Japan: Niseko, Furano, Hakuba, Fuji
I quit my job on Valentine’s Day and headed to Japan for what was supposed to be the start of a spring of full time skiing. The pandemic ended my ski season much earlier than I had planned, but I’m thankful that I had this trip. I have had a lot of time to write this trip report over the past several weeks of staying home and I thought I would share for anyone else dreaming about next season.
I had never been to Japan and I was alone, so I decided to start with Niseko to get my bearings.
Niseko is the most popular skiing destination in Hokkaido. There are five ski resorts on Mount Annupuri, a somewhat active volcano across from Yotei, a perfectly symmetrical stratovolcano that looks like a half-size Fuji. The volcanoes here are young and active. Mountain streams run hot and support numerous hot springs, called onsens. Geothermal energy heats the snowpack from beneath creating surprising crevasses and even producing glide avalanches in mid-winter.
The smallest of the resorts on Annupuri is called Moiwa. It’s a charming little resort with three lifts: a bunny hill, a short double, and a quad chair that provides easy access to the backcountry. From the top of the lift it’s a flat 10 minute tour to Goshiki Onsen. From here there is terrain in every direction, mostly mellow slopes peppered with birch trees, as well as some steeper faces and even couloirs above treeline.
For a few days my routine was to bomb the beautiful groomers until the upper lift opened, tour around for as long as I liked, stop for a soak in the onsen, then ski back to Moiwa.
Soon a storm came in and I joined a nice crew from the lodge for some resort skiing. Mitch from Australia, Wayne and Jamie from the UK, and Bridger and Garett, who happened to know a good friend of mine. One day the storm was so strong that the avalanche forecast called it an “onsen day” and everything but the bunny hill was shut down. The snow was deep so we built a kicker and messed around on that. Jamie was reluctant to try it, but peer pressure eventually got the better of him. He launched much harder than I thought he would, botched the landing, and dislocated a knee. Wayne popped it back in, but when Jamie tried to step into his binding it popped out again. The Japanese ski patrol snowmobiled him out, scolded us, and made us tear down the jump. We realized that the avalanche forecast was right and headed to the onsen.
Shiribetsu and Yotei behind Lake Shikotsu on my flight out of Sapporo
Backside of Annupuri, Yotei in the clouds behind
Typical terrain in Niseko
Hakuginso Lodge 2/24-2/28
When the storm passed I headed to the Hakuginso Lodge in central Hokkaido. I took a bus to the Chitose Airport, then trains to Sapporo, Asahikawa, and finally the small town of Kami-Furano. I stocked up on groceries (the lodge has no restaurant) and caught an empty bus that runs three times per day up to the lodge.
The lodge sits at the base of Tokachi-dake at about 1,000m, nearly as high as the lifts go in Niseko. There are no lifts but there is ample ski touring right out the door. The accommodations are basic except for the extensive onsen featuring several pools of different temperatures, a sauna, and a cold plunge.
I came to the lodge alone but my first night I met a nice French guy named Etienne to ski with. We headed up Maetokachi-dake, an actively steaming subpeak of Tokachi-dake. We made our way through the forest, easily slicing through a couple feet of the lightest snow I have ever seen. We quickly broke above the trees and worked our way up the mountain dodging lightly covered rocks and steam vents. It’s so cold and windy here that the snow doesn’t stick to the rocks, it just slides right off. Eventually we got tired of hitting rocks and continued to the summit on foot where we found a nice place to eat lunch on some rocks melted bare by the volcano. We skied a shallow gully back to the base, then followed an absurdly steep Japanese skin track up for another lap.
Hakuginso Lodge from Maetokachi-dake
Steam vents on Maetokachi-dake
Etienne skiing some nice mellow powder
The next day Etienne was quite tired from many days of skiing, but I convinced him to go out again with Japan’s finest coffee: the Blendy Stick. We drove a couple miles down the road to Furano-dake and toured up what is known as the Giant Ridge.
Furano-dake’s Giant Ridge from Maetokachi-dake
Etienne skiing off of Furano-dake’s Giant Ridge
On my third day in the lodge Etienne left back to France. He had been in Japan for three months and said the past few days had been the best weather of his whole trip. I get the feeling that clear and calm weather is really not common here. Fortunately there’s plenty of tree skiing for the stormy days.
I toured up Sandan-Yama directly behind the lodge, dropped into its steaming crater, and did a nice circumnavigation of the mountain.
Camera monitoring Sandan-Yama’s crater
Maetokachi-dake from the onsen
By now the coronavirus was becoming an issue. Hokkaido declared a state of emergency the day that I left and Japan closed all schools. Most people wore masks in public transit. My flight from Sapporo to Tokyo was almost empty. All museums and tourist attractions in Tokyo were closed, but other than that things seemed normal. Businesses were still open, trains were still full of commuters.
I stayed in a capsule hotel in Shibuya that I selected only because it advertised a sauna. Each floor is a large dorm room stacked with plastic capsules from the eighties; each capsule has a small TV, invariably set to the porn channel by the last visitor. There is a smoking floor featuring a beer vending machine as well as a spa floor with a hot bath, cold bath, and sauna with integrated television! Before you get your hopes up, know that only men are allowed and tattoos are banned because of their association with the Yakuza, Japan’s mafia.
I spent a couple days in Tokyo until Matthew showed up and we headed to Hakuba.
