2015-2016 Hokkaido Ski Season: Days 3-7 (Back in the swing of all things snow)

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Skilas’ snow covered car after another classic ski day

The superb powder snow is back in Hokkaido!!  The start of the season also invariably brings its frustrating ups and downs: some absolutely amazing pow days mixed in with disappointing warm temperatures and wetto conditions – as the cold Siberian airmass fights with the remnants of the mild weather for control over the land of the falling snow.  But it won’t be long until the Hokkaido Winter kicks in properly!

 

Ski Day 3: Kiroro
1st December 2015
New snow : 15cms

It’s always a special feeling to be back in Kiroro – especially on a very snowy day!  The lady at the reception desk looked at me perplexedly as I picked up my season pass; my fixed vacant grin may have had something to do with that.  Indeed my mind was already deep in the Hokkaido powder, with adrenaline-filled memories flowing back from seasons past in this incredible place…  Adding fuel to my dreamy state, it had snowed a healthy 15cms overnight and it was still snowing out there – it was looking like a superbly tasty day ahead!

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Kiroro has a new logo and ambitious plans

But first let’s talk about the exciting developments happening this season at Kiroro.  Things are changing in Kiroro on many levels, both on and off the snow.  They have undergone a large rebranding program over the summer.  Out with the old simplistic “KIRORO” logo, a new mountain logo with accompanying tagline has arrived: “Five star by nature”.  The two resort hotels have been taken over by Starwood Resorts & Hotels, so there is now a Sheraton and a Tribute Portfolio Hotel.  All very posh.  As is the new reception area, fully refurbished with electronic screens, a stylish cafe and a better use of the space (less clutter, better customer flow through ticket purchase and rental areas, etc).

The Kiroro ski pass has gone contactless (finally following Niseko and Rusutsu into the 21st ski century).  No more do you have to flash your ski pass at the lift attendant; instead all lifts now have nice new electronic gates that open for you if you have a valid pass in your left pocket.  They even have a name for the new pass: the Kiroca.  No doubt there will be a few teething problems with the system at first (as is always the case with these new contactless ecosystems), but it will ultimately make the Kiroro experience that extra bit more comfortable.

The biggest and most interesting development for us powderhounds is the new backcountry access.  Up to now the Kiroro backcountry was officially off-limits, although the ski patrol would often turn a blind eye to those wishing to head out of resort bounds.  This was seen very much as a grey area, with powder hunters not really knowing where they stood when heading away from the groomers.  From this season all this should be cleared up: backcountry access will be officially available to all those wishing to hit their favourite sweet powder spots – but only under certain conditions:

  • Access to the backcountry may only be done from one of the three ‘Ski Area Exit Points’ (no ducking under ropes!)
  • Backcountry riders must register their route, participants’ names and estimated return time in Kiroro before setting out (this information will be given to the local police)
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Kiroro Backcountry access is officially allowed – under certain conditions

To control these new rules, Kiroro has employed an additional 15 English speaking ski patrollers this season and will operate a ‘strike’ system (anyone getting caught breaking the rules will have their pass confiscated after a certain number of strikes).  These measures should help control the backcountry much better, reduce the risk of incidents and also (more importantly for the powder lovers) limit the number of tracks in the best secret stashes.  Let’s see how this system works out this season; stay tuned for an update in a few weeks!

In addition to the exciting backcountry access, the Kiroro Mountain Club is being set-up.  Members (for an annual fee of ¥8,000) will have a range of benefits, including exclusive access to various inbound areas on certain mornings until 11am (e.g. PowderZone Centre Peak Entrance every day, Asari-2 course on Tuesdays…), early backcountry access registration (8am for members, 9am for non-members), free seminars, rental discounts…

Another huge development is the building of a brand new lift and beginner ski area.  The lift will be a combi lift (half-gondola and half-charilift, the first of its kind in Japan) and will link the two hotels together; the beginner area will be behind the Kiroro Tribute Hotel.  Building is planned to start next summer in view of an opening date in Winter 2017-2018…  Wow!!  Things are really happening in Kiroro!!

Today’s skiing itself was very pleasant indeed.  Although I stuck to the pistes (not enough snowfall to properly fill in the trees yet) I found some delicious shin-deep powder on the empty slopes.  And great quality too: really fluffily smooth and easy to glide through – proper Hokkaido produce!  It was truly surreal to be back in the deep stuff, bouncing away like a very happy bunny.  A taste of things to come: once the snow seriously kicks in in a few days time, this will be Skilas’ daily experience – woohoo!!

