Japan offers possibly the most exotic ski experience in the world with an intoxicating mix of perfect powder snow, incredible food and culture. What’s more, it’s all just nine hours’ flight north of Australia, with a two-hour time difference that translates into virtually no jetlag. Here’s a snapshot of the best places to ski.
A one-hour flight from Tokyo.
There’s no doubt Niseko is the most popular Japanese ski resort for Australians thanks to its bountiful powder snow – one of the highest snowfalls among world resorts, up to 15m a year – and the tourist-friendly town of Hirafu.
Since the yen came back into reach about five years ago, Australians have been pouring into the potato-farming village in peak season, their numbers doubling each year. Japan’s ski season starts in December and runs until early April, but the big snows come in January and February. Indeed, each winter the far-flung Hirafu – a two-hour drive through snowy landscape from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport – is overrun with Aussies not only skiing, but buying and building their home away from home.
By day they fling themselves down Niseko’s slopes where waist-deep powder awaits – often right at the chairlift – with views of Mount Yotei volcano across the valley. By night they flood Hirafu’s cosy restaurants, which offer everything from sushi and seafood to noodles and Western dishes, before hitting the numerous, tiny atmospheric bars. Be sure to visit Fatty’s, a pub set up in a semitrailer; the Fridge, entered via an old-fashioned fridge door set into the side of a bank of snow; and the igloo-style Ice Bar, whose rooms and bars are freshly carved each season. Highlights of Hirafu’s eateries include the sister seafood restaurants Senchou 1 and Senchou 2, A-Bu-Cha and Gentem Cafe.
Hirafu is a charming town, easily manageable on foot. Three-metre walls of snow line the footpaths and its wooden chalets can be completely cloaked in powder. Alongside the dozens of modern apartments run by Australian tour operators are popular rustic pensions such as Half Note and Woody Note, which are heavily booked by Australians due to their atmosphere and lower prices.
Shuttles swing by the main streets constantly, so getting to the lifts is a breeze. The resort boasts one of the largest night skiing operations in the world with lifts open from 8.30am to 9pm. Once on the slopes, there’s a choice of 38 lifts spread over three ski areas, peaks to hike and, on a rare sunny day, views of the Sea of Japan. In winter, it’s simply party central.
A close competitor of Niseko, Furano is quieter, even though it is one of the biggest and best-known ski resorts in Japan. Two hours from Sapporo by train, it has 15 lifts including two gondolas, 950 vertical metres of skiing and views to the highest peaks across Hokkaido.
Its main drawcards are tree-skiing, runs that are on the steep side – the resort is famous for hosting World Cup ski races – and better weather than snowy Niseko.
The ski field registers up to 8m of snow a year and, while less than Niseko, it’s no less fluffy or deep – although there are stricter rules about not skiing in the trees where the best snow is often found. There are also plenty of easy runs for beginners and some challenging bump runs.
Furano is well organised on the snow-play front with dog sledding, snowmobiling, parasailing behind snowmobiles and back-country and alpine tours on the mountain menu.
The town of Furano, five minutes from the ski village by taxi, is more sophisticated than Hirafu, with 200 restaurants and bars, and a sake factory. The New Furano Prince Hotel is a preferred place to stay and you can’t go past the sushi at Sasazushi, potato pizza at Puu or the tempura at Tsuruki.
Rusutsu is the polar opposite of Hirafu when it comes to accommodation. The enormous and modern Rusutsu Resort Hotel and Tower is the centrepiece with a selection of restaurants and bars around the base of the ski field. A cosy option is the resort’s log cottages, imported from Canada.
Rusutsu is a popular daytrip for Australian tour operators in Niseko, who coincide trips with the latest dump of powder. Some of Rusutsu’s terrain is steeper than Niseko’s, with a more consistent fall and a knack of catching even more powder.
The ski field has 18 lifts, including four gondolas, and covers three peaks – one ideal for beginners, another with terrain park and halfpipe, and the third, Mount Isola. This peak is the big drawcard for Australian skiers and is where the powder hounds head for a choice of steep pistes – down wide and open or perfectly spaced tree-runs that are bliss after fresh snow. However, when the clouds break, Rusutsu’s panoramic views can cause distraction.
The food in the base lodge is exceptional. The Rusutsu Resort Hotel has a string of restaurants such as the Kakashi Tavern and Shiki grill. As in Furano, there’s plenty of snow action such as snowmobiling and dog sledding. There are even bread-baking classes.
Kamui Ski Links
If you want a taste of the best Japanese powder and city pleasures, put Kamui on the list. It’s off the beaten track and has a hint of the wild. Kamui is further inland than the more popular ski fields and is close to Asahikawa, second-biggest city in central Hokkaido. Unlike many resorts in Japan, Kamui has no restrictions on skiing in the trees. The policy is go anywhere you please with caution. It gets its fair share of
skiers due to its proximity to Asahikawa and, being one hour from Furano, makes an ideal daytrip.
The resort is blessed by fairer weather than many of Hokkaido’s other fields due to its location in the centre of the island. High winds and bad weather are virtually nonexistent, resulting in light snow that drifts down undisturbed and creates conditions close to skiing nirvana. A welcoming eatery called The Den sits at the top of the gondola and has mountain vistas and a central fireplace.
Kamui has wide cruising runs for the powder-challenged and plenty for the powder pigs. The terrain is mostly fun and rolling with a few short, steep runs.
Asahikawa has everything in the way of Japanese city life and culture, with more than 2000 bars and restaurants, and terrific shopping. Most Westerners stay at the Palace Hotel, Grand Hotel, Terminal Hotel or the Crescent Hotel. Take a look at the penguins and polar bears in Asahiyama Zoo.
If you don’t have time to travel to Hokkaido, make sure you visit these resorts within easy striking distance of Tokyo.
If you’re looking for steeps, size and scenery, this is the place. Unlike the gentle mountains of Hokkaido, here huge, rugged peaks tower over the villages. Hakuba is tucked away in the heart of Japan’s major alpine region, a 90-minute bullet train ride from Tokyo to Nagano and then a one-hour bus ride. It is actually 10 ski resorts combined, with the Olympic ski jump stadium at the Happo-One skifield – a legacy of the 1998 winter games – the central focus.
It has great powder skiing, modern lifts and gondolas, the perfect grooming for which the Japanese are famous, and the variety of terrain you’d expect from North American resorts. Little wonder it’s hugely popular with the Tokyo crowd. The resorts of Iwatake, Tsugaike, Norikura and Cortina (named after the Italian resort) tend to draw the most skiers.
By far one of the most sophisticated and largest resorts you will find in Japan, Shiga Kogen is actually 21 interlinked resorts rolling over scenic mountains. It takes about three days to cover all of its runs. A three-hour journey from Tokyo will deposit you among the lodges, modern restaurants and spas of Shiga Kogen.
Skiers will be pleased to know there is enough room here to have skier-only areas where boarders are banned. There’s also night skiing, snow biking (sliding around on specially adapted bikes with skis instead of wheels) and guides for backcountry trips. One of the other big off-snow attractions is the proximity to the much-photographed monkeys that bathe in the hot springs. The area also boasts one of Japan’s longest ski seasons, from late November until early May.
Source: Qantas The Australian Way November 2007
Updated: July 2008