Written by Owain Price
Hokkaido is set for an amazing winter after massive November snowfalls. Sapporo reported the most November snow downtown since 1987, while major resorts like Niseko, Rusutsu and Furano are all off to flying starts, to the delight of locals.
“I have been around Niseko for a long time now” says Dale Goulding, from Deep Powder Tours, who has been sending people skiing to Japan for 25 years. “The snow we experienced in November is absolutely insane! It has snowed heavily on and off for two weeks now, and the cumulative snowfall to date is over 2 metres. My tip is we are going to experience a bumper winter in Japan, one of the best.”
So why not plan your trip to discover more of Hokkaido beyond the big international ski areas? From the cities to smaller, less known ski resorts, to the wilderness, to the indigenous Ainu culture, there is plenty on offer. Sure, have a week or more at your favourite large resorts, but leave at least a few days spare to expand your Hokkaido horizons.
Sapporo is a great starting point. Did you know the Susukino District there is Japan’s largest entertainment district north of Tokyo? It’s packed with great restaurants, bars, karaoke spots and stores. We even found a salsa bar! Sapporo is a friendly city, compact enough to walk around. Just watch out for the icy footpaths.
Of course the Sapporo Snow Festival is the must do experience in February, when a 1.5km long strip of Odori Park is lined with incredible ice sculptures. Fun activities include giant snow slides and ice skating. Local delicacies are on offer at the Hokkaido Food Square. The Tsudome site with slides runs from February 1-12, and the Odori and Susukino sights with the sculptures and their contest from February 5-12 in 2018. But there is plenty of activity all winter, including beautiful illuminations. These can be viewed from the Sapporo TV Tower, using free lift access to the 3rd level restaurant area there.
There is no need to miss out on great skiing while staying in the city either. The powder-laden slopes of Kokusai and Teine Highlands are an easy bus ride away. Kokusai is tucked away up a valley, an hour from downtown. Teine has magnificent views over the city and harbour, only 40 minutes from downtown. Both areas offer great discount day packages including lift passes and return transport with pick-ups from main hotels. These are best booked in advance.
For a change of pace try the Takino Suzuran Park. Peaceful cross-country ski trails run through the forest to a frozen waterfall. You can rent all the necessary XC ski gear on site from the little warming hut and hire run by the local Nordic ski club. One of their friendly members, a fit octogenarian, showed me the way.
Or visit the Ice Star Hotel winter activity complex, with activities like snow-shoeing and snow-mobiles, and a cocktail bar made from ice.
To relax, Jozankei Onsen is one of the most popular hot spring districts in Hokkaido, in a forest less than an hour south of Sapporo. Locals love to incorporate an onsen experience in a day trip, whether a full onsen with spa treatments or a simpler foot spa.
For more info on Sapporo check www.sapporo.travel
Hokkaido’s second city, Asahikawa, in the centre of the island, is large enough to provide plenty of big city amenities but small enough to be quiet and easy to navigate. It’s an almost instant gateway to magnificent Central Hokkaido skiing. The towering peaks of the island’s highest ranges in the Daisetsuzan National Park gleam white behind the city.
Kamui Ski Links is the closest of several central Hokkaido resorts that offer great snow and less people. Kamui’s founder, Maeda Mitsu, was a true pioneer of powder skiing in Japan. He originally set the resort up 37 years ago with 80% powder and 20% groomed courses. Tree skiing was allowed from day one, because he loved it. It’s just 20 minutes from Asahikawa, and usually uncrowded midweek.
Asahidake, Hokkaido’s highest mountain, is an active volcano that reaches 2,291m to provide fantastic snow, views and a wilderness ski experience just over an hour from Asahikawa. There is one ropeway, which accesses a choice of two groomed courses for the cruising skier and a wealth of powder opportunities for the more gung-ho.
In good conditions, with a guide and if properly equipped for back and side-country riding, you can hike higher past steaming fumaroles to the peak. That accesses extensive wild terrain. If it’s snowing and socked-in, stay in the tree runs off the ropeway.
Asahikawa offers a huge variety of accommodation for all budgets, with shuttles to Kamui and buses to Asahidake.
For Asahidake it’s better to stay in the hotels lining the road for first shot at the often ridiculously deep snow there. Day trippers from Furano, only 90 minutes away, can make the ropeway busy.
Asahikawa’s non-ski attractions include Japan’s most popular zoo, Asahiyama. Enclosures are designed for the animals’ comfort, as well as ease of viewing. Those polar opposites, penguins and polar bears, can both be viewed here. It’s great for families, and exceptional value; adults only pay JPY 800 and kids are free.
The Asahikawa Winter Festival is second only to Sapporo’s, and very easy to enjoy. A highlight is the International Ice Sculpture competition in the second week of February, when competitors are given just 36 hours to make their creations.
For something hands-on head to the Arashiyama Pottery Village, a bohemian enclave of committed crafts people, where you can learn to throw a pot or try other crafts. It’s only a 20 minute taxi ride from downtown.
While you can fairly easily access the central Hokkaido ski areas with public transport, this is the perfect place to try self-driving in Japan. Roads are good, generally uncrowded, and distances are relatively short.
Asahikawa Airport is also a quieter alternative to New Chitose, and great for fast access to areas like Furano.
For more on Asahikawa check www.asahikawa-tourism.com
Hokkaido is the heartland of the indigenous Ainu Culture. It’s easy to visit the Ainu Museum known as Poroto Kotan (lakeside village in Ainu), just a 30 minute express train south of New Chitose Airport to Shiroai. Flight schedules often leave plenty of time on your last day, so just go to the airport a few hours early, check the bags in, and then head to Poroto Kotan. See how well adapted the Ainu were to survive the harsh winters, including hunting bears with the help of their powerful Hokkaido dogs. Traditional song and dance performances are held hourly, as well as handicrafts demonstrations. There’s a great range of artefact exhibits.
It’s set up as a village to stroll around and see the different size houses and buildings. Try traditional Ainu cuisine at the cafe on site. All up a lot more fun than hanging around airport shops, and another excellent family experience. Download their info leaflet with getting there details here.
For more Hokkaido tourism information visit http://en.visit-hokkaido.jp
*Owain Price has skied over 100 different areas in Japan over the past 15 years as Managing Editor of Snow Action Magazine. For lots more in-depth features see http://snowaction.com.au/category/snow-travel/japan/