I’m throwing a powder paddy. My numerous attempts at putting the skins on my skis aren’t going well. Firstly, when I take them off, I sink up to my chest in the driest, lightest snow you could possibly imagine; like duckling down but fluffier. It’s coming down heavily, and the stuff sticks to absolutely everything: the ghostly branches of Mountain Ash trees, the roof of my mouth as I breathe, the inside of my backpack. This snow is so light it actually defies gravity.
And it’s almost unbearably cold — around -30C with the wind chill on top, and the glue on my skins has frozen so they won’t stick to my skis. I’ve never encountered anything like it. Plus, I’m jet lagged, which never helped anyone keep their temper.
But then I get a grip. I’m in Hokkaido, home to the legendary ‘Japow’ (Japanese powder), and I’ve just had a dozen of the best turns of my life, my skis moving effortlessly through the snow. Cold air from Russia lifting moisture from the Sea of Japan creates Japow in abundance: the average yearly snowfall here is around 20ft — often more. And my initial taste of it off-piste has been the stuff of legends. My first port of call is Kokusai, one of six ski areas in the direct vicinity of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital. All the ski areas are within a 30-minute drive or bus ride of the city, and all are blessed with this mythical powder.
My guide, Ken, a professional ski instructor and ski mountaineering (‘ski-mo’) racer, who puts on and takes off his skins before I even think about getting out of my bindings, comes to my aid. He deftly scrapes the ice off using the edge of my ski, telling me to only take one off at a time — otherwise, yes, I’ll sink.
Before I know it we’re climbing again, up another mellow incline for more powder turns in this ridiculously perfect snow. Ken has led me to a wild, remote area around the back of the resort, a place impenetrable in summer, when bamboo several metres high covers its slopes.
But skiing out of bounds isn’t a given in Japan. All areas have different rules, and even skiing off the side of the piste is, in many places, illegal or frowned upon. To do so safely, and without the risk of having your pass seized — or worse — you must hire a guide.
While arguably this is important when skiing off-piste anywhere in the world, in Japan it’s essential. A mountain rescue service as we know it doesn’t exist here. Have an accident and you’re on your own. Often the weather is too bad for a helicopter to get airborne, and although police and firemen will come out from Sapporo, it can take them a day to arrive. I’m reassured to know that Ken has a full survival pack, including a shelter, stove and ropes.
From the top of Kokusai, at 3,600ft, we ski down towards the river flowing between Mount Asari and Sirai at the resort’s base. Elevations are low, but you don’t have to go high to find fine, dry powder here. Earlier, our first 300-metre climb rewarded us with a 400-metre vertical ski, the gentle terrain making it the perfect practice run to get used the sheer volume of snow.
“Big smiles, hey?” observes Ken when, powder paddy over, I reach him grinning from ear to ear. Japan might be a long flight, but it’s worth every second.
At the end of a long morning, we return to the lodge for a steaming bowl of ramen; the soy-salty soup with noodles, vegetables and slices of pork warming me to my core, and all for the princely sum of around £5.
One of the great things about these small, lesser-known Japanese ski areas (of which there are hundreds) is that prices are cheap: day tickets to the Sapporo resorts are around £35, the food is plentiful, and hotel prices are on a par with Europe.
The previous day, I’d found my ski legs around Teine, another of Sapporo’s ski areas 40 minutes from the city centre. With 15 varied pistes, Teine offers plenty to do for a day, even if you don’t have a guide and touring kit.
The lower Olympia Zone is ideal for families with its easy, wide runs, while the upper Highland Zone — 3,356ft at its highest point — was used as the venue for the men and women’s slalom events in the 1972 Olympics, so offers more of a challenge. I play around these steep pistes all morning, dipping in and out of the trees either side when I see others doing the same, getting used to the powder with no one watching.
The beauty of skiing so close to the city is that if ramen or steamed buns don’t tickle your fancy, you can head back into the centre for a seafood banquet. At Jogai fish market, I find a feast of tuna, scallop, octopus and squid sashimi, with a warming side of crab soup, washed down with a Japanese beer — as cold and clear as the snow (and cheap, too).
