Skiing the Japow: Day 13 Tokachidake Backcountry

With the help of the amazingly helpful tourist info lady and her husband, John, who runs the backcountry store in Furano, I planned this awesome day of touring.

From the parking lot, you cross a creek (not frozen, snow bridges for part), skirt one ridge then climb up the second ridge. According to John, the avalanche forecast was low (zero, he joked) (disclaimer: you should use your own skills and judgement to determine whether conditions are safe). The whole area is a set of ridges running north/northwest. The top can be windy and there are wind deposits. Trees are dense for awhile but become widely spaced as you get toward the top. We never made it to true alpine on either of our two laps.

This area isn’t a secret. I had purchased the last of 40 topos from the backcountry store (There’s a website that has the topo data free). We ran into a group of 6 women,  a group of Italians and a couple from bothell that had the same skis as us (crazy, right?). We didn’t make it beyond the second ridge so if you do, you’ll find it much quieter. We also learned there’s a public bus three times a day that can give you some extra very for ~200 yen or Toyota touring is possible (not sure if this is exactly the same slope but it’s not far).

The best part about this location is all the hot springs. There’s a free “natural” Hot spring, the Fukiage Spa, (the pools have been built up and railings and such added) about 2 km from the parking lot for the skiing. Also nearby is a nice hot springs lodge with an onsen facility and nice kitchen. In the outdoor hot spring, we met a couple from Bar Harbor, Maine, who were staying there. They had spent last winter skiing Myoko Kogen for the season and raved about it. Apparently, there a reasonably priced season pass that covers the ski grounds. This year, snow conditions made them go to Hokkaido instead. We had fun chatting with them in the hot spring for awhile. The second pool had a Japanese family with kids and everyone in bathing suits, so we avoided it. They had brought their own pop up dressing room tent.

We rounded out the evening in Furano eating out of the local food market and the 7-11, where we parked overnight. We tried a long spring roll stuffed with tomato and corn, namara-bo, served with a local soda, then some on sale strawberries and tofu.

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Super long spring roll. Yum!

Rob found a new favorite ice cream bar.

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Royce ice cream bars. Super tasty, but not available on Honshu as far as we found.

The one problem with parking overnight is that the plow drivers inevitably comes in the middle of the night and makes a huge racket. This is as much an issue in the free lots. Early one morning, the plow driver at a michi no ekki woke us up to have us move the car. At least this dude just plowed around us.

Skiing the Japow: Day 12 Asahidake

With good weather forecasted, we bought day tickets for the ropeway. Since it only runs every 20 mins, the four hour ticket is more of a gamble if you have bad timing. Most of the time, paper tickets allow you to stretch your mountain time by staying high and riding chairs those shorter chairs that don’t check passes. Here they definitely check every run since there’s only the one ropeway. The day pass also allowed us to break for a hot lunch. Such luxury!

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The morning visibility wasn’t great so we did a couple runs skiers left of the ropeway but inside the loop of groomers. It was already tracked up in places and once you got to the groomer speed was vital to avoiding a long pole pull at the end. We tried a third run staying more central and that was better.

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On the way to the car for lunch, I spotted a great deal – visitor survey in exchange for free onsen ticket. Two please! Then, we cooked the best meal of the campervan food series, a yakisoba with tons of veggies and this wonderful thinly sliced pork marinated in delicious sauce. Our car smelled so good when we came back at the end of the day.

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White hair!

We managed to ski three more runs after lunch. Visibility has improved so we had a better idea of the terrain. Going right of the ropeway, we found better, less tracked snow, although the trek out took a bit of time. By the last ride up, the lift was nearly deserted except for us, a Japanese couple and a big group of Europeans. They had skinned up and were headed on a short hike. They gave us directions and we followed them to our best run of the day. Poling ourselves out took awhile, but was definitely worth it. We also caught the view with light beams radiating from the clouds.

Afterwards, the free onsen felt great. The open-air pool was down a flight of icy, snowy stairs that I gave up on after stubbing a toe on an ice chunk; the indoor pool was still nice though.

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Yew, that's a pool down there.

The women’s side was deserted, however, I could hear Rob and the dudes on the other side of the wall. He met another person from Westlake who graduated in 2006, another small world moment. Rob also talked to some one who had done a backcountry tour at Asahidake and said their group had gotten fresh tracks all day. If we went back, a bit of local knowledge and/or topo would go a long way to getting better runs. Also, picking a day with low winds is definitely important. There are plenty of lodging options not far from the ropeway base. We used the onsen in the Daisetsuzan Shirakaba-sō.

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Snow lab outside Asahidake.

Dinner that evening back in Biei, we tried out a new pasta sauce. Despite our best efforts, somehow we still ended up with clam sauce.

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Does this look like clam sauce to you? I thought those were mushrooms.

