“Whoa, that’s a long drop…I better not lose it here! Come out of the turn, down and hope the landing is good, watch out for the trees...made it, still on… whoa—I didn’t see that jump! Man, I love snowmobiling!”
Snowmobiling is a great sport into which to really throw yourself if you have the space to do it and the money to buy a machine. Sadly, I only have one of the two. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to give it a go here in Japan; just be careful, because it can become an addiction. With a big, powerful engine beneath you, get the adrenaline rush of a motor sport as you go flat out over a sheet of snow, and the refreshment of a cold breeze blasting past your face.
In fact, if you had asked me a few years ago what I thought of snowmobiling, I would have said, “I hate those noisy things.” I would often be somewhere deep in Hokkaido’s backcountry enjoying the peace and quiet, when I would hear them. First the sound in the distance, and then suddenly they would fly by you. But, I must admit, the more I watched those people, the more I wanted to give it a go.
Four years ago, I got that chance. A local Sapporo snowmobile company asked if I wanted to be a guide, and I jumped at the chance. I found operating a snowmobile fairly straightforward, and people with a bit of common sense can pick it up right away.
Powder: Taking it up a notch
I started out riding groomed roads and trails like most beginners, but it only took a couple of runs before I was going full blast, laughing with the icy wind blowing past my face. However, the first time riding in deep powder was a different story. I found it similar to the first time snowboarding or skiing in powder, but more difficult, and potentially more dangerous if the heavy machine flips over on you.
I would describe snowmobiling in powder like riding on water, yet more unstable. You are constantly shifting your weight from side to side, at times standing up and moving your whole body to one side of the machine or the other to keep your balance. You can literally ride for hours without sitting down. It is hard work but good exercise.
One thing easy to do in powder is to get stuck. It will happen a lot the first few times out (it still happens to me more times than I would like to admit). And the worst thing about getting stuck is getting unstuck. The machines are not light and, if the powder is deep, as it is often here in Hokkaido, it can take a lot of time and sweat to get out. Like most things, though, once you have some experience under your belt, you can really start having fun.
One of my favorite things to do is called “high marking.” You find a steep slope with a good angle and try putting the highest mark on it in the snow with your machine. You must be careful, but it gets the blood pumping and is a lot of fun.
If you are not quite ready for high marking, simply traversing any slope is a good way to get some skills and have a good time. If you try traversing a slope with the machine parallel to the angle of the slope, it is just going to flip over. So the trick is to get your body on the top of the snowmobile as you start to climb and pull the machine up toward you to make the snowmobile hit a right angle to the slope.
This means you will only have one front ski and about four inches of your caterpillar track making contact with the snow and the rest of the machine hanging in the air. This takes a bit of strength and a lot of technique but is a lot of fun once you master it.
Of course I love ripping through the backcountry without doing any technical riding as well, just charging ahead with the soft snow flying all over you. If you have to brush off yourself when you finish, you know it’s a good ride.
Kiroro Snow World & Snowmobile Land
If you are in Sapporo this winter and want to hit the snowmobile trails, head out to Kiroro Snow World. I suggest going out for a full day since, in addition to the great snowmobiling operation, it’s one of the best ski resorts in the Sapporo area, and there is a school with English speaking instructors.
I went there with two friends who had never ridden snowmobiles before. They took the license class (mandatory for anyone without a license) and received excellent instruction. The class covers all the dos and don’ts, giving newbies some confidence before they head out on the machines with instructors who assist you until they feel you are trail ready.
Kiroro has several courses from which to choose for all levels. My friends started on the beginner “Rinkan” course, a short ride on a forest road leading to an oval course where they could get after it. After that, they tried the longer “Shinrin” course.
I was looking for something a bit more challenging and was happy to see they had something for experienced riders called the Amemasu Tour. This is a tailor-made tour based on what you want to do and the conditions, but you need to have done a tour with them before or have a Japanese snowmobile license. The instructors kept a watchful eye on me, though they gave me the freedom to do what I wanted and go full out. I had a great time and the scenic Kiroro has it all: open space, beautiful forests and lots of powder.
Info: From downtown Sapporo to Kiroro, it is about 80 minutes by bus or car. You can also take and express train to Otaru (35 minutes) and then it’ i about 30 minutes by bus. From New Chitose Airport it takes about 70 minutes by train to Otaru and then from there by bus.
RSS Snowmobile Adventures at Niseko Village
The Hilton’s Niseko Village runs another great snowmobiling operation which I think is geared to people who want to have fun without getting too adventurous. They have one tour which runs for two hours. You are not required to get a Japanese snowmobile license, but don’t worry; the guides will give you good instructions and a well-informed safety talk which is the first part of your two hours.
Next, you head out to the golf course which in winter is the snowmobiling course, for a training run. Being a golf course, it’s pretty flat but does have a lot of shaped turns and hairpins to challenge the first timer. It’s a long course, so how fast you get through it depends on how fast you are on the machine. Having had a lot of experience, I flew through it, as it was not very technical,l but I still had a lot fun going flat out.
Most people who still have some time after this are allowed to head out to the “free area” where you can do what you want with the guide keeping an eye on you to make sure you don’t do anything foolish. I think this is great, as most other places force you to follow a guide the whole time.
On most tours it is important for novices to follow the guides for safety reasons, but if the terrain is safe, it is nice to let the new riders loose and have some fun on their own. And if that is notenough, they had a snowmobiling adventure park with small kickers and a kind of half pipe to play on.
Although I would not recommend RSS to someone with a lot of experience or someone looking for a full backcountry adventure, I would recommend them to everyone else. If you are in the village and want a break from the slopes, head over to Niseko Village and give it a go.
Hanging Around in Niseko
If you are spending some time in Niseko this winter and want to try something new with the kids, take them into the trees. No, not tree skiing, but actually get up into the trees... Niseko Village has a fun, challenging activity called tree trekking. Kids seeking adventures will absolutely love it.
It is pretty much what the name suggests, a trekking course in the trees with hanging bridges and ropes of all shapes and sizes. You finish the course flying through the air on a flying fox, or zip line, that delivers you safely to the ground.
But this is not just for the kids. Adults can enjoy the thrill as well. The Niseko Village guides are well trained and everyone doing tree trekking wears a harness and is attached to a safety line at all times. They go out of their way to make sure you feel safe without restricting your enjoyment in the trees.