Thursday, February 1, 2018

Hokkaido Powder Heaven

Five years ago Ashley and I succumbed to the reports of epic powder in Japan that we had heard about, and despite never being that interested in Japan or its culture (not sure why,'s old, rich, complicated, and fascinating) we went over for a quick trip and saw the least, what little we could see through the copious snow that fell from the sky and blew around our faces.  As the anemic early winter snowpack didn't accumulate in Utah we saw the writing on the wall:  when it was going to snow it was going to be challenging at best (the Ironic Insult to Injury of a lean snow year is that when it doesn't snow much the avalanche danger typically is also much higher when it does actually snow) and it was time to return to the Land Of The Rising Sun And Deep Powder (LOTRSADP)! 

Many people are surprised that there is even skiing in Japan much less being a global ski hub, but there are actually over 500 ski resorts, even though it's 4% of the size of the US, and from December through March in snows.  A lot.  Our last trip there was in late February and the base snow depth at the resorts was 15 feet, even though it's at the same latitude as Utah and the mountains only top out at 6000 feet and typically the skiing is between 1000 and 3000 feet.  In a nutshell, the reason for this phenomenon is because they are just across the Sea of Japan from Siberia and storms consistently sweep down, pick up moisture from the Sea, and dump it on the first land that pushes that air upwards, which is the smaller northern island of Hokkaido and the northern section of Honshu (the "main" island).  The Wasatch Weather Weenie Jim Steenburgh, who is one of the world's experts on "lake effect" snowfall, calls it a winter monsoon, and just a couple of weeks ago published a blog post on Japan here, and here is an (unpermitted; hope Jim doesn't mind!) image showing it:

Our first adventure within the adventure began right when we hit the ground; our flight over was late, and as we were exiting the plane in Tokyo a gate agent was holding up a sign with our names on it; yes, what up?  "We saw that you were coming in late and we were worried that you may not make your connection, so we are here to help!"  Wow, welcome to the supernice Japanese people.  That gate agent hustled us to our connecting airline gate people, who processed us quickly and then two of them grabbed a couple of our bags and - even though they were dressed impeccably and were sporting high heels - asked very nicely "can you run?!" And off we all ran to catch our flight!
a respite on the hgh-heeled gate-agent chase while we are on the inter-terminal train.  
Our next mini adventure came up the next morning when we went to pick up our rental car; on our previous trip we had based ourselves exclusively at Niseko (sort of the Park City of Japan) and didn't need a car, but this time we wanted to wander about a bit more, so we felt a car would be handy.  However, this:

was "big problem".   huh?  "You need international drivers license!"  Wow, ok, how do I get one?  "must be in home country!"  Wait a minute, I am a 'Murican!  Make America Great Again!  America First, even when it comes to drivers licenses!  Getting an international drivers license means sending $20 to AAA and getting a piece of paper, but according to the 1949 Geneva Convention rules (not kidding) that's the way it is.  Once we recognized that we weren't getting a car we did an abrupt strategy shift, and a quick scramble to connect into Japan's extensive and prompt public transit system we were on a bus heading for Furano within 30 mins, even as we were cautioned that some bus reservations need to be made far in advance.  Whatever; we'll deal as it comes....

Furano is both a city and an adjacent ski resort, and has fun sidecountry (and there's a great Aussie who has been in that area for a zillion years who is super helpful:  John Worrell) .  Which brings up another interesting point about Japan; Japanese skiers like to ski on piste, and even within resorts un-groomed slopes are really only skied by Westerners, and much of the "backcountry" skiing is resort sidecountry that in the US would be hammered within hours, but in Japan stays untrammeled for days.  And something as simple as a 10 minute hike from the top of the tram (all Japanese resorts sell 1-ride tickets for cheap) and dropping off the backside that requires skinning to get out ensures untracked turns.  So we spent a couple of days doing that, including one with our SLC friends Jeff and Janine Wood, Christine Hasagawa, and Lauren Scholnick. 
Christine gave us this new use for a Buff; trim off a bottom strip and use it as a noseguard!  
A classic destination not far from Furano is Daisetsuzan National Park and the famous Tokachidake Onsen.  Even though it's high in the mountains with no ski resort, there's a 3x/day public bus that slithers up the really snowy road for about $5 each, and ends right at the door of the hotel there.  The hotel was probably started for summertime Japanese hikers, but now gets constant winter use by westerners looking for opportunities to ski the high alpine lines in the brief windows of wintertime weather clearing and the long treed shots below when it snows.  We had heard from multiple folks that this place was a must-stay, and we were not disappointed.  A few km down the road from the hotel was a trailhead, and we followed a skinner up for a coupla thousand feet up one of a series of ridges with great tree skiing off each side.  It had snowed pretty much continuously since we arrived in Hokkaido, and despite the popularity of this area (a lot of guided groups) we had no problem finding plenty of untracked lines and the navigation was easy. 
like a typical Wasatch trailhead! 
Our second morning we awoke to wind.  In the Wasatch we get a lot of pre-frontal wind events that are quite warm, but this Hokkaido wind didn't have much associated with it besides...wind.  From the comfort of breakfast we watched the trees whip and bend and the light blower snow that had been accumulating was creating an effective ground blizzard, and it was easy to just bag any attempt at skiing for the day - and most folks did.  But we decided to give it a go and at least tromp around a little. 
this was a mountain club outing; I think they optimistically anticipated going out for a snowcamp, but we saw them later when they had wisely dumped their packs.  
We were worried about avy danger with the wind so we went to an area that we thought was lower-angle skiing.  We put our heads down and tried to plow uphill through the wind-cake, but the wind and snow was literally taking our breath away and the terrain we chose was almost flat, and after Ash once got ahead of me as I was futzing with my gloves or somesuch and her deep skin track was obliterated in seconds and she virtually disappeared into the blizzard, we decided to turn around and march back down.  We got a ride back up the few km to the hotel with a Swiss guy who was laughing as the car was literally bouncing off the road's snow walls since we couldn't see a thing even in the car.  And thus we retired to the onsen. 

