Skiing in Hokkaido for a week in January, my legs give out long before the face shots do, which was exactly what I had hoped for.
Planning a powder ski vacation any more than a few days in advance is like trying to predict the stock market — unless you're going to Hokkaido in January. On average, more than one-third of the island's annual 600 inches of snow arrives during the first month of the year. During an average January week, it snows six of seven days. January in Hokkaido isn't "January" but "Japowuary."
Hokkaido is more than skiing and #powmageddon, though. The island has even more onsens, or geothermal hot springs, than it does ski resorts. (And it has about 100 ski resorts.) Onsens are a thing all over Japan — there are about 3,000 in the country, and archaeological finds hint that some of them have been used since 3000 B.C. — but they seem particularly well paired with skiing.
After being taken to an onsen at the end of my first ski day, I visit a different one on each of the next six evenings. For a spring to be an onsen, a 1948 law states it must contain at least one of 19 specified minerals and be no colder than 77 degrees Fahrenheit. In Hokkaido, I soak in sulfide pools, chloride pools and “simple springs” that have minerals, but in low concentrations; I do not soak in any pool that is less than 96 degrees. I hear rumors of coed onsens, but every one I go to has separate areas for men and women. Nudity is the norm.
While onsens sound like natural hot tubs, their rituals and rules of etiquette elevate them from mere soak to cultural experience. At my first onsen, unsure of what to do with the washcloth that came with my $7 admission, I scrubbed my arms with it while I soaked in an outdoor pool ringed with small boulders. Inside, I used one of many handheld shower heads mounted in a row on a tile wall only after I soaked and did this while standing.
By day three, I knew to clean myself before soaking and that washing yourself in a hot spring is a serious breach of etiquette. I noticed local women wearing their folded washcloths on top of their heads but did not learn why.
By day five, I realized that if I cleaned myself while sitting instead of standing, I would be much less likely to douse other onsen visitors when I rinsed my shoulders and back. Previously, I had used the low plastic stools paired with each shower head to put a foot on while I shaved a leg.
On day seven, I cleaned myself without spraying anyone else but still had no idea why you’d want a washcloth on top of your head. (Answer: It’s bad form to let a used washcloth touch the communal water.) Walking out of my last onsen, I was convinced it was only because of my daily soaks that I was able to ski hip-deep snow — and ski up through hip-deep snow — for seven straight days.
Most powder skiers who come to Hokkaido are perfectly satisfied skiing the island’s resorts. Even the busiest resort here — Niseko United, which is actually a collection of four resorts — gets only a fraction of the skiers that big U.S. resorts do. While all the runs at my home hill, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, are tracked out by noon the day after a big storm, friends tell me they’ve skied untracked powder at Niseko United as late as four days after a storm.
I prefer backcountry skiing, also called ski touring, to resort skiing, though. Backcountry skiers eschew ski resorts and ski lifts in favor of remote mountains, climbing skins, and specialized skis, bindings and boots. Skiing uphill is called “skinning” because the original climbing skins, which are affixed to skis’ bases and allow skis to glide forward but not backward, were made from sealskin. (Today’s climbing skins are most often made from mohair or nylon.) It’s like hiking on skis, except you don’t have to kill your knees by walking downhill. When ready to descend, backcountry skiers remove their climbing skins, transition their bindings and boots, and then ski down as if on regular Alpine skiing gear.
Specialized gear isn’t the only requirement of backcountry skiing, though. Because it is done away from the safety of ski resorts and ski patrol, it is essential for backcountry skiers to understand how to travel in avalanche terrain and have knowledge of the local snowpack. I have experience with the former but am ignorant about Hokkaido’s snowpack. To overcome this deficiency, I have signed up to be one of eight clients on a seven-day backcountry trip led by ski guides from the Leavenworth, Wash.-based Northwest Mountain School. The guides are American but have been studying Hokkaido’s weather and snow since the start of the season.
Despite the extra education and physical effort backcountry skiing requires, I think it’s worth it. I find skinning meditative, and there’s no beating when you and your ski partners have an entire slope — or even an entire mountain — to yourselves. Backcountry skiing also allows for the exploration of areas not otherwise accessible. On Hokkaido, this includes the majority of Daisetsuzan National Park and all of Mount Yotei.
Daisetsuzan is the largest of Japan’s 34 national parks and is home to dozens of skinnable mountains, including some active volcanoes. Yotei is a 6,227-foot-tall volcano near Niseko that, because its symmetrical shape resembles that of Mount Fuji, Japan’s most famous mountain, is often called “the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido.” The island’s indigenous people, the Ainu, believe Yotei was the first place created on earth and the spot from which the entire landmass of Hokkaido formed.
The 'great snowy mountains'
I’d love to climb and ski Mount Yotei, but after meeting in Sapporo, Hokkaido’s most populous city, our group heads for the pastoral center of the island and Daisetsuzan. Skiing Yotei requires visibility, which requires it to stop snowing. Snow is forecast for the next three days.
As poor as Japowuary is for skiing Yotei, it is perfect for Daisetsuzan. You don’t want to ski Yotei in a snowstorm because so much of it is higher than the elevation above which trees can grow. Without trees for reference, it’s easy to get lost; vertigo is also possible. Daisetsuzan National Park is as thick with trees as it is with mountains. Hokkaido is home to 22 percent of Japan’s forests, many of which are in Daisetsuzan.
