|Create a free SCUK account and get access to the forums and our regular newsletter.||Dec 13, 2013|
Our BA flight from Tokyo Haneda airport touched down gently at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. The next day, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded spawned a tsunami that smashed in to the eastern coast of Japan, killing more than 18,000 people and making hundreds of thousands homeless. Mother Nature at her absolute cruellest.
A bit of geography
Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, makes up a fifth of Japan’s land area. Freezing Siberian winds track across the Sea of Japan, sucking up moisture and dumping it on Mount Niseko-Annupuri, about 80 miles west of Sapporo. This conical, but non-volcanic summit peaks at just 1308m, whilst the resort nestles at 260m. Compare that to 3456m and 2100m for Tignes, France. From January, it snows for six weeks non-stop and Niseko can boast consistent annual snow depth figures of between 10 and 16 metres, numbers that only Mount Baker in the US can match. With low temperatures and low humidity, Niseko’s powder snow is so light and dry it offers no resistance.
Resistance is futile! © Niseko Village Resort
A bit of history and lucky number 8
The Austrians introduced the Japanese to skiing some 80 years ago. During the economic boom of the 1980s, the government offered tax incentives for domestic leisure activities and suddenly the country had approaching 800 ski resorts. Although 1998 saw the Winter Olympics in Nagano, the sector was in decline. Lift systems became obsolete and resorts were abandoned. In the 80s, snowboarders had to pass a proficiency test at some resorts, now 80% of Japanese slope users snowboard.
Groomers if you want them. We didn’t. © Dunx/SCUK
In recent years, the Aussies have rediscovered skiing in Japan. Closer than North America, Japan’s powder became impossible to ignore. Whilst the Japanese economy remains in decline, the rapid growth in neighbouring China has seen huge investments by the Chinese in Japan’s resorts, which are developing rapidly and catching up with the rest of the world in terms of facilities.
The Green Leaf Hotel onsen. © Niseko Village Resort
We stayed at The Green Leaf Hotel, with its traditional onsen (single-sex kit-off hot springs), fine restaurant and well appointed rooms. We had guided tours and bamboo tapping back massages. We dined in a private dining room at the nearby Niseko Hilton and had gold leaf sprinkled on our shitake mushrooms.
That was all rather nice, but I’d have happily slept under a stone for what’s outside those hotels’ doors. Read this bit slowly... The slopes are simply beautiful. The white birch trees and powder laden tree runs are unique and have to be some of the most exciting in the world. Snowboarding through those trees at night is exhilarating.
Off-piste in the trees. © Dunx/SCUK
The season runs from late November to early May at Niseko Village Resort. The best time to visit is January, between our New Year and the Chinese New Year, so you can enjoy practically empty slopes. During January/February most days are powder days. We don’t mean those first-track “powder days” you tell your mates about. We mean the waist deep powder days you see in ski and snowboard films with the beardy bloke playing peek-a-boo with the cameraman and almost certainly in slow-mo. We didn’t see any rocks in Niseko either. None at all.
Signs at top lift stations tell
you what backcountry gates are open.
© Dunx/SCUKNiseko is unusual for Japan in that it has lots of off-piste within bounds. Short hikes at low altitude lead to backcountry gates that grant access to extensive off-piste areas. However, much of the hill is considered too extreme by this naturally conservative nation and ducking the ropes is not tolerated. Things are changing slowly. Niseko is the only resort in Japan using dynamite for avalanche control and they run an avalanche education program that sees people venture further off piste with an experienced guide. Access to the backcountry and those extreme areas is set to expand as restrictions are gradually relaxed.
You will certainly feel foreign in Japan, but the Japanese are a wonderfully welcoming people who pride themselves in not inconveniencing their guests. Japanese students learn written English at school, but few will speak it, so learn a few polite Japanese phrases before you go. The local dining is awesome; from fresh sushi to steaming ramen noodles, traditional sake to chilled Sapporo beer.
It’s not all bowing and gold leaf. © Dunx/SCUK
Whilst we experienced the high life, you can visit Japan on a less extravagant budget. Niseko Village Resort is developing a new residential area called Hinode Hill comprising 125 fully-furnished ski-in ski-out apartments. All this will make it easier for Europeans to visit.
White birch, deep snow and blue skies. © Dunx/SCUK
The Japanese certainly want you to come, especially in the literal wake of the recent tsunami. Simply put, Japan guarantees some of the best powder skiing and snowboarding in the world, in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Mother Nature at her very best.
By Duncan Worrell, Snowboard Club UK