Hokkaido Is An Otherworldly Heaven Of Champagne Powder Snow, With Hidden Secrets

When RISING travelled to Japan on a mission to find the world’s best powder snow, we uncovered a hidden gem…

There’s nothing like riding fresh tracks on a powder day. As RISING drops into a classic Hokkaido off-piste line, threading through silver birch trees, the world goes quiet. All you can hear is the wind in your ears as you float into turns that feel like flying. The Hokkaido powder is so deep, and I’m going so fast, that walls of snow are thrown up on all sides and my back hand trails in a wave of powder – suddenly it feels like I’m surfing a tube in a frozen ocean.

It’s every snowsport fan’s dream to experience the perfect powder run and Japan’s unique climate means that it’s the primo place to hunt them out – here’s what RISING learnt from visiting Japan’s northernmost island:

1. Niseko Is The Gateway To Pow
If you’re new to Japanese snow conditions then you should know that Hokkaido’s Niseko United ski area regularly gets 14m of snow a season. In the time RISING was there we only had one day when it didn’t snow. The experience of heading up on the first lift of the day and riding down immaculate pistes through six inches of fresh powder is surreally brilliant. Unsurprisingly this makes it super-popular, especially with Australians, so make sure you stay close to the resort so you can get first lift every morning! And don’t worry about whiteouts – the relatively altitude and winds mean that while visibility isn’t perfect it’s usually good enough to navigate the slopes in.

2. Shoot The Gates
If you are trained and equipped for off-piste, packing a transceiver and some friends, then you should definitely seek out the Niseko gates. When these are open they give access to side-country and backcountry runs through the trees. After an early start RISING dropped through Gate 5 at Niseko’s Hanazono – the trees seem perfectly placed to lay down S-turns in the deep, untracked powder. My crew was soon carving down beside me, whooping in sheer delight.

The gates system has been put in place to allow experienced riders access to the backcountry in a controlled way. If the resort thinks the avalanche risk is too high then the gates are closed. But it’s still the responsibility of to each individual to ensure they’re safe. This means never riding alone, being accompanied by a local guide – or someone who knows the area – and carrying a transceiver, shovel and probe in case of avalanche or falling down a tree well, or glide crack.

3. Night Riding In Hirafu Is Another World
It’s 7pm and in the Alps the apres crowd would be downing jagers and dancing on tables in ski boots. But in Niseko’s Hirafu most of the mountain is still floodlit, with chairlifts full of people riding up for an after-dark session. We get to the top run and the fairground-sized thermometer is reading -15ºC. Powerful winds are sending sheets of powder snow scurrying across the pistes like sand in a storm – the whole hill feels alive.

As we head into a bit of side-country the light diffuses into an otherworldly glow. Despite being cut up during the day the powder has been fluffed up again by the temperature drop. Carving across the ghostly terrain almost feels like fresh tracks, as the brooding trees flash past. Riding powder is such a different experience after dark that you feel the chair lift has dumped you out onto an alien planet...

4. There’s More To Japanese Food Than Sushi
It goes without saying that the sushi is legendary in Japan, but in Niseko you’re not that close to the sea so you should try out the alternative local cuisine. There’s one very useful word to learn in Japanese. ‘Izakaya’ means simply ‘gastropub’ and they these are great places to experience a kind of Japanese tapas. Little bites to go with your drinks, like grilled fish, sit alongside more substantial offerings such as Japanese hot pots. I discovered that Hirafu’s Bar Moon serves the best ramen in town but it also has an izakaya upstairs where the hot pot arrived with a gas burner to cook the chicken and healthy veg in a broth at the table – delicious, and the perfect re-fuelling meal after a day’s leg burning riding.

There are more adventurous items in some izakayas, as a gung-ho member of the crew discovered when he ordered the innocuously titled ‘squid mariner’, which turned out to be cold, raw, fermented squid, guts and all. ‘Well, this is challenging,’ he commented.

5. Moiwa Is For Powder School Graduates
The only thing that can wipe the smile of your face when riding powder is that sudden sinking feeling… When the angle of the slope runs out, or you topple over in deep snow, you’re going to have to get used to digging. After a few goes of floundering around like a starfish in a swamp, I realise the correct technique is to pack the snow down around you in order to create mini platforms to lever yourself out and back up.

