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Trip Report Hokkaido Ski Safari 2020

Discussion in 'Japan' started by tugboat, Feb 18, 2020.

  1. tugboat

    tugboat Hard Yards

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    I'd like to thank everyone that gave me advice throughout my planning process. All of your input made this an incredible trip.

    General plans for two weeks consisted of starting our journey in Furano, moving on to Niseko where we would be shuttled to Shimamaki for some cat skiing, return to Niseko, head on to Rusutsu, and finish off our trip with a night in Sapporo. My husband and I were flying out of Boston, one friend leaving from Denver, and two friends were finishing up their 16-month around the world travel, all meeting at the Chitose airport in Hokkaido. Two other friends were leaving Boston 5 days later, meeting us in Niseko.

    One week before the trip, we received an email from our Shimamaki trip letting us know that they had not reached their 2-meter base that they require to operate the cat. That gave us a week of praying to Ullr, more snow dances than you could imagine, and reigning in all the karma we could muster. We started making a Plan B, “just in case”.

    Day 1 – Jan. 25/26th – Travel

    9:00AM we boarded the C&J Bus en route to Boston Logan International. We had in tow, three very full snowboard bags, two suitcases, and two large backpacks (my husband and I agreed to bring our world-traveler-friends’ snowboards and gear with us…in addition to all of our gear).



    The flight took off from Boston, flew up and over Alaska, and landed in Tokyo, 14 hours later. We got a nice view of Mt. Denali on our way (which I was thankful for since we failed to see the mountain on our 2-week Alaska excursion this past summer). Going through customs in Tokyo was relatively effortless, apart from lugging an excessive amount of gear with us. Entirely exhausted, we boarded our last leg. In Chitose we met our three friends who already had picked up the rental van, a 9 passenger Toyota who we name Zō (or elephant in Japanese).



    We spent the night at the Hotel Grand Terrace Chitose, which was relatively close to the airport, cheap, and decently-reviewed. It wasn’t anything special, had tiny rooms, but we were only spending a night, so we weren’t picky. We walked down the street to a small, late-night ramen restaurant, Tiaga Ramen. The 3.6-star rating on Google did not do this place justice. It was delicious.

    Day 2 – Jan. 27th – Furano

    After breakfast at the hotel, we loaded into Zō, and made the 2-hour trek to Furano. We parked the car on the Kitanomine side, booted up, bought 3-hour tickets and headed onto the mountain. We took a few runs on the Kitanomine side, eventually found the Link Lift that connects to the Furano Zone and hit a few runs over there. The snow was soft, and some fresh stashes were found. Overall, a fantastic day to get out legs under us.



    At the end of our 3-hour ticket, we took the traverse back to Kitanomine, and ended up at the base, fueling ourselves with ramen, gyoza and Sapporo Classics.

    We piled back into the car and found our home for the next 5 days, the Chalet Burlap Furanui. We were greeted, showed our rooms and given “welcome drinks”…Japanese hospitality was already impressing me.

    Kaiten Sushi Topikaru was the choice for dinner. After reading many reviews, finding lots of advice on ski forums (this one included), and reading many blogs/trip reports, I was able to compile a list of restaurants that were recommended regularly. This being one of them, it did not disappoint. It’s a sushi train, where the sushi comes to you on a conveyor and you grab what you want as it comes by. At the end of dinner, plates are counted, and you’re charged for the amount you ate. This is also where we learned it’s not pronounced “sa-ki”, as often pronounced in the United States…but rather “sa-keh”. The puzzled look on the waitress’s face quickly told us we were pronouncing it wrong.

    Day 3 – Jan. 28th – Cat Skiing Otoe with NAC Adventures

    We wanted to make sure we got a day in cat skiing, so we booked a day with NAC Adventures a few days beforehand. Because of our late booking we were able to choose our day based on the weather forecast. We noticed it was supposed to be warm and sunny on Tuesday, with no snow in the foreseeable forecast. Since a sunny, beautiful day might ruin the snowpack for the following days, we jumped on board.

    They run a cat up an old resort, Otoe, just southwest of Asahikawa, near Kamui Ski Area. Our guide for the day picked us up in Furano at 7:00AM, and we drove out to the base of the mountain. Joining us was two separate groups of Australians searching for the same Japow we were. After booting up, a quick safety briefing and beacon check, we boarded our trusty cat and headed up the mountain.