"Onsen" is Japanese for hot springs, and is one of the only words you need to know as a skier in Japan.  We assumed it was also a verb, and thus we were always keen for onsening, which apparently is a big part of life all over Japan.  The Tokachidake is part of the Ryounkaku hotel, and it's one of the best:
One of the rules of onsening is "no photos", and even tho I was tempted to be the boorish American and do it anyway, I poached this from their website.  
The wind picked up before it let up, and we went to bed literally feeling the hotel shaking, and my last thoughts going to sleep were of spending the next week subjecting ourselves to trench warfare trying to get uphill and having perpetual avalanche hazard.  But miraculously we awoke to this view:

and sometime in the night, after the wind event, as if to apologize for its ferocity the heavens dropped down about 8 or so inches of gentle fluff onto the supportable windjack, and thus our snowpack was revived in only hours.  And thus again we partaked in more blower powder:
some nice angulation in the carvable cream! 
We bumped into Kelsey from the Utah on the skin track, who was sporting her own Wasatch Backcountry Alliance buff! 
sick air brah!

riding the bus in my ski boots; I forgot my shoes at a previous hotel for 3 days, but didn't need them, and they were still happily awaiting me in their little cubby when I returned.  
After another half-day in the Furano backcountry (the only crimp in our non-auto-centric trip was being denied a few hours of skiing because a late bus was full and we had to catch a 1:30 bus) we moved over to the Niseko area.  Moiwa is a small resort adjacent to the Niseko megaplex and its sidecountry   -even though it's lift-served - provided a great day's worth of terrain, and we spent a day at/near Chisenipuri, which was a one-lift resort that we visited on our last trip but has since closed (and is now a cat ski destination).  The glades nearby are a favorite for guided groups, but since typically guided groups don't move very fast, there was plenty of terrain for all. 

one of the few brief minutes of sun we saw on the trip. 

big snowbanks for mid season

When they don't plow the road, the snow stacks up, and they have whole villages focused around onsening...

If you can't find a bus, the taxi drivers are fearless in the snow and are quite nattily-dressed
Salt Lakers Bart Gillespie and Jared Inyoue had been in Hokkaido for the week prior and we had exchanged lots of texts about possibly hooking up and then just beta, but the best one was this:  "Mt Shiribetsu has multiple 2000-foot runs on all aspects all around the mountain with great tree skiing." That was all we needed, and we headed there.  At first all we could find for lodging was the $500/night Hilton or somesuch that was associated with the nearby ski resort of Resutsu, but Ash found a place called the "Clydesdale" (we didn't see any horses, and didn't want to stretch our hosts' limited english to explain the name), and it was as cute and quaint as the Hiltons were fancy and the Niseko hostels were dirtbag.  And most importantly, it was a 10 minute skin to the base of  -as Bart and Jared had pointed out - 2000 foot lines from the top of the volcano.  And not only was it 2000 feet, but it was steep as well, so in addition to having all the snow that had stacked up on top of the windjack, we had steeps to be able to ski fast.  I've never, ever been prone to hyperbole, but this time I swear....this skiing was The Best Ever. 

lapping it up
Everybody's happy about powder snow
the snowy view out the breakfast window towards Shiribetsu
a small but oh-so-good volcano
A pic of a pic; Shiribetsu is in the foreground, the much bigger Yotei is behind (an amazing day in clear weather).   The Clydesdale in near the fields at the base.  
Much of this report has been about the skiing, but one of the great things about skiing Japan is the people; they are so nice, polite, considerate, and endearing.  From friends who have worked with/in Japan I know that this can be a bit of a front, and the Japanese are famously non-committal, non-confrontational, underspoken, and even sly, which can drive brusque, loud, obnoxious, and blunt 'Muricans and Aussies (the other big ski population there) a bit crazy, but at a tourist level it's really nice to be around so many nice people. 

And there are some nice amenities:
beer vending machines

drinking fountain/toilet combos

amazing food
cut little cars with really small wheels, which makes for a lot more interior space for the size. 
beautiful snowy trees
snow removal is a constant battle in Hokkaido
Utah can go ahead and keep their cute little license plates that say "The Greatest Snow on Earth", but after partaking again in the LOTRSADP I was reminded that it's pretty hard to beat Japanuary Japow in Japan.  We'll be back.

I think I'm Turning Japanese I really think so think so think so!  

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