Winter Sports in Hokkaido
Hokkaido is a land of wondrous winters. Ridiculous amounts of powder and great resorts delight skiers and boarders from both Japan and overseas.
Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. In winter cold Siberian winds bring tons of snow for six months. For those who have to live with it, the half year of white shroud is a curse (driving, once you’ve dug out your car, is slow and treacherous), but for businesses appealing to skiers and boarders it is white gold. Those used to marginal pistes in other parts of the world let out whoops of joy as they float over the deep powder. Hokkaido has a quarter of Japan’s landmass but only one-twentieth of its population. The resorts are nowhere near as crowded as on mainland Japan, and although the Hokkaido secret is out and Aussies, Chinese, and Koreans are scaling the slopes, there’s more than enough powder for everybody. One of the great joys of winter sports in Japan is the special après-ski: after a long day on the slopes, you can soak your aching muscles in a local onsen (thermal spa).
Although not a traditional method of transportation in Hokkaido, several dogsled races take place here during the winter months. Major events include the Japan Cup Dogsled Competition held in Wakkanai (February) and the JFSS Cup International Dogsled Race held in Sapporo (March). If you’d like to get up close and personal with man’s best friend, you can give dogsledding a try at the Rusutsu resort area.
Hokkaido's Ski Resorts
More than 100 ski hills are dotted across Hokkaido. Some are small with limited facilities, and used almost exclusively by locals. Others are vast resorts that attract and cater to visitors from around the world. Hokkaido’s big three are Niseko, Rusutsu, and Furano, but you can find great snow and a friendly welcome across the whole island.
Furano, located in the center of island, is famous for its fields of purple lavender in summer, and creamy skiing in winter. Heavy snowfalls provide plenty of light powder while the local town has found a good balance between welcoming visitors and maintaining its traditional charm. Furano is about an hour from Asahikawa Airport, or three hours from Chitose Airport.
Rusutsu is a large resort stretching out over East Mountain, West Mountain, and Mount Isola. Thirty-seven courses provide everything from smooth groomed runs to steep and deep off-piste powder. Numerous gondolas, quads, and pair lifts mean you shouldn’t have to wait in line. The resort also provides a whole range of other winter activities from snowshoeing to horseback riding. Rusutsu is about 90 minutes from Chitose Airport.
The Niseko ski area is made up of four resorts, which when combined make it arguably the best place for skiing and snowboarding in Japan. Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village, and Niseko Annupuri are collectively known as Niseko United and can be skied on a single pass. This gives you access to dozens upon dozens of official ski runs, but locals and powder hounds know many more unofficial runs that make the most of the huge snowfalls. The chairlifts at nearby Niseko Weiss closed many years ago and have been replaced by a surprisingly inexpensive snowcat service. The tracked vehicles shuttle you up the mountain and let you enjoy the powder on the way down.
Over the last decade Niseko has gone through an amazing boom, with a large increase in the number of foreign visitors. The positive side of this is that you can get by with limited or no Japanese language ability; rental equipment includes a bigger selection of large sizes; and there’s a lively international scene with varied bars, accommodations, restaurants, and clientele. For those looking for a more traditional Japanese experience it is worth spending at least some time exploring the more remote corners of Hokkaido.