The only rule: it must be drunk after a rigorous clashing of glasses with your companions, accompanied by cries of “Kampai!” (cheers). While Sapporo’s ski areas of Teine and Kokusai, along with Mount Moiwa, Bankei, Fus and Takino, are all within easy distance of the city centre, it’s worth hiring car to drive a couple of hours further north. Pick a sunny day and head for Mount Asahidake, an active volcano that last erupted about a century ago, and where you’ll have not only an incredible backdrop but some of the best snow
There’s only one lift on the volcano carrying skiers and walkers almost to the summit, a dizzying 6,560ft above sea level, and we take our first ride up to the booming sound of Kylie Minogue’s Dancing. Folk who’d look just as at home in Chamonix as they do here clutch fat skis and chat away.
Sadly, on the day of my visit, the weather is foul and I’m treated to none of the views I’ve seen on postcards. My guide Yoshi does his best to show me the area while bent double against apocalyptic conditions, but after two runs and a close encounter with frostbite, we give up. I’ve experienced enough of the snow to know I’m coming back, and focus on warming myself up with another steaming bowl of ramen.
All this powder skiing, despite the lightness of the snow, is tiring on the legs, so I’m truly grateful for the existence of onsen — spring-fed hot baths found across the country. They’re almost a religion here — many Japanese go morning, noon and night — and when checking into a hotel, foreign visitors are helpfully given instructions on how to use them.
Rules are strict and can seem strange to a Western mindset: tattoos are a big no no, while women must tie their hair back, and washing before you get in (naked) is essential. It’s also vital to wear your kimono fastened with the left side over the right — right over left is for the dead at a funeral.
My trip ends with the best onsen experience of all: outdoors, overlooking Lake Kussharo in the east of Hokkaido. If you want to experience indigenous Ainu culture and spot the famous Japanese crane, it’s a must add-on to the end of any ski trip.
Soaking my feet, watching dawn break on the lake, mountains rising in the distance is pure Japow magic.
Three more to try in Hokkaido
Snowshoeing: Explore a quiet spot in the centre of Sapporo with a guided snowshoe walk around Makomanai Park, home to the stadium used for the 1972 Winter Olympic Games. Around two miles of circular cross-country tracks and walking paths circumnavigate the park. Head off through the mountain ash, cherry and maple trees in search of owls. These birds are considered lucky in Japan, plus you’ll spot monkey’s chair fungus, revered by locals for its anti-carcinogenic properties.
Drift ice walk: Don a dry suit and walk out over the ice on the Sea of Okhotsk at Shiretoko, on the easternmost-tip of Hokkaido. Sea ice is incredibly rare at this latitude of 43-degrees north. The frozen white mass spreads down from the River Armur in Russia during the coldest months of January, February and March. It’s only here for a short while and it comes and goes as the sea flows — so add other plans to your visit to this fairly remote part of Japan, such as a snowshoeing nature walk or drift ice cruise.
Experience Ainu culture: A stay at the Marukibune Inn in Kussharo-Shigai will not only reward you with one of the best onsen experiences of your life, but offers a chance to learn about the Ainu; the indigenous people of Japan. Ainu musician Mr Atuy built this basic, family-run hotel 42 years ago and immerses his guests in his people’s culture, including a magnificent evening banquet of Ainu cuisine with venison and fish he catches himself. There are officially 24,000 Ainu people in Japan (although this figure is probably much higher). This peaceful community of hunter-gatherers follow an extremely healthy and largely stress-free existence. Mr Atuy and his band Moshiri play tour their traditional music worldwide, and if you catch them at the right time, you might be treated to private practice session.
Japan Airlines flies to New Chitose from Heathrow, via Tokyo, with prices starting at £826 return. The cheaper option, via Helsinki, costs from £738 but the fare is unavailable online; call: 0344 856 9778.
Japan Airlines operates 16 daily flights between Tokyo and Sapporo. ana.co.jo ba.com uk.jal.co.jp
If you plan to ski several different areas in Hokkaido, the best option is to hire a car. There are loads of options at New Chitose Airport. If you choose public transport, there are trains from Chitose to the central JR Sapporo Station every 15 minutes (journey time 37 minutes, 1,070 yen (£7), and a good subway, tram and bus network in Sapporo itself. japan-guide.com hokkaido-sightseeing.com/en
When to go
There’s snow on the ground from November to May, although the best skiing is January and February. But be aware: it can be extremely cold in that time, dipping to an average of -30c.
Skiing in Japan
Check the rules for skiing off-piste; in many areas it’s not allowed. And where it is, only go with a guide who’ll be able to supply avalanche safety equipment. It’s possible to rent ski touring equipment in Sapporo. Fat powder skis area must.
Produced in association with Hokkaido Tourism Organization.