Snowboarding in Hokkaido
This trip came about very quickly. Circumstance meant I was going to have to take action on one of two bucket list destinations. I had it in my head to either go to the Pacific North West of the U.S., or try to score the fabled Japow at the Hokkaido Mountain Resort of Niseko, Japan. I had been binging on Youtube videos and despite Japan having one of its worst snow seasons in living memory, it looked like Niseko was starting to come good. After procrastinating a while more I decided to pull the trigger and go East thanks to the help Andrea at Ski Safari. Now this was all happening around the time that the Corona Virus was appearing in China. This also included some cases on the Japanese Cruise Ship, Diamond Princess. At the time this all seemed very contained within the boat moored off the main Island to the South, so I felt pretty confident I could enjoy the delights of the North Island in safety.
As departure day drew closer, I had one eye on the weather and another on the latest Government advice for travellers to Japan.
It looked like I was going to be good for snow, at least for the first day.
My trip started early on a Sunday morning from Glasgow. I had a flight to London, then to Helsinki in Finland then finally a 9 hour flight to Sapporo, Japan. When packing my board bag I included all my clothes for the trip. I packed essentials with salopettes, gloves and goggles in my hand luggage as advised by the travel agent. The flights went pretty smoothly, although the first one had a half hour delay due to high winds around London. Then again, taking off for Finland was delayed for the same reason. The connection times for all my flights were around 2 hours each, but this proved too tight for the Helsinki layover. On arrival at Sapporo 19 hours later, I had my temperature taken (all-clear), then I was met by a representative of FinnAir at the baggage reclaim with my name on a board. This was luggage that had NOT arrived with the plane. After a long wait to register my missing board bag, I was on the bus for the 3 hour journey to Niseko.
We passed along snowy shorelines and gently meandering roads, with a stop at the ‘Mushroom shop’ for a break.
On arrival at my accommodation I was introduced to the facilities and given my 6 day lift pass which covered all the resorts around the mountain. After that I sought out the hire store (Yama Sport) that I had investigated prior to the trip, knowing I could rent the same model of board I ride. I was kitted out with a helmet, boots and board (the newer Blake Paul model of the Gnu Hyperkyarve).
I later went shopping in the Seico Mart to get supplies and pick up some cash from the ATM. For dinner that night I made the first of many visits to one of the street vendors. On this occasion it was a Special Elvis Kebab. Sadly this takes two hands to eat, otherwise I’d have a photo of this delicious feast.
Later in the evening I did receive notification from the airport that, “We don’t know where your luggage is and are searching now.” Thankfully, I was given a reference number and was asked to be patient and “wait a little while”. I was happy with the gear I’d hired, but I was concerned for the whereabouts of my board bag and it’s contents.
Day One: Tuesday 25th February
After a day of travel my body clock was well and truly shot. I found myself awake at 3 in the morning, local time. I tried stretching out and doing some yoga to relax and possibly send me off to sleep. It didn’t work of course. I watched the thick snowflakes gently fall outside my large studio window. I really wanted to make the most of the fresh snow.
The walk to the Grand Hirafu Gondola was only 10 – 15 minutes. I was there before 8:30am and there was already a large queue forming. Looking up the lower slopes, I could see the shapes in the snow of the first lucky person who had managed to poach first tracks. I followed the crowds in to the gondola which took me to the mid-mountain. From there I took a covered 4 person chair further up. Being unfamiliar with the mountain I decided to grab what fresh snow I could as there were tracks being laid down.
My first run down into the Hirafu trees started on a plateau which led to a gently sloping gully, The powder wasn’t that deep. But it certainly felt good, It’s so light though that any rebound sinks through and you can feel the firmer base underneath.
The trees themselves are a delight to cruise through, well spaced, deciduous and denuded of leaves. You do have to be on your toes, then heels, then toes again, very quickly. Slaloming among the trunks isn’t as easy as it looks on the videos. Keeping your speed under control in the light powder can be tricky, due to it offering less resistance than heavier, wet snow.
The mountain itself is not particularly high, nor is it particularly difficult terrain. It is expansive though and accommodates several resorts, fanned out around its base, converging near the summit.
I jumped on the same chairlift to do the run again, only this time I took a bit more time to take in the views. Mount Yotei an extinct volcano, dominates the view from Mount Niseko Annupuri, as the ski hill is known.
The lower portion of the hill still had some well prepared groomers in the late morning, so I took my fill on these as I descended for lunch back at the studio apartment.
The consistency of the prepared pistes was perfect for turning on. Grippy snow that allowed you the get on your edge and make large sweeping carved turns certainly made me feel my technique would improve here. A uniform slope with no real interruption of consistency meant I could concentrate from one turn to the next, each one improving over the last.
