snowboarding in Hokkaido

Kon'nichiwa Japan!

During a splitboard trip to Lofoten Norway, a longtime friend and guest named Hans asked me if I would like to guide him and a crew of friends in Japan. He had his heart set on the powder and snowboard mecca Hokkaido. I, however, have never been there, but I was definitely open-minded to make the journey. I called in the help of a fellow friend and snowboard guide Jeroen who’s been there four times already and asked him if he would like to join.

In Autumn 2019 we met up with Hans’ friends for a meeting about the road trip through Hokkaido Island of Japan. One thing was sure, it had to be lift-access riding, but they didn’t mind a little bit of boot packing as well. We fixed the dates of the trip at the start of February. This is a relatively safe time to go, it has a good base by then and tons of fresh snow each day. The packing list was not much different from Europe except for one thing, everybody should have a powder board with good volume like the Jones Storm Chaser or the Hovercraft on the thinner days.

Japan hokkaido freeride trip
Japan hokkaido freeride and splitboard trip
Japan freeride holiday

The European Alps started to get washed out by high temperatures and got extremely warm for the time of the year. The WhatsApp group was bursting with enthusiasm just before the trip and we met at Sapporo Airport, from where I rented two 4x4 cars. The first stop was the city of Sapporo where we stayed in the Wing Hotel amid the screaming neon signs in the centre of a typical Japanese city. From the hotel, it’s only a short walk to where we could enjoy our first true Japanese dinner with sushi, sashimi, nikujaga and sushi yaki soups, seaweeds and other delicious wasabi & soy sauces. The beers tasted well and we went to bed early, travelling from Munich got everyone exhausted.

Sapporo visit from a snowboarding holiday
Sapporo, Hokkaido's snowboard capital

Japanese snowboard towns

The first riding day was in “Teine Highland Zone”, an old Olympic ski resort from the Sapporo Olympics in 1972. It’s a mix of some of the flattest and steepest Japanese forests we have seen throughout the trip. We even found some serious couloir action with frozen waterfalls in some sections. It was a mix of a bluebird and a wild snowing day. You know that kind of magical day with mysterious lights and unique panoramic views of the Japanese sea, a rollercoaster and Sapporo layered in front of it. We find mostly birch trees and spruce with bamboo below it. The group is a bit surprised by all the tight steering actions and bushes. It was one of the worst winters in Japan, with a base that was 1m less than usual, which translated to a lot of bushwhacking.

Then it started snowing big time and temperatures got slightly more Siberian as we rode to Otaru. This is an old harbour town with even more legendary sushi places and a hotel with the best Onsen you could wish for. We had a couple of unique beers in the hotel and checked out another epic sushi place hidden downtown. All these restaurants have private rooms where you sit on the ground around the table, which makes it a perfect opportunity to get to know each other.

sushi on a snowboard trip

From Otaru, our first plan was to visit Kiroro. But fellow colleagues informed us that it wasn’t that good at the moment, so we went straight to Kokusai. Upon arrival, it was snowing gently. We scanned the area and found out the snow was much deeper here than in Teine. The people loved riding here as it had a few open zones and a couple of nice valleys with long flowing rivers and some steep pitches at the bottom. There were a lot of ski patrollers trying to keep the Westerners out of the bush. We encountered a group of Frenchies, one with a busted knee and they had to pull him out of the forest. So please check your rescue skills before even thinking about riding here.

By the time we left in the late afternoon, it was puking snow as we went back to Otaru. Thankfully, the roads are heated on hairpin turns. What an ingenious and expensive system. On the third day, we packed our bags in the morning and did another day at Kokusai. When we entered the area, we saw tons of school buses and got a little bit stressed about the cues, but luckily we found out that we could use all the single lines and hardly had to wait. We enjoyed our discovered runs, this time wholly untracked and scored another waist-deep Japanese powder day.

Roadtrippin Hokkaido in the hunt for powder
Roadtrippin Hokkaido in the hunt for powder
Roadtrippin Hokkaido in the hunt for powder

After that, we had to drive 3 hours to Furano in a whiteout snowstorm, which made driving there tons of fun! We stayed here in a bit more Westernised style hotel for 3 days that wasn’t as Japanese as the one we had in Otaru, but they had a beer machine in the Lobby, centrally located and within walking distance to the lifts. From the hotel, we took a taxi downtown and found out that it was not easy to get a spot in a restaurant with big groups. You have to make a reservation for Japanese places with good local food. My highlight of that evening was chicken wasabi.

Choker powder in Japan

Furano is the most popular snowboard area after Niseko in Hokkaido. For a good reason, this reflects spotting all international skiërs and snowboarders in the area. The resort is quite vast and has tons of secrets to explore. Some of the zones get trashed right away, and some are a bit more hidden, and hardly get any visitors. Then if you are willing to boot pack in or out of some of these areas, you’ll find some true Japanese snowboard treasures. We saw flying squirrels and white foxes that day. Nature here is very different from Europe. All Japanese resorts have one thing in common: “lots of creek crossings and bushwhacking through adventurous valleys".

The next day we went to Kamui Ski Links, a secret gem where we saw the Orange Man (a famous Japanese snowboarder) and some other snowboarders. It’s around a one-hour scenic drive from Furano. Here you will see fewer Westerners and more local riders. If you like snowshoeing and splitboarding this area has lots of options. The trees are a little bit more spaced out in the back of the resort. We snowboarded till the end of the lifts and hiked some more to make the most out of the sunny day with -25 degrees temperatures. Back at the cars, it started snowing again.

On the last day, we decided to ride Furano again. That area was snow packed and there were still some of the best runs to be had. Some members of the crew got tired and checked out a little bit earlier and some went for the last chair and scored some more pristine powder descents all the way down to town. A killer ending of a true Japanese snowboard adventure.

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