This time of year we’d usually be making plans for our first ski trip of the winter – trying to squish ski clothing into a suitcase, dusting off goggles and helmets, searching for those pesky passports… But, like many things over the last ten months, this winter has not quite gone to plan so far.
Understandably, this has left many of us craving the mountains more than ever and as if to rub salt in the wound, the year we can’t reach the mountains is the year the snow just won’t. stop. falling.
Images of seriously deep powder are gracing our news feeds, with resorts experiencing some of the best snow conditions in years, but little opportunity to enjoy it.
So, we reckon you’ll agree that the only way to deal with this is to start planning the most epic powder adventure ever for winter 21-22… And there’s only really one destination to consider when you’re looking for the ultimate powder experience; Japan.
Japan, or more specifically Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, has become a true bucket-list ski destination over the past few decades, with images of deep, fluffy ‘Japow’ becoming synonymous with the perfect powder skiing holiday.
Forget waist-deep days… in Hokkaido you practically need a snorkel to deal with the snow levels. It’s a completely different type of snow – finer and drier, more like light caster sugar than the wetter snow we’re used to in Europe.
To ensure skiers can make the most of these epic snow conditions, Hokkaido’s resorts boast a unique combination of fantastic backcountry terrain, well groomed pistes and a range of ski touring and cat-skiing opportunities. As such, it’s one of the best places in the world for those after a seriously special off piste adventure.
However, the snow is not the only draw of a ski holiday in Hokkaido. For those that have only ever skied in Europe or North America, a trip to Hokkaido proves the opportunity to experience a completely different type of ski holiday. Whether it’s an après-ski drink at a friendly local izakaya (think a Japanese pub!) or a relaxing soak in an outdoor onsen (Japan’s natural hot spring baths), there’s almost as much to explore off the slopes as on them!
With so many epic resorts to choose from in Hokkaido it can be difficult to know where to start, but never fear – we’ve got you covered! Whether you want to get in as much skiing as possible in one resort or you want to experience a little bit of everything, we’re about to outline the seriously snowy destinations you won’t want to miss next winter, as well as the unmissable places to stay, eat and visit while you’re there.
Rusutsu Resort, Niseko
Just 90 minutes’ drive from Sapporo and New Chitose Airport, Rusutsu is one of Hokkaido’s best resorts. It’s a little less well known than neighbouring Niseko and as a result enjoys far quieter slopes throughout the season.
The ski area spans three peaks, with 14 lifts and 4 gondolas (trust us, you’ll be glad of these on those seriously cold, snowy days). The snow stats don’t disappoint either – Rusutsu is said to receive an incredible 13 metres average snowfall annually, with a huge variety of terrain across which to enjoy it. Whether you want to experience Rusutsu’s famous tree skiing, ease into some gentle powder fields or take on steeper challenges, there’s something for everyone.
Indeed, though Rusutsu’s main draw is undoubtedly the powder, this is also great resort for those who might not want to spend all their time off the piste. 37 pisted runs are available, all impeccably groomed and catering to all levels of skiers, with night skiing available too!
In Rusutsu you’ve also got the opportunity to experience the powder in a different way, with a range of alternative activities including snowmobile adventures. Whether you’re an experienced driver wanting to fly through untracked powder, or a beginner just looking for a little adrenaline, snowmobiling is an incredibly fun way to experience these magical winter landscapes.
Off the snow, Rusutsu is incredibly well facilitated, with the several hotels and facilities that make up the resort offering a number of dining opportunities, shopping and onsen options.
STAY Niseko Konbu Onsen Tsuruga Bessou MOKU NO SHO
Nestled away in the quieter Niseko resort area of Moiwa, the hotel of MOKU NO SHO is a truly spectacular spot. From the striking hotel entrance to the stunning waterfall backdrops, here you’ll feel you are truly entering a space of peace and tranquility, worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the busy Niseko resort area. The rooms are modern and comfortable, some even featuring a private onsen looking out onto the waterfall, where you can soak the aching muscles that indicate a great day’s skiing!
Images © Aaron Jamieson
Iconic eatery Ebisutei is one of Hirafu’s most popular izakayas. An izakaya, considered the Japanese alternative to an English pub or bar, is a lively, laid-back space for socialising, drinking and eating – a great option for anyone looking for the local après-ski experience. Ebisutei is one of the best we’ve experienced, demonstrated by its popularity with both locals and visitors. Signature dishes include zangi on a hot iron plate, Kutchan potato salad. Hokke (whole grilled fish) and sashimi, as well as spicy buffalo chicken wings!