I finally got a chance to browse the Japan craft beer mag from Otaru. They have an ad for Georgetown brewing.

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Ad in Japan craft beer

Skiing the Japow: Day 11 Epic Furano Part 1

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Kitanomine base of Furano.

You know that exhausted-ecstatic-ravenous because I skied through lunch and only paused on lifts look powderhounds can get. That was Rob after 6 hours at Furano. I should have taken a picture, but we were rushing off to the cheese factory before it closed. He said he was lapping super deep powder all day with a short hike and that there’s a premium zone, a bowl of powder that opens at 10:30am, which he managed to get to just before the rope dropped. Even though I enjoyed my day of planning and postcard writing, I was a bit powder jealous and we talked about skiing there another day.

The town area surrounding the ski resort (Kitanomine base) is very cute and has the most important things. My first shop was the backcountry ski store to get a topographic map for a tour in the national park. I bought the last one and got some route info from the store owner. Errand complete, I wandered downhill to the Downhill Royce chocolates to try some hot chocolate and pick up some nama chocolate to surprise Rob. My mom mentioned that she’d heard it was really good chocolate and 3x the cost in the US. Must eat!
After a bit of van cleaning and reading time, Rob was done skiing and it was time for cheese.

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Downhill Royce hot chocolate

Aprés ski at Furano Cheese Company Factory.
After tasting cheeses in the gift shop, we bought their reasonably priced ice cream. It came in a variety of interesting flavors including cheese, milk, corn and tomato. We tried cheese and corn. They were both tasty but very mild flavors. We both hadn’t had lunch so we splurged and ordered a pizza from their pizza factory, which was amazing. They have a legit wood fired oven and the crust has that perfect crisp-chewy balance.

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Cheese (chizu) ramen is actually a thing here. Those wedges are their squid ink cheese.

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Pizza from the Furano cheese factory. They gave a legit pizza oven.

With full bellies (apparently a no-no for onsen bathing), we went back to town for some bathing. Bell Hills was recommended to us as the best, but we ended up at Hotel Naturwald Furano. Their hotel is owl themed with cute owl things everywhere.

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Snow owl outside hotel naturwald. There are more owl pics than these but I won't subject you to anymore.

The onsen was nice with tons of different bath products and even a hair straightener to use.

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Owl onsen.

Clean and full, the next stop was Ningle Terrace, a cute artisan shopping Village in the woods behind the New Prince Hotel. It was beautiful at night and the craftspeople had some neat works for sale. Rob and I were a bit tempted, however, our favorites were too expensive.

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Ningle terrace at night.

Since the best weather conditions were lining up for the next day, we took the opportunity to head to the Biei Michi no ekki, setting ourselves up for a day at Asahidake. The ropeway can be closed due to high winds so we wanted to explore it while the weather allowed.

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Ending the evening with the long awaited Royce nama chocolates (bitter).

Camping for the night, we broke out the Hibiki 12 year and Royce chocolate.

Quick stop in Otaru

Otaru, the closest city to Kiroro, is located on the nearby coast. Known for its seafood, glass art and canals, we figured it was good for a quick evening stop.

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Daytime canal.

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Glass showcase in the visitor center.

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They have crushed Scallop shells for you to spread for traction.

Turns out that the canal area is firmly on every tour bus route imaginable because we kept wondering where all these folks came from. The canal does have a two really picturesque couple blocks for strolling lined with historical warehouses adorned by icicle caps. We checked out one of them, which is now Otaru brewing for a snack.

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Otaru brewing. Atmosphere>beer taste. They did have very reasonably priced schnapps too.

The last highlight of the night was seeing one of the pimped out Japanese trucks. Rob had been talking about them for weeks and this one was the best one we’ve seen.

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Pimped out Japanese truck

Skiing the Japow: Days 9-10 Bottomless Powder in Kiroro

Kiroro Snow World, resort about 60 minutes from Niseko, had a much improved crowd situation. The lift ticket is one of the more expensive ones but the infrastructure is so nice. They have the fancy electronic gates, all bubble chairs and gondolas to help you stay warm. Inside the lodge is a rest room with couches, tables and even a tatami section with good WiFi to hang out in. A public onsen is in the same building for your convenience. After 5pm, it’s supposedly hotel guests only, but no one mans the desk to check. Backcountry gates are available, but you need to file a climbing plan with the mountain club at the base center .

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Awesome trees.

It took us a few runs in the morning to find the good snow. Following powderhounds advice, we tried the top of the Asari quad lift, but a bunch of it was wind effected. The gondola line turned out to be better and there are bunches of fun trees in bounds and just outside. At the end of the day (our 5  hr pass expired), we did a lap in a backcountry bowl that we had to hike out from to get back. The snow was fabulous! It was so good, we came back for three or laps the next day. There is a michi no ekki not too far from the resort for easy van crashing.