    Despite the sassa grass (bamboo) still poking through at the lower elevations, the snow was fresh, untouched and beautiful. We quickly learned you could blow through the sassa with little effort. We took a warm up run so the guides could gauge our abilities, and how we moved as a group. I think we did quite well. We managed to get 4 more runs in low angle trees and open fields before lunch time, each one better than the last. The last one we rode to the bottom where lunch waiting for us at the local onsen. After a traditional Japanese meal of miso soup, salmon and rice we were back in the cat for more. Three more runs, and it was unfortunately time to call it.



    After being dropped back in Furano, we were starving, and ready for dinner. This was also the night we realized reservations are mandatory if you want to eat at a reasonable hour. We ended up with empty bellies until 8:00pm when we managed to get a reservation at another restaurant on my list, Masaya. OH MY, it was worth the wait. I ate the best gyoza of the trip, garlic fried rice and the most amazing pork ribs. The pork ribs came with an impressive show of the chef grilling them up, complete with spatula spins and fire.

    Day 4 – Jan. 29th – Furano

    Just as suspected, the warm weather from the previous day had reeked some havoc on the snowpack. It wasn’t bad by any means, but not the reason I came to Japan. We had a short morning riding the Furano Zone on a 3-hour lift pass and rode until lunchtime. We went to a local ramen restaurant, Shojikimura, ate well, drank sake and Sapporos. We had ourselves a low-key afternoon and finished off our day with dinner at a local brewery, Yama No Doxon.



    Day 5 – Jan. 30th – Furano/Tokachi

    We had hoped for a guided day, but due to the weather and snowpack, it wasn’t in the cards. On Day 4 we stopped in at Backcountry Ski Japan in Furano to inquire about tours. Unfortunately, they weren’t running any tours due to the incoming weather of wind, fog and the questionable snowpack. Two people in the group decided to sleep in and take it easy. The other three of us ventured out for another day at Furano. The snow was great at the top of the Kitanomine Zone, so we lapped the small double several times, rode the tram once and stopped for lunch at the top of the tram. Once making it back down to the base we met up with our other friends and decided to head to the Tokachi Fukiage Onsen.



    A 45-minute, adventurous drive away (Everest-sized frost heaves made the drive quite interesting) the public onsen is an open-air, natural hot spring on Tokachidake, just a short 3-minute walk down a narrow path surrounded by trees. The views were stunning, the difference in the snow pack between there and Furano was unbelievable and had me longing for more days in Furano to explore this beautiful area.



    On our way back to into Furano we stopped at a curry restaurant, Yuiga Doxon, for dinner. Even though the tables seemed to made for children (i.e. tiny), and the place looked like it could fall down at any moment…the food was amazing, and the atmosphere was hard to beat. Their beef dorion was one of my favorite dishes of the trip.

    Day 6 – Jan. 31st – Culture Day

    It was time to pack up and head to Niseko. We decided to take this as a “culture day” and explore a bit of Otaru along the way. Otaru is a port city on the northwest border of Sapporo. We wandered around the canal for a bit, watched the massive waves crash into the break wall, found a brewery to escape the cold wind for a bit, and grabbed some food at a BBQ place. BBQ in Japan is not your Mama’s Texas BBQ. You have a charcoal grill built into the middle of the table, and the kitchen serves you up various meats and seafoods that you cook up yourself. While the meal was delicious, there were definitely a few “stretch-your-comfort-zone” type of items.
    Last stop before Niseko was the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it in time for their last tour which was at 3:30PM. But we did make it with enough time to browse a few exhibits in their main tasting area and sample three of their offerings. Yoichi Single Malt, similar in taste to a classic Scottish whisky. Nikka Super, a smooth blended whisky that has been around since 1962. Last one was an Apple Wine. This was a bit too sweet after the robust flavors of the whiskies, but I could see this being refreshing on a hot summer day served on ice.





    Arriving in Niseko, with no immediate dinner plans, we immediately started calling around to find reservations. We decided on a pizza place called Del Sole, not far from our accommodation. Italian style, wood-fired pizza, and on my list. How can you go wrong? It lived up to the 4.5-star Google reviews. Somehow five of us devoured 4 pizzas within minutes, then ordered a 5th.

