5. Trains. OK, maybe its the 10 year-old boy in me, but I love having a public transit system that is well-connected. It you wish, you can land in Tokyo, and set foot on three or four trains from the airport all the way to Niseko. Although it will take you a couple of days. Alternatively, you can fly into Sapporo and take one train all the way to Niseko - it takes 30-45 minutes longer than the bus, but it moves through beautiful terrain. Either way, if you choose to take some time in Tokyo, don't be afraid to use the subway or the light rail.
4. Onsens. These aren't hot tubs - onsens are public baths that are preceded by an indoor, seated shower, traditionally geothermal. This is an amazing way to end a day! Several of my favorite ski tours end on the other side of Moiwa, and nothing is more fun than skiing up to the onsen, getting cleaned up, and then having a short, silent, 15-minute tour up to the final ski run and down to dinner.
3. Food. Japanese food is fantastic. Even from the 7-11 - seriously, don't take my word for it, check it out for yourself. And Woodpecker Lodge feeds us breakfast and dinner, featuring fresh, local ingredients delivered to the lodge and emphasizing Hokkaido regional specialties. When you want a break, you can easily get into the village and experience local restaurants. Japan restaurants have received more Michelin Guide stars than the rest of the world - combined!
2. People. I found the culture in Japan to be amazing, which shouldn't be surprising, since its been settled for 32,000 years or so. Greater Tokyo is the largest metropolitan city in the world, and I've spent a week just scratching the surface (and getting really comfortable with public transportation - see #5). The people are incredibly warm and friendly - if you make the effort and show polite behavior, they will often go to great lengths to help you.
The island of Hokkaido is the least populated, despite being the second largest island. And in my experience, the backcountry wasn't crowded at all. I wasn't competing for lines or racing to reach a summit before the non-existent hordes caught me. I've spent some days skiing solo and not seeing another person.
1. Snow. Psst. I don't think the "greatest snow on earth" is really in Utah - its in Japan. These incredibly cold fronts come off of Siberia, pick up moisture from the sea, then slam into the Japanese Alps and the Hokkaido mountains. One of the cities on the west coast of Honshu (the main island) apparently holds the record for the greatest snowfall in an urban zone. On Hokkaido its common in the middle of winter to not see the sun directly for an entire month, and for snow to fall daily. That has certainly been my experience.
Hokkaido is far enough north that the alpine zone is quiet low and the trees become perfectly spaced to ski through. While its not necessarily "technical" skiing terrain, the rolling mountains and deep forests make navigating a careful skill in order to have a full, rewarding day skiing. The snowpack is cold maritime in nature, and surprisingly one thing Japan lacks is an avalanche forecasting and hazard system like that we're used to in North America or Europe. In Niseko, the local ski areas do have one avalanche forecaster who gives advisements on opening the sidecountry gates - and he happens to be the owner of the lodge I stay in! But this means that personal avalanche forecasting and observations are critical to a team's safety.
I've experienced over the head powder all over the world, but still, to this day, my favorite powder skiing has been in Japan.
I'm offering two one-week trips in February - dates later in the month are also available. We're looking for one more person to join us for 8-15 February. Contact me or Pro Guiding Service if you're interested!