Japan’s powder snow that falls on the northern island of Hokkaido is 95% air, which makes it perfect for charging through the trees, as I discovered on a trip to Niseko – what I didn’t expect was to find Japow’s best kept secret powder stash – in fact, it’s the size of an entire mountain…
There’s nothing like riding fresh tracks on a powder day, but Japan’s powder snow takes it up a notch. As I drop 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 Japanese powder snow in Hokkaido is so deep, and I’m going so fast, that buffeting walls of white are thrown up on all sides as my back hand trails in a wave of powder – suddenly it feels like I’m surfing a tube in a frozen ocean.
The northern island of Japan has a rep for amazing powder, which is reputed to be just 5% water – the rest is air – but little do I know that on my trip here I would stumble upon a gloriously undersubscribed mountain of it…
Like most snowboarders and skiers before me, my route into riding Japan’s powder snow starts in Tokyo, with a flight to Sapporo, the main city of Hokkaido, and from there it’s a moderate bus ride to Niseko, the resort hub of Annupuri mountain.
You immediately notice that it’s wildly oversubscribed. The sushi and ramen joints bustle with visitors from Oz and NZ, the UK, China and many other countries. So much so that it really pays to be at the lifts ahead of their opening times, but it’s worth it for those fresh tracks – it snows every day but one while I stay in the resort!
But you don’t have to worry about whiteouts – the relatively low altitude and consistent winds mean that while visibility isn’t perfect, it’s usually good enough to navigate the slopes. If you’re trained and equipped for off-piste, packing a transceiver and some friends, then you should definitely seek out the Niseko gates, which lead off the side of the pistes and have been put in place to allow experienced riders access to the backcountry in a safe, controlled way, when the conditions allow.
When these are open they give access to side-country and backcountry runs through the trees. After an early start I drop through Gate 5 at Niseko’s Hanazono – the trees seem perfectly placed to lay down S-turns in the deep, untracked powder, and my riding buddies and I blast down, crossing tracks and whooping crazily.
Niseko is well known as the epicentre of Japan’s powder snow, 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, above the fishing town of Iwanai. This once-mothballed resort has been reopened by American John Greiner as a cat touring destination, due to its incredible location.
The mountain above the town is about as high as Niseko’s Annupuri, but being located 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,” John tells me.
A few days before my visit John 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.
The ultimate path to having a whole mountain to yourself is usually to get helicoptered to the top of one, which is obviously a disaster for your carbon footprint. In Hokkaido it’s even more 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 board the ten-person cat we know that we’re going to be the only people off piste on the mountain that day. The sense of anticipation is intense.
Piling out of the cat at the top into a blustery wind, Greiner is 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 says.
It adds to the sense of drama as we hike a few metres into the trees. As I look down into a virgin, untracked bowl of powder snow, dotted with bushes and stands of trees I can see Greiner’s staff have been busy cutting glades through the vegetation.
The drawn-out line of snowboarders beside me starts to peel off, dropping down into the powder with a cascade of whoops, firing huge rooster tails up behind them and disappearing into monstrous white clouds every time they put in a hard, heel-edge turn.
Rather than just flying back to Tokyo, I decide to catch a ride on Japan’s fastest bullet train. Using a 7-day Japan Rail Pass, I leave Sapporo and connect 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 between 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!
Photos © Matt Ray, all rights reserved. Video shot by @charlie_wood_filmmaker Thanks to Niseko United @nisekounited and Iwani Resort @iwanairesort A version of this story previously appeared on www.RSNG.com