Niseko Grand HIRAFU offers skiers an opportunity to enjoy some of the best snow in Japan, as well as the opportunity to relax in style afterwards in one of the resort’s many hot springs, swimming pools or massage facilities.
This resort has some of the largest slopes in Niseko, as well as six ungroomed courses for advanced skiers and snowboarders to enjoy easy access to the powder. What’s more, the season here is lengthy, making it a great option for spring skiing. This year it is scheduled to be open until May 5 – so although we can’t yet travel ourselves, we can keep living vicariously through snowy images, dreaming of spring 2022!
At Niseko Grand HIRAFU, you can purchase lift tickets online, saving you time at the ticket counter and making it quicker to start your day on the slopes.
In addition, you also have the option to rent a unique variety of advanced skis and snowboards, some of which are designed specifically for powder skiing. There is also a Japan “Brand Corner” which offers high-spec skis and snowboards, made right here in Japan and designed to give advanced skiers the best possible time in that famous Japow!
Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort, Sapporo
Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort is one of the ski resorts that is most easily accessible from the centre of Sapporo and is a recommended destination.
It is a bit smaller in size than other snow resorts in Hokkaido, but it offers everything you would want to experience on a ski trip in Japan. Boasting spacious slopes, less crowded lifts, and days of untracked snow, it’s an attractive destination for many skiers who are searching for that perfect Japow experience.
With excellent facilities off the slopes, including a state-of-the-art lift system and an excellent ski school, Sapporo Kokusai is, in our opinion, is the hidden gem of Hokkaido. For beginner skiers, there are a variety of well-developed areas for practice and for more advanced skiers, there is an abundance of excellent powder snow to enjoy.
Images © Aaron Jamieson
EAT Local seafood
Forget the heavy meats and cheese you might be used to after a day on the slopes, in Hokkaido you can enjoy delicious fresh seafood and exciting sushi restaurants of the highest quality. Trust us when we say any thoughts of cheese or bread will be quickly forgotten.
The chefs here have mastered their specialities over many years, developing complex flavour pairings and unique cooking styles. Most recommended is the famous Jingisukan, a Japanese grilled mutton dish prepared on a convex metal skillet or grill. It allows for a highly enjoyable cook-your-own style dining experience, where fresh meat is brought to your table and prepared to perfection on the grill right before your eyes. We’d recommend enjoying with a cold beer in hand after a great day’s skiing, there’s really no better way to wind down!
VISIT Nijo Market
Still wanting more of that fishy goodness? Don’t miss Nijo fish Market, a hub of local activity and the place to go for the freshest fish in Sapporo. The market has been a feature of life here for over 100 years, with many the current shops and vendors having played an integral part in developing its character over the years.
The market is attractive, authentic and energetic, providing a unique sightseeing experience as you sample the many tastes on offer from the market restaurants and those in the surrounding streets. Don’t miss the famous local seafood speciality of Hokkaido King Crab – a delicious delicacy you can have packed in ice to take home, or prepared for you to eat right there at the market!
Images © Aaron Jamieson
Kamui Ski Resort, Central Hokkaido
When in Japan, ski where the locals do – at Kamui Ski Links! If you’re looking to avoid the tourist traps and enjoy the most authentic Japow ski holiday, Kamui is definitely one to put on your list.
The area of Kamuimintara is referred to by the Ainu (the indigenous people of Hokkaido) as “the garden of the gods”. It truly is an area whose beauty is otherworldly, with the ski resort of Kamui enjoying stunning views out over the Ishikari Plain and river.
Popular among local skiers thanks to its great snow, accessible location and affordable lift pass prices, Kamui is another real hidden gem of Hokkaido. Tourists are few and far between, instead you are sharing the slopes here with local Hokkaidans who know that Japow like the back of their hands.
Sure, it’s not the largest of ski areas, with one high speed gondola and five chair lifts. However, the snow record is on a par with any of the larger resorts in the area, thanks to Kamui’s unique location – further north than Sapporo and far enough inland that the snow has little moisture – the perfect combination for great powder!
