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In Search of Powder – A Backcountry Guide

Although the Japanese snowsport scene has yet to really hit the big-time, there’s a large—and growing—number of people outside Japan exclaiming, “I’ve gotta get to Japan!” No, they’re not looking to hit up Roppongi or Akihabara. Rather, they’re after the country’s winter powder.

In fact, the increased coverage by overseas media has caused a boom of sorts. There’s no sign of decline in the number of foreign visitors taken with the food, fresh “pow” and hot springs so abundant throughout Japan. It’s great to think winter sports are acting as a bridge for many to experience Japanese culture.
Here in Japan, when the right mix of high pressure systems in the west and low pressure systems in the east exist, the northwestern wind blows across the Japan Sea, picking up moisture from what is notably a warm water area. This moisture is transformed into cloud cover, depositing snow as it runs into the high elevations of the country’s mountainous regions.

When entering the backcountry, it’s important to note Japanese resorts and backcountry areas are often managed under a different set of rules than their overseas counterparts.

Backcountry accidents are handled quite differently than in North America, forcing riders to manage risk on their own. So, if “self-rescue” is not your forte, we recommend staying inside the ropes.
We also suggest following the unique set of rules in Japan and being courteous on the slopes. It’s also worth mentioning resorts appreciate hearing from their customers, so file your complaints and requests with the ski patrol.
The following guide highlights eight areas that should provide you with a solid launching pad for your next big powder trip. Here’s to hoping you find your winter wonderland among these pages.

1. Furano / Asahikawa (Hokkaido)

Access:  Asahikawa Airport
Snow Quality:  ★★★★★

This area includes the 2,000-plus-meter peaks of Asahidake, Furanodake and Tokachidake, but has only a smattering of resorts in the foothills. While the feather-light snow is world renowned, deep satchels of powder are limited among the wide-spreading mountain bases. Pack the proper gear for trips during the coldest of winter months. Backcountry riding is best in the spring when the weather is most stable and the powder is still fresh for a tour through the peaks.

2. Niseko (Hokkaido)

Access:  New Chitose International Airport (Sapporo)
Snow Quality:  ★★★★

The now world-famous mountains of Niseko include Annupuri, Moiwa and Iwaonupuri, and the generous dumps of perfect powder do not disappoint. Unfortunately (?), their proximity to the coast make for a slightly wetter snow popular among many riders. Tree runs are a highlight and accessible even on days which do not live up to “bluebird” standards. Gentle slopes easily accessed from the lift, road or backcountry are plentiful, and taking in a “nighter” during a snowy evening is certainly one thing you want to put on the “to-do” list.
3. Hakkoda (Aomori)

Access:  Aomori Airport
Snow Quality: ★★★★

This cluster of volcanic peaks lies on the northern-most tip of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and creates a snowbelt of heavy snowfall only found in a few areas across the globe. Gentle slopes abound and make for excellent easy-riding. However, the lack of landmarks and unusual features means getting lost is not difficult. Keep your wits about you when visibility is limited and take advantage of long-lasting snow bases in the spring, or take in the ice-covered trees after a mid-winter snowstorm.

4. Minakami (Gunma)

Joetsu Shinkansen train to Jomo Kogen Station, or JR’s Shinetsu main line to Minakami Station
Snow Quality:  ★★

Tanigawadake, Kaguramine and Shibutsuyama help build the fence between the prefectures of Niigata and Gunma and also provide the fencing grounds where weather systems from the Japan Sea and the Pacific Ocean face-off. The result is bountiful piles of snow and an often changing weather forecast. The higher elevations showcase good powder, but snow conditions become heavier as you make your way downhill. Access to the backcountry is readily available, but closely-packed mountains with their share of steep slopes and deep valleys make for a high-risk environment. Proximity to Tokyo places these snow kingdoms high in most rankings.

5. Myoko (Niigata)

Access:  JR Shinetsu main line to Myoko-Kogen Station
Snow Quality:  ★

This range lying close to the Japan Sea includes the hightops of Myoko, Mitahara, Akakura, Kurohime, Mae and Maru. The proximity to the sea draws in heavy snow, a weak point more than made up for in sheer volume. It’s not uncommon to witness a meter of fresh fall in one night, so those heading off-course are encouraged to pay close attention to the climatologist. The hills run along the forest line and feature a wide variety of trees and terrain, with a slope allowing for comfortable speeds. Most visitors tend to explore the deep powder fields by first heading up the lift line.

6. Hakuba (Nagano)

Access:  JR Oito Line to Hakuba Station
Snow Quality:  ★★★

The Ushirotateyama Range, found in the northern portion of Japan’s Northern Alps, is revered as a big-mountain area where access to the backcountry is available from the lifts. Clear skies are uncommon during the depths of winter and can turn grey quickly even when they do appear. The Goryu Resort features wide steeps in all directions, but snow conditions can vary greatly, depending on the winds. Beware of the deep crevices. The slopes of Tsugaike offer great tree runs which are easy to access. Hakuba brings to the table 1,000 meters of vertical drop if the conditions are right.

7. Tateyama (Toyama)

Access:  Tateyama-Kurobe Alpen Route/Murodo Station
Snow Quality:  ★★★

With an altitude higher than 3,000 meters, Oyama, Jyodosan, Bessan, Tsurugidake and Okudainichidake tower over the landscape and have provided generations of fun for the whole family. Most use the Alpen Route to gain access to the area, but the ropeway shuts down from December to March, leaving only the month of November and post-April spring skiing. If the weather cooperates, you’re in for amazing powder runs. As the slopes are well above the tree line, there’s neither stump nor stand in sight. If the mountain is covered in a thick fog, it’s a tough ride and easy to lose your bearings. For best results, stay at least two days and overnight in one of the mountain lodges or hotels.

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