Hokkaido Heaven | How a “Bad” Winter Proves It’s The Best Place On Earth To Go Skiing

Despite lower than average snow depth, our Hokkaido ski trip was still one for the ages

The grimace says it all. It’s the kind of face I imagine doctors pull right before they tell you your leg is irretrievably infected and they’re going to have to amputate. This might sound like an overreaction but after flying all the way from London to Hokkaido, via a connection in Helsinki, the thought that maybe we’ve travelled this far for nothing is a tough one to take.

“Snow, not good. Snow, very bad,” our guide tells us, on the coach from New Chitose Airport near Sapporo, “It’s normally much, much, higher.” 

“The kind of face I imagine doctors pull right before they tell you your leg is irretrievably infected and they’re going to have to amputate”

We all try to palm it off, and stay stoked on the fact we’re literally in Japan and that literally being in Japan is an undeniably cool thing. But as we roll on up to Rusutsu, our first destination of the trip, there’s no denying the sense that some of the pre-trip buzz has been deflated somewhat. It’s still there but it’s now splashing about in a ramen bowl of lurking disappointment; trying desperately to stay afloat on nothing but desperate, desperate, hope. 

If all this is coming across like a childish, spoilt-brat type, response to being lucky enough to be invited to visit Japan’s most northerly island I’ll try to defend myself by saying that for skiers and snowboarders today legendary tales of Japanese powder (aka “Japow”) are part and parcel of winter sports’ mythology; as awesomely real, and yet simultaneously unreachable, as the dragons and knights that made up the nursery rhymes of your childhood. 

Pictured: Mt Yotei from Mt Isola. Photo: Jack Clayton

We’ve all seen the footage of riders weaving between trees on social media, putting down envy-inducing lines in up-to-the-neck fresh stuff, but our distance from it in the UK has always given the deep snow of Japan an almost El Dorado-esque quality. It’s out there, we can feel it in our gut, but will our paths ever lead us there? Lead us to the promised land? To put it another way, shredding in Japan is kind of a big deal.

We needn’t have worried. Although, the depth of snow on offer was by Japanese standards definitely on the low side – by European standards it was, at times, properly froth-inducing. The fact it snowed twice in three days during our visits to Rusutsu and Niseko says a lot about what constitutes a “bad winter” in these parts.

With its abandoned in winter, snow-covered, theme park and incredibly large, incredibly surreal, mega-hotel (Rusutsu Resort Hotel), home to animatronic bears and a massive great big carousel in reception no less, Rusutsu gives off a distinctly Scooby Doo vibe. The jet lag, of course, doesn’t help but at times while walking lost down its seemingly endless labyrinth of corridors I do have odd moments where I feel like I’m losing my mind. It’s all a bit like The Shining albeit it in a fun, enjoyable, sort of way as opposed to a terrifying, chased by axe murderer, sort of way.

Pictured: Piste and quiet in Rusutsu. Photo: Jack Clayton

Dazed and confused with jet lag, like I’ve just gone nine rounds with Taiho (winner of 45 consecutive matches in the late sixties and widely considered the greatest sumo wrestler of all time) we arrive late afternoon in Rusutsu, dump our bags in our room, get changed and immediately head out for some evening skiing. There’s a great night skiing area in these parts and, driven on by nothing but the addictive feeling of being in Japan and the adrenaline rush of putting some turns in under floodlights so far from home, we go on until way after dark. By the time we’re done, our extremities are cold; really cold.

“Maybe I died in the night. Maybe I’m literally dead. Maybe this is Heaven”

The next day, as well as finding time to sample some cheeky tree runs (“when in Rome,” and all that), we also give a bit of time over to trying out the pistes. They are, for the most part, very quiet and very nice to ride. Despite Rusutsu’s modest top elevation of 994m the quality of its snow, and the snow of Hokkaido in general, is out of the world good. That’s down to its proximity to Russia, and the fact its essentially on a Siberian wind frontline. Due to this constant source of cold coming in, even a bit of snow here stays dry and powdery for far longer; resulting in slopes that feel magic underfoot.

Next up, Niseko; Hokkaido’s largest and most famous ski resort. Arriving in the late afternoon, it’s another case of deja vu as we quickly check into our hotel – the supremely luxurious Park Hyatt Niseko – before heading out to sample the area’s night ski offerings.

Pictured: Hanazono Powder Guide. Photo: Jack Clayton

The biggest night-skiing area in Japan, throughout the main season here you can ski everyday on numerous floodlit slopes between Hirafu Gondola mountain station and Hirafu Village. It’s another epic evening for our crew, one that will live long in the memory (top tip on the après skiing front here – check out Bar Gyu+, a cool little speakeasy that you enter through a tiny fridge door).

The following morning we meet up with Hanazono Powder Guides and experience their exclusive “First Tracks” service. The service allows you access to the Hanazono lifts one whole hour before the public, giving you the opportunity to indulge in some of the freshest, best, and most peaceful laps of your life. The slopes are immaculate and, for a moment, I’m struck by a “Shit. Maybe I died in the night. Maybe I’m literally dead. Maybe this is Heaven” feeling.

If, by the way, you’ve ever fancied riding the iconic ‘Strawberry Fields’ (supposedly named in honour of a local snowboarder who would always sing The Beatles’ classic anthem) then this is the place to do it.

Pictured: Solo chairlifts in Niseko. Photo: Jack Clayton

After savouring every last second of our time shredding on and off-piste in Japan, even getting a giddy rush from simple things like katsu curry being served in the restaurants and the unusual gondola and chairlift setups, we reluctantly do our last run of the day and head on over to Japan’s fifth largest city – Sapporo.

A bit like a colder, smaller, Tokyo – Sapporo (Hokkaido’s biggest city) is a whole lot of fun. Home to the legendary Sapporo Snow Festival, which is getting set up during our visit and attracts two million people to the city every year, it’s a place ideal for anyone who wants to combine Japanese city and Japanese culture with a Niseko powder mission just under two hours drive away.

“The survivors head to a karaoke booth and sing until their lungs give out”

After an all you can drink experience at the Sapporo Beer Garden (‘Sapporo Classic’ is delicious and only available in Hokkaido), the survivors head to a karaoke booth and sing until their lungs give out. This writer’s not one for bragging but my rendition of ‘Dancing In The Dark’ is a real thing of beauty.

On the plane home, as my sleep-deprived head drifts in and out of consciousness, I convince myself that we sang ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ the previous night. We didn’t, of course, but it wouldn’t have been a bad choice of song – all things considered.

Pictured: View of Sapporo. Photo: Jack Clayton
Pictured: Sapporo Beer Garden. Photo: Jack Clayton

Do It Yourself

Finnair launched direct flights from London Heathrow and Manchester, via Helsinki to Sapporo on 15 December 2019. Sapporo is now the fifth Japanese destination served by Finnair and is the only European airline to fly there.

This new direct route saves UK skiers and snowboarders at least two hours of travel time compared to other carriers.

The twice-weekly flight from Helsinki departs on Thursdays and Sundays arriving straight into Sapporo at 9 am on Fridays and Mondays. Helsinki’s smoothly efficient Vantaa Airport provides quick and easy connections between flights.

Return fares with Finnair from London Heathrow, via Helsinki to Sapporo start from £760 in Economy Class and £2,815 in Business Class including taxes and charges.

During our trip we stayed at the Rusutsu Resort Hotel, the Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono, and the Sapporo Prince Hotel.

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