This article is sponsored on behalf of the Hokkaido Ski Promotion Council and Hokkaido Tourism Organization.
The Powder Belt of central Hokkaido, Japan has picturesque mountains with more than twenty local and world class resorts for Skiing and Snowboarding. The valleys are rich in volcanic soil perfect for farming and clean rivers run through them. There are many options for nature loving experiences in all seasons and on “down days”, you could just relax with a nice meal and soak in a natural hot spring. From July of this year, FinnAir will begin two direct flights per week from Helsinki to New Chitose Airport. I’m looking forward to seeing my fellow Europeans have easier access to Hokkaido, land of the rising fun.
Kamui Ski links is an uncrowded local gem, about 90 min from Sapporo. The resort boasts twenty-five courses with three alpine runs certified by the “International Ski Federation”. You might be lucky to catch a glimpse of my favorite pro snowboarder and Kamui ambassador, “Orange Man” carving the 150 meter wide faces. For powder lovers, there are forest runs and backcountry gates for those who have the proper gear and the knowledge of how to use it. Lift tickets are a good value and the friendly cafeteria staff serve delicious lunch choices. Quality ski and board rentals are available with larger boot sizes. The Gondola takes you to the summit and except for an advanced course area serviced by double chair #5, all of the run’s return to the main lodge making Kamui easy to navigate with families and groups.
European pioneers brought modern skiing to the Furano area more than one hundred years ago as railroad engineers realized the potential of the Tokachi mountain range. The Furano Prince Hotel resort ropeway whisks 101 passengers every ten minutes to the top while a link lift connects the “Kitanomine” Gondola side. There are more than 25 km and 28 courses of runs for all levels, including hiking and backcountry options. World Cup races, international competitions and steeper slopes than the Niseko area have put Furano on the map as a winter sports destination. The area also has a more Japanese and countryside feel than neighboring resorts.
For après ski options, visit The Furano Winery for local tastings of ice wine made by harvesting grapes in subzero temperatures or a romantic sunset view dinner. In town, you might want to line up early for a seat at Kumagera restaurant which serves wild game, fresh salmon and local vegetables cooked to perfection. They have original Sake in a warm and inviting setting curated by the owner, Takeshi Morimoto who is also an artist. The Baristart coffee shop with free wifi is a great place to meet locals and the Furano Bar has a late-night menu of Italian food with last order at 11:30pm. Just down the road from the Prince Hotel, Café Goryo, located in a renovated rustic farmhouse offers vegetarian lunches, homemade bagels and two choices of cake each day. Natural hot springs and Saunas can be found in local hotels or you can make a trip to the wild and free “Fukiyage” spring where bathing under the stars au natural is the way to go.
Sahoro and Tomamu resorts are on the other side of the Tokachi Mountain range and offer even drier snow and less overseas guests. As a foreigner living in Japan since 1990, this area has been one of my favorite winter destinations and I feel the need to tell you as inbound tourism has done a lot to save these resorts from going out of business. I met the friendly, “Wakahara-San” from Sahoro Resort Hotel who studied abroad and then returned to help international travellers enjoy the balance between having an authentic travel experience without the hassle of misunderstandings.
The meals are fantastic here with regional cuisine, fine wines and sake. The “Spa Refre” has a large open air bath lined with “Bakuhanishi” (medicinal stone) and a sauna with “Vihita” (white birch leaves) that leave you relaxed and rejuvenated after a day on the uncrowded slopes. Sahoro resort is well known for having bluebird powder days with less stormy weather and in 2016, they added a new quad chair increasing the size of the resort by 50% and adding more ungroomed powder zones offering exceptional tree skiing. Sahoro is a wonderful choice for international families or a quality option for those who prefer the road less traveled.
The Hoshino Tomamu Resort, only 90min from New Chitose Airport is the jewel in the crown for the area. The RISONARE Towers have only four rooms on each floor, all with mountain views that you can enjoy from a Jacuzzi bath. People don’t travel to Japan to save money, you come for a world class experience and this is the place. There are more than four separate hotels for different budgets and the mountain offers expert runs, powder zones and many family options including the popular snow bikes and snow scooters. In addition to the ski-in and ski-out experience, there are many optional activities like snowshoeing to a remote mountain lodge and cooking over a wood burning stove.
If you visit in summer a ride on the early Gondola allows you to experience the morning light of “Unkai” (Sea of Clouds). Whereas in winter, other panoramic views, including “Muhyo” (Rime) are amazing from a suspended walkway and terrace. A new attraction is the snowmobile experience through the rolling hills of Minami Furano where the winter views are sublime. After dinner, take a stroll through the Ice Village and check the Ice Bar for a cocktail or shop for local hand-crafted gifts in one of the igloos. There is an ice chapel for weddings and a new zip line and nightly fireworks popular with kids. Dining options for all tastes can be found throughout the resort, with the modern designed restaurant “HAL” one of my favorites. For lunch, the Nepalese curry shop, located in the Gondola station, has vegetarian options and a local favorite, cheese naan.
One last tip would be to make sure you pack warmer than usual clothing as the dry snow of the powder belt comes with chilling temperatures. Leave your tennis shoes at home as warm boots, wool hats and down jackets are the fashion. The Chitose airport has a UNIQLO shop where you can buy the latest “heat tech” wear and the Full Marks or North Face stores in Tomamu can outfit you with a new winter jacket or gloves if needed. I’m looking forward to international travel getting back to normal and hope to see you here soon!
Brad Bennett – AKA Racer X – is an outdoor enthusiast and guide who has lived in Japan since 1990.