Overnight snow freshened things up and the day was mixed sun and flurries. We were able to pay for only 1 ride/2 express lifts then hike the rest. We did three laps on the back bowl area facing north. Snow conditions were super stable. I had a pretty good wipeout on the first run (of course with an audience). Trying to figure out what happened, I think I got a large face shot, freaked out cause I couldn’t see, promptly caught a ski then did a nice tumble into the powder. Luckily, my tether held so we didn’t have to spend 2 hours digging for it like some other folks we met (their whole group was rocking super bright ski laces when we met them). Note to self: must learn to deal with temporary powder blindness, a problem I will hopefully have again.

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On our last climb out, some snow boarder had come through and wiped out huge sections of the skin track. Not sure why since that's got to be the crummiest line down the hill.

We would definitely come back to Kiroro! Good snow, fast lifts and great backcountry terrain accessible.

Skiing the Japow Day 8: Never again Niesko

The best ticket deal we could find was the Yokubari pack (slightly discounted ticket with 800 yen toward another purchase). It’s mentioned on the Niseko English site. Is only sold at major Hokkaido convenience stores. We bought our at Lawson using the Loppi machine.

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Here's the Loppi info to buy the Yokubari pack.

Niseko – A summary
Good terrain and access to backcountry/off-piste
Too many people
Everything got skied out quickly (including easy sidecountry).
Hirafu and Hanazano attract most powder hounds, so we found some of the best in-bounds snow at the end of the day skiing back to the Niseko Village base.
One day was plenty. We would avoid on future trips.

Adventures in Aomori: Scallop fishing and the Warasse Nebuta Museum

Aomori, where two ferries leave for Hokkaido, has a ridiculously awesome tourism department. Their website has great itineraries for traveling the city and area. The city map brochure was especially helpful. Everything we visited was within a 15 min max walk from the train/bus station (not the Shinkansen station).

After finding parking under $5 for 24 hours, we headed to tourist info in the bus station for help reserving the ferry. They were extremely nice and printed the Seikan ferry coupon Rob found online then called the ferry for us and made a reservation. If you bring a foreign passport in , you can get a card for 2 weeks of WiFi through the eFlets portal (also valid in Hokkaido).

Our first stop was the free shamisen performance at ASPAM (a prefectural tourism center with info gift shops and restaurants). They host two performances daily at 11:30 am and 2:30pm. We’ve been listening to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, which mentions shamisen playing, so we were curious to hear the instrument. It’s a stringed instrument where there is emphasis on plucking the strings but also using the pick (to me, it resembles an ice scraper in shape) to beat out complementary rhythms on the sound box. The artist playing was quite good at it, we enjoyed listening and watching him play.

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Next, we headed on to the WaRasse Nebuta museum, which features amazing floats from an annual summer festival. The floats are wire frames covered in paper, painted and lit up.

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This was one of the best museums we’ve ever visited. Go on a weekend when they have instrument and dance demos. After playing some, they teach you a dance then let you try a couple of the instruments (drum and cymbals). The performers are really energetic so we tried to get into the audience participation fun and made a good spectacle of ourselves.

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All the staff and volunteers were amazingly friendly and tried to give us explanations in English. One woman noticed we were debating staying until 2 for a demo and just went ahead and opened 30 minutes early to let us give papering part of the Nebuta metal frame a try.

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After all that excitement, we wandered next door through an area of snow sculptures and lanterns to the A-factory, a fancy local food mart/restaurant/tasting bar/food court/cidery (this is an apple growing region of Japan).  We sampled 3 ciders for 100 yen each. Unfortunately, none of them were good enough to be worth consuming more than the sample.

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After seeing it in the tourist guide, I couldn’t resist trying the catch and eat Scallop fishing at Hotate Goya. For 500 yen, you have 3 min to catch as many scallops as you can. They give you two minimum. After the catching, you can choose to have them sashimi, grilled or sushi style. Since they cost ~150 yen at the seafood market and tourists are pretty inept the first time, I think this turns out to be a favorable proposition for them as it also gets folks in the door. The woman at the tourist info said you can catch from 0-12. Two older Asian men that came after us only caught one between them. This made me feel better about my three.

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Since three scallops doesn’t go too far, we caught the end of the town fish market for some more fish. Called Nokkedon, you buy a pack of coupons then user them to buy rice and fish from around the market. There are tables with condiments and tea at which to enjoy your assembled bowl.

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We still had a bit of time before the ferry, so we went shopping in the nearby mall. My favorite store did “remakes” of clothing you would find at any US thrift store.

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Finally, we caught our very quiet ferry to Hokkaido. No one else used the lounge (we were the only passenger car) and there were showers.

