Is the famous Japanese pow really worth the 30 plus hour trip? After a week in Niseko we can say 'hai'. Hell yes
For a week in Niseko it was like living in a shaken snow globe with non-stop snow but for skiing it meant we were up to our waists in powder. However it's not just the Japow hanging in the air after three turns that makes the seemingly endless journey worthwhile, it's also the culture (Japanese AND Australian) the snow laden birch trees, the amazing views whenever the sun emerges plus the natural hot water onsens...
GETTING TO NISEKO
It was back in March last year when a 10 day ski trip to Japan with Ski Safari was too tempting, price-wise, to pass up. We needed at least six people for the deal to work so after a few calls and emails there were seven confirmed most of us having Japan on the top of our bucket lists. Thanks to Mike and Michelle, Gina and Chris and Samir (who was later joined by his 21 year old son, Luke) for committing!
About a week before, though, with the best ever snow in the French Alps where Style Altitude HQ is based for the winter, we were asking ourselves why do we need to fly half way around the world for powder? Would it really be worth it?
We drove back to our UK base from France taking the flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo and then another to Sapporo on Hokkaido with a two hour private transfer to Niseko. Our BA flight from Heathrow was ironically delayed by ice on the wings which had to be removed, then the de-icer wagon broke down and so we left an hour and a half late and missed our connection at Tokyo and had to jump on a later flight.
We left home in West Sussex on Friday morning at 06.00 and, with the nine hour time difference, arrived in Niseko at 18.00 on Saturday evening. Were we insane?
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF NISEKO
We were staying in the J House in Hirafu, Niseko which is a contemporary Japanese house with four large double bedrooms and two en suites. The spacious upstairs open plan kitchen and living area was surrounded by windows but it wasn't until the third day, that we realised that we had a view of the famous Mount Yotei because of the non-stop snow and low vis that made it feel like living in a snow globe.
J House is about a half an hour's walk to the nearest lifts with a bus running at peak times which was so small that only a dozen passengers filled it up with skis sticking into ears and boards nudging into ribs.
The good news was that our street had some of the best bars and restaurants in Niseko. We discovered Bar Gyu or'The Fridge' (the front door is actually from a fridge) on the first evening, frequented the quirky tattoo parlour-cum-bar Baddies (too many beers and you'd end up with a tat of Yotei) and ate at the small traditional Japanese restaurants like Coto and Rin that feel like you're eating in someone's front room.
It took maybe one round of beers to get into the lively Niseko apres vibe. Was it culturely different? Well, no, not it you ever went to a pub in Earls Court in the 80s. Niseko feels less Japanese and more like Bondi Beach with snow as we arrived on 20th January, the tail-end of the Australian summer holidays.
Elsewhere the Japanese culture was a pleasure to experience especially their service with a bow and a smile (even the lifties sweeping the chair before you get on) and their amazing high tech Toto loos such a contrast to French service with a shrug and a grunt and those crude holes in the ground.
NISEKO THE RESORT
The first day we headed to the Hirafu lifts, squishing onto the bus and buying a six hour pass. Michelle and Gina were there to learn how to ski powder and had an instructor booked (see Learning To Ski Powder in Six Days #thisgirlcan) so we all followed for a run or two to get the hang of the resort.
Needless to say it was snowing and the vis so low we stayed in the trees doing some of the classic off piste runs such as Strawberry and Blueberry Fields which were disappointingly tracked out. We couldn't go any higher because of the weather and, in fact, for the week we were in Niseko the upper gates that let you into the sidecountry areas were open for only one in six days.
The image below was taken later in the week during a rare burst of blue sky and shows how amazing the resort can look when not shrouded in snow clouds.
But for our first day the natural snow making factory just wasn't keeping up with the number of skiers / snowboarders (and there ARE masses of snowboarders here compared to Europe). If you're staying in the Niseko resort then getting an early morning lift pass for 08.00, night skiing on the floodlit slopes when there are less people or being at the right gate when it opens up the off piste area are the best options for bagging fresh.
