The call of the wild: Off-piste in Hokkaido, Japan

written by Gemma Lake

updated 10.03.2022

Sitting in oceanic vastness is Hokkaido (‘Northern Sea Circuit’). This is Japan’s northernmost island, surrounded by the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. Its latitude and position in the pathway of the Russian weather front make its climate considerably cooler than Honshu’s. That and its rugged, underpopulated landmass sets it apart as one of the best places to go off-piste in powdery white infinitude. Happily for travellers, Finnair's direct flights between Helsinki and New Chitose will resume service in July 2022.

Enjoy a long snow season in Hokkaido

In the winter foray (December–April), the island’s 100 or so ski resorts unite in a sea of snow, rising and falling like waves lapping the boreal terrain. Its undulating land of spruce-studded powder assiduously smoothed over by the bracing mountain breezes stretches across six national parks and six quasi-national parks, each one inviting exhilarating adventure in what feels like untouched wilderness.

Wrap up and venture off-piste with us as we go in search of Hokkaido’s legendary powder, exploring the region’s food and wine culture along the way.

Furano ski resort © Bradley Paul Bennett

Furano ski resort © Bradley Paul Bennett

Asahikawa City, Kamikawa Region

At the centre of the Kamikawa Basin, straddling either side of the Ishikari River, is Asahikawa, Hokkaido's second largest city after Sapporo. Old-world craftsmanship meets modern simplicity in its deep-rooted breweries cosying up to sharply angled architecture.

Approximately 30 minutes away from the centre, in the Kamui Kotan District, is Kamui Ski Links — the largest ski resort in northern Hokkaido. This unboundedly beautiful winter wonderland, in operation for 30 years, sits in silent wilderness next to Daisetsuzan National Park (or Taisetsuzan), land of the Ainu people.

It revolves around Kamuiyama, an old, venerable mountain and designated invaluable cultural property of Hokkaido. In Ainu culture, Kamuiyama assumes a sacred character as a dwelling place for the deities of the Shinto pantheon.

Unfolding for miles across northern Hokkaido, in an area that sees an average annual snowfall of 140 days, Kamui Ski Links abounds with opportunities to venture off-piste into unblemished backcountry. Its 25 different courses, including two alpine trails certified by the International Ski Federation (FIS), keep complete novices and powder-hunting mavens entertained.

Kamui ski resort, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Kamui ski resort, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

The Kamui Gondola, a 2327-metre-long bright yellow ropeway winding through rime-encrusted pines (known locally as ‘snow monsters’), reaches the summit of Kamuiyama in eight minutes. Hold off the powdery descent until after you’ve taken in the views of Ishikari Plain and Ishikari River unfurling before you.

Then there’s the city’s ramen, set apart by its shoyu (soya sauce) based broth. The nourishing dish made from local ingredients is typically topped with green onions, pork, bamboo shoots and eggs.

On the outskirts of the city, in Nagayama, is Asahikawa Ramen Village, where you’ll find eight well-known ramen restaurants, set side-by-side, each offering something different; the village is moments from a small ramen shrine. For those reluctant to fork out on taxi fare or unable to jump into a hire car, these restaurants have an equally strong presence in the city centre.

Furano City, Kamikawa Region

Furano ski resort, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Furano ski resort, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

South of Asahikawa is the city of Furano, home to the popular Furano Ski Resort, with manifold trails meandering through deep powder. Positioned at the heart of Hokkaido, Furano receives the full force of the Siberian anticyclone after it passes over the Sea of Japan, leaving around nine metres of icing sugar-like snow in its wake.

Amid the snow flurries, the deep powder lingers untracked for days, tempting stalwart locals and visiting skiers and snowboarders first thing. The Kitanomine (late-Decemeber) and Furano (late-November to early-May) zones (which make up the resort) are served by the same shuttle buses and lifts, and accommodate various skill levels.

The distinguished resort is home to one of the steepest mountains in Hokkaido and follows a vigilant trail grooming routine. It has hosted the FIS Downhill World Cup several times, and other major events, such as the Snowboard World Cup.

