Thursday 23rd March 2017
Well well well, I wasn’t expecting this! Just as I had started putting my fat skis away and taken out my touring gear (no significant snowfall for a week and rising temperatures had clearly indicated that Spring was on its way) the HSM has decided to come back to life and deliver one last deep powder blast! Another big dump has started on 22 March, with 70cms of the sublime light white stuff falling so far and continuous dumpage expected for the next 24 hours. I’m heading out tomorrow for what could well be the final proper powder day of the season – and it should once again be another absolute corker!
In the meantime I am sat watching the snow thrashing down outside whilst reminiscing about yet another incredible season here in Japan. This magical snowy kingdom has once again been the place to be for all powder lovers.
What were the highlights of the season? Wow, so many!! The epicness of Kiroro and Kokusai, the two snowiest resorts at the epicenter of the HSM (Hokkaido Snow Machine) yet again. Teine had an amazing season with some really impressive snowfall; as Sapporo City got pummeled, nearby Teine became a powder-seeker’s paradise…
Skilas’ 2016-2017 Season Highlights
10 November: Day 1! The wait is finally over: after months of pow withdrawal it was time to get back into the thick of it. May to November are tough months for me as I ‘hibernate’ and try not to get too negatively affected by the powerful pow withdrawal symptoms… Fortunately this year I was able to spring into action very early – this was by far the earliest in the season I have skied. And not the usual average start-of-the-season “dusting off the cobwebs” kind of day either – a proper powder session for Day 1! With 20cms of proper fluffy powder Nakayama Toge ski resort decided to open early – and with this impressive high quality produce this was more like mid-season snow conditions! It just felt sooo good to be back in the fluffy stuff, making delicious turns through the virgin powder. And super quiet too; I must have shared the whole mountain with just 15 or so other crazed enthusiasts – amazing, it was like my very own private winter playground.
24 November: Celebrating my 40th birthday in the Teine powder! Powder followed by onsen, I couldn’t ask for any better way to enter my forties (40 – ouch!).
10 December: The hairiest drive up to resort! With 50cms overnight and another 50cms falling during the morning, the road up to Kiroro was almost impassable. Near-zero visibility, cars abandoned, deep snow on the road etc. No snow-clearing program could have been ready for this dump, there was simply too much snow to cope with. We somehow made it through safely and had lots of crazy fun in the uber-deep!
19 December: My first Asahidake day of the season, the powder-mecca! A powder bluebird, first lift to last lift, fresh tracks all day… Hard to beat!! The feeling of arriving an hour early into the Ropeway car park is hard to describe. You are all alone, at one with the silence of this glorious snowy kingdom. Getting your equipment ready, watching as the clouds lift after the night’s dump to reveal the mountain in its full glory. A very spiritual moment as the blue sky appears and you know this is going to be an epic day. The walk up the stairs to the ski pass booth, then waiting in line for the very first cable car with a handful of psyched up powder comrades. And then… go go go! Pow pow pow! A day of pure ecstatic joy.
25 December: Mega dumpage in Sapporo! The biggest December snowfall in 60 years in the city, meaning road gridlock and airport chaos. Unfortunately some people got caught up in the disruptions, with cancelled flights and backlogs meaning hours spent sitting on the tarmac and nights spent on the airport floor… Not the best of days, but the snow was definitely here and it would prove to be the foundation for a seemingly endless run of powder filled sessions. No pain no gain!
31 December: New Year’s Eve celebrated in deep Kokusai! 30cms of fresh with bluebird conditions, followed by an all-you-can-eat all-you-can-drink BBQ in town to see in 2017!
05-06 January: Back-to-back Kiroro-Kokusai double whammy! Almost 1 metre of snow fell over the 2 days – woohoo!
22 January: Rusutsu nightski session. With an all-day dump hitting Rusutsu, it would be rude not to enjoy the nightski. Our group was totally stoked as we enjoyed the best night turns of the season among the dimly-lit virgin trees. Amazing conditions as every lap provided fresh tracks, louder shrieks of delight, crazier lines, faster turns. We were on fire; this was night ski perfection.
