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Grossly overdue Japan TR - Jan/Feb 2014

post #1 of 4
Thread Starter 
Some folks may remember about this time last year I was asking around for advice on a trip to Japan. It happened and it was very, very awesome. Huge thanks to @jimintokyo for his help. This is a TR without any stellar photos because I was travelling solo with only my phone for company, and I'm no photographer for sure.

I left for Japan in the second week of January, and landed at New Chitose Airport (Hokkaido) in a howling snow storm. The kind of storm where your pilot warns you before takeoff that you really, really don't want to take your seatbelt off at any point during the flight, the hostesses don't bring out the drink trolley, and you wonder why you're still flying. Anyway, I was happy. Everything went very smoothly and I didn't even get charged oversize for my gear.

A promising view to begin my trip with.

I arrived at one edge of Niseko Moiwa at 1am and discovered the shuttle I was supposed to catch had forgotten my stop, so I dragged my gear for about a kilometre and a half in knee deep fluffy pow. It was around this point I discovered I had forgotten my facemask, my skins, and a spare towel. Two of those things would have been helpful. Fortunately Moiwa is small and I had a map, so I made it to where I was staying and that was that.

I got up later in the morning, borrowed some Gigawatts off a newly made friend (my Protests were on their way from Tahoe and arrived the following day) and started skiing.

Calling Moiwa a town would probably be giving it too much credit. It's very quiet (a plus for some) but lacks amenities like convenience stores, restaurants, or anywhere to buy climbing skins. The field is small, with one hooded quad and two open doubles, and is generally fairly quiet. There's not a lot of vertical but most mountains in New Zealand don't have much vertical either.

I skied my first ever tree run here... and I think I'm addicted.

I put in quite a few days there and seldom saw any lift queues. It vomited powder for a week and I just couldn't be bothered leaving when I was having so much fun.There are a variety of decent tree runs, a decent back bowl (you can ski over to Annupuri very easily), and if you've got skins then the Western Anbetsu area out of bounds to the skier's right of the quad is worth some time. Having skins also means that if the quad is shut due to wind or too much snow (happened for the first five days or so after I got there) you can skin up instead.

A word to the wise: If you don't have skins and still ski out towards Western Anbetsu, there is a small pink ribbon tied to a tree a little above the point of no return on each of the two ridge lines nearest Moiwa. You may want to traverse left if you reach those ribbons.

Later on in my trip when parts of United were very skied out I could often find fresh tracks in some of the more out of the way trees at Moiwa with almost no effort. I guess people don't ski there much because it seems small, but their loss was my gain.

Near the top of the Moiwa quad, the first indication of a reason to bring skins.

Niseko United
United is made up of four fields (Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono), and you can buy a pass for all four, or for individual mountains. Grand Hirafu village is probably the only place outside of main centres (e.g. Asahikawa and Sapporo) where you can easily find backcountry gear for sale, although it's not exactly cheap. There are buses that run each of the United fields and Grand Hirafu village, and these are free if you show your United lift pass.

Annupuri is probably 30-40 minutes walk (on a mostly uncleared footpath) from Moiwa, or a couple of minutes by vehicle. There's a local bus that runs between the two and several hotels and lodges run their own shuttles as well. You can ski from Annupuri over to Moiwa easily if the right gates are open, or with a little more difficulty if they're shut (skins are worth it if there's heaps of fresh and no-one else has been skiing it).

I got some good turns in but I don't feel like there's a lot to talk about since these are the places everyone has heard about a million times already. There was a major drought for a week, by which I mean there was a whole week of sunshine and not much snow. Lots of my favourite places got really skied out, some idiots hucked unstable cornices in the back bowls while other idiots traversed under them (it ended badly), I had a solid five day 'flu (sorry Jim!) and spent some time in bed, and skins were invaluable for finding fresh tracks.

As for hiking the peak, well... In fine weather, it attracts hordes and the main faces get skied out in the blink of an eye. In bad weather, if it's safe (gates open) then you can get some pretty good runs in but it can be a bit of a miserable walk.

Chisenupuri is a wee hill a bit further around from Moiwa. Sadly Chisenupuri is shut these days but that's just another reason to bring skins or buy another set if you forgot yours. Getting out there is miles easier with your own transport though.

