Hokkaido (北海道) is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, a very short distance from Russia, and thus has a much colder climate than the rest of the country. When the rest of Japan is absolutely sweltering in summer, Hokkaido is more or less bearable; and when winter comes, Hokkaido experiences sub-zero temperatures day & night and, more importantly, it lies under a deep blanket of beautiful fluffy white snow.
You don’t go to Hokkaido for the terrain – gradients tend to be fairly gentle, and proper, challenging, gnarly terrain is pretty hard to come by. Furthermore, most of the skiing in Hokkaido only goes up to around 1,000m. To those used to conditions in Europe and North America (or Oz & New Zealand) it may sound surprising that you can have a viable ski resort at such low altitudes; but in Hokkaido, the winter snowline is sea level. Take the city of Sapporo; though just above sea level, it gets absolutely covered in snow through the winter months. Sapporo’s roads are 4 lanes wide in summer, but in winter 2 lanes are used to pile up all the snow – they end up with two working lanes passing between vertical walls of snow, with an impressive fleet of snow machines doing the rounds every night to keep the roads open this way. My local telephone box was buried within a 10-foot snow embankment – city workers actually cut a little snow cave to keep it open! Sapporo’s main downtown area is all connected up by underground walkways which really helps when it’s minus 10 degrees above ground and you’re walking to the next whisky bar… I was always amazed at how many people live in Sapporo but don’t ski – I wouldn’t want to put up with those winters if I wasn’t an avid snowboarder. But I am one, so Hokkaido was pretty much heaven to me!
All that snow means that even a small mountain can stick a chairlift up and be a decent place to ride; and it’s not just the quantity of the snow, it’s really the fantastic quality of it. It’s exactly, precisely, what you want snow to be like every time you ride; and up there it (almost) always is. The reason for all this is that the storm systems which drop their loads on Hokkaido originate in Siberia; from there, the super-chilled clouds cross the Sea of Japan, pick up a bit of moisture, and then dump it on the first land they hit. It’s fluffy, super-fine, super-dry, super-light, perfect champagne powder. I honestly can’t wax lyrical enough about it – get yourself to Hokkaido! On top of all this, the crowds are thin (Niseko aside) and the facilities are good, so you can basically spend the day lapping the trees and scoring freshies the whole time. Ridiculous.
But where exactly should you go skiing in Hokkaido? The most famous resort is Niseko (though perhaps a little too famous – unlike the other hills, it actually gets tracked out); but my personal favourite, for pure unbridled powder joy, is Sapporo Teine.
(For skiing elsewhere in Japan, click here)