I have been snowboarding for a long time now, since the 90’s, but there are always areas to improve. The minutia of turning would be the focus on this trip.
I returned to my room for lunch which would consist of a coffee, a banana sandwich and a nibble on a chocolate bar. But not before picking up a fabled can of hot corn soup from a vending machine on the way back (bizarre, but very Japanese).
I’d been taking a lot in and I was still behind on sleep so I thought nothing of laying out on my bed for a wee rest after a bite to eat…
…Almost 2 hours later I woke up, I rushed back out the door to make the most of the afternoon. Hopefully that extended nap would help. I felt a bit guilty about it, but hey. I was on my own on this trip, staying at the foot of one of the best snowboard mountains in the world, I could take my time!
The afternoon was spent working the cut-up snow up top then tuning up my turns further down. I’d end each day with a visit to the Seico Mart and/or one of the food trucks in the town centre for something to eat. I also stopped by the shop to extend my equipment hire for another day.
Regarding my luggage, I did receive a very polite email that my bag had been located in Helsinki and that it would arrive tomorrow afternoon on the flight to Sapporo then it would be forwarded on to my hotel on the 27th at the earliest. That was a relief.
Day two: Wednesday 26th February
After making my way to the top lift in the Grand Hirafu area, I spied the pizza box lift, King Lift #4. This precarious single person lift is the one you would take to access the side-country gates. It consists of not much more than a vertical pole hanging from the cable with a small wooden platter for you to perch on. No safety bar to prevent you sliding off!
Since there wasn’t the usual depth and I had no transceiver or avalanche gear with me, I passed on that area. Instead I decided on the pristine pistes that lead me down to the left, taking me to Hanazono groomers, the quality of snow definitely had an effect on the style of my riding. By that I mean improving it. This hero snow was pure perfection. It allowed me to really feel my turns, swooping toe edge to heel edge down a good gradient of corduroy. It had a subtle rebound to it with the perfect consistency for high speed turns all the way to the bottom where the Hanazono hotel complex sat, spookily quiet. I had a quick look around the base of this particular resort. Looking back up the mountain I could see the face that the side-country gates accessed.
The terrain was tracked out, but had there been fresh, the top was wide and open powder field with trees lower down, perfectly spaced and definitely a place to return to if the snow is right. I refrained from ringing the Hanazono bell at the base and returned to the hooded quad chair to take me back up the mountain. I really enjoyed the turns on this side of the mountain, so I squeeze in a few more before returning to the Grand Hirafu face for lunch back at the apartment. The return piste wasn’t as well manicured as the Hanazono ones. I did however take in a short black run below the Ace Hill restaurant, exploring a bit more of the bottom section.
Back at the apartment I checked my emails and was happy to get the confirmation email and tracking number for my bag. It had arrived and would be with me tomorrow.
After my lunch I walked the 15 minutes or so back to the Grand Hirafu Gondola, then up to the top to transfer back to the Hanazono groomers for an hour or so before returning to Hirafu for the rest of the day. The sun was shining on this side and the skies were blue. Although this meant no fresh snow, conditions were still pretty epic and I enjoyed my time through the bare trees as well as several top to bottom run.
My walk home, as before included a stop at the hire place, confirming that I’d need the gear at least for another day. Once I dumped my gear I’d have a quick drink of tea and head into the town for some more food-truck cuisine and stock up on supplies from the Seico Mart. I’d walk past some of the bars and restaurants, slightly jealous at those who had chosen to frequent them. I’d decided though that due to Covid-19, I’d keep my distance where I could. So, I’d head back to the apartment having already eaten to watch some movies and YouTube videos and sort through any photos or video I’d taken. It wasn’t too long before I was out for the count.
Day Three: Thursday 27th February
Thursday started with blue skies, so I decided the morning would be spent over in Hanazono, it got the best of the morning light and I really was enjoying the turns on the groomed runs. I would also pop into the trees midway down the runs to eke out the last vestiges of powder snow where I could. The top part of Hanazono starts with a steeper red run, levelling out halfway down, with some park jumps and low rails, then drops down again where more trees are and some bigger park obstacles. I left this alone. Another side effect of being alone in a new place. Risk was taking took a back seat on this trip.
I had been told my missing bag would be delivered today, I wasn’t too sure when this would be happening, but I had my fingers crossed when I returned to the apartment for lunch.
In the entrance vestibule, I was so happy when I recognised my board bag lying on the ground next to several other bags. I was so excited, not just because I hadn’t lost my newest snowboard, but I now had sets of fresh underpants, not to mention some of the tea/coffee and snacks I’d stashed in there.
I dragged the bag into the lift, opening it up once I got to my room and revelling in the clean clothes and snacking out on the glut of chocolate bars.
