By Nancy Bouchard
Let’s get it out in the open. Japan is the powder snow capital of the world. With all due respect to Utah and Colorado, neither state can beat the powder I found in Niseko—a big volcano on Japan’s northern-most island, Hokkaido. Niseko powder is lighter than Dom Pérignon. It falls like a curtain of glitter—so fine and delicate that often you don’t realize it’s snowing until you see the sparkle in the glow of the streetlights. It’s not the thick gob-smacking flakes we have in the U.S. but more like the delicate dusting of a snow globe. I was there for a week—and it snowed every day—we had a half-foot to a foot of the fresh stuff to greet us every morning, and nearly two feet for our final hurrah.
The fact that Japan has some of the best skiing in the world is a well-kept secret—at least for North American skiers. The Japanese love to ski. The country—which is smaller than the state of California–actually has about 600 ski resorts, most of them on the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. Skiing is so popular in Japan that the country has twice hosted the winter Olympics—in Sapporo, about 60 miles east of Niseko, in 1972, and in Nagano (on the big island of Honshu), just over 125 miles northwest of Tokyo, in 1998. While the resorts on Honshu are a bit more crowded (they are fed by the population of Tokyo), in Hokkaido you’ll find no lift lines and plenty of untracked powder. The only odd thing about ski resorts in Japan (other than the heated toilet seats) is that Australian skiers staff most of them. Japan is closer to Australia than Whistler or Utah, and there are fewer crowds, lower prices, and, being totally subjective here, better beer.
Japan takes skiing very seriously. The country boasts about 600 ski resorts (a third more than in the US—which is fairly wild for a country about the size of California). There are four resorts on the volcano of Niseko—the area is called Niseko United and includes Niseko Annupuri, Niseko Village, Niseko Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono.
The vertical drop is about 3,000 feet—you can hike to the summit and drop off the backside for guaranteed untracked powder. There’s night skiing at Grand Hirafu—the powder at night is beautiful beyond description. Plus, the towns of Grand Hirafu and Niseko Village have scrumptious restaurants, rowdy bars, and cozy family owned spots to get a massage.
Japanese skiers are much more likely to stay on groomers and out of the trees than their Australian and North American counterparts—we skied a handful of days and rarely crossed anyone else’s tracks. Even if you’re a seasoned skier, consider hiring a guide for at least a day. You’ll get in a lot more skiing with someone to show you the ropes (and the secret stashes). I skied with NOASC Adventure Tours, a first-rate guiding outfit that offers ski and snowboard lessons, cat skiing, backcountry tours, and guiding in all the resorts in the Niseko area. The mountain gets about 600 inches of snow every year (nearly double what Park City and Vail receive). Snow falls early there—skiing is good starting in early December and lasting through early March.
Our condo, the Snow Crystal, a minute’s walk from the Ace Family lift. There are all sorts of room options—from the lux Vale Hotel to small rooms in people’s houses. Once in Niseko, you don’t need a car—you can walk to the restaurants, bars, and shops. If you want to go to another area (like Rusutsu, with its world-famous tree skiing through steep glades with well spaced trees), you can take a bus or hire a car. Rusutsu, about a half hour from Niseko, is a very family friendly resort—there’s shopping, a big carousel, theme-park worthy of Dollywood, and state-of-the-art golf courses in the summer. In Rusutsu, you can stick to the wide range of groomers, but a guide can help you find untouched stashes—every run.
The storm cycle off the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan are incredibly consistent. Where in the Pacific Northwest you get big storms every week or so in the winter, it snows in Hokkaido every day. The icy air blows off the plains of Siberia to the Sea of Japan, and then drops down on the volcanoes of Hokkaido. Of course the snow removal systems on Hokkaido are some of the best in the world. While resorts in the US are making snow and often trucking in the white stuff for half pipes, Niseko and Rutusu are trucking it away. The snow is dry, with even less water content than Utah, which usually boasts the driest powder in the U.S.
You might think that skiing on a volcano is the same anywhere you go, but you’d be wrong. The delicate silver birch groves rise high on the flanks of the mountain. There are some steep drops, but there’s plenty of gently rolling terrain. The deep snow and generously spaced trees make the glades accessible to pretty much anyone (although surprisingly enough, tree skiing was illegal in this area until about a decade ago). The groomed runs are wide and well-maintained so if you don’t ski powder, you won’t be disappointed.
