Japan 2016 Re-cap

The Adventure Project launched their first trips to Japan, this January. The following is a quick re-cap of the trips, with plenty of useful information for people considering a trip to Japan with us in 2017.

So, we had 2 small groups go out with us to Japan for 4 weeks during January. We had 2, 2 week sessions with 5 guests in the first session and 6 in the second. We chose to go in January for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Japan is one of the most sure-fire places to go for powder in the early season. Statistically, Japan gets most of its snow in January and then February, so it’s a pretty safe bet that you will get powder. We had fresh snow nearly every day, it was amazing. Secondly, Japan in January then fits in nicely time-wise, with our program in India that starts in mid-February.

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Matt Appleford – owner/guide at The Adventure Project, submersed in deep Furano powder, January 2016. Pic: Nick Wilder

The plan for this trip was to try and see as much of the north island of Hokkaido in each 2 week session. We would base ourselves in Niseko for 5 nights, then Otaru for 3 nights, then Furano for 5 nights, with 1 night spent in Sapporo at the end of each session. We had our own private transportation so we could drive and explore new resorts each day.  That plan worked out pretty well. Each base offered something slightly different and we found great skiing in all of the areas, with near daily snowfalls and excellent conditions enjoyed at all the resorts we visited.

Niseko

We stayed just outside of Niseko in an area called Moiwa. Moiwa is just off to the side of the main resorts of Niseko and has its own separate lift system and tickets (1 long quad chair and 2 short doubles). It is a lot quieter than the Niseko resorts and has all its own restaurants and several Onsen (Japanaese hot springs), though they are a little spread out, so having a car or using the free pick-up/drop-off facility that a lot of the local restaurants, is definitely useful. You can actually ski from Moiwa to Annupuri and vice-versa, but you need to buy separate lift tickets for the 2 areas.

Niseko itself is made up of 4 combined ski areas; Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu and then Hanozono. They all share the same mountain and you can purchase a combined 4 area pass (called the Niseko United pass) or just buy individual area tickets if you are going to focus on just one particular place. With the price of lift tickets in general being so much cheaper than the US, this wasn’t a big issue. The most expensive lift ticket we found was the Niseko United day pass, but that was still under $50 a day. Most resorts typically came in around $40 or less, with the average price around $35.

The 4 resorts that make up Niseko United Ski Resort.

The 4 resorts that make up Niseko United Ski Resort.

 

Moiwa is definitely a great place to be on a powder day, you can lap fast and it has decent vertical. The resort is very small, so you can hit up most of the decent terrain in just over half a day and then head over to Annupuri if you wanted. Niseko is definitely a great place to ski, but it definitely gets tracked up quickly, so you need to have a plan and hop to it. We found great skiing up at the summit after a relatively easy 25 minute bootpack. The snow is so light in Japan that even if it is not super deep, you can still easily get face shots. Niseko has really good vertical, the longest we saw on the trip.

Matt Appleford getting a massive faceshot at the summit in Niseko.

Matt Appleford getting a massive faceshot at the summit in Niseko, even though the snow wasn’t that deep, because it’s so light, it really sprays up! Pic: Jarrah O’Brien.

We also visited Rusutsu during our stay in Moiwa. Rusutsu is a big resort about 45 minutes’ drive from Niseko and is renowned for its excellent tree skiing. It doesn’t have the big open bowls that Niseko does, but it does has perfectly spaced trees of varying steepness. It has a great layout, with a series of ridge lines and a well-organized lift system. You can get around pretty quickly and cover a lot of ground, plus it’s a lot quieter than Niseko. This would be an amazing place to be after a big dump of snow, with decent vertical and fun skiing. There are actually 2 separate ski areas that make up Rusutsu, a small area near the main hotel and then the bigger area of Mt. Isola, where we did all of our skiing. It’s worth checking out the main hotel, it’s a bit of a trip! The arcade and indoor fun park is something else!

Otaru

After exploring the Niseko area, we headed north west, toward the coast and to the Ishikari Bay. This was a great contrast to Niseko, which if you stayed in Grand Hirafu is very Westernized (something we weren’t particularly looking for). Otaru is very Japanese and is an old port and fishing town. It has a great old canal district with many old warehouses that have been converted into restaurants and even a Bavarian styled brewery (with amazing beer, a must visit if you like beer). Otaru has some of the freshest seafood in the world, with the oysters some of the very best.

Out hotel is great, the Grand Park Hotel Otaru is a 5 star hotel that is right on the ocean. The sea view rooms are amazing, we saw whales outside the harbor feeding on our first day. This adds a whole other level to the trip. There is also some great skiing nearby and we had some epic days in several nearby resorts.