Furano has a reputation for strict rules about where you can ski, although I never even saw any patrollers while I was there (and I skied there every day for a week). They do groomers and moguls, and they do both pretty well. I was a bit worried about ducking ropes and so on but I discovered there were plenty of places roped off at the top but not the sides. I also discovered I was one of about two people on the whole mountain skiing off-piste, so I skied next to my own tracks all day sometimes.

There was a fairly large storm a day or two after I arrived, followed by a bluebird, so I unexpectedly got to ski 50cm of fresh in the sunshine. My host declared it the best day of the season thus far, and I'm inclined to agree. It snowed more later (duh, it's Japan), and surprisingly the Furano staff insisted on trying to keep their main groomers well groomed despite the puking snow. As in, just ran the machines all day, rotating between a handful of runs, periodically opening and closing them. I spent some time skiing with a local racer who gave up on his slalom skis and hired some fat skis because it was snowing too fast. He hadn't skied anything other than GS and slalom race skis since he was a kid, and that seems pretty typical around there.

As part of some festival or other, Furano ran some the lifts overnight one week. I may have been dead on my feet the next day, but how often do you see lift-served skiing all night?

Tokachidake is a peak in the Daisetsuzans near Furano, and is strictly backcountry but well worth a day if you're in the area. Bear in mind that Hokkaido doesn't have very high mountains so topping out at 2000m or so is pretty good. Basically, skin up to wherever (there are other peaks and various terrain options). Ski down some open terrain, some rocky terrain, some trees, and often lots of powder. Repeat. Then soak in an onsen (there are a few near the road-end) when you're tired.

I was up there in fairly poor weather but still had a lot of fun even though the snow was heavily wind affected. There's a fairly regular bus from Kamifurano (there's a stop near the station) out to the various onsen for a few dollars and the onsen are probably worth the trip on an off day anyway.

Sandanyama, a not so high point also easily accessible from the road-end below Tokachidake.

Asahidake takes the cake for most fun, I think. There's a cable car in to the middle of nowhere, it was only nearly full at best, the snow was great even for Hokkaido (what do you even do with three metres of light and fluffy?), and I had a blast. It might not seem like the backcountry at times but it definitely is, so keep that in mind. I met more than a few people who have had friends die up there, which is not something I can say about anywhere else I went.

Kamui Ski Links
Kamui is near Asahikawa and the coast, and lower down the field I experienced springlike conditions for the first and only time during my trip. The field setup is a little odd, spread partially sideways across the mountain, it has the smallest gondola I've ever been in, and the only reason there were any queues at all was the schoolkids on a field trip from Osaka. It seriously would have been near dead empty without them. By my standards, it has a lot of trees and doesn't really suffer from getting skied out, but I would definitely not go there during, say, the week of no snow while I was at Niseko. I certainly did find some good runs even when it was blown out, but only on a very small fraction of Kamui's total terrain.

They may speak Aussie in Niseko but not so much elsewhere in Hokkaido.

Sapporo Teine
Convenience! Catch the subway from the middle of Sapporo, then the train, then the bus up to Teine. And spend all of maybe $10. A novel experience for me, at least. Teine has some steeper runs than anywhere else I went, some very solid bumps, GS and slalom groomers left over from previous winter Olympics, and some awesome trees. I sadly didn't get to ski it in vast amounts of powder but had a lot of fun in the trees and railing the GS run anyway. The field is pretty exposed but you get a pretty neat view out over Sapporo.

I checked out some of the goings on at the Sapporo Snow Festival in the evenings as well. Festivals that don't involve skiing all night aren't really my cup of tea, but the ice sculptures certainly were impressive.

Best day: Asahidake.
Best run: Furano. Poaching an untouched lift line in neck deep powder. At two in the afternoon.
Most consistent snowfall: Niseko fields. Despite the week of no snow, it still dropped about 30cm of fresh every night for about ten days in a row prior to that.

Going back? Definitely. I missed out on drinks with Jim as well as trips to Rusutsu and Kiroro because I was sick, and I haven't climbed Mt. Yotei or skied anywhere in Honshu yet.

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post #2 of 4

And make sure you skin Chisei for laps.. there's a great ridge behind the peak as well... and Iwao.... and Yotei.:)

post #3 of 4

Hey mate! Glad it all worked out so well, barring the flu bug. Come back again next season and we'll down a pint or three.

post #4 of 4
Thread Starter 
Cheers guys. Think I might need to find a job over there next season smile.gif
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