Essential Apparel Picks
Columbia’s Outdry Ex Diamond Insulated Jacket ($500)
This might be the most important piece of apparel you pack. As you’ll inevitably frame a picture of yourself floating through chest deep powder, color is important. But you also need dependable warmth as temperatures can get cold in northern Japan. Our pick is Columbia’s Ex Diamond Insulated Jacket. Why? First, Columbia’s OutDry Extreme technology is nothing short of amazing. Rather than having the waterproof breathable membrane on the outside (where it inevitably gets clogged due to sweat) Columbia figured out that it works best on the OUTSIDE of the jacket. Not only is the membrane super durable, but inside there’s a soft mesh fabric that wicks sweat better than anything I’ve tested in years. Plus the cut is perfect—on both the men’s and women’s models. The tail is longer than normal; it drops mid-hip on the sides and swoops down past your butt in the back. Not only does this mean your underside is warmer on the chairlift, but the lines are more flattering. Plus there’s no chance of a gap between your ski pants and the bottom of the jacket.
Columbia HeatZone 1000 TurboDown Long Hooded Parka ($650)
This is a big coat, but on those late nights when you’re walking back to your hotel after belting out 70s hits at karaoke, you’ll be glad you brought it along. Not only does the 1000 TurboDown Wave Insulation jacket have Omni-Heat reflective lining, but it’s also seam sealed. The jacket is made with the same technology Columbia uses on their Iditarod parka—although the jacket is stylish, you could wear it on Mt. Everest it is so warm. The hand warmer pockets are perfect—there are a lot of pockets on this travel-friendly jacket. And the long, thigh-length cut keeps you warm down to your knees, without compromising your stride. I love the synthetic fur liner for style and protection from the snow, but you can zip if off if you want a look that’s more Manhattan than Alaskan.
Columbia Titanium Zip Down Pant ($250)
Ski pants can make or break your outfit. If they are too tight, you’ll have a hard time flexing in all the right places when you’re carving turns. But too big of a cut can be unflattering. Columbia has been leading the yoga/trail pant category with their Back Beauty line, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the new ski pant fits perfectly. They are OmniTech waterproof/breathable and fully seam sealed with zippered hand pockets, a thigh pocket, and a nice discrete zippered pocket just under the back waistband for cash and credit card. The zippers on the inside of the thigh kept me from getting overheated on the hike from the highest lift to the summit of Niseko.
Columbia Fireside Sherpa Shrug ($75)
No visit to Niseko would be complete without visiting an onsen. Japan is famous for its public baths—we bathed in the pools at the Hotel Vale. There are two sections for the onsen—one for men and the other for women. Since you bathe in the buff, we were relieved at the single-sex arrangements. After you’ve scrubbed down and soaked in the hot pools, you’ll want something soft and fluffy to wear back to your room. There’s a big front hand warmer pocket and fluffy hood that keeps your head warm—a good thing if you’ve neglected to fully dry your hair. The Fireside Sherpa Shrug from Columbia is one of the most original pieces I’ve seen in a long time. The material is a luxuriously soft fleece. At first I scratched my head over the short sleeves—but the cute design just makes the piece more wearable. You can toss it over a T-shirt or turtleneck and jeans, or over your nightgown when you go out to the kitchen for morning coffee. It’s the ultimate après ski apparel—soft, comfortable, and cut. No doubt, this is the “it” gift every ski girl wants under the Christmas tree this year.
Best Gear Choices
Smith I/OS Goggle with ChromaPop lenses ($210)
We first tried Smith’s ChromaPop lenses on sunglasses and loved the true color. This year, Smith introduced the technology in ski goggles and we love them. We field tested the goggles in Japan. In terms of a big windshield, the I/OS gets our vote. There are no irritating shadows or blind spots—just great visibility. We used both the Storm Lens, with its 50 percent light transfer and the Everyday Lens that lets in 25 percent of the light.
Icebreaker Ellipse Vest ($180)
A vest gives you terrific warmth without weight. Trouble is, it can also pad your mid section so much you begin to look like Mrs. Clause after a winter of testing Christmas cookies. The Elipse solves both issues. It is warm, with a barely-there profile. The chest panels have a MerinoLoft insulation—basically more wool than the tightly woven merino that makes up the back and torso.
Wagner Custom Skis
So you’re flying halfway across the country to ski. You’re hoping on powder, but the snow gods aren’t always kind. So what boards do you bring? You could plan on renting (the snowsport shops at both Hirafu and Rusutsu Resort have top-of-the-line equipment). But I’m always more comfortable with my own skis. After years of carting around a minimum of 2 pair of skis in my airline luggage (something big and wide for powder and a good pair of GS skis for hard-packed groomers), I finally got tired of the 6 ski quiver. I traded them all in a for a single pair of Wagner Customs. The price is a bit steep (a pair starts at about $1750—which is a few hundred dollars more than top-of-the line production models from other companies), but my boards (130 on the shovel, 94 on the waist, and 110 on the tail) replaced my K2 Koombacks, my Pontoons, and my Salomon Origins. And they hold an edge on ultra-fast groomed runs without a wrestling match, and floated through the feather-light Niseko powder.