For us, though, that day's lift pass was the last we'd buy for the Niseko lifts. That evening Gavin went into overdrive to find a guide(s) for the rest of the week (read below).
For sure you can look at Niseko on FatMap and get an idea as to the various routes, especially within the boundaries of Niseko resort, however if like us it's your first trip you don't want to waste valuable time in searching out untracked powder having travelled all that way.
Most in our group knew the benefits of taking a guide and how they can deliver the goods. And after skiing Niseko resort it quickly became apparent that could well be the only option and as it turned out the correct one as, for the duration of our stay, the top lifts remained closed on five out of the six days.
In hindsight we should have secured the guiding well before we departed and once we arrived we were somewhat bewildered by the many guiding operations that are available in Niseko. It seemed that we'd arrived in a very busy week and on contacting a few companies many were booked up!
Our party of eight was really made up of two groups of four with one group being more focused on ski touring so that made finding guides even more confusing.
Samir touched base with an agent, Explore Niseko, who was able to do some of the legwork for us and found Zach (see below) from Niseko Photography & Guiding.
I then bumped into Miha Grilj, Snowsports Manager from Hokkaido Ski Club over lunch in Musu (great bistro bar when you crave a burger break from Japanese food!) and explained our situation. He turned up trumps in getting probably one of the top three UIAGM guides in Japan for us Cvetko Podlogar (see below) who took us up Yotei the next day - or should I say attempted to.
Also an honourable mention to Kenton and Les from Propeak for sorting out in-bound resort guiding for the other members of our group at such short notice and to Dejan Labes, snowsports instructor booked through Explore Niseko, who did an excellent two days off piste teaching Gina and Michelle.
What I knew before travelling to Japan was that many European UIAGM guides have been taking groups of clients to explore beyond the more frequented areas and it does seem to be almost a competition among them as to who can go to the most remote locations while still experiencing the more traditional Japanese lifestyle of ryokan and onsens in islands off the Hokkaido coastline.
TOURING IN NISEKO
Lying in a hot onsen bath with light snow flakes dissolving in the steam and a view of fresh tracks between silver birch trees, well it doesn't get much better than that. Especially as we'd been ski touring all morning receiving face shots of Japow.
This is what we'd signed up for coming to Japan rather than skiing in Niseko resort where there may be masses of snow but also masses of people skiing it.
Our Canadian guide, Zach from Niseko Photography & Guiding picked Gav, Mike, Samir and me up in his van at 07.45 and we drove for around 20 minutes to Nito, parking up with half a dozen other vans beside a wall of snow over two metres high.
It was around an hour's hike up with Zach making tracks then a ski down through the silver birch trees in classic Japow and another skin up to do it all again.
The sun even came out for a while so we could actually see not only where we were going but also the views. Then Mike and I chose the onsen using the natural hot spring waters (below) over another skin up.
The next day we had Cvetko, UIAGM mountain guide who took Gav, Samir, Luke and me up Mount Yotei. With the cold and the wind we made it to just above the tree line, around 900m climb before transitioning to ski down. So some unfinished business there.
The next day our group of seven (minus Luke who was still warming up from the day before) went with another guide, Shane from Propeak to Rusutsu, a smaller resort around 40 minutes from Niseko. We skied around doing tree stashes but in fairly tracked powder Gavin and I felt slightly cheated as we'd hoped for fresh lines via lift assisted slackcountry and had brought our skins. The rest of our group left their skins in the van as the guide suggested no one needed them but we were still carrying ours when Gavin spotted a superb line off the back. So we were on our own while the others went for a late lunch.
The sun came out again to add sparkle to the powder that hung in the air for around three turns through the stunning untouched snow between the birches (see main image). It was a difficult decision to put the brakes on and not go all the way down but we knew we had to skin up and couldn't keep the rest of the group waiting for too long.