It’s rare for a ski resort to be quite so evenly divided for all abilities, with Kamui offering one third beginner, one third intermediate, one third advanced runs. What’s more, only 68% of these runs are pisted, across the levels, so there are plenty of opportunities to experience that world-renowned Japow, regardless of your level.
In terms of accessibility, there’s nowhere better to experience this famous powder than Kamui. It’s located under an hour from Asahikawa City and about two hours from Sapporo so is very easy to reach. Indeed, vsitors can very easily stay in Asahikawa City, the second biggest city in Hokkaido, enjoying all the joy and vibrancy of Japan’s metropolitan nightlife and culture whilst also being able to hit the slopes each day.
Large ski lockers in the resort’s centre mean that you can store all your family’s gear at the resort if you are staying in the city, while English-speaking staff are on hand if you have any questions or queries. There is a large food court here, serving Korean and Japanese food made with local ingredients, and the mountaintop restaurant serves authentic Italian food to satisfy your mid-ski hunger.
However, the issue with hidden gems is that even the best kept secrets have to be shared at some point… Word is growing of the wonderful ski area at Kamui, so if you want to enjoy this truly off the radar resort at its best, next winter is the time to do so!
VISIT Asahikawa City
Asahikawa City is a destination famous for its food culture, most notably its fresh seafood. This is thanks to the city’s central location, which provides great access to all four corners of the island, and the four bodies of water surrounding it.
Though the buildings here have more of an old-Japan feel than Tokyo or even Sapporo, all tastes of Japan can be found in Asahikawa. From traditional izakaya and ramen shops to local sake bars, Japanese craft beer bars and modern nightclubs, here are some of our favourites.
Here are some of our most highly-recommended spots to enjoy around the area:
Ueda-ya: A sake shop specialising in sake varieties from the local area, with a chic standing bar hidden away around the back, where visitors can sample the sake and receive recommendations from staff. A well kept secret, with a warm, friendly atmosphere that’s very popular with locals.
Yoshiya Yakitori: An old school grilled chicken restaurant with true Japanese charm, Yoshiya has been running for almost a century. Amazingly, Yoshiya remains a family-run establishment, with the elderly proprietor manning the charcoal flame grill, and his wife and daughter handling the front of house. Try the “Shinko” chicken and the “chappu” pork chops, all washed down with a delicious local beer.
Seafood Izakaya Yuuichiro Shouten: More famous Hokkaido seafood! In Asahikawa, the izakaya of Yuuichiro Shouten offers the perfect place to sample all types of seafood, from the familiar (charcoal grilled fish) to the strange (deep fried cod shirako tempura), along with a range of local drinks.
Freehouse: The Yeast: For the best beer in town, head to this small craft beer bar, where you can sample local Hokkaido brews, Japanese craft beer, and special brews from overseas. Great, modern decor, knowledgeable staff and great food make this a firm favourite for locals and tourists alike.
Asahidake Ski Resort
Asahidake ski resort is a totally un-groomed resort on the tallest mountain in all of Hokkaido, offering incredible back-country powder and amazing tree runs for more advanced skiers. If you want that full Japow experience; the most serene landscapes, the truly untouched, knee-deep powder, the incredible views, Asahidake is the place for you.
This is a spot for true adventurers, with wild, rugged beauty and arguably some of the best powder in Japan. Though it’s not the most developed resort in terms of infrastructure, this also means it is blissfully quiet, free of the crowds of some other resorts. It’s also strictly experts-only, as it is an un-groomed resort. Skiers visiting must bring or rent safety gear to ensure they are well protected in case of any trouble. It also can be a good idea to hire a guide here, to ensure you can find the best routes without getting lost!
VISIT Transit Store
A small mountain supplies store on the route from Asahikawa City to Asahidake, Transit store offers all the last-minute necessities you might need, from gloves to camping gear and even avalanche airbags to rent.
The store’s owner, JK, is an English-speaking outdoors writer who has been published in a lot of Japanese-language magazines and knows all there is to know about Hokkaido’s most adventure-packed mountain, making this a great spot for both last-minute gear needs and local advice!
Although we couldn’t cover it in this article, Hokkaido has many other fascinating ski resorts and exciting local experiences. We look forward to seeing you there!
Featured Image © Aaron Jamieson