The dream. The myth. The legend. Japan has long been on my hit-list of places to visit and, more importantly, to snowboard. With an average of 15m of snow per season, Niseko on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is one of the snowiest resorts on the planet. But it’s not just the quantity that matters; oh no, with Japan it’s most about the quality. There are few places on earth where the snow is so fluffy (Utah claims to be one of them, though I’ve yet to experience its white gold) and there are even fewer places on earth where snowfall is so consistent.
This was one of the lasting memories of my trip to Niseko in January 2019. I was there for a little over a week and it snowed every single day. Not a lot, perhaps just 20cm of snow. But every day. And because this consistently appearing snow is so light and fluffy, tracks never turn into wet, lumpy ridges and they get filled in shortly after being created. And Japan does get tracked out. It’s the worst-kept rider’s secret out there. The place is full of pow-seekers from Australia, New Zealand, all over Europe and even Canada and the US. But if you don’t mind getting your hike on, you can easily find some untracked out-of-the-way places and maybe even the odd natural onsen.
I stayed in Niseko, the largest and most well-known of all the resorts on Hokkaido, and in Sky Niseko a brand-new pretty darn luxuries hotel. None of this was down to me. I joined another Jenny Jones workshop and all the decisions were taken by team JJ. However, although the hotel was a bit overkill, it was amazing and such a treat to stay somewhere like that.
Niseko itself is pretty cute. Lots of little bars and restaurants, a mixture of old(ish) and new and plenty of crazy Japanese neon signage. Mont Yotei makes fleeting appearances through the snow and cloud. And when you do get to see it, it strikes a formidable backdrop to the little, mostly low-rise town and rounded hills in its neighbourhood.
As far as riding goes there are pistes of course, but we weren’t there for those. Instead you ride through ‘the gates’ off piste areas that have been secured (though still not risk free, mind you). The trees are tightly packed (I hit one on the first run of the first day – ouch); the snow is so light and fluffy that it flies up in your face every time you turn so you feel like you’re riding in a white out most of the time. It’s relatively flat so hard to pick up too much speed – helpful with all those trees – but somehow, it’s easy to maintain a steady speed. Getting lost sucks though, as walking through that deep and airy stuff is like negotiating quicksand.
We didn’t ride in Niseko every day; we travelled around a bit. Moiwa had some of the best gate riding, with some fun hits to jump and load music pumping from its main lift to wiggle too, warming up from the super-chilled temps.
Rusutsu is the crazy, dreamlike place where you get to ride through a fairground that’s hibernating for winter. It’s so surreal and though we didn’t take any pics, you could capture some outstandingly cool shots here if you wanted to.
We also did a little snowshoe hike close to Rankoshi – short but incredibly fun runs. The drive there was memorable for the giant snow walls hemming in the road. The landscape was magically; it was sunny that day – one of the few days there wasn’t any snowfall – and the snow glistened like diamonds. We were only – ok, we were like 16 people, but still – and the only sounds were whoops, yeewwws and the wooshes of a rider coursing a line beside you.
Japan sits in the Ring of Fire, nothing to do with Jonny Cash, it’s been given this name because of its positioning on the cusp of two tectonic plates, the Eurasian and the Pacific. This makes it incredibly susceptible to earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes – and all associated pros and cons, like natural hot springs – onsen. (Add to that the fact that Japan suffers from devastating typhoons, massive snowfalls and high summer temperatures and you can ask yourself why anyone would choose to life there – that’s until you go; you quickly see why people would take the risk.)
Sadly, the truly natural onsens – the ones hidden in forests – have been discovered and turned into resorts. In fact, all the onsens were visited with this resorty-type of outfit. And there are some quirky rules associated with their use. (I’d love to find a wild one on my next visit.) In mixed onsen, Women have to wear these little pink strapless dresses – very bizarre. Men go in totally nude. Let’s just say we all got to know each other quite quickly…! In female-only onsen, the pink dresses are nowhere to be found.
You have to clean yourself with a bucket before and after your onsen. And traditionally, there’s been a no-entry policy for tattooed bodies – this is not really enforced everywhere now.
Once you get passed all that, sitting in a hot bath for a while chatting to friends about the mega powder day you’ve just – and will have again tomorrow – is nothing short of blissful.
Other than that, I don’t want to give too much away. There is something about the atmosphere there, the ambience. People are so friendly. There are so many weird, quirky things to laugh about. A million new cultural experiences to be had. I fell in love with the place. I was all at once complete a home and a million miles from it. Travel with an open mind, pray for it to be a killer of a season, and don’t forget to leave expectations and ego on the plane.