Powder and wonder on Japan’s Northern Island: A trip to Hokkaido

Photo Credit: Beckywithasmile

Photo Credit: Beckywithasmile

It has been almost ten years since I first saw videos of snowboarders floating through on a foot of powder through perfectly spaced trees in Japan. At first I was mesmerized, and quickly began to question where in Japan this was.

The 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo first blew the lid on the amazing skiing conditions and culture on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. Slowly over the next 40 years, and especially in the last 10, the mountains surrounding Sapporo have moved increasingly higher on any major skier or snowboarders list of must visit locals. Yet still very few make the journey.

Skiing on Hokkaido is so much more than enjoying some of the lightest and deepest powder on the planet. Experiencing the Japanese culture, the noodle shops, small yakatori joints, hot springs, skiing through amazing trees under the lights at night and the beautiful land and mountains provide the vacationer, traveler, explorer, whatever you want to call yourself, with a jam packed trip, full of variety, intrigue, curiosity and wonder.

photo 2 - yakatori

Most will elect to fly into Tokyo from anywhere internationally. Flights are cheaper, and though in my opinion Hokkaido is the highlight of any trip to Japan, if you have never been to you would be making a huge mistake not spending a few days enjoying the wonders, the history, and the at times overwhelming nature that is Tokyo.

Accommodation in Tokyo can vary wildly, and there are entire blogs and websites like Roomarama to help you wade through all that information. I’d personally like to say two things about Tokyo; first, the people are amazingly nice and helpful, so don’t be nervous at all and second, it is a safe city, so enjoy walking down the smallest of streets and alleyways’ searching for the little local spots that Edokkos (Tokyo-ians) visit after long days.

photo 1 - hokkaido

There are three ways to travel north to Saporro, the main city and jumping off point on any trip to the mountains of Hokkaido, plane, rail and ferry. Each one has benefits and draw backs. Tokyo to Sapporo by plane is one of the top three busiest routes every year. The flight is about two and a half hours and if you have your own skis and a lot of luggage is the preferable route. By train, you can travel overnight through the longest rail tunnel in the world (soon to be eclipse in Switzerland) a nice way to save a nights accommodation in Tokyo. If you have the time traveling north through Fukushima and Aomori and taking the ferry is a very nice and enjoyable experience, albeit longer and more expensive route.

However you manage to find your way to Saporro, be prepared for an entirely different world than Tokyo. The north island is much less traditional in terms of attitude, behavior and even food.

There are many resorts outside of Saporro, the most famous two being Niseko, also the biggest, and Teine, the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. My personal favorite mountains to get great turns are Rusutsu and Niseko Moiwa.

photo 3 - rusutsu

Rusutsu is little smaller, read less crowded, than Niseko or Teine and provides unbelievable views of the volcano Mt. Isola and has very cool and cheap log cabins for rent on the mountain.

Niseko Moiwa is a powder playground. Much smaller than the main Niseko resorts, Moiwa only has three lifts, don’t let that fool you though, you can access a ton of terrain, almost never wait in a lift line, and their motto is “Nothing but powder snow,” perfect.

There are some many joys after you get those perfect turns to! Make sure to soak at an Onsen, or traditional Japanese hot spring, you might find yourself there instead of on the mountain the next day. The food fits the mood perfect as well. Very few things in life beat a perfect steaming bowl of noodles after a long day out in the deep powder, or eating some sushi in said Onsen.

Photo Credit: ebtokyo

Photo Credit: ebtokyo

Whatever you do on Hakkaido being polite and respectful will get you much further with the locals. The only thing you can really do to screw up your powder vacation in Japan, is not going, so skip Whistler or Vail, Tahoe or Mammoth this year and mix some culture and wonder in with your ski vacation, you might find yourself going back every year like I have.

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