At the confluence of the Kitanomine Gondola and Furano Ropeway are numerous restaurants. The omelette curry served at Ramen Restaurant Shojikimura is especially popular. This regional dish, made from locally grown vegetables, eggs and pork, is traditionally eaten with fukujinzuke, a piquant Japanese-style relish.

At the top of Furano Ropeway is Downhill Restaurant, serving Western-style food beside a roaring fire. Views across the Furano Basin are afforded from its windows.

Furano winery, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Furano winery, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Winter is starkly distinct from spring and summer in Furano, as spring and summer are when cultivated flowers lined up in rainbow hues roll into the horizon, their kaleidoscopic gradations brilliantly juxtaposed with the tree lines and charcoal black rock formations. The display begins in May with lupins and tulips, followed by salvias, poppies, lavender, sunflowers and cosmos in June through September, concluding with wild mustard and dahlias in autumn.

Wine grape vines bloom in the vicinity of Furano Winery, where wine has been produced for half a century. The area’s low humidity levels and nutrient-rich terrain loomed over by Tokachidake provide near-perfect growing conditions. Take a tour of its ageing warehouse, located within a red-brick building, backed by fields of flower-laden lavender.

Learn about the manufacturing process of Furano wine, sampling the botanical range on your way round, before pairing your favourites with whatever catches your eye on the menu of the Furano Wine House restaurant. Expect Wagyu beef poached in Furano red wine followed by Furano melon (in summer). Petit fondue and steak, meanwhile, warm the soul in winter.

Nearby is the Grape Juice Factory, sibling of the winery, bottling up fresh grape juice through the week.

Furano winery, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Furano winery, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Tomamu, Shimukappu, Kamikawa Region

Forests and white powdery peaks stretch out in every direction from Tomamu, a mountain settlement in the Yufutsu District of Shimukappu (or Shimukappu-mura), Kamikawa Subprefecture. Snuggled into the southern slopes of Mount Tomamu is RISONARE Tomamu, the region’s long established hotel, run by Japan-based hotel and ryokan operator, Hoshino Resort.

The retreat rests across two mountains and has 29 courses (novice, intermediate and advanced), including a vertical drop of 585 metres, and tree skiing areas, serviced by five lifts and one gondola. Experienced skiers and snowboarders relish the dry powder that lingers on the shadier, north-facing slopes.

Those with little ones in tow tend to stick to the sun-kissed south-facing side, where the midday rays warm little hands and feet.

The self-contained resort has many other activities besides skiing and snowboarding, including snowmobiling, snow-rafting, snowshoeing, curling and ice skating. There’s also a snow park and sledding area for families.

The winter-exclusive ice village is particularly popular among young children. Come prepared, though; it’s not unusual for temperatures to plummet below -25°C.

Ice village, Tomamu, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Ice village, Tomamu, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

If you can tear yourself away from the roaring fire, tuck into the frozen delights on offer inside the ice-block domes, including milk gelato served on an ice plate; ice cream dipped in gooey, hot chocolate, which freezes upon contact with the icy air; and warming treats like toasted marshmallows and macaroons.

In summer for sweeping aerial views of the contorted landscape and coastline, take to the skies in a hot-air balloon (June-October) . Spectacular views unravel in the higher echelons of Mount Tomamu, too. From the Terrace of Frost Tree, best visited in winter and reached by the Unkai Gondola from the mid-mountain area, yeti-like ‘snow monsters’ act out before you.

Unkai (Sea of Clouds) Terrace, best visited in summer, is where you can watch the clouds tumbling across the sky like thundering white horses crashing against the shore. A short shuttle bus ride away is Mina Mina Beach, one the country’s largest indoor wave pools, abutting Kirin-no-Yu, an onsen overlooking Horoka Tomamu Montane Forest.

Watched over by two high-rise towers, reclad by Klein Dytham architecture, RISONARE Tomamu comes with as much style as it does substance, its design reinforced by a chequered finish that picks out the colours found in the natural surroundings. Each 100-square-metre room has its own jet bath and views of the blue forest and mountains.