The park’s name, fittingly, translates to “great snowy mountains.” The snow banks along the road into the park are twice as tall as our van. In the 20 minutes it takes the group to gear up at the trailhead, half an inch of snow falls. I know this because I accidentally drop a glove when I exit the van and, when I find it just before we start skinning, it is buried. I pick it up and the flakes fall off like strands of eiderdown. Hokkaido’s snow is about as dry as the driest powder found in the United States (generally in Utah).
From the parking lot, we walk down to a braided river and, carrying our skis, carefully rock-hop across its thin channels. On the far bank, we click the toes of our boots into our bindings and start skinning.
Going at a moderate pace and stopping a couple of times to rest and eat prepackaged sushi and katsu sandwiches purchased at a 7-Eleven near the ski lodge where we’re staying, it takes around 90 minutes to climb about 1,800 vertical feet. This doesn’t bring us to the summit of anything, but since the falling snow limits visibility to about 30 feet, none of us cares. Within view is an open slope that doesn’t have a single ski track on it. We all put on goggles and additional layers for the descent, take off our skins, and switch our bindings and boots from tour mode to ski mode.
It’s difficult to tell how deep the powder we ski here is, but it’s deep enough that I can’t feel bottom. Bouncing down the slope, each of us weaving our own path between gnarled birch trees, we not only get face shots but send snow clouds billowing up and over our heads with every turn. I’m not the only one whooping with glee.
In Hokkaido, trees, especially conifers, can become so entombed in snow and ice that they’re swollen to three or four times their normal size and are no longer identifiable as trees. They instead look like T. rexes, or Godzilla or Jabba the Hutt. So transformed, these trees are called juhyo, or snow monsters. At the bottom of this run, with every inch of me covered in snow, I wonder what sort of juhyo I make.
And then, because there’s no chance we’re not doing a second lap — we all agree this is the deepest, lightest snow we’ve ever skied — everyone puts climbing skins back on their skis. This time we skin a little slower, but skiing down, our enthusiasm is, like the quality of the snow, undiminished.
Returning to the van shortly before dusk, I’m ready to head straight for the Northern Star Lodge. When we checked in that morning, I noticed its large selection of local wines and a cozy couch in front of a crackling wood-burning stove. Instead of heading for the lodge, though, guides Pete Keane and John Race take me to my first onsen.
Sinking into the Japanese hot spring, I’m tempted to issue a whoop similar to the ones inspired by the day’s skiing. Sore muscles relaxing into mineral-rich water feels very different from bouncing around inside a cloud, but both are equally blissful.
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If you go
Where to stay
Northern Star Lodge
Kita 14-go, Nishi 1-sen
Made with wood imported from Finland, this four-room ski lodge has plenty of space to hang out and store/dry ski gear; no rooms here have private bathrooms. Rooms from about $90 per person, including breakfast and dinner. Cash only.
204-7 Aza Yamada
Designed by the Australian firm Architectus, all the rooms at this ski-in/ski-out hotel at the base of Hirafu have floor-to-ceiling windows. The property includes a traditional onsen as well as a sensory deprivation tank. Rooms from about $349.
A ski-in/ski-out hotel at the base of Kiroro Resort with 281 rooms and suites done in a contemporary, minimalist style. Rooms from about $115.
Where to eat
Furano Cheese Factory/Pizza Factory/Ice Cream Factory
Learn about local cheeses such as squid ink Camembert and then snack on pizzas made with local ingredients and baked in an oven imported from Naples. End with ice cream made from local milk; flavors include cheese. Cheese factory open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; pizza/ice cream factories open daily 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Whole pizzas from about $13, ice cream about $3. Factory visit is free.
Ezo Seafoods & Oyster Bar
Fresh-caught local seafood — hairy crab, Notsuke Peninsula scallops and Akkeshi oysters — simply prepared in a cozy two-story space where offerings change daily. Reservations recommended. Open Tuesday through Sunday 5 to 10:30 p.m. Entrees from about $15.
3 Chome-16-13 Inaho
This family-run restaurant founded in 1957 serves sushi and a savory pancake called okonomiyaki, but it is famous for its Hanshinage chicken — half a chicken seasoned with salt and pepper for 24 hours and then deep-fried in soybean oil. Open daily 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Entrees from about $7.
What to do
Northwest Mountain School
P.O. Box 329, Leavenworth, Wash.
Days are spent skiing powder with American guides and often end with a trip to a local onsen on this tour organized by the American company. Lodging for seven nights (singles extra), two American adventure guides, transportation from Sapporo, and most dinners and breakfasts about $3,145.
Lift-served runs and access to adjacent backcountry through gates (with signed waiver) about one hour from both Niseko and downtown Sapporo. Three- and six-hour, full-day, and night-skiing lift tickets. Lifts open daily Nov. 23 to May 6. Adult lift tickets from about $34.
Furano Ski Resort
20-31 Kitanomine Furano
Lift-served groomed and powder runs with views of the Daisetsu Mountains and accessible by bus from Furano. More FIS Alpine Ski World Cup ski races (about 12) have been held here than at any other resort in Japan. Open daily Nov. 23 to May 6. Adult lift tickets from about $40.
204 Aza Yamada
Hokkaido’s largest ski resort is actually four separate ski areas, but they’re connected, and one pass covers lift access to all four. Lifts operate on individual schedules; open daily 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 11 to May 6. Full-day adult lift tickets from around $40.
Ryounkaku Tokachidake Onsen
071-0500 Tokachidake Onsen
Indoor and outdoor hot spring pools and bathing areas separated by gender at the end of a road at Mount Tokachidake. Open daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. About $7 for adults; kids 6 to 12 about $3.50; 5 and younger free.