    Day 7 – Feb. 1st – Annupuri

    Our two friends joined us late the night before, so we decided to take it easy as they adjusted to JST (Japan Standard Time). We were walking distance from one of the Niseko United areas, Annupuri. This area known to be less busy, and less westernized than many of the other Niseko areas. Unfortunately, it also faces south. With the low snow year Japan is experiencing, and the warm spell we were just exiting, south facing slopes are not the best place to be. The first few runs were hit hard with the sun…variable was our term for the day…Hensū. We decided to try a couple gates (backcountry access points) with hopes that they weren’t as sun soaked as the pistes. Third try was the charm, we found the goods (or at least the not-bads). While the bottom of the resort experienced sun and some r**n earlier in the week, higher elevations produced colder temperatures that brought snow. Gate 1 led us into some open trees, fresh snow, and a fun run out in a riverbed. We went until our stomachs were growling and our goods were completely tracked.



    That evening we decided to lay low and have dinner at our accommodation, the Country Inn Milky House. This place was great. The hospitality was amazing, food was excellent, and it had a quaint, cozy, comfortable feel to it.

    Day 8 – Feb. 2nd – Shiribetsu

    Since receiving the bad news that our Shimamaki cat trip was cancelled back on the 27th, we opted for Plan B and booked other guided days with the tour operator, Hokkaido Backcountry Club. They were gracious enough to offer us either a full refund or we could book other tours for a discounted rate. Five of us decided to splurge and book a day with their helicopter (because…who doesn’t love a whirly bird…). HBC picked us up in the morning and drove us out to their hanger near Rusutsu. My hopes were high, but I had my doubts that the weather would cooperate. It was snowing. This was really toying with my emotions. On one hand, I wanted the Japow we came for; on the other, I wanted to fly.

    We got to the hanger, listened to details of the day, had a safety briefing, short beacon practice, and got put on “standby”. We would wait for the clouds to clear. Luckily you could see the mountain we were flying to, so we didn’t have to keep asking our guide “can we go yet?”. 10:00AM rolled around and it was go time. The summit was clear.



    Shiribetsu-dake is a volcano just north of Rusutsu resort, connected to the west side of the resort by a ridgeline. We rode on the northeast side of the mountain, where ridgelines create valleys that flow down the mountain. We stayed high on these ridges to avoid heavy avalanche terrain, the snow was great. We had the perfect combination of clear skies to fly, yet it snowed all day.

    We got two runs in before lunch. Took a break at a unique wood-fired pizza restaurant, called Forest Owl, near the base of the mountain (yeah…pizza twice in Japan…never would have guessed that one). After filling our bellies, we got another break in the clouds…once again, it was go time.

    Three more runs, each one more blissful than the last, completed our day. Back to the hanger for Sapporos before making the trek back to Niseko.



    Day 9 – Feb. 3rd Konbudake

    We booked a lift-assisted backcountry guided day with Hokkaido Backcountry Club as part of our Plan B. HBC decides where you’ll go, based on snow conditions and who got the best snow the night before. They recommended touring gear in order to get the most out of the day. Not wanting to miss out on any of the goods (it was still snowing), we drove out to Hirafu Niseko and rented splitboards from Rhythm Summit.

    Our guides decided on a full backcountry day, with a snowmobile bump (pull) to get us into the terrain. We drove out to the trailhead of Konbudake, geared up into “downhill mode” and got a long tow to the base of the mountain. We then switched into “uphill mode” and started skinning. After about 1.5 hours, we reached a huge opening on a ridgeline and transitioned back into “downhill mode”.

    It was dumping by this point. With who knows how much new snow already on the ground. A foot? Maybe 2? This was what we came to Japan for. The snow was deeper by the time we skinned up to our second run, inhaling snow with every turn you make…amazing. We had to cut our third run a bit short due to time, yet again, the snow was even deeper than the run before. Exhausted and exhilarated we made the final stretch back to the van (complete with snowmobile bumps when the terrain flattened). What a day.



    Dinner was at a little “treehouse” style tapas restaurant, Karabina, walking distance from our accommodation. Good food, great atmosphere, and the fried chicken was something to write home about.

    Day 10 – Feb. 4th – Annupuri to Rusutsu

    Last day in Niseko. We had a nice morning at Annupuri, but by mid-morning lifts started shutting down due to wind (and a few never even opened at the top). We went back to our trusty Gate 1 that was fruitful a few days prior. New snow added from the past couple days, the Gate proved to be as trusty as we remembered it. Once the gondola closed, we decided it was time to eat some lunch, and move on to Rusutsu.

    Piling seven people into Zō plus all our gear, was an exercise in creativity. These vans were not made for people over 6‘ tall (which we had three), and in reality, I don’t think they were made for people over 5’ either.

