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Text by Silja Kudel.
Photos by Petri Artturi Asikainen.
Jubilant “woo-hoos” ring in the crisp air as snowboarders send plumes of powder flying against the cloudless sky of Sahoro, a village 179 kilometres east of Sapporo. The thrill of deep-powder gliding is written all over the faces of four friends from Indonesia who have arrived for a week of snowboarding on what they describe as “soft clouds of icing sugar.”
The insanely fluffy bliss that powder hounds find so addictive is found in stupefying abundance on Japan’s northernmost island. The secret to Hokkaido’s delightfully dry, weightless snow is a weather system that pushes extremely cold air across the Sea of Japan from Siberia, guaranteeing at least 100 days of snow every winter.
Japan’s mountains might not compare to the Alps or the Rockies, but Hokkaido compensates by offering the most reliable ski season in the world, with certain resorts averaging 18 metres of snowfall annually.
The best-quality powder is arguably found in Niseko, one of the snowiest places on earth. In the direct path of flurries from Siberia, Niseko is blanketed by about 20 metres of champagne powder annually.
Offering superb off-piste skiing for the more advanced skier as well as groomed trails for those of all ability levels, Niseko is known as Japan’s ‘café latte resort,’ being the only ski village where a gaijin (foreigner) can walk into a café and order a latte in English. In the smaller resorts off the beaten tourist track, you’ll be lucky to find anyone who speaks English, much less a latte.
Hokkaido’s lesser-known powder playgrounds such as Sahoro are legend among downhill ski bums but – for the time being – they remain hidden beneath the mass tourism radar.
“Skiing here is like having a private resort all to yourself. The slopes and lifts are never crowded,” says Ethiopian-born ski instructor Robel Zemichael from the US. After eight seasons working as a ski instructor at Club Med Sahoro, he has a special fondness for Hokkaido’s mountains. “What they lack in steepness they make up for in variety and powder quality.”
Home of ramen
The après scene in Japan is quieter than in Europe or North America. A winter holiday in Hokkaido revolves around three activities: powder skiing, onsen-soaking, and eating – in that order. Ramen, soba noodles, crab and other seafood delicacies are the local specialties.
Many tourists have the misconception that Japan is an expensive country, but for skiers it is surprisingly affordable. Lift tickets are cheaper than in Europe, and the further you venture off the beaten track, the less expensive things get. A one-day mountain pass typically costs around 4,000 JPY (€30).
But what ultimately keeps pulling skiers back to Hokkaido is its diverse offering. Whether it’s the delight of weaving through knee-deep powder or luxuriating in off-snow pleasures such as onsen baths, resorts like Sahoro tick all the boxes for an ichiban (number 1) winter experience.
Powder to the people
There’s space to spare for every skier in Hokkaido, which has a population of five million people spread across a land mass the size of Austria. Sapporo’s international airport is an excellent gateway to all major resorts, which cater to every taste and budget.
Niseko for night life
Combining four resorts, Niseko is Japan’s largest and most international ski destination. Located 100 km southwest of Sapporo, it is famous for its powder, tree skiing, and night life. English is widely spoken.
Solitude in Sahoro
Smaller Sahoro has only two hotels, the Sahoro Resort Hotel, and all-inclusive Club Med Sahoro. The slopes are crowd-free, offering outstanding off-piste skiing for advanced skiers and snowboarders.
A golf resort and amusement park in summer, Rusutsu is magically transformed into a world-class powder paradise when winter arrives. The frozen rollercoaster is a popular backdrop for selfies.
Furano appeals to kids with its long, well-groomed runs, and high-speed lifts. The town caters to English-speaking guests, yet preserves its local authenticity. Ski passes are free for kids 12 or younger.
Vegas vibe in Tomamu
A kitsch extravaganza, glitzy Tomamu has a 50-metre wave pool, glamorous hotel towers and plenty to keep the little ones entertained. The 145-hectare resort also offers superb terrain for powder hounds.
Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival
Colourfully lit ice sculptures line the shore of Lake Shikotsu during this month-long festival in Shikotsu-Toya National Park, about 40 minutes from Sapporo. The sculptures are created by spraying layers of lake water and letting it freeze. Fireworks and Wadaiko drum performances set a festive mood on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays.
29 January–21 February 2016
Sapporo Snow Festival
A tradition dating back to 1950, the former Winter Olympics host city is transformed into a winter wonderland for a week every February with hundreds of snow statues and ice sculptures filling Odori Park and the main drag in Susukino.
5–11 February 2016
This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of Finnair’s monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.