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Four hours later, we arrived full, clean and ready to drive a few hours toward skiing the next day.

Skiing the Japow: Day 7 Hakkoda Ropeway

The Hakkoda Ropeway (their great English website, powderhounds review) is just a big cable car that takes you to the top of the mountain to ski down or ride down after checking out the juhyo or snow monsters (this is another place beside Zao onsen where they form.).

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Hakkoda juhyo or snow monsters.

There were bus loads of tourists coming through to check them out. Reaching the top station for the first time, the local news was there and pulled Rob aside for an interview on camera about why we were visiting Hakkoda. From what I’ve read/heard, Japanese love to put gaijin on TV, so I think he got a authentic gaijin in Japan experience. When we’re asked where we’re from, there’s a bit of confusion when we say we’re there to ski. We think it makes sense to Japanese skiers why the Aussies come to ski here, but when we say we’re from America, it seems like there’s a bit of “you have good skiing, why travel to Japan to ski.”

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Rob and the camera crew outside the Hakkoda cable car top station.

When Rob’s spotlight time completed, we took an easy lap down then through the trees then rode back up. The visibility had improved so we had a nice photo op with the monster field.

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For the second lap, we summited a ridge and dropped of the backside. We had some great turns down the the backside bowl, but the snow was a bit wind effected. Skinning back up, we negotiated huge wind drifts and large conifers to finally make it to better snow and skiing.

After skiing, we bathed in the famous Sukayu onsen. It features has a 200 person-sized pool with mixed bathing, although the pools have gender segregated sides. We also didn’t realize that there’s no place to actually bathe in this onsen. You must choose the separated bathing areas for that, which is a different ticket. I just went ahead and bathed near the rinse off pool in the mixed one, not realizing until after the fact when I found a sheet in a tourist brochure case with English onsen info that no soap is allowed in the onsen.

Noodles, miso and samurai houses: Morioka and Senboku

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Heading to Hakkoda, we checked a few of the lonely planet recommended detours. At our first stop, Rob and I followed the LP command “must eat here” in Morioka. Driving into the city, we had our second “driving in a place we shouldn’t be moment.” We followed what seemed to be a parking sign for the center of town castle ruins park and ended up having to back out of a narrow trail. Oops. At least there wasn’t anyone around to scold us.

After finally succeeding in parking, we wandered around the old castle ruins park with moats and a the famous cherry tree splitting a huge rock to work an appetite for second breakfast. Since the all-you-can-eat soba was 1) pricey 2) not yet open 3) too much food, we decided to try the jaja-men (じゃじゃめん), a udon like noodle with miso paste. It’s a complex meal that involves eating 7/8 of a bowl of noodles then scrambling an egg with the rest to get a soup. Luckily, the restaurant, Pairon Honten (白龍本店), had an English sheet explaining how everything should be consumed.

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Then you mix it up and eat 7/8 of it.

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Then you crack an egg into your bowl and scramble it.

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Then the waitress collects your bowl, adds some chopped veggies and hot water before returning it to you. You add salt, pepper, garlic and chili oil to taste and enjoy your soup.

The whole meal was 1000 yen or $8.30.

Extremely full, we left Morioka heading northeast to Lake Tazawako, the deepest lake in Japan. Unfortunately, none of the parks or viewpoints were plowed and the visibility wasn’t great so we just ended up doing a drive-by before continuing to Senboku.

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The samurai house we visited.

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We had been wondering how the Japanese heated their homes since they don't have the traditional floor heating with the ondols in korea. Turns out their are just spots in the floor for a fire and high windows that open to vent.

Senboku is known for it’s old streets lined with cherry trees and preserved samurai houses. We wandered the streets, visiting one house where a descendant of the samurai family still lives, then sampled miso and soy sauces at the Antong brewery. We ended day near Hakkoda ready to checkout the ropeway the next day.

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Antong Brewery

A slow day with whiskey (mainly driving)

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This footbath was shaped like a Japanese chess piece.

After a few straight days of skiing, Rob gave me a break (the snow took a break too.) and we covered some ground northward following a lazy morning around the nice michi-no-ekki. This one had a great food market and a footbath in addition to a store akin to a Japanese Barnes and Noble. We had fun shopping and soaking our feet. A Japanese man who joined us in the footbath took pictures with Rob then posted them on his Facebook.

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Nikka distillery near sendai

The one stop of the day was the Nikka Miyagikyo Distillery. We took the free Japanese tour and tried two of their cheaper whiskeys and apple wine. Rob agreed with the trip advisor review of good tour, terrible whiskey. Turns out they didn’t have any agreed single malts to sell. Someone else noted this too. While another person said they have a limited selection and they are purchased early in the day. They do have some on the paid tasting bar if you want to sample the good stuff.