    Arriving in Rusutsu, we found our AirBnB with ease, and let ourselves in. We were a short walk into Rusutsu town, and a 5-minute drive to the resort. After settling in and relaxing for a few, we strolled down the street to a little Japanese restaurant, that was recommended by our AirBnB host, ドライブインみゆき. Google Translate translated it as “Miyuki Drive-in” (it was not a drive-in). The waitress didn’t speak any English, but luckily there was an English menu (albeit, very loosely translated). I ordered “Chicken, Egg, Rice Bowl”. It was delicious. This was about as authentic as you get; while leaving we were making plans to visit again.

    Day 11 – Feb. 5th – Rusutsu

    Oh My. What. A. Mountain. It had snowed consistently over the previous 4 days, anywhere from a dusting to a foot, with even more at higher elevations. We started at the main base at East Mountain but quickly moved over to Isola. Mt. Isola is basically made up of two valleys you can ski, with trails lining the ridge lines. As long as you stay in between the trails, you’ll end up at the lift. This was really nice with our group of seven. It allowed us to naturally break into smaller groups and all end up in the same place. We lapped one valley, then moved to next, and lastly made our way back to East at the end of the day.





    We finished off our night at the Pirateman restaurant for dinner. They served sharable plates, where we feasted on salmon sashimi, potato gratin and gyoza.

    Day 12 – Feb. 6th – Kiroro

    About an hour and a half from Rusutsu, Kiroro had the reputation for having the deepest base for Hokkaido resorts (this year) and was regularly receiving the most snow. First impression was that this resort was more modern and westernized than most of the other places we had visited thus far. Yet, it still held a certain charming atmosphere. First run, we headed up the Asari Peak and into the trees to enjoy some of the bottomless snow we were longing for. The turns were great…until they weren’t. We flatted out in a valley and spent the next 30-40 minutes boot packing out. Ugh. After regrouping at the bottom, we decided to head over to the other peak, Nagamine, which we heard had some steeper terrain. We found some fun runs, trees to play in, and fresh snow everywhere.



    Overall, the runs were short when sticking to the top section of the mountain. But there was too much snow for the lower half, which got pretty flat. Kiroro is known for it’s off-piste (at least from what I’ve heard). I can see the potential in this place if you have skins and the freedom to roam. All in all, it was great to experience the resort, explore more, and witness the epic amounts of snow that normally fill more of Hokkaido.



    Day 13 – Feb. 7th – Rusutsu to Sapporo

    Before departing for Sapporo, we wanted to get a bit more time in with the mountain. It had continued snowing, and the resort was reporting another 15cm. We purchased 4-hour tickets and followed a similar plan to two days before. Once again, we lapped the trees on Isola. They filled in nicely, even compared to a few days prior. It was a real playground, you could bounce off everything and not be afraid of the landing. It was soft, fluffy amazingness. What a fun way to close out our time in Rusutsu.

    With some sadness we said goodbye to Rusutsu and headed north to Sapporo for our last night.

    We found our AirBnB with minimal ease, but eventually circled the block enough times, tried enough entry key pads, and found the right one. It was a little apartment south of Odori Park, where the Annual Snow Festival was being held. After settling in, we ventured out for some dinner, explore the city and check out the Snow Festival.

    We had our hearts set on sushi for the last night. After numerous attempts calling for reservations, many places didn’t take them, or they were full. After wandering around, we found a small sushi restaurant, 鮨龍. Google Translate translates this to “Sushi Dragon”. This was an omakase sushi restaurant, which translates to “leave it to you” (meaning leave it to the chef).. The chef’s selections ranged from tuna to sea urchin. I made a point to eat everything, even the things that terrified me. Just like the Grinch’s heart, by comfort zone grew three sizes that day.

    The Snow Festival was impressive. Everything from the large sculptures with light shows, to the “amateur” sculptures with smaller, still impressive, statues of snow. We stopped in at the North Island Brewery for a nightcap prior to heading back to the apartment.


    Day 14 – Feb. 8th – Head Home
     
    #1 tugboat, Feb 18, 2020
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2020
    MB3, Kimski, Froff Life and 10 others like this.
  2. blowfin

    blowfin One of Us Ski Pass: Silver

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    Your image links are broken, it's best to upload upload them rather than link to an online source.
     
  3. tugboat

    tugboat Hard Yards

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    Thanks @blowfin. They were showing up correctly for me. I think they should be fixed now...
     
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  4. Lucky Pete

    Lucky Pete One of Us

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    Great TR, thanks for posting.
     
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  5. Froff Life

    Froff Life A Local Ski Pass: Gold

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    Fantastic TR! Sounds like you made the most of some variable conditions and still found the famous Japow :)
     
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