Two Dutch powder junkies enjoy their first taste of fresh “Wasabi Powder.”
Big, white, fluffy snowflakes dance through a pitch-black sky as 1,287 light towers illuminate the deserted runs of Niseko. It is 8 p.m., and most skiers are enjoying frosty glasses of Sapporo or Asahi beer at one of Hirafu Village’s cosy pubs or restaurants. We are on a different high, however, getting our fill of Japan’s legendary “wasabi powder.” The massive light towers make the visibility even better than daylight, while the eerie, elongated shadows of birch trees appear to bring the forest to life.
In this magical, three-dimensional dream world we fly through the feather-light powder. Niseko boasts an average of six days of snowfall a week, 15 meters in a season that lasts just three-and-a-half months. This is not roulette; you are nearly guaranteed to hit the jackpot here.
Next up on our tour is Rusutsu. Clouds cover the valley like a woolly blanket, with imposing, steep mountains rising above. We drop into a large powder field where heavenly powder awaits. The snow is so dry that our spray remains visible like a cloud of smoke in the air. Euphorically, we ski toward the ski lift and, as always, we are hungry for more.
In the afternoon, we head into Rusutsu’s famous Japanese birch forests which look like a wintry jungle with twisting branches covered in snow. We soar down in conditions that only seem to exist in the ski movies. The snow is so light, it’s virtually impossible to breathe.
Our next stop is Asahidake, the famous powder playground situated in the heart of the north island, an area known as the Hokkaido Powder Belt, along with the ski areas Furano, Kamui Ski Links and Tomamu. This region is home to the driest snow in Japan, which suits our tastes just fine.
We hop into the Asahidake gondola, built to bring hikers to this active volcano in summer. In winter, the gondola runs every 20 minutes, providing access to large quantities of fresh powder. The continually falling snow prevents us from seeing the volcano, but we find plenty of action in the back bowl, which we nicknamed “Mi-so deep.”
Having worked up a ravenous appetite, we sit down for a bowl of steaming udon noodles, which we loudly slurp in keeping with Japanese custom. The healthy and delicious Japanese food has had a positive influence on our trip and, in no time, our diet consists of miso, rice, noodles and other local delicacies.
Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan’s largest national park, is situated in the middle of Hokkaido, a relatively unexplored region. On a clear day, you can see smoke from the active volcanoes of Tokachidake and Asahidake, and you can even ski into the crater.
We hook up with New Zealander Chuck Olbury, the owner of Hokkaido Powder Guides, who has a delicious dessert in store for us: a tour through a 700-year-old spruce forest in Daisetsuzan National Park. We immediately understand why Daisetsuzan is known as “the playground of the gods .” The snow there is divine.
After yet another day of powder, it’s time to soak up some après action. Although it is -20 degrees Celsius outside, we get out of our ski clothes as quickly as possible. My bare feet sting in the snow before stepping into the scorching onsen. Chuck is already comfortably sitting in the 48-degree Celsius water and drinking a beer. He takes a sip and laughs as we rowdily try to get used to the hot water. When we have finally acclimatized, Chuck tells us more about Japanese hot springs.
“The Japanese believe onsen have healing powers because of the minerals they contain. It is physically and mentally cleansing and relaxing,” he says.
We soak in the hot water and enjoy a cold beer. In my mind, I relive the day’s infinite powder and realize we’ve been spoiled by 21 days in a row of fresh snow.
The Land of the Rising Sun and falling snow has endured its share of disasters over the years. Yet the Japanese proverb, “Nana korobi ya oki,” which literally translates to “Fall down seven times, get up eight,” expresses the great resilience of the Japanese people. This ability to bounce back when life knocks you down is an admirable quality of a culture that values personal responsibility, hard work, modesty and community.
For us westerners, Japan is a country of quirky idiosyncrasies, such as heated toilet seats, adults with Hello Kitty clothing, funny “Engrish” signs and vending machines selling beer. For snow lovers, the culture, the cuisine and the wonderful people are icing on the cake of an incredible ski experience.
Places to Stay
Most resorts offer a nice variety of accommodations to fit any budget and have great service. If you can, we highly recommend spending a night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and experience sleeping on futons and enjoying delicious Japanese cuisine. Here are some of our favorites.
Niseko Boutiques are comfortable, modern and luxurious apartments located in the center of Hirafu Village. Asahi Lodge is a tastefully designed, fully furnished chalet that sleeps 10, complete with its own car, sauna and spectacular views.
Rusutsu Resort has a huge family style hotel right on the slopes, with a beautiful onsen, several restaurants and even a carousel in the lobby.
Hoshino Resort Tomamu has large corner rooms with Jacuzzi overlooking the slopes. Après-ski starts in the wave pool, the beautiful outdoor hot spring or with a stroll through the impressive Ice Village.
Furano Tsuru Apartments are brand new, western-style apartments located just a five-minute walk from the lift.
Kamui Ski Links: While there are accommodations here, the ski area is also easily accessible from Furano.
Asahidake Kamihoro-so is an authentic Japanese hotel with a beautiful wooden onsen and elaborate meals (breakfast and dinner). Great value for money.
Daisetsuzan The Northern Star Lodge near Furano serves as a good spot to explore the national park. Weekly rates for just $420.
Hokkaido Powder Guides can arrange one-day or multi-day guided tours to many of Hokkaido’s best powder zones.