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Features

2007
ISSUE
14
Soul Searching on the Northern Island
By Chuck Olbury

[Skiing Japan], enter, click.....[Backcountry ski Japan], enter, click.....[Hokkaido powder], enter, click.....

I was confined to my office on the computer, entering various word combinations into the search engine, hoping for some information that could enlighten me as to which part of the country to settle down. It had been three years since arriving in Tokyo, and three years since I had experienced a full winter season.

Prior to that, I had spent multiple seasons in the hedonistic pursuit of powder, leaving me almost broke. In an earnest effort to break back into the black, I donned a suit and tie and joined the hustle and bustle of Tokyo but found after three years I was an anomaly in man’s newfangled world.
Yearning for the clean mountain air and the snow beneath my feet again, I set about finding a mountainous place in Japan in which to live and work. Hokkaido was at the foremost of my mind, stirred by utopian images of skiers trying to keep their heads above the snow. After hours hunched over the computer researching, I decided on a town located in the center of Hokkaido called Furano.

Thousands of Australians go to Hokkaido each year and, while most go to Niseko, the more inquisitive have been heading to other areas, notably Furano, to escape the crowds. Due to its geographical central location on the island, it is often referred to as “the naval of Hokkaido,” celebrated by the local townspeople with an unconventional “belly button festival” that borders on the bizarre. (Locals with face painted bellies wearing top hats parade down the main street.)

Furano’s central location means blue-sky days are more frequent than in Hokkaido’s coastal mountains, yet Furano still manages more than nine meters of snow each year.

After two frantic months of preparation, during which I handed in my resignation notice and donated my suit to a homeless guy in Tokyo, I find myself driving into the town of Furano. Kitanomine, the ski area base and where the pensions and hotels that service the resort are located, is only five minutes from the center of town. From here it is just a five-minute walk from the lifts, and this is where I make my new home.

There are two sides to the mountain, serviced by a modern lift system consisting of a 101-person cable car, a high-speed gondola and eight chair lifts. The terrain at Furano is steeper than other Hokkaido ski resorts and has hosted a number of international downhill ski and snowboard races. On its best day, many argue it is the top place to ski in Hokkaido.

From the top of the ski area there are spectacular views across the valley of the Tokachi Range, crowned by Mt. Tokachi itself, with its spiraling cloud of smoke pluming skyward from its great volcanic vent. At night when darkness descends over the valley, the town lights flicker to life and provide great night views from the hotels and pensions of Kitanomine.

On the resort opening day, while waiting for the lifts to start up, an attractive Japanese lady approached me. “Would you like me to show you on a tour of the mountain,” she asked. Being unaccustomed to such forwardness from a Japanese woman, I was a little taken aback and politely declined, thinking my wife would not understand. When she turned around, I was able to read the back of her jacket with the words “Ski Host” emblazoned on it.

Furano has made a special effort to make foreign skiers welcome and volunteer ski hosts are just some of the initiatives undertaken by the Furano Tourism Association and supported by the local community. Cultural events throughout the season, such as welcome nights with live music, tea ceremonies and other performances are organized.

Part of the appeal of Furano is an opportunity to experience real world Japan beyond the facade of a resort. The town itself sits just across the river from Kitanomine, and this natural buffer means it retains its small town charm. A visitor can expect to have a friendly encounter with a Furano local.

On my first escapade in to the bar district, not knowing where to go, I found an izakaya by chance and, from the outside, the muffled cheers signaled a party going. Parting the noren (outside shop curtains) and opening the screen door, I was confronted with what appeared to be a private gathering but, before I could turn around, I was being gestured in and handed a warm glass of sake.

“Weru arru yu Furomu?”
“Australia,” I replied.
“Aaah, Osturia.”

The party continued into the wee hours and, by the time it came to leave, I had made some good friends who still think I am from Austria.

As winter sets in, I spend more and more days clearing snow from the driveway. Snow removal is not a backbreaking affair in these parts due to its super light consistency. Furano’s location in the center of the island means low humidity levels, which also means low water content–champagne quality powder. It is reputedly some of the best snow in the world.

A skier told me once that a ski holiday to Furano is like taking out insurance against bad snow; you can always count on more than a few days of your trip getting some great powder turns.

It is difficult to put into words, but powder turns in Central Hokkaido are bottomless and seemingly lack any effort at all. There is little resistance to motion even when the snow exceeds waist depth and the pitch of the slope declines.

On each turn, the snow billows up and works its way in and under jackets while huge rooster tails mark the skier’s descent. It is sometimes affectionately referred to as “smoke” by the locals, and riding it is the closest feeling one can experience to floating, which is the ambition of most skiers and snowboarders.

When the powder at Furano ski area isn’t happening, there are a few other areas accessible from Furano on a day trip. One is Kamui Ski Links, an hour’s drive away and a popular haunt for the tree skiing fraternity. The resort sits in a valley and is perfectly located to catch snow from the predominantly westerly winds depositing great quantities of snow all over the mountain.

Another option from Furano is Asahidake, the highest mountain in Hokkaido and also a live volcano. A cable car runs up the side of the mountain, giving great views of the smoldering volcano on clear days, rare that they are.

The arrival of spring gives me some time to reflect. Like the animals that come out of hibernation when the snow begins to melt, I too have to come out of “ski hibernation.” A move to a new place is never easy, but the community spirit of Furano and the warmth and friendliness shown by the locals has made the transition a lot easier for this Tokyo transplant. This same local hospitality seems to impress visitors who come here as well, nearly as much as the snow.

FURANO SUMMER

Furano was made famous by Soh Kuramoto’s television drama that ran for more than 30 years. It accounts the story of a man who leaves Tokyo and resettles in Furano to seek an alternative lifestyle for himself and his family. The drama captured the natural beauty of the Furano area and now attracts thousands of tourists each year in the warmer months to see this beauty for themselves.

Most recently Furano has become famous for lavender, and photographers from far and wide come to photograph the fields. The wild flowers and majestic mountains of Daisetsuzan National Park offer some of the most picturesque trekking in Hokkaido.