The view of Ishikari Bay from our hotel room. You can see the next storm approaching. Pic: Javier Gibert.

The view of Ishikari Bay from our hotel room. You can see the next storm approaching. Pic: Javier Gibert.

Kokusai

Probably our favorite and most consistent resort was Kokusai. This is only a 35 minute drive from Otaru and on the second trip, we skied there 3 days in a row. The snow kept getting deeper and deeper, we kept going back as there is no one there. There was only a handful of other Westerners there, so we got fresh tracks with nearly every run. Most Japanese seem to enjoy staying on the groomed runs, so if you go out the gate or into the trees, then you can have the powder to yourself.

Nils Ola Bark, from Norway, sporting a pretty healthy powder beard after 3 days of faceshots in Kokusai.

Nils Ola Bark, from Norway, sporting a pretty healthy powder beard after 3 days of faceshots in Kokusai.

Kiroro

This is another great resort, with an open policy towards backcountry skiing. There are several gates that you can go through (you have to sign up at the baselodge, you get your credentials and then you get your beacon checked at the gates, until 11am) which hold great snow. The word is getting around about Kiroro, but if you know where to go, you can still find plenty of untouched snow.

Sapporo Teine

This is the closest resort to Sapporo and on a sunny day, you have amazing views from the ocean all the way to the city. This was the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics and has a lot of history. Teine is pretty exposed and can get hit hard by the wind, however if you time it just right, then there is some great terrain to be found. They have a backcountry access gate that gives access to some of the steepest resort based skiing in Hokkaido.

Furano

It takes about 2 hours to get to Furano from Otaru and its well worth it. Furano was collectively our favorite zone and resort in Hokkaido. It has a lot going for it. The ski area is big and they have long runs, with plenty of great tree runs and even some fun long groomers (don’t tell anyone I said that!).  The real heart of the skiing is the backcountry access gate areas, in particular, the Premium Zone. We spent a lot of time skiing the Premium Zone. It’s a series of steep, open bowls that feed into beech trees, accessible by a short 25 minute bootpack. As is the case with the tree skiing, there are relatively few people willing to hike for their turns, so you can find consistently good skiing in this area. We had some very deep days in the Premium Zone. There is good skiing at the resorts of Kamui, Tomamu and Asahidake, on average an hour from Furano.

Ovierview of the Skiing/Riding – Why Go to Japan

The most obvious answer is, to experience some of the deepest and most consistent snow in the world. It seriously dumps in Hokkaido! We were there on a poor snow year and there was still a massive amount of snow, it was very impressive. It snowed nearly every day (January is the snowiest month to go to Japan) and the snow quality is excellent. The average water content in Hokkaido is around 8 % and it’s very easy to ski in. You get a lot of faceshots because you ride lower in the snow (your skis and boards sink more in lower density snow) and all that light snow has a tendency to billow up as you ride through it. It’s amazing and makes you feel like a hero.

Why does Hokkaido get so much snow? Well, it’s pretty simple. You have a relatively warm body of water (the Sea of Japan) where a lot there is a lot of accessible moisture, combined with a prevailing Westerly wind that brings in cold air from Siberia. You get a cold air mass colliding with all that moisture from the ocean and that produces a lot of snow over Hokkaido. You don’t need big mountains and altitude to get all that of snow when you have the low temperatures that northern Japan sees. Therefore you have very favorable conditions for consistent snowfalls.

Joel Gratz in deep, Hokkaido, Japan.

Joel Gratz in deep, Hokkaido, Japan. Pic: Lauren Gratz.

The terrain is fun. Don’t expect massive vertical and consistent fall-line at all the resorts. You’ll find the best vertical and most consistent fall-line turns in Niseko, Furano and Rusutsu, in other resorts, the turns can be shelving (steep, flat, steep etc) and it’s predominantly tree skiing. There are some open bowls (Niseko has the best, then probably Furano) but  if you want big mountain turns, then Hokkaido is probably not the trip for that, you’d be better off on one of our Gulmarg trips for that kind of terrain. The avalanche risk and exposure is definitely lower than Gulmarg, but you still have to pay attention as there are slides and there are terrain traps. The biggest hazards are probably the trees themselves, cornices and creeks. There are definitely some exits where you are traversing above a creek (if it is not filled in yet), so you need to take care. Otherwise the skiing is pretty mellow but a lot of fun!