24-25 January: Another double whammy, this time in Teine! Two of the best ever days in Teine with 60cms falling over the course of this epic session. And that was after a 40cms Epic Kokusai day the day before!! Can’t get enough of this!
29 January: Arguably the best bluebird day of the season, celebrating my 50th ski day. Kokusai was so quiet, the snow was perfect, the sun was out, we were most definitely in the zone! And of course in these conditions it would have been rude not to have jumped the avalanche barriers!
11 February: There were plenty of great days with the Sydney Ski crew in Fabulous February, but I had to pick one and this was it. Everyone was up for it in Kokusai on this superbly powdery day!
21-22-24 February: Really loving Kokusai this season! Three day snowfall statistics: 35cms-15cms-50cms; just completely magical! Add to that skiing with crazy Neil (a school friend I last skied with around 30 years ago), who would jump off all sorts of trees and cliffs – surreal fun!
08-09-10 March: After a frustrating week where we got little snowfall (first week of March was the most barren spell of the season), the powder returned with an almighty bang over these three days. Hokkaido just got deeper and deeper, with some of the best turns of the season!
Skilas’ 2016-2017 Season Thoughts & Recommendations
Here are the FIVE main points that I would like to share with you about my latest season in Japan. Hopefully this information will allow to have an even more amazing experience in Japan should you choose this as your next winter sports destination!
- Japan continues to be the Powder Capital of the World!
Japow delivers yet again! Whilst some other parts of the World are struggling with low snowfall (what happened to the snow in Europe?!), Japan has once again enjoyed excellent conditions this season with most resorts reporting average or above-average annual snowfall figures. Sapporo Teine had one of its best seasons in years with some unforgettably epic days. Kiroro and Kokusai got the most snow (as is the norm) and hit their usual impressive snowfall totals. The only exception to that has been South Western Hokkaido resorts such as Niseko and Rusutsu, who have had a disappointing below-par season. Skilas and his guests experienced over 13m of fresh snow! (and even he missed a few epic days: 30cms in Kokusai, 15cm Kiroro, 40cm Kiroro dumps) The amount of snow that falls here blows everyone away, year after year!
So if you want as close to “guaranteed powder snow” as you can get then why not head to Japan next season?
- There is far more to Japow than Niseko
Niseko always grabs the headlines. It is known as THE Japanese resort to go to, one of the snowiest resorts on the planet. And it is good! However there are even better places to visit if you want deep untracked powder and a real Japanese cultural experience.
Niseko continues to get busier, with guests from Australia being increasingly joined by South East Asians and other nationalities. The vibe of this famous resort has clearly changed over the last few years, and testosterone-fuelled aggressive scenes on and off the mountain are sadly becoming more and more common. Fresh tracks are getting very hard to come by here (and almost impossible by mid-morning if you do not want to hike/skin up for the silky goods), so it is best to discover other areas. Don’t get me wrong: the terrain is great in Niseko, the nightlife is vibrant and the snow abundant. If you want to stay in a bustling resort with lots of après-ski and you don’t mind paying over the odds for luxurious ski-in ski-out accommodation, as well as for food and drinks then this could be the place for you. However it has become an international resort and as such is no longer truly “Japow” and in my mind does not offer the amazing experience that you can get in other parts of Hokkaido. Other resorts are even snowier, much quieter and offer unbelievable ski days that will blow your mind!
- Be mobile and flexible to follow the POW
Only a ski safari guarantees powder! However much it dumps on this magical island, the snowfall and weather in Hokkaido is still extremely localized. Whilst one valley is getting dumped on, the next valley may remain (relatively) dry. To get the best conditions on any given day, it is crucial to be mobile and flexible. Whilst you may have to drive some distance to get perfect untracked powder, the benefits this inconvenience brings far outweigh the alternative: picking lines through tracked crud or being stuck on crusty groomers all day.
