Secret escapes – 3 epic powder resorts in Japan not to be missed

A cucumber is almost all water. Take away the pesky four percent or so of its, er, cucumber-ness and you could brush your teeth with the liquid remains (if that’s your sort of thing). In essence, the world is surprisingly water-logged, and where you least expect it.

So it used to baffle me, early in my skiing career, when my skiing friends would talk of ‘dry snow’. Surely all snow is wet? Scoop a generous handful of it up, squeeze and mould it in your hands, and droplets of ice-cold water will dribble out—sometimes sooner, sometimes later—but eventually you’ll have cold and damp hands.

Well, in most cases yes, but in some mountain regions, the moisture content of snow is much less than normal, which means only one thing: powder. The driest snow on earth. You don’t so much ski on this snow, rather you float through it, as if the surface of the earth has suddenly dematerialised and gravity has been turned down a notch or two. Any self-respecting—read ‘obsessive’—skier will happily travel half way around the planet, at great expense, with the prospect of weeks of debilitating jet lag, to satisfy their powder fixation.

So where can you slake your thirst for ‘cold smoke’? Those in the know, head to Japan, and more specifically, its northernmost island. Every winter, prodigious amounts of snow fall onto the mountains of Hokkaido. Even a bad snow year in Japan is usually an epic year in the Alps. Here’s three relatively unknown, and slightly smaller, spots to head to:

Niseko Moiwa

When the powder-frenzied hordes are rattling the gates to burst into the snowfields behind the other Niseko ski areas (Hanazono, Grand Hirafu, Village and Annupuri) the somewhat aloof Moiwa is of a more mature disposition, as befits the second oldest resort in this quintet of resorts. Its trails aren’t part of the ski pass for the other four villages (the Niseko United All Mountain Pass) so when it does dump down, Moiwa can often feel like a forgotten private playground. The trick is to head into the extensive backcountry as there are only a handful of runs.

Niseko trees and snow

Even better, chuck the helmet cameras (‘so last year’) into the thigh-deep snow and let somebody else take the strain of making you look unfeasibly gnarly in this year’s ski photos. Outfits like Niseko Photography can not only guide you to some of the best places on the hill, but also snap you as you do your skiing ‘thang’. Who needs selfie sticks when you can be ‘papped’ by your own personal photographer?

Niseko Moiwa view of Mount Yotei

Kiroro Snow World

The key, to be fair, is in the name of this resort near Sapporo: ‘snow’ and ‘world’. It’s no exaggeration—I promise you—to say that this slightly out-of-the way gem is one of the snowiest resorts in the world. Perhaps the management felt that they couldn’t get away with, ‘Kiroro! How much snow? Woahh!! Seriously?? I don’t believe you, dude. Can’t be true.’ It doesn’t really trip off the tongue nor, despite the best will in the world, would it fit on the entrance sign as you drive into the resort. But be prepared to get out your dog-eared skiing thesaurus as you struggle to find the words to describe: (1) the amount of snow, (2) the quality of the snow, and (3) the landscape that assaults your senses with a sublime beauty that can make your soul ache.

Off-piste in Kiroro

OK, are there any bad points? Yes — to a point. Sometimes there’s just way too much weather meaning the resort can close in whole or in part, and, for some, there’s a lack of seriously challenging terrain. But, hey, you’re in Japan: a carpet of birch trees is all around you and the local staff bow courteously to you as you ski off the chairlifts. What’s not to like?

Kiroro blue sky and frozen landscape

Asahidake

And so to Asahidake. If you make it to this resort in the centre of Hokkaido for on-piste skiing, you might be miffed. Why? OK, how can I put this? There are only four runs: the Sesame Street inspired ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and—drum roll please—’D’ trails. In comparison, Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb has an embarassment of trails. The Three Valleys ski area in France lost count of the number of pistes years ago. As for the piste names, let’s just say they probably sound more exotic in Japanese. There’s no ‘Tin Pants’ (Vail), ‘Lower Psychopath’ (Beckenridge) or ‘Widowmaker’ (Sugarloaf) here.

Asahidake fumaroles

So far so disappointed?