Culture/Food   

We have been blown away by the culture of Japan. The Japanese people themselves are a little reserved at first, but when they open up to you, you see how polite they are and how much etiquette there is in their society. Immersing ourselves in their culture, if only for a month, has been very rewarding. There is definitely the language barrier, but if you make the effort to learn just a few polite phrases, then you will be treated with even more warmth. I have never smiled or bowed so much in my life and I love that.

The manager (Suzuki Koji) of Otaru Unga, our favorite BBQ joint in Otaru, with guests Dave Liechty, Gordon Stuart and The Adventure Project owner, Matt Appleford.

The manager of Otaru Unga, our favorite BBQ joint in Otaru, with guests Dave Liechty, Gordon Stuart and The Adventure Project owner, Matt Appleford. Pic: Javier Gibert.

The food is absolutely amazing and I was so surprised at how diverse it was. I had the preconceived idea that it was just going to be sushi, but there is a lot more to it than that. There is amazing seafood, both of the cooked and raw variety. You can have it prepared for you or you can cook it yourself, in one of the many styles of BBQ restaurant. There are yakitori restaurants where they serve different meats on skewers or you can try shabu-shabu (meats cooked in a broth) or tempura and various styles of noodles. If you can’t understand the menu, then just go outside, they normally have a plastic recreation of the dishes that you can just point to. Either way, the food is very varied, it’s tasty and it’s super cheap! Even the cafeterias at the ski resort lodges serve amazing food and you normally get big portions. Expect to put on a bit of weight in Japan…..

Gordon doesn't mind a bowl or two of piping hot pork ramen.

Gordon doesn’t mind a bowl or two of piping hot pork ramen. Pic: Matt Appleford.

 

Tokyo

If you get the chance, then it is definitely worthwhile to take a day or two, before or after your trip, to have a look around the capital. Japan is a vibrant, fast-paced city, but you can still find many quiet areas, such as temples and shrines, where the pace of life slows down. There are too many sites of interest to list, try and do some research to find out what you would like to see.

Gordon Stuart in front of the Zojoji Temple in Tokyo.

Gordon Stuart in front of the Zojoji Temple in Tokyo. Pic: Matt Appleford.

Tokyo is a large city and getting around can be a challenge unless you brave the subway. It can be a little daunting at first, but once you figure out the stations and the pricing (plus they have ticket machines in English and friendly information staff), then it’s relatively easy (just watch out for the express trains….) and inexpensive. Taxis are expensive in Tokyo so using this subway is a more budget friendly and quicker form of transport.

The Akihabara District is the place to shop if you are looking for electronics, or to witness the Japanese obsession with Manga and pop culture.

The Akihabara District is the place to shop if you are looking for electronics, or to witness the Japanese obsession with Manga and pop culture. Pic: Matt Appleford.

One final point that should be made about Tokyo and totally blew us away was just how clean the city is, we didn’t see any trash anywhere. It was quite amazing. Admittedly we didn’t go everywhere, but we did spend several days exploring the city and we didn’t see trash anywhere. It was quite the refreshing change and again, a massive nod to the Japanese people and their culture, they obviously care a lot about the cleanliness of their cities and their country in general.

2017 Program Thoughts

We’ll be announcing our 2017 Hokkaido Powder Sessions Program soon (end of April hopefully). We will be making some changes for the better for the new program and would like to give you a quick update. Due to feedback we’ve had from the ski shows we exhibited at this fall, we are moving to a shorter program format. We are now looking at a 10 or 11 day program in January next year. We should have at least two, 10 or 11 day sessions on offer in 2017, with the capability to run several groups each session.

Kanpai is the traditional Japanese cheers and it literally means, "dry glass."

Kanpai is the traditional Japanese cheers and it literally means, “dry glass.”

We are going to keep our 3 main bases (Niseko, Otaru and Furano), but we will be looking at different accommodation options in either Moiwa or Annupuri and then somewhere new in Furano. We’ll keep with our base and hotel in Otaru as that worked perfectly.

We’ll be keeping a similar format, with the emphasis on traveling around using our own transportation to see as many different resorts as possible. We’ll always have the option to do multiple days in a couple of the resorts, if people want that, but we can definitely get out there and see a lot.

Our van, a Toyota Regius Ace with plenty of room for 8 people, plus skis and luggage, is our vehicle of choice in Japan.

Our van, a Toyota Regius Ace with plenty of room for 8 people, plus skis and luggage, is our vehicle of choice in Japan. Pic: Javier Gibert.

We will also be removing the local guide component (too expensive) and will be lowering our own guiding/hosting fee because of this (it will only be our second season guiding in Hokkaido so we will charge less until 2018). That will all help to bring our package prices down, so all in all, we should be able to offer our lowest package prices ever, in 2017. I’m excited about what we have lined up!

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