 

Day 4: Sapporo Kokusai
5th December 2015
New snow: 30cms + 15cms

Big snow has arrived!!  The HSM has been activated!!  Winter has violently slammed into Hokkaido, bringing delectable goods to these enchanted mountains.

Today was a teaching day.  I took Jonski and family to Sapporo Kokusai and taught the kids how to ski.  I had to be extremely patient (something excruciatingly hard to do for a powderhound when there is deep snow all around).  Going down the green run snaking under the chairlift took us 1.5 hours!  But seeing Roman and Julius’ smiles of accomplishment as they got down their first piste was pretty heartwarming.  Sharing my passion with the next generation of powderhounds was an enlightening experience.

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Skilas stating the obvious?

The powder to the side of the piste was delightfully deep and smooth, and it dumped hard all day.  There was time for a couple of gondola runs without the kids, which brought some shrieks of delight from the adult Skilas posse.  Truly pectacular conditions!!!!  No backcountry access yet, but it can’t be far off now…

Day 5: Sapporo Teine
7th December 2015
New snow: 10cms

My first foray into the Teine gullies!  There was a good deal of fresh powder available, reaching knee deep in places – superb!!  But some areas were still in need of more snow, and I had to be cautious not to hit any nasty tree roots or exposed rocks.  My first traverse into the gullies (I was being lazy so didn’t want to hike through the Teine gate up to the disused cable-car station) was treacherous as I had to painstakingly make my way through thick bushes and avoid getting my skis tangled up in the branches…   I should have known better, there was definitely not enough snow yet!  But the second traverse was easier, and the run down through the untouched powder wonderland was simply awesome!

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Beware not to get bamboozled!

 

Day 6: Sapporo Teine
9th December 2015
No new snow

Today was the first time this season that I went skiing with no fresh snow overnight. I mustn’t grumble though: I got sunshine all day, empty slopes, and some lovely powder all to myself.

I popped into the classic Teine gullies for a quick check of conditions. The bushes and bamboo shoots are rapidly losing their fight against the fierce onslaught of the dumping pow.  Still quite a few around – which makes for some challenging occasional-but-sudden obstruction avoidance manoeuvres – but another couple of Siberian storms should put an end to their sterling resistance.

I have definitely seen better powder in the gullies, but this was still wonderful skiing. Pockets of untouched shin-deep freshness being destroyed by Skilas! Gully #3 was particularly tasty. And in the sunshine as well!!

The corduroy was absolutely fabulous today, gleaming in the sunshine and perfectly poised between hard and soft: not slushy to slow you down, and not icy to make you slide erratically around. My Rave 182’s were revelling in these idyllic piste conditions with great edge hold, as if I were hurtling down the mountain on smoothly curved train tracks. They have opened the red City View piste for the first time this season, offering (you guessed it) amazing city views as I powered down the slope.

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A bluebird day in Teine brings with it incredible views of Sapporo and the Sea of Japan

Two new developments in Teine this season, which finally are bringing this resort gently into the 21st ski Century:
1. The introduction of electronic gates for contactless ski passes, in line with their partner resort Rusutsu.  No more pink armbands needed to show your pass!
2. Free wifi (finally!).  You can now browse the internet on your lunch break and post your best powder pics to your jealous friends on Facebook!

 

Day 7: Rusutsu
12th December 2015
No new snow

The start of the season is always so frustrating!  Just when you think that the HSM (Hokkaido Snow Machine) has kicked in properly with some impressive deep-and-dry powder dumps, warm temperatures return to bring a horrendous festival of pouring rain.  The result keeps powderhounds firmly at home, praying for the freezing winter conditions to set in for good…

After 2 days of grim rain the sun made an appearance, and I decided to venture out to Rusutsu with my son to check out the mountain.  Not a whiff of powder could be found; instead it was to be a European-esque piste ski day.  Great conditions to perfect our carving technique and to get some serious speed down the beautifully groomed runs whilst admiring the gracefully imposing Mt Youtei volcano (our first glimpse of the snowy beast this season!)

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Mt Youtei (left, in the distance) popping out through the clouds

But the great news if that the forecast looks very encouraging!!  From Tuesday next week, a large storm is set to blanket Hokkaido with tasty fluffy powder – the proper start of the winter perhaps?!

 

THE WRAP

After some superb early season mega pow, the fluctuating temperatures have made it for a frustrating few days here in Sapporo.  But fear not: the proper winter is just around the corner!  Plummeting temperatures and non-stop snow is on its way this week – bring it on!

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