Volkl Touristick Vario CC Poles ($170)
I like skiing with adjustable poles. The Volkl Touristick VARIO CC is a carbon/carbon adjustable touring pole with soft touch grip on the upper shaft of the pole for climbing uneven tracks. The basket also articulates for sure grip on uneven terrain. I extended them for when we were moving fast on the flats and kept them short for the steep and deep. Plus, the fold up nicely for travel.
Book your ticket to Narita International Airport, which is about 45 miles outside of Tokyo. If you want to visit Tokyo on your trip, plan for an extra night in the city. Narita is the Asian hub for Delta and United; and international hub for Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines as well as discount carriers Jetstar Japan, Peach and Vanilla Air. From Narita you can fly to Sapporo (a 1.5 hour flight) or take a high-speed train. You can also rent a car, but be prepared—the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, and you drive on the left side of the road (like the UK and Australia).
In Chitose/Sapporo, if you get in late, stay at the Crowne Plaza. The hotel is reasonably priced and fairly deluxe (there were no less than 12 settings for the toilet). The showers have better water pressure than I’ve encountered in my travels. Service is great—they’ll stash your skis, and provide a stellar breakfast buffet (included with the price of your room) that rivals that of most 5-star restaurants. I stayed at the hotel after flying to Japan and the night I departed. While I loved Japanese food—lots of fish and rice—having the chef prepare me an omelet and French toast was divine.
ExOfficio FlyQ Travel Vest ($140)
A multi-pocketed vest is your best friend on a long flight. You need a pocket to keep your passport at the ready, plus safe storage for your phone, credit card, cash, reading glasses and earbuds. The FlyQ is lightweight so it doesn’t weigh you down when you’re sprinting to catch a connecting flight, but warm enough that you’re not going to freeze when the airplane is operating its air-conditioning in December. The shell is a soft, super supple brushed nylon, with a loosely woven lightweight mesh lining inside. I was sold with the zippered media pocket, RFID blocking lined credit card pocket (to prevent someone from scanning your cards), and discreet but easily accessible passport pouch. But my favorite feature is the removable security pouch— I used it as a wallet and when I moved from plane to slopes, I just unzipped it and tucked it in my daypack. A key fob on a lanyard lets you attach the zip-off pouch to another key fob for additional security. (August 2016).
Eagle Creek Exhale Neck Pillow ($28)
After five international trips last year—to Sweden, Norway, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Turkey, my neck pillow has become nearly as essential as my passport. What you don’t want is one that leaks or pinches you under the chin. With most international flights being fuller than the proverbial can of sardines, any in-seat comfort you can bring is a bonus. I bought a lovely faux-fur covered one in Sweden that I loved, but it soon developed a hole that even duct tape couldn’t repair. Those big foam or bead-filled ones are comfy, but add way too much bulk when you don’t need them. The Exhale has big valve for easy inflation, and stuffs into a hot dog sized nylon bag. A nifty clip on both ends of the U-shaped pillow lets you attach it to a backpack (while inflated, or even clip it around your neck so it doesn’t pop out when you’re Z-ing out over the Pacific).
SmartWool Compression Socks
Gravity works its magic no matter what your age. Long flights can leave your feet and ankles feeling tired and swollen. Boost your circulation with a comfortable pair of compression socks. These aren’t your grandparents’ hosiery. Now, even hip companies like SmartWool make compression socks for people of all ages. Even if you always reserve an aisle seat and are vigilant about standing up and stretching every hour, long flights still take their toll on your legs. The compression is graduated, meaning that the top of the sock is less closely knit than the ankles and feet. These sleek wool socks fit so well you’ll want to wear them every day—I used mine as ski socks after I realized that my feet and calves didn’t tire as easy, and that the low-profile nature of the tight-weave fit way better than bulky knee-length snowsport socks under my performance ski boots. The Smartwool StandUp Graduated Compression Socks ($27) have 10 to 20 mmHg graduated compression ratings (great for reducing fatigue and speeding up recovery). The Smartwool PhD Run Graduated Compression Ultralight socks have even more oomph, with 20-30 mmHg graduated compression rating ($50). Both socks have a 14” calf height—ideal for hiking and ski boots—and seamless construction. The ultra soft yarn is 50 percent merino wool, 41 percent nylon (for durability), and 9 percent elastane for stretchiness.