Japanese Powder Camp 2011 - Previewing Japan...

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nside Out Skiing visits Niseko, Japan

We're running an
Inside Out Ski Club trip to Japan in late January/early February 2012 so it was important for us to scope out the resort we're going to be based in (Niseko, on the northern island of Hokkaido), looking at accommodation options, guiding and cat-skiing, fat ski hire, checking out the terrain and sample the legendary powder.   After much drawing of short straws it was decided that Scott would head to Italy to teach beginners and Rob would head to Japan to do all the essential research (and a bit of free skiing).  It's a hard life.

The journey to Niseko was long, but hassle-free. There's no direct flight to the nearest airport (New Chitose, Sapparo) so you have options to go via Tokyo, Hong Kong or Seoul. It was a bit cheaper to fly BA via Tokyo, so I left a dreary rain-soaked London and 13 hours later arrived in a dreary rain-soaked Tokyo. A quick flight change at Narita airport and it was a (relatively) short hop to New Chitose. Coach transfer to Niseko was a civilised two and a bit hours through the rolling, and very snowy, Hokkaido hills. 26 hours after leaving home I arrive at the Lodge I'm staying at, in Annupuri which is one of the quieter off-shoots of the resort. As I get there it was snowing; this was to be recurring theme!

Niseko is one of the largest resorts in Japan, and perhaps one of the most Westernized. It gets lots of Aussies heading there, families and those looking to get in to the backcountry, and a growing number of Europeans attracted by the amazing quantities (and quality) of snow that falls on the resort. With a season average of 15+ metres (in a short season) it typically gets twice times as much snow as most European resorts. The terrain is relatively gentle, and much of it below the tree-line. The backcountry is accessed through a series of gates (the opening of which are controlled by slope patrol); much of the skiing in these areas is reached by simply dropping in or easy traverses, although short bootpacks are necessary for the gates off the top of the peak. On the days when there is good visibility the views across to Mt Yotei, a nearby volcano (which last erupted in 1050 BC), are astonishing.

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However, given how often it snows this is a rare occasion, and it's perfectly possible to be in Niseko for a fortnight and not see its shapely neighbour! This is where the high tree-line comes in to its own, so visibility is rarely a problem even if it's belting down with snow and a low cloudbase.

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Day 1 (technically Day 3 with all the travelling) starts early, despite the jetlag, so after a short walk from my Lodge I'm on the first lift at 8.30am after buying my liftpass from the efficient office at the gondola station (approximately £270 for an 8-day ticket). According to the snow report I see at breakfast "only" 30cm has fallen in the last 24 hours (the Lodge manager was very apologetic about this!) but on the hill many places felt a good bit deeper than this. By mid-morning the sun started to peek through and it really did feel like I was in a magical place. Here's a little bit of helmetcam footage showing some of the terrain accessed by Gate 8:

While skiing is skiing, albeit in world class snow, it was great to have completely different food choices on the hill. Bowls of ramen (noodles in broth) topped with various things was a great mountain lunch, filling and refreshing but not quite as lumpen as a big dish of tartiflette or rosti! Generally the food on the hill and in the resort was a day-to-day, and quite Westernized, version of Japanese cuisine. There are plenty of places where you can get the authentic Japanese experience, but for a first time visitor to Japan I was happy to be able to order my food on the basis of photos or scarily realistic plastic version of the food I was about to eat! English translations of menus were widespread and many of the locals had at least a few words of English to be able to help with my questions. For those who really don't fancy trying the local food there are alternatives such as the superlative Niseko Pizza or even the Taj Mahal indian restaurant. For my part I was only too happy to stick with Japanese while I was there, and loved the ramen, rice and sushi that I had. Lunch costs were approximately 850-1100 yen (£6-8) which felt better value for money than many meals I've eaten in the Alps. It was easy to eat cheaper than that if you wanted to economise with some rice balls and miso soup.

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Day 2 was a repeat of Day 1, including the morning apology from my Lodge manager for "only" 30cm of fresh snow. This meant that just about all the tracks from the previous day were fully filled in, and the snow was typically boot to knee deep. Light snow continued for most of the day, but staying in the trees meant visibility wasn't compromised.

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Day 3 dawned bright, with hardly any fresh snow. After the profuse apologies from the manager in the previous days I was genuinely worried that he might do something daft by way of an apology, so I did all I could to reassure him that my friends in Europe were suffering a bit of a snow drought so 60cm+ in two days really was quite acceptable! I didn't feel the need to search out untracked snow as the choppy, light snow in the back bowls of Annupuri were still great fun to ski.

The rest of my trip followed a similar pattern: a day or two of great snow then a fallow day where the easily reached off-piste was tracked, but still light and loose snow. One day was unseasonably warm and the snow developed a bit of a crust, but later that evening it snowed heavily so by the next day everything was back to normal. Apparently the snowfall was below average while I was there, so while I didn't have any ultra-deep snow until my final day it was overall the best eight days of snow I've ever had.

Along the way I explored the main part of the resort, Hirafu, and met with a number of people with a view to arranging next season's Inside Out club trip. It's a compact village, built on a bit of a slope but not too steep and nowhere is a long walk from anywhere else. There's a lot of restaurants to choose from, and plenty of bars for apres-ski, including a ubiquitous Irish bar with Guiness on tap for fans of the Black Stuff (which I recently discovered is actually dark red).

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All too quickly my final day arrived, and with a late departure to New Chitose airport I had an almost full day to ski. The snowgods had saved their best til last, and I was blessed with knee and thigh deep powder of the highest quality. I took the view that skiing myself to a standstill would, at the very least, encourage me to sleep on the journey home, so I blasted the Annupuri backbowls as hard as I could. Face shots on just about every turn was the order of the day, and I discovered I should learn to breath out at the end of a turn rather than breathing in - I was bored of inhaling snow by midday!

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A quick shower and change and it was back to New Chitose for a flight to Haneda airport in Tokyo, a night in the airport hotel then an early departure to Heathrow. It was a long journey, but worth every minute for my first taste of skiing in Japan. Already planning next year's trip...

You can view the photo gallery here.

Video highlights:

Photo slideshow of the trip:

Since this blog was written a huge earthquake struck near the eastern shore of the main island of Japan, Honshu, and the subsequent tsunami killed a mind-numbing number of people. My thoughts have been with the Japanese people who have suffered so terribly by these events. I have been humbled by the courage and dignity that they have displayed as they begin rebuilding lives and communities. The ski resort of Niseko, and the northern island of Hokkaido generally, were mostly unaffected by these events, and skiing continued through until the end of he season as normal. I am keen to return to Niseko in 2012, not just for the world class powder skiing but also to do my little bit to support Japan's tourism which I hope will not be too adversely affected by this natural disaster.

RAR, 6 April 2011

Photo credits: Rob Rees