mountain while skiing.
Not sure about Epic and Ikon traffic. It may direct passholders toward certain areas like it does in the states. Oddly a couple of the local hills are on the Indy pass.
Yes, the real money comes from the Chinese. They have been locked out due to Covid. The bigger areas will benefit from their return.
@johnfmh - ski's are no problem. Lots of demos. Recommend Ogasaka or Kei skis. Both excellent Japanese's brands. Boots are a problem. Larger sizes in are not found in the rental fleet and could curtail your efforts. As my son's shoe size is 13 he brought his boots. If you have SOFA base access you could rent on one of the bases as they have larger sizes. Otherwise bring your boots!