Don’t be. This hill, the highest in the Daisetsu mountain range, offers lavish quantities of deep, dry and feather-light powder, some 14 metres or 45 feet a year according to some reports. That’s about the height of a five story building. The indigenous Ainu refer to this area as ‘Kamui Mintara’ or ‘Playground of the Gods’. With this quantity of white stuff, they certainly knew what they were talking about. There’s not many places in world where views of an active volcano, belching plumes of smoke from fumaroles in its pockmarked surface, hove into view as you scoot down the slopes.

Asahidake flowers in the snow

In general, all of these resorts are good for several days of fun. A week is probably too much for most skiers and boarders. In any event, off-piste guides are essential and, equally importantly, don’t forget to double-check whether your insurance policy allows you to go off the marked trails.

Finally, whilst skiing in Japan is, for many, a trip of a lifetime remember that conditions aren’t always perfect.  The slopes can sometimes be icy. Sometimes, the powder doesn’t arrive or the sun doesn’t shine, often for days or weeks at a time. On these days, clip off your skis, get off the hill, and discover the people, food and culture of this country like no other. You won’t regret it.

Comments (10)

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  1. Anne says:

    I didnt ski any of these resorts in Japan but I did ski Hakuba near Nagano. It was great fun…wide open pistes, very few crowds, kamikaze snowboarders and incredibly scenery (rivals anything I have seen in the States and Europe). It’s the must ski destination that most Europeans have never heard of. Go!

  2. Paul Caddy says:

    I didn’t quite make it to Hakuba the last time I was in Japan but I’ve heard great things about it. I agree with you, Anne, most Europeans would be absolutely captivated by the Japanese skiing experience. Many are put off by the perception of expensive flights and a high cost of living when there. I found neither to be true. In most respects it was cheaper than the UK I found.

  3. Anne says:

    Yes Paul that is exactly what I found. I went expecting it to be super expensive and the reality was far from it. Considering how much it cost us for a week skiing in Jackson Hole the year before it was a steal!

  4. Dolores says:

    I’m going to Japan for New Year and not sure whether to do the snowboarding over New Year or do a City first then Snowboarding. Any suggestions?

  5. Anne says:

    Hi Dolores. We did 3 days in Tokyo and then took the bullet To Nagano. From there it was a 90 minute bus ride into very beautiful scenery. Travelling the bullet is an incredible experience and I would highly recommend it.

  6. Paul Caddy says:

    Hi Dolores. This is a tricky one, a bit like ‘does the milk go in first in a cup of tea?’ (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/its-official-milk-goes-cup-5176594). Perhaps it is more important than that? Anyhow, putting the Great Tea Debate to one side for a moment, when I headed to Japan I went skiing first and then hit the cities but, to be honest, my patience pretty much demanded this. I don’t think that I could have wandered around Tokyo and enjoyed it properly knowing that unfeasible quantities of the white stuff were dumping down to the north and the west. As for taking the bullet train, Anne is right. It is well worth doing. It is amazing how quickly it can take you from some of the biggest cities on the planet to the middle of nowhere in a very short space of time…

  7. Anne says:

    Paul/Dolores check out this page http://www.evadeaza.ro/video-blog/the-7-minute-miracle-in-japan-bullet-train for a video showing the incredible Shinkansen cleaning experience. I had forgotten about the revolving seats! I love it when they bow at the end – that for me was what Japan was about. the skiing is awesome there…lots of powder and good food

  8. Paul Caddy says:

    Hi Anne, I’ve just noticed that links need to be in the website field only but I failed to notice this too. Whoops. That is an amazing video (when I was in Kiroro, staff used to bow as you got off the chairlifts!). If you are based in the UK it is worth keeping an eye on the BBC as it is doing a new series on wildlife of Japan: ‘Earth’s Enchanted Islands’. The first programme is at 9pm on BBC2 this Monday. By all accounts, the documentary will also show the bowing deer of Nara. I didn’t get to see them but apparently they bow to ask for food. Only in Japan…

  9. Paul Johnson says:

    Re: rules… the ‘links only allowed in the website field’ rule is designed to discourage people posting links to their own websites or social media pages (a major problem and the reason why so many comments here are not approved) so I’ve no problem with your link, Paul. Yours was a bit more of an issue, though, Anne, since you were directing people to your site’s FB page. Rather than remove the comment, I’ve tweaked the comment and link so that it goes to the original source. Thanks for your understanding.

  10. Paul Caddy says:

    Thanks Paul

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