With a whoosh of compressed air, the doors of the Whiteliner bus open and we step out into a crisp, bright day at Niseko’s Welcome Centre and it feels like home. It’s a rare bluebird day with clear views of Yotei and the ski runs beckon. Tess and I have a pretty loose plan whilst snow chasing in Hokkaido. We’ve got a little over a week to do some riding and normally I’d just hang about Niseko, but Tess is motivated to explore and I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of Hokkaido, so we’ve chopped our time up to about three days in Niseko, two days in Rusutsu and a day or two at Sapporo Tiene, or that is the rough plan at least.
Wasting no time, we grab a 5-hour pass and head over to Hano to check in with Justin, who is supervisor back at Buller and hasn’t seen Teresa for years. Fortunately for us, he’s also the supervisor at Hanazono and we’re able to catch up with him and Andrea throughout the trip. Because it’s Chinese New Year and busy he’s asked us for a favour and put us on call in return for lift tickets and we’re more than happy to oblige. I would have loved to teach a day in another country but it didn’t up eventuating, such is the efficiency of Hano snowboard school.
Over the first few days in Niseko there was quite a bit of snow and we just purchased Hirafu / Hanozono tickets (as opposed to all mountain) in order to save some money. Teresa’s constant whooping at every powder turn could turn a smile on the most hardened of faces.
We also head out the Hanozono gates after making sure our gear was up and running with the new beacon checkers. A lap takes about 90 minutes to two hours depending on pace and where you’re going, we dropped in a little too early and had to hike up a road then we went a little too deep and had to hike through a meadow to the main cat track so we took the full two hours, but after much cursing and catching our breath I think we both agreed that it was worth it.
(Travel Tip: If you’re in Niseko for an extended period of time and do mostly back-country, there is a type of lift pass where you buy a bunch of hours and only get charged per hour or part thereof when you use the lift. So if you use the lifts once in the morning to get out the gates and don’t come back for three hours, you only get charged an hour’s use)
From Niseko we travel about an hour by bus to Rusutsu and it’s a somewhat steeper resort (read: less cat tracks and flat gullies for me to get stuck in, although I still manage to have to hike out of parts of it). Famed for having the best tree-skiing in the region, Rusutsu is also much quieter than Niseko and a lot less people ski off piste, so even though it hadn’t snowed in couple of day we were still finding good fresh snow the whole two days we were there, you just have get off the beaten track and push through the trees, just try not to hit one.
(Travel tip: While the snow is good there isn’t much else to do in Rusutsu and it’s probably better to just based yourself out of Niseko and do the Rusutsu day trip bus for Y$7000 including ticket; departs 8:30am, returns 4:30pm)
After a couple of days with no snow the mountain is starting to get tracked out and on top of that the forward forecast is for a shit-ton of rain throughout the region. At this point we decide to torpedo the original plan and extend our stay in Hokkaido and sacrifice Tokyo / Kyoto days.
The forecast after the rain is for a lot of snow in Furano, which is a five hour trip by bus from Niseko via Chitose and the next day we’re on the bus. When we get to rainy Furano the forecast is for snow at nearby Asahidake. We try to rent a car but unfortunately Japan needs an international driver’s license, which I have conveniently left at home. It turns out to be a blessing in disguise as the freezing level rises through the day and the snow becomes rain.
So we head back to our hostel and again we make new friends, Jodie and Steve. Together we see out the rain with beers and random food hunting, and by the evening the snow starts up again, keep the faith!
It’s snowed all through the night and into the next day but it’s an extreme pow-on-crust environment and we only do a couple of runs before calling it. It’s better after another day and some snow and by day three it’s still snowing and everyone has their stoke back on.
Furano snow is even lighter than Niseko snow, so even though there’s been a bit less snow it’s face-shot central!
Of course the snow is going bonkers back at Niseko and word reaches us that it’s the biggest snowfall day of the year so far and we’re back by early evening to see out the last couple of days riding the pow. First tracks gets us properly deep stuff and some of the trip’s best turns, even occasional white room conditions. Due to the shitty rain earlier the back country gates at both Hanozono and Annapuri are closed for the couple of days that we’re there (there’s even been an avalanche in Gate 11 but it’s open), but there’s plenty in-resort and it’s a great way to end the last couple of days riding.
Unfortunately that’s it for our stay in Hokkaido, next up…one day in Tokyo!
(Travel Tip: bussing across Hokkaido between Niseko and Furano is probably a waste of time and it’s better to choose one place or the other. Definitely don’t do it two or three times in a week either)