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.

image

Super long spring roll. Yum!

Rob found a new favorite ice cream bar.

image

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!

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

Ad in Japan craft beer

Skiing the Japow: Day 11 Epic Furano Part 1

image

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.

image

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.

image

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

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 .

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

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.).

image

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.”

image

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.

image

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.

Skiing the Japow: Day 6 Yamagata Zao Onsen

Yamagata Zao Onsen is known for the juhyo  or snow/ice monsters (powderhounds review). There’s a ropeway to the top for sightseers and skiers in addition to a hodge podge of lifts. Only a few places have the right conditions for formation (not the same conditions for good skiing). Visibility was not great, but we could at least see them.

image

Start of the 10km run from top to bottom. Signs every 0.1km.

Only one ropeway goes to the top from one of the two sides of the mountain. It’s a royal pain to transfer between the sides, especially from transitioning from the Uenodae side with the Zao Sky Cable to the side with the ropeway to the top. The trail map lists combinations of three or four lists to do the job. We heard nine different companies own the lifts and are paid by the number of times they’re used. As such, they have no incentive to fix the connectivity issues. Lift tickets here are on a RFID card what works well unlike Happo-one where you pretty much need to give the sensor a big hug to get your pass in the range to be read.

The best lift ticket deal we could find was this flyer on their website, which gives you 1000 yen off for a limited number of folks who show up early (7:30am until 8 or they run out. 30 per location) to collect coupons at the different locations. This deal of course has a number restrictions. They have a list of deals posted here. We used the first one on the right side (details on how you get the coupon in Japanese). Here’s an English town map. We went to the onsen station for the Zao Chuo Ropeway first  didn’t see anything about the discount and the parking wasn’t free. Then, we headed toward one of the other discount locations, which Google translated to “second parking lot past Uenodai/Uwanodai.” Outside the Zao Gymnasium, we found free parking and an employee handing out the discount coupons that you take to the ticket office to buy your pass when the office opens later.

image

More identically dressed Japanese skiers. These were in red and white instead of minion colors.

Rob and I had a really great time skiing here. I don’t think we ever waited for a lift. Our favorites were the 38 deg slope near omori and lift 22 and the forest of poachable trees under and around Kurohime #1(39). English trail map. Near the end of the day we took the Zao Chuo ropeway to the top and still found tons of fresh powder in the trees around lift 17, which we lapped until it closed. Then night skiing commenced and we still found powder under the lifts.

image

There are a couple public baths in the same style as Nozawa Onsen, but we shelled out for one with an open-air pool and parking (600 yen each tickets at the info desk on the floor above the onsen). It was located in the center plaza (same building as familymart) next to the Zao Chuo ropeway. You could easily sneak in. The ticket collection gate doesn’t actually work.

image

From cat sushi to woman sushi. Seen near the center plaza onsen.

Skiing the Japow: Days 4&5 J-pop overload at Tainai

After checking the snowfall prediction map on snow-forecast.com, Rob and I decided to continue north and ski Tainai several hours away. This resort or any of its neighbors was mentioned on powderhounds, so we spent an agonizing hour Google translating the multitude of ski resort webpages. Tainai looked like there largest of the options.

En route, we made a brief stop at a rice cracker factory that I found on trip advisor, the Senbei Okoku Rice Cracker Factory.

image

Some girls group helps market the rice crackers. Doesn't Rob look happy?

image

Taste testing the rice crackers. They were sampling the flavors of curry chicken, squid with mayo and soft serve ice cream. I kid you not.

image

All of the fun flavors.

We sampled tons of rice cracker varieties then bought a bunch off of there seconds rack with unknown flavors. If you’re not cheap like us, you can try decorating and roasting your own rice crackers.

