Monday, April 6, 2009

I found the Powder

About mid February I took a ski trip on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. Japan primarily consists of three large islands, Kyushu to the south, Hokkaido to the north, and Honshu right in the middle. Hokkaido's claim to fame is the city of Sapporo, which houses the company Sapporo that makes the beer and some of the finest powder known to man. I arrived in Niseko on a monday and skied for three days.

Niseko is made up of 3 different ski resorts: Annupuri, Niseko Village, and Grand Hirafu. I don't know why the Japanese do this, but at every mountain, no matter the size, they operate several small independent ski resorts. I had no idea that it was this way so I basically just picked an area that had relatively cheap housing, which turned out to be the Annupuri side of the mountain. You can buy a pass for just that resort or you can buy an all mountain pass to ski all three. The funny thing is you really do not save much buying the pass to ski just one resort (maybe $5) and are better off just getting the all mountain. You can actually buy your lift passes from the place that you stay and you save quite a bit. I paid $130 for a three day pass, which is an excellent deal for a resort this size.

I stayed at Annupuri Youth Hostel, which I can tell you that the term "Youth" is a misnomer. I was the youngest person that stayed there besides the family that arrived my last day that had two 7 yr olds (who knows the kids could have been 13 or 3 yrs old and I wouldn't know the difference. I have no concept of kids ages).

When I arrived I expected the hostel to be filled with Aussies, but to my surprise it consisted of primarily old Japanese men. That night they proceeded to get pretty lit and sang old Japanese songs. It was quite entertaining. Overall the hostel was very nice, clean, and Yu-san and his wife fixed up some rather delicious meals. The town of Annupuri is pretty terrible. There are very few restaurants, no bars, and the closest convenience store is about 10 miles away. Yu-san can bring you over there but only if he is heading out in that direction. Despite the negatives there is one major positive point to staying in Annupuri and I will get to that in a bit.

My first day on the slopes I did my best to hit all of the challenging runs that the resort had to offer. Unlike Hakkuba, Niseko opened up far more terrain and you could easily ski throughout the trees and you can even get into some of the backcountry. There was still a lot of skiable terrain that they do not open up, but they claim they have plans to open it up in the future once they figure out avalanche control. The runs are not as long as a lot of the major resorts we have in the US, but they were definitely reasonable. I was lucky in that I had about 2 ft of fresh powder to work with on my first day out. I skied to all three main lodges of the resorts to check out the scene and I was not too impressed. None of the areas really had a cool bar scene. The restaurants were Japanese style that consisted of inserting money into a machine, which produces a ticket and that is how you order your food and drinks. The resorts were also characterless. Even the Hilton wasn't anything to write home to Mom about. Lift lines were practically nonexistent but I did ski on the weekdays to purposefully avoid them. One annoying factor is that they have very few high speed lifts and the gondolas themselves they run at a slow speed. It definitely gets frustrating when you are used to the lifts back home.

My second day these two Aussies that stayed at my hostel invited me to ski with them. They claimed they could take me to the serious backcountry, which I really had no idea how to access on my first day. I gratefully accepted and we took to the slopes. These two guys apparently leave the wife and kids at home and come up to Niseko for 3 weeks every year to ski. They were about in their 50s and both were very accomplished skiers. We entered the backcountry from the Annupuri side, which apparently Annupuri has the best and easiest access to the backcountry out of the 3 resorts. Niskeo Village does not have access b/c it is located in the middle and Hirafu's backcountry is apparently difficult to get to and is the largest ski resort which translates into more people skiing out the terrain. This is the major positive point I mentioned earlier. I literally had two days of skiing through powder, all fresh runs in the backcountry. It was amazing! The powder itself is impressive. It is so light and feels like you are floating. It is far better than the concrete we are used to in the northwest. My legs stayed fresh all day and not a single leg burn. It was as if I was a snowboarder for a day. Thank you John & Jeff for letting me tag along.

One interesting point I forgot to mention about Niseko is the weather, you never know what you are going to get. The weather changes constantly throughout the day. One minute it could be sunny the next it could be pounding snow with high winds. As the saying goes in Niseko "if you don't like the weather, just wait ten minutes."

As far as choosing a place to stay in Niseko it all depends on what you want out of your ski trip. For a family Niseko village is probably a better pick b/c there is a bit more there than Annupuri. If you want a night life apparently Hirafu has it, as it is a lot bigger than the other two villages. If you want fresh powder and pretty decent backcountry I would recommend staying in Annupuri.

Dining area at Annupuri Youth Hostel
Here is a picture of the common area. That's my roommate on the floor. I don't think I have ever heard anyone snore as loud. I did not sleep for 3 days.
the rooms

John tearing it up in the powder.

John & Jeff the two Aussies who showed me the ropes.
A typical day of skiing through the trees.

In the distance is the backcountry. It comprises of 3 huge bowls.

This is a picture of the summit at Niseko on the Annupuri side

Another picture of Annupuri resort. The weather was too hectic to get a lot of good shots of the mountain. The pics you saw were only a handful of times when the weather actually cleared up long enough to get some good shots.

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