Do you remember the mountain where you first learned to ride? Or the place you skied so much that you actually adopted it as your own? For me, a 33-year-old California transplant, Rusutsu Resort in Hokkaido was both. I have spent half my life riding here and call it my “Home Mountain.”
Everybody recalls their first time—snowboarding. I was visiting my father in Sapporo back in 1985 when snowboarding was just starting in Japan. I was born and raised in San Diego, an area not known for snow, but I enjoyed skateboarding, so when I had the chance to take a part time job at Rusutsu Resort for the winter, I jumped at the chance.
I can still remember the day my dad dropped me off at the resort. I was admittedly a bit nervous and lonely as he drove away. There I was, 15 years old, and one of only three foreigners working at the resort. I was a waiter at a buffet-style restaurant, so all I had to do was carry the trays back to the kitchen. For two months I spent my days cleaning tables—and skiing, but as things would have it, my skiing days were numbered.
The two other foreigners at the resort were from Australia, and they were completely hooked on snowboarding. They convinced me to give it a try and helped me pick out a board from the rental department. My first ride was on the now-famous Burton Performer Elite, pointed nose and swallow tail, with bindings and edges the full length of the board, which at that time was a big deal.
My two Aussie buddies took me to the Rusutsu Tiger Lift: a single chair lift that takes you to the top of the West Mountain. I sat on the ground strapping into my board as my co-workers gave me a few tips on how to ride.
“There is a powder course that runs under the lift; try that first,” they said. I clicked the last strap closed and looked up to see both of them disappearing into the trees. There I was alone on the top of the mountain.
Looking back, the only thing I can remember from the rest of that run is a bunch of crashes and a lot of laughter; not people laughing at me, but me laughing at myself. I was absolutely hooked!
Fast-forward to 1995. I had been snowboarding for 10 years and back living permanently in Sapporo, due in large part to snowboarding. I had a job and a car and. every day or morning, off I would head to the mountains to get in some runs. By this time Rusutsu had developed into the mega-resort it is today with a huge Tower Hotel, a major theme park in the summer and a bunch of new courses spanning two peaks: Super East mountain and Mt. Isola, both just under 1,000 meters.
The view from the peaks on a clear day is spectacular. To the south you can see Lake Toya and beyond the Pacific Ocean. To the west, Mt. Yotei and Niseko. Although the scenery is breathtaking if you are lucky enough to get clear skies, most people come for the powder. The mountains are not that high, but the courses are spread out so much that to explore all the way to the farthest course and back takes half a day.
A typical morning at Rusutsu starts from the Super East Gondola. A 10-minute ride puts you on the top where you drop into a steep powder course that leads you down into the valley between the two peaks and leads to a high-speed quad lift. If you take a minute to look back, the only tracks you see are your own—the benefit of getting up early!
The lift drops you right at the top of a course simply called “A Course.” There are also B and C Courses—they obviously weren’t very creative with the naming. A Course is one of my favorites. It’s long with a good pitch and, most important, ungroomed. It is at its best in December and January.
The entrance to the course is on a ridgeline and it often gets icy, keeping most people out, but 10 meters past the ridge it is all powder. In a few minutes you are back on the quad laughing with your buddies.
Did I mention lift lines? Even during the New Year holidays you won’t have to line up more than a few minutes at Rusutsu. The benefit of the mountain being spread out is that there are seven lifts and two gondolas, ample to handle the crowds.
For your next run you hop on the Isola Lift #1, up through one of the most epic bowls around. Great Japanese birch trees loaded with snow beckon. If you resist the urge to ride the bowl (yeah, right) and head farther out, you reach my all-time favorite course: “Heavenly.”
The owner of Rusutsu at one time owned both Heavenly and Steamboat ski resorts in the USA—hence the naming of the courses. Heavenly is yet another ungroomed course that winds down through a long valley, with tree stumps to jump off, powder to slash through and even a natural half-pipe section at the bottom.
The next lift puts you right back at the peak of Isola. Now it is up to you; you can go anywhere from here. My advice is to put some snacks in your pocket, because you probably won’t want to stop for lunch!
Fast-forward again to 2006. I have been riding in Hokkaido for 20 years, and a large portion of those days strapped to a board have been at Rusutsu. Riding at your home resort is always the best feeling. You know the mountain like the back of your hand and, no matter what the weather or conditions, you know where to go to find the goods, which can make the difference between a bad day and a great one.
I feel pretty lucky to be able to call Rusutsu my home mountain and, thanks to the owner’s good business sense, I now have a season pass that gives me access to not one, but four, resorts in Hokkaido. The Kamori Winter Pass now includes Rusutsu, Teine, Sahoro and Nakayama. For ¥78,000, I can ride from mid-November to mid-May!
Every season though, I make sure I take at least one day to go back to the infamous Tiger Lift. I try not to think about how old it is as it creaks its way to the peak. At the top I strap in and say a thank you to those two Aussies who showed me The Way of Powder and changed my life forever.
Rusutsu Resort is located about an hour and a half drive from Chitose Airport. Buses depart regularly from the airport and most stop at Rusutsu before heading on to Niseko. Mt. Shiribetsu, Mt. Yotei also called Ezo-Fuji (Hokkaido Fuji) and Lake Toya, a crater lake to the south, are also nearby.
Niseko is an easy day trip via either Makkari Village to the south of Mt Yotei or Kyogoku to the north. Both villages are famous for the spring water that flows from the ground. For more information, contact Rusutsu Resort at (0136) 46-3331 or check out www.rusutsu.co.jp.
Neil Hartmann is a, photographer, videographer, MC, writer and avid snowboarder living in Sapporo, Hokkaido. His company, One Films, creates snowboard films in and about the winter lifestyle in Japan.