On the last day, Saturday, our transfer to Sapporo was at 16.00 so Samir and Luke booked Shane for skiing back in Ruutsu. They were lucky as it had been snowing constantly since we were there last (in truth it hardly stopped but just got heavier) so they had enoough fresh in resort for good powder skiing around the trees.
CAT SKIING IN NISEKO
If it wasn't for the fact that Samir had been cat skiing in Alaska and recommended it we may not have discovered what must be one of the most amazing ways to do powder.
Limited to just 12 skiers / snowboarders with four 'guides/hosts' the Niseko Weiss Powder Cats took us up onto Weiss Mountain, a ski resort that was abandoned around 18 years ago during the Lost Score, Japan's 20 years of economic downturn.
We did four laps of waist high untracked powder in the morning and three in the afternoon with a fabulous lunch in traditional bento boxes at a spa hotel in the middle of nowhere.
And the cost was around £250 per person, far far less than heliskiing which, of course, would not be possible in the low vis.
WHAT TO TAKE FOR SKIING IN JAPAN
Fat skis. No question about it. Of course, if ski touring you maybe don't want to go super fat. Gavin rode 108 Black Crows, I skied on this year's new Nordica Santa Ana 110s (image below). Both superb.
Samir, though, who came via the Virgin Islands and didn't have his kit, hired fat skis, boots and touring equipment from Rhythm and got pretty good gear for the week.
While we were in Niseko the temperatures were in the minus double figures and we had crazy strong winds of 75 kph. So staying warm is a number one priority. If in doubt take a backpack (which you would off piste anyway) for extras such as gloves / goggles / layers.
A few of our group had boot and hand warmers and were tempted to buy sock warmers, too. Lenz make lithium heated ones with remote control via Bluetooth for a sweat inducing €250.
I had new 10 Peaks gloves replacing the ones I'd worn constantly for the past four years, and Gavin had Black Diamonds, both with inners. Neither of us suffered from cold except when it came to removing gloves for the numerous finger numbing Japow photo opportunites.
I was very happy with my super warm SCOTT Ultimate 650 fill down jacket but, for ski touring, opted for a RAB puffa gilet and SCOTT shell to climb up with an easily compressed lighter weight Jottnar Fenrir down jacket in my backpack for coming down.
As our mountain guide Cvetko advised on the brutally cold day we climbed up Yotei, the best idea is to take off one layer as you prepare to skin up so you feel slightly chilly then you'll be the perfect temperature once you get going but pack an extra layer for transitioning.
It turned out to be around -17C when we took off our skins and Luke sat down and started to turn blue with cold (he was wearing three layers with t-shirt, long sleeved t-shirt and light outer jacket, ski touring pants with long johns and Hestra gloves without inners). He was fine during the climb but took his gloves off and sat on the snow for a rest (below me in the image). With a very real worry of hypothermia, Cvetko dosed him with hot sweet tea and after a swift transition to ski mode we descended back down.
We took avy safety kit as in transceivers, probes and shovels but not airbags. Avalanches are less common in Niseko with more moderate terrain than Europe but, obvs, not impossible.
Good goggles are a no brainer but we only used low vis lens which work even for the brief glimpses of sun. A face mask / balaclava / Buff is also most welcome in the freezing temperatures - and as with all cold weather gear, there's plenty of choice in the shops in Niseko.
SNOW IN NISEKO
As you can see from the chart of snowfall up to the beginning of February 2018, below, this year has already out-snowed last winter. December and January are by far the best months, but in the general scheme of things, February's not too shabby.
Not surprisingly there's not a chart for sunshine hours for the winter in Niseko. While we were there for the week from 20th January we had one morning of sun, the first time according to our guide Cvetko that he'd seen it since New Year's eve. No wonder the Niseko guides take Vitamin D.
FINALLY WAS IT WORTH IT?
Currently looking at flights and booking a guide for touring in Japan next year...
Images: Gavin Baylis, Elaine Deed, Michelle Jones, Cvetko Podlogar, Zach Paley ©