In 1962 Seattle unveiled its vision of the future at the World’s Fair with the Space Needle and 0.9 miles of monorail. Japan was already living in the future, preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with its first installment of the bullet train capable of making the 300 mile trip from Tokyo to Osaka at 130mph. Matthew and I took the bullet train to Nagano, flying through the Tokyo suburbs as I wondered “How are we still in Tokyo?”
When we arrived in Hakuba it was raining and the only snow at the base was an anemic sliver carefully preserved by the grooming team. Japan had been having a historically mild winter and Hakuba, at a similar latitude to Las Vegas, had been hit especially hard. The town was deserted except for some chronically hungover Australians in town for a music festival which the locals had become very upset about. I wondered if convincing Matthew to come to Hakuba was a mistake and if we should have gone to Hokkaido instead.
We stayed at the Maison de Sasagawa, a guesthouse run by Yoko Sasagawa. Yoko and her family have lived in Hakuba for generations. Her father was the coach of the Japanese national ski team; her children are avid ski racers. Yoko gushes with enthusiasm about the mountains of Japan, although she is too busy running the lodge in the winter to ski much.
One night she showed us a book about her father’s friend Yuichiro Miura. He was the first person to ever ski Mt. Fuji, and he did it in a style so absolutely insane that it will probably never be repeated. In 1966, he straight-lined from the summit, reaching 93mph before deploying a parachute to slow him down. A few years later, Miura took his parachute skiing to Everest where he attempted to ski from the South Col at over 26,000’, miraculously walking away from a severe crash. The expedition is detailed in The Man who Skied Down Everest, which I highly recommend. Despite an utter disregard for death, Muira has survived to this day, summiting Everest at age 70 and then again at age 80. Even though he needed assistance on his last descent from Everest, he plans to try again in 2022 at the age of 90.
For our first day in Happo-One we toured out the top of the resort, passing the Freeride World Tour venue and continuing to the end of the ridge at the summit of Karamatsu-dake. The terrain in Hakuba is a step above anything I saw in Hokkaido. The mountains here remind me of the North Cascades; they rise steeply to over 9,000’ and get blasted with maritime snow that plasters the steepest faces. The downside is that it is some of the most complex avalanche terrain I have ever seen. Every line drops into a steep gorge; the exit requires traversing the bottom of this gorge exposed to countless avalanche paths.
Matthew and I skied the mellowest line we could find off Karamatsu-dake. There hadn’t been any new snow in a while, but the snow was rippable windboard and most importantly it was stable. The exit involved lots of breakable crust, stream crossings, avalanche debris, and some melted-out road skiing. We popped out at an onsen which had already closed for the day, and walked a couple miles along the road back to Happo-One.
Tsurugi-dake, known as one of the most dangerous mountains in Japan
Matthew skiing off Karamatsu-dake
An avalanche dam (I think) on the exit from Karamatsu-dake
The weather got stormy for a few days so we stuck to the resorts. The snow wasn’t exactly the blower powder Japan is known for but with cheap lift tickets, empty lifts, and an onsen every day it’s hard to complain.
After a few days the storm passed and Dave drove out from the Navy base near Tokyo where he is stationed to join us for the weekend.
I had gotten the impression that Japanese ski resorts never had crowds, but the first Saturday at Happo-One proved me wrong. We arrived early at the gondola to find hundreds of mountaineers in line. We joined them but when we got to the front we were told that only mountaineers were allowed and made the waddle of shame over to the much shorter line of skiers. Despite the crowds of mountaineers, there were almost no backcountry skiers, and we enjoyed a day of spring powder skiing.
Mountaineers heading up Karamatsu-dake
Our goal for the next day was to ski the Y Couloir on Korenge. This is one of the most obvious lines in the zone: a 1,000m couloir split at the base by a large rock buttress. We drove to Tsugaike and took the cable car to the top then toured up onto the ridge. The weather was pretty bad with low visibility and a lot of wind. We pushed on to the summit of Korenge and the clouds cleared just enough for us to ski the line. It wasn’t the corn we were hoping for, more like ice the whole way down, but at least it was stable. Matthew and I chilled at the onsen while Dave tried to hitchhike and then caught a taxi back to the car.
Korenge from Happo-One
Dave and Matthew skiing the Y Couloir
For our last day skiing in Japan the weather aligned for an attempt on Fuji, somewhat rare for early March.
We woke up at 1:45am and Dave did the 3+ hour drive to Fuji with no problem while Matthew and I passed out, exhausted from six days of skiing. We were able to park at 4,200’ near the Gotemba 5th station on the SE side of the mountain. From there it was a short walk on the road to skinnable snow.
The route is just like any volcano in Washington: an 8,000’ slog that gradually gets steeper as the air gets thinner. Our only company was a solo snowshoer who didn’t make it far and a helicopter on an obnoxious joy ride. Other than that we were alone on the mountain, which is pretty remarkable considering that Fuji is the most climbed mountain in the world, with tens of millions of people living close enough for a day trip. If this were Washington, it would be absolutely packed with skiers!
We made it to the crater rim and didn’t have time for the walk around the crater to the true summit, which would require crampons and at least an hour. The descent was a mixed bag of wind-blasted snow ending in pumice schmoo.
We stopped at the Japanese equivalent of Denny’s afterwards then Dave dropped Matthew and I off at the train station in Yokohama on his way home. We squeezed into the packed rush-hour subway, feeling out of place and in the way, then made our way to the now-homey capsule hotel and collapsed.
Fuji at sunrise
Dave skiing breakable windboard near the top of Fuji
Blower sastrugi (Dave's photo)
Matthew buying a subway ticket