Tomamu, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Ice village, Tomamu, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

The resort also includes high-end restaurants, as well as two spas with massage and aromatherapy suites. Providing ease of access for hotel guests and passers-by, the resort contains the country’s first ski-in/ski-out street: Hotalu (‘fireflies’) Street.

Follow Hotalu Street to Buffet Dining Hal – the hotel’s popular restaurant, where you can dine in the hotel. The local dishes on the menu include miso ramen and French toast (breakfast), and teppanyaki-style crab or beef and temaki (hand-rolled) sushi filled with salmon roe (dinner). Try SORA for aged Hokkaido wagyu beef and hearty seafood broth.

Sahoro, Shintoku, Tokachi Region

Sahoro (Ainu for ‘dry and wide land’) is a precipitous settlement connected to the 1,060-metre-high Mount Sahoro. The lofty peak surveys Mount Tokachi and Mount Tomuraushi in Daisetsuzan National Park, Mount Oakan in Akan National Park, and the Pacific Ocean beyond Obihiro City, within the Hokkaido powder belt.

Shintoku, the city in which it lies, sits in the Karikatsu Pass in Tokachi Subprefecture. Within its territory is Sahoro Ski Resort, spread out across the eastern slopes of Mount Sahoro and reaching almost 16 miles (25 km). Of its 21 courses, including a 39-degree slope, eight are rated for beginners, three for intermediates and 10 for professionals.

The powdery slopes are served by eight lifts, including the bright red Sahoro Gondola soaring above the folded landscape of the Tokachi Plains. Before opening as a ski resort in 1973, Sahoro Ski Resort hosted the Tokachi Downhill Ski Competition in 1937 – the reason it’s considered a place of historic importance in Hokkaido's skiing history.

Sahoro ski resort, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Sahoro ski resort, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Beginners and children tend to stick to the lattice of ‘green’ trails (for beginners). Meanwhile the majority of experienced skiers and snowboarders spin up the ‘Japow’ (Japanese powder) along the ‘black’ routes (for advanced skiers) in the shadier, north-facing Powder Zone. This section includes the 1655-metre-long downhill course deluged with some of the world’s driest snow.

Club Med Sahoro Hokkaido is a family friendly hotel moments from the bustle, offering free group lessons (in English) and rides on the Sahoro Express lift.

For a more authentic experience, settle yourself at Tokachi Sahoro Resort Hotel, also close by, but with a more local following. On the seasonal kaiseki (traditional Japanese multi-course dinner) menu at its restaurant, Yukizasa, is fresh Hokkaido seafood and homemade soba, best enjoyed with a good measure of Japanese sake. Both hotels offer wearied guests wholesome nourishment and respite from the bitterly cold mountain-tops.

Located at the top of Mount Sahoro is Top Tea House, open every weekend from January to February. Come here for homemade matcha, panoramic views and opportunities to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Another of Sahoro’s attractions is Bear Mountain (a bear safari park), best visited between April and November. Only then is it possible to catch a glimpse of the sacred creature at large, roused from hibernation by the warmer weather. The bears’ hibernation season is from January to February.

The Can Bar at Sahoro ski resort, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

The Can Bar at Sahoro ski resort, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Explore the 15-hectare enclosure, over three times the size of Tokyo Dome, with a knowledgeable guide. Other popular summer activities in the area include white water rafting down the Tokachi and Sorachi rivers, canoeing on lakes as still as millponds and mountain biking through forests. The creatively inclined might take a class in making chopsticks, candles or windchimes.

Revealing Shintoku’s more sentimental side is Canned Bar (‘CAN’), evoking nostalgia through retro food packaging. For those with days to spare, consider a day trip to Furano and Tomamu. Sapporo, over 75 mi (121 km) from Shintoku, is especially popular in early-February when the week-long Sapporo Snow Festival takes place.

Hanamori Bear Cafe Restaurant serves many meals using local ingredients and offers fantastic views of forests and flowers.

Top image: Sahoro ski resort, Japan © Bradley Paul Bennett

Find out more about the fantastic snow activities that await at the Hokkaido Ski Promotion Council and find out more about the spectacular Hokkaido Mountains.

Gemma Lake

written by Gemma Lake

updated 10.03.2022

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