Once I’d pigged out, it was time to get back out there on my own gear. Happy to have my own boots and helmet to wear, and this would now be a great opportunity to compare my 2019 model of the Gnu HyperKyarve with the newer hired model from 2020.
I did find that the boards were pretty much the same, but mine was running too slow. It still only had the factory wax on it and the bindings on the hire board were Burton Mission bindings, they did feel a tad stiffer than my Bent Metal Transfer bindings. I took my own board down through the Grand Hirafu trees doing a few top to bottoms, finding some different routes down there too for the rest of the afternoon.
At the end of the riding day, I returned the hire gear to Yama Sports and thanked them for their help.
I had spotted another branch of Yama Sports on the ground floor of the neighbouring apartment block right under my nose, so I asked them for a hot wax for my slow running board.
That evening the walk through town started at the Rhythm Snowboard shop for a look at some gear. All a bit too pricey for me, but a beautiful store with a really nice selection. I wandered through the darkening town with a glowing pink and blue sky behind the stunningly beautiful sight of the Mount Yotei volcano.
At the food trucks I went for a Pizza Roll, a handy way to eat on-the-go. Settling in for the evening I was just so relieved to have my bag back. There was also a possibility for a sprinkling of snow the following day.
Day Four: Friday 28th February
I crossed over to Yama Sports first thing and picked up my freshly waxed board. The base looked luxurious and smooth, having been chalky and furry beforehand.
Exiting the first gondola I stepped out onto the hill. The sky was clear blue, but there were tiny diamonds suspended in the air. The ice crystals slowly drifted, not quite falling, just shimmering in the sunlight. As I looked up into the sky, my eye was caught by a crow sitting in the branches of a leafless tree. It was berating the skiers and snowboarders exiting the gondola station. The crow looked similar to our regular carrion crows you’d see at home (Scotland), but I swear it had a different accent! They were very vocal. I took some photos before carrying onto the next lift up Hirafu.
I was on my way to the Niseko Village side of the mountain. One resort over to the West from Hirafu.
It was good to get another perspective on the mountain. Maybe it was due to an overall lack of snow, but the Niseko Village side, reminded me most of a European resort. With cat tracks and narrower trails zig-zagging down the mountain. Trees became more plentiful towards the bottom, but so did some bare patches and ice that was best avoided on the heavy traffic sections.
It was quieter over here too. No wonder really when you consider the excellent snow over in Hirafu and Hanazono. I suspect sun and wind were also reasons why the snow on this side differed so much.
Once at the bottom, I didn’t really explore as it was really just the large hotel at the bottom lift that I could see, I was also keen to get back up the mountain and back to the better snow.
As I made my way back up the lift system, the clouds were gathering. What had been diamonds suspended in a blue sky, was turning in to proper flakes. By the time I was down at the apartment for lunch I was staring out at beautiful thick snowfall.
I returned to the snowy slopes and took the Ace Pair lift from the Welcome Centre, which is a slightly shorter walk. The snow was falling heavily as the tannoy rang out with the spooky, ‘Big Brother’ sounds of the public information service reverberating out across the hill.
The snow was building rapidly and I was glad to try my own board out in the powder that was collecting amongst the trees. I was thankful for the earlier wax job. My board was turning beautifully in the light snow, in and out of the Hirafu trees.
Since I was on my own on this trip, I figured I needed to at least get one photo of me on the slopes. I waited for a quiet period, later in the day. I unstrapped my board and stabbed it tail first into the deep snow. Running back up the slope, I created a small platform from the snow and placed my point and shoot camera on there. Trying to focus on my board through the falling flakes, I lined up set the timer, pressed the shutter button and waded as quick as I could back to my board in time for the camera to take the shot. Thankfully that worked and I had my picture.
The snow kept falling into the evening as I finished my day on the slopes. I hadn’t been feeling 100% since before this trip and I felt I was getting a bit worse, but I had an appointment at the Brick Bar in town to Meet Nickie Mabey and her team of skiers, guides and photographers.
They had been on a Mabey Ski Tour Challenge, hiking four volcanoes and raising funds for Protect Our Winters UK, the climate crisis charity I volunteer for. I chatted with the guys, had a few drinks with them and gave a congratulatory speech to the team on behalf of POW UK.
It wasn’t too late but I was still feeling rough, so I got back to the apartment and tried to get some sleep for the following day on the hill. It was still snowing when I walked back up the icy road to my apartment block. I didn’t sleep well. Had a couple of nosebleeds through the night, but I think that was more related to how often I had been blowing my nose into rough tissues. My head was foggy and of course its hard to think anything other than Corona Virus. I was on a snowboard holiday though. It’s not uncommon to Catch a cold on a ski trip! At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
Day Five: Saturday 29th February
Despite feeling ill, my body clock seemed to be on Japan time now and I was up early, ready to make the most of the previous evenings snowfall. It was a clear blue-bird sky, so I had to make the most of it. It would also be my last full day on snow.