For those of you used to European style ski holidays where you stay in purpose-built resorts that have their own accommodation, bars and restaurants, you will have to change your mindset if you want to get the most out of Japow. Almost all ski resorts (with the exception of Niseko and Furano) have virtually no après-ski activities. Some resorts offer hotel accommodation but these tend to be fairly pricey. Other resorts completely shut down once the lifts stop spinning; the only option to visit these is by doing day trips.
Another point to note is that Japan resorts are incredibly small. Whilst the Trois Vallees in France offer over 600kms of pistes, the largest in Hokkaido (Niseko) comes in at 55kms. One of my favourite resorts, Sapporo Kokusai, has 11kms (the single black Sarenne run in Alpe d’Huez is far longer than that entire piste system!) The powder mecca that is Asahidake? 6.7kms of piste! Yep – you definitely don’t come to Japan for the miles and miles of perfect corduroy groomers. It’s all about the powder powder powder, the easily accessible sidecountry, the off-piste to the side of the marked runs.
All this means that it is best to visit a variety of ski resorts to enjoy your time in the heavenly Japanese powder to the max. So get some wheels and head to the deepest and best powder snow in the World!
- Hokkaido has incredible off-piste / backcountry for everyone… if you know where to go
There is outstanding powder terrain available for all levels of skiers and boarders here: from L-plate novices, confidence-building intermediates or gnarly cliff-jumping maniacs. However it is not easy to know where to go in these magical Hokkaido mountains as there are many terrain traps, dead ends, no-go areas and so on.
Knowledge is pow(d)er: You need to know where the secret stashes are! However good the conditions are and however good you are, you also need to know how to navigate around the mountain. One bad turn may mean trudging through waist deep powder for the rest of the day to get back to the safety of resort – not recommended!
Are you keen to experience powder skiing for the first time? Or you’ve had a bit of experience in the deep stuff but you don’t have the confidence to explore the sidecountry? Again, Hokkaido is definitely the place for you! You just need to be given a few tips and pointed in the right direction. Want some more challenging terrain, cliff drops, avalanche barriers, jaw-dropping lines? We have that here too! The vertical stats may not be impressive (usually no more than 500m vertical drop on any given run) and the hills are generally mellow here, but there are still plenty of thrills to be found – you just need to know where to get them.
If you want the best possible experience out of your Japow trip then get someone knowledgeable to show you around. It took Skilas several seasons to become a terrain expert in Hokkaido and he is keen to show you around!
- The whole mountain experience is just so much better!
One of the things that has always frustrated me when skiing in Europe is the price and quality of the mountain food. Getting a watery bowl of spaghetti bolognaise for EUR28 is not my idea of a great culinary experience. In Japan, it’s all about great food at fantastic prices. A large steaming bowl of tasty ramen noodles will set you back under JPY1000 (around EUR8). Perfect refueling food for the afternoon session in the deep stuff!
The other gripe I have with European resorts is the sheer number of people that I have to share the mountain with. The number of collisions and near-misses I have witnessed is staggering. In Japan resorts tend to be much quieter (Niseko excepted!), lift lines are rare and often you will feel that you have the whole mountain to yourself.
At the end of an exhilarating day in the snow, the best remedy for your aching muscles is to rest them in an onsen (Japanese hot spring). They are relaxing, a great cultural experience and most important re-energise your body for another day in the pow!
[One thing I do miss about the Alps though is the après-ski. It’s always great to grab a cold beer at the bottom of the hill or a little shot session half way up (I’m thinking Val d’Isere’s Folie Douce, St. Anton’s Moosewirt etc.). Japan doesn’t have that which is a shame. We have to make do with Sapporo’s “all-you-can-drink” offers at dinner instead!]
And that’s the end of another epic season in the land of the rising sun and falling snow! Thank you to all who have filled my winter with fun adventures and more incredible memories.
I love Japow and I want to share my passion of this amazing place with all of you. So I hope to see you all here in the deep pow next season!
For more information on the Japan Ski Tours that I offer, please visit my website: www.skilasjapan.com