Arriving at Tainai, it was puking snow. As it was 2 pm, folks were leaving. One gave Rob his lift ticket, so Rob skied while I caught up on my Japanese lessons in the lodge and listened to the J-pop blasting over the lodge speakers.

image

image

It continued to snow overnight, so we stayed nearby to ski the next day. We considered hitting up Shibataninoji NINOX for some variety, but it was even smaller, more expensive and park-focused. Instead, we returned to Tainai and purchased their 4 hire package deal with lunch and onsen for the same price as two half day tickets to the other place.

image

image

Their combo deal.

Unfortunately, when we took the chair up, we realized that they groomed all the powder on most of the slopes. :(. Then we got ourselves yelled at for skiing in the powder slightly off-piste/in the lift line. All there trees that looked somewhat accessible to pack based on the map were actually out of reach. After a few hours of fast groomers and laps down the couple ungroomed runs (may or may not have been closed), we packed it in for our lunch.

image

We did at least get to use the onsen at this fancy hotel nearby before continuing north toward our next destination Yamagata Zao Onsen.
image
Tainai has great snow, but the terrain suits beginner and intermediate skiers/boarders better. Powder poaching options are limited and the chairs are old and slow two-mans (apparently the Japanese call these romance chairs).

Skiing the Japow: Day 3 Nozawa Onsen

image

Sidecountry trees at Nozawa Onsen

image

I love how they put no skiing/board signs over most of the trees.

We picked up some half-day (until 1pm) lift tickets since we planned to spend the afternoon in the backcountry. The morning was fun in-bounds skiing the “self-responsibility” tree zone near the top. We had just crossed through a ravine and popped up on the other side when I spotted a furry brown bear running on the opposite bank. I was a bit too slow with the camera but we saw it a couple more times as we skied down through the trees. First bear sighting while skiing!

Then, we crossed the rope and skied the side country trees such that we could hike back in-bounds at the end of the run along an old road. Since they didn’t check lift tickets (paper ones) on the top lift, we managed to fit in a few laps before the end of the day. With a quick stop at a free onsen (this one had milky white water), we were clean and ready to camp at the next michi no ekki.

We would definitely ski here again- nice village, free onsens, good variety of terrain and mix of Japanese/Gaijin (foreigners).

Skiing the Japow: Day 2 Happo-One

For our second day, we were torn between Tsugaike Kogen and Happo-one (pronounced oh-nay). Both were about the same price for a day ticket, 1000 yen lunch and onsen discount coupon, 5100 yen and 5200 yen, respectively with repeat customer coupon (this coupon has deals for Happo-one, Tsugaike Kogen and some other place). This coupon is not available from the tourist info (although they do have some that are not quite as good of a deal ~100 yen more. If you can’t make it there, check online.), but they give them out at lodging places or when you buy a lift ticket.

image

Happo-one, Tsugaike kogen coupon. It works for up 5 people.


Happo-one hosted many of the 1998 Nagano Olympic events and is more alpine, where Tsugaike is more tree skiing with better backcountry access. However, their in-bounds terrain is supposedly pretty boring.

After waiting around a bit in the Happo-one parking lot, we decided to buy lift tickets when the mid-mountain lifts opened. It turned out to be a good call because eventually the top chairs finally got going.

We did fit in a bit of skinning in to access a run that didn’t have list access open yet. Most others were boot packing, but an older man was also skinning up. Rob and I ran into him over lunch and learned he was also another Japan Campers customer. What are the odds? I think there are only 20-30 camper vans. Unfortunately, we had to rip skins in a hurry when the lift began running.

Runs had nice powder but a majority of it was wind effected. We managed to find some fun dropping small sections of trees off of the many little ridges. No one bothered us about being off-piste (not always considered in-bounds in Japanese ski resorts).

image

After skiing, we used our combo coupon to enjoy the hot spring pools at a nearby onsen. This one, mimizukunoyu next to Hotel Hakuba, was peaceful with indoor and outdoor pools. It also had great WiFi, which the laundromat in town where we headed next lacked. We were able to cook a tasty ramen dinner while the clothes were washed and dried. Yay for efficiency! Next stop – michi no ekki Azumino City for a day of non-skiing adventures.