The plateau below the King Hooded Quad Chair #3 was untouched as I was one of the first to get off. I strapped in and enjoyed the surfy run down to the Hirafu Trees with the sun sparkling off the crystals which hung off the branches and on the ground. It wouldn’t be long before this would be tracked out.
I spent most of the day, filming clips, I hadn’t really filmed much, just grabbing the odd bit when I found some powder, it was a relaxed affair, chatting to folk when I could. There are a lots of Aussies working and skiing here. I also noted many folk from U.S.A. on ski trips too and of course the usual Brits. But a lot were from Asia, probably one of the most diverse ski areas I’ve been too. From what I could make of the locals, they are skilful carvers like I’ve never seen before … So many of them making perfect wide arcing turns down the groomers.
Everyone was very friendly, and the lifties were so polite, welcoming every single person on and off lifts “ありがとうございました”, wiping the snow from the seats as they go by. If the situation had been different I would have loved to have spent more time in restaurants and bars. But even locally, I’d heard the Hokkaido Government was now asking people to stay inside at the weekend. Not a full lockdown but it did make things quieter I think. Not having been there before, it was hard to tell. The slopes were not closed by any means and others were frequenting bars and restaurants, just not me, even though I figured if I was going to catch the virus, it wasn’t going to be here, but at Heathrow in London.
Day Six: Sunday 1st March
It was my last day at Niseko, we had fresh snow, but I’d only have the morning on the slopes as that afternoon, I’d be bussing my way back to the Airport for an early flight following the morning freshies. I had to check out first and leave my luggage in the entrance of the apartment block before my morning’s ride.
I was up in Hirafu yet again. The snow lay thick on their bows and sprayed quietly from underneath my board as I turned. This was beautiful, and a bit more like what I had expected from Japan. I stopped to photograph the elegant trees resplendent in snow. I’ll have to come back.
Taking in what I could of the remaining fresh snow amongst those amazing Japanese trees, I finished my time on the slopes with some turns down the immaculate groomers towards the bottom and to the Welcome Centre where I could return my lift pass at the vending machine in return for the small deposit. That was it, my first experience of riding in Japan. I was done for now. I looked up towards the highest lift, and the hike to the summit that I didn’t do. That would be for another time I hope.
It was around lunchtime so I made my way back to the apartment block to get changed and pack up my gear.
Once my bags were filled I still had a bit of time to kill, so I went for a stroll around town. On my way I could hear the sounds of some traditional Japanese Taiko Drummers. I followed the sounds until I came across the group frantically beating away at their drums. The snow was falling around them as they interwove the drumming with guttural yells from deep within their lungs. There was a small audience gathered around and as they finished each piece it would be met with enthusiastic applause. I started filming the experience on my phone only to remember the microphone didn’t work when filming video. Luckily I had my point and shoot and I was able to capture the final performance of the day.
I strolled around town a bit more, grabbed a coffee and made my way back for the transfer to the Welcome centre from where the airport bus would leave. Leaving around 4:30pm I wore a face mask for the first time. The bus was full and everyone else was wearing a mask, so it was more out of courtesy than worrying about ‘the virus’. The bus made its way through the snowy evening to Sapporo, stopping briefly for a toilet break at the ‘Mushroom shop’.
I had a hotel room booked at the airport. Dragging my board bag through the labyrinth that is New Chitose Airport, I eventually found the hotel and checked in. It was a simple room, looking onto the snowy runway with planes waiting for daylight.
After a shower, I had a cup of tea and for a late dinner I ate one of the emergency packs of salmon and rice I’d brought with me. Heating it up by boiling it in the kettle. Once eaten, it was time for bed.
Day Seven: Monday 2nd March
A full day of flying was ahead, spent in a haze, from Sapporo to Helsinki, to London and finally home to Glasgow arriving late at night I was shattered, but everything had gone smoothly. No delays, no lost luggage and best of all, it looked like I would be back snowboarding at Glencoe very soon, the snow had finally arrived at home too.
The following day I was supposed to get back to work. But instead, I called NHS 24, told them I’d been to Japan and had a bit of a cough. After a consultation with my GP I was promptly told it was not Covid-19 and most likely the common cold. This seemed to be based on the fact that my symptoms had started prior to my trip to Japan. So it was back to work then, until … LOCKDOWN when I’d be furloughed.
Even with four months off work, it has still taken me till now to write this bloody blog piece.
Offsetting my trip
If you are interested, my trip could have generated anything between 2-4 tons of CO2. I chose to offset this with a contribution to Mossy Earth who will plant native trees to restore wild ecosystems. Mossy Earth are partners of Protect Our Winters UK.