But once Niseko United has schooled you in the arts of riding powder, you can head to the powder fields of Moiwa. We rode down a winding cat track from Niseko’s Annupuri to the neighbouring resort with a reputation for limitless side-country and deep powder. It’s actually lower in altitude than Niseko United (at 300m-800m) and it’s only got a couple of chair lifts but the attraction here isn’t the piste so much as the side and back country terrain. We turned right at the top of the quad chair lift and, kitted out with avalanche gear, headed into the backcountry. Taking care to avoid the creek, I picked out a line down through perfectly spaced trees, as the waves of powder kicked up by my board sparkled in a lazy sunshine haze.

6. Iwanai Is The Ultimate Hidden Powder Stash…
Niseko is well known as the epicentre of powder in Hokkaido, but it’s by no means the only place where the snow falls heavy and deep. A legacy of Japan’s 1980s bubble in ski resorts is the lightly used or abandoned pistes that dot the islands. One of these was on the coast at the fishing town of Iwanai. The once mothballed resort has just this season been reopened by American John Greiner as a cat touring destination, due to its incredible location. Because it’s as high as Niseko’s Annupuri, but right on the coast, Iwanai gets hit first by the snow-laden storms coming off the sea. ‘When I worked in Sapporo, in the videogames industry [helping make Bomberman], I used to drive all the way out to Iwanai, ride the resort and then take the last lift up. I’d then hike to the top of the mountain and camp out there to ride the other mountains the next day,’ he told RISING.

A few days before my visit Greiner had been hosting F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who turns out to be a powder fiend too, but Iwanai CatTour remains an under-the-radar secret for amazing powder.

7. …And Cat Touring Beats Heli-Skiing Hands Down
The ultimate path to having a whole mountain to yourself is usually to get helicoptered to the top of one. In Hokkaido that’s problematic because the resorts are relatively low altitude with poor visibility for flying. This means that Iwanai’s set up as a Cat Touring resort with a single lift is perfect for a whole day of fresh tracks. As we boarded the ten-person cat we knew that we were going to be the only people off piste on the mountain that day, and the sense of anticipation was intense.

Piling out of the cat at the top into a blustery wind, Greiner was already grinning. ‘People say that being by the coast gives too much wind – but if you don’t use lifts it doesn’t matter, and it also means more snow and fresh tracks,’ he said.

It added to the sense of drama as we hiked a few metres into the trees. As I looked down into a virgin, untracked powder bowl dotted with bushes and stands of trees I could see that Greiner’s staff had been busy cutting glades through the vegetation. The drawn-out line of snowboarders beside me started to peel off, dropping down into the powder with a cascade of whoops, firing huge rooster tails up behind them and disappearing into monstrous clouds of powder every time they put in a hard heel-edge turn.

As I bombed down, tearing up huge sheets of powder myself, I found the snow was so deep I was literally surfing through it, putting all my weight on my back foot to really drive into the powder, which lifted the nose of my board into float mode. I found speed is your friend in powder and turning while floating is almost effortless. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling and is as close as I’m going to get to flying while still on the ‘ground’.

As I carved between snow-laden trees I realised how fast I was going, using my instincts to pick a line through untouched powder around the obstacles to maintain my momentum, and loving every second. As the slope eased out I cut through a final stand of trees and onto the groomed piste, which was still deep in powder. A huge smile was plastered across my face, which widened when I realised we were going to meet up with the cat and do it all over again…

8. Taking The Bullet Train To Snow Monkey Park
Rather than just flying back to Tokyo I had decided to catch a ride on Japan’s fastest bullet train. Using a 7-day Japan Rail Pass, I left Sapporo and connected at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto onto the new Hayabusa 24 bullet train. Despite its top speeds of 200mph this train is a phenomenally smooth ride and even fires under the sea through the Seikan Tunnel on it’s way to the final stop in Tokyo. It’s a great way to see the country, but we’re getting off at Nagano so we can visit the famous Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. The geothermal springs in this steep sided valley are exploited by hot-tub loving wild Japanese macaques, making this the only place in the world where monkeys bathe in hot springs.

As we walk into the park a geyser of steam explodes up out of a tube of ice as the river runs past. The macaques are alternating from foraging in the snow and basking in the sun, or having the occasional dip. It’s too balmy for a mass soak but I spend a fascinating couple of hours watching the adults roam around while young macaques tumble through the rocks in a kind of good tempered, rolling brawl. It seems play is the order of the day in Japan, whatever species you are!

WHAT NEXT? Watch the Hokkaido powder in action at Iwanai Resort…

Video shot by @charlie_wood_filmmaker

Photography by Matt Ray (additional skier shot courtesy of @iwanairesort)

Find out more about Niseko United here and follow the resorts @nisekounited

Find out more about Cat Tours and Iwanai here and follow the resort @iwanairesort

Follow the writer @mattfitnessray