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February 20, 2019 News » Cover Story

This Is The (Other) Place 

Searching for the Greatest Snow on Earth in the Land of the Rising Fun.

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DEREK CARLISLE
  • Derek Carlisle

ASHIBETSU, Japan—The goddess appeared on the horizon, stark white against the pallid sky.

At 88 meters, toes to halo, the Hokkaido Kannon was the largest statue in the world when it was completed in 1989. The giant Buddhist effigy is nearly twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

And yet we damn near missed it. We were staring at the ski hill next to it.

I know I'm supposed to want cultural experiences when I travel overseas. Monuments, music, museums. All that stuff.

But my traveling companions and I had come to Japan's northernmost prefecture—where dozens of ski areas are packed onto an island about a third the size of our home state of Utah—with two very specific objectives: seek snow and ski it.

Some of Hokkaido's ski parks are well-marked and world famous. Others are hidden gems. Kokusetsu Ashibetsu Ski Area better fits that latter description.

"Ichi," I told the old man behind the ticket window, holding up one finger while pointing up and down with the other hand. "Just one ride."

He smiled and mimicked my gesture, then punched a number into an old calculator and held it up to the window: 190.

One hundred and ninety yen. In U.S. currency, that's about a buck seventy-five. I laughed. The man behind the window laughed. Laughter is the world's most universal language.

There was no line for the lift, a fixed double that looked like it might have been recycled from the Winter Olympics, which were held in Hokkaido in 1972. I counted seven people on the hill as we took the one-kilometer ride past the enormous statue. It had been snowing for most of the morning, and I whooped at the skiers below me. They whooped back. Whooping is the world's second-most universal language.

It was midday, but the snow on either side of the main groomed run was untouched, soft, and a good foot deep. I dipped my snowboard into the evergreens that lined the little hill's south border, popping back out of the woods in time to catch the last 30 meters of groomers before sliding to the edge of the parking lot, where I popped out of my bindings and looked longingly at the ticket window.

At just under 200 yen, it's not like we couldn't afford another run on this hill, which reminded me of Richmond's Cherry Peak. But this was an unplanned stop between two resorts in a single day, and with another one left to hit before we rested for the night, we needed to move on.

We had other hills to ski. Lots of them.

Why stop for a ride on a tiny ski hill in Japan? Why, for that matter, were we in Japan at all? Utahns, after all, are spoiled with snow and slopes. There are 10 resorts within an hour's drive of Salt Lake City, and most are genuinely world-class. An extra few hours, north or south, adds four more resorts to that list. True, we've got our problems with crowding, but it's never much of a challenge to find a virgin line, if you know where to look. Our backcountry is breathtaking. Salt Lake City's access to the outdoors is second to none in the United States.

And the snow is ... well ... you've seen what our license plates say.

Lately, though, a whole lot of Utah eyes have been fixed upon the Land of the Rising Sun, and not just because Hokkaido is likely to be a key competitor to Salt Lake City for the right to host the 2030 Winter Games.

The Ikon Pass, issued this year to Solitude season-pass skiers—and offering additional days at Brighton, Snowbird, Alta and Deer Valley—also provides free passage to Hokkaido's largest, most-famous and busiest resort, Niseko United. The rival Epic Pass, good for unlimited skiing at Park City, will get you into the legendary Rusutsu resort starting next season.

But. Still.

Why travel across the world for that which you can find in your own backyard?

MIKE YOSHIHITO
  • Mike Yoshihito

Thigh-deep and Silky Soft
It was snowing in Salt Lake as we left for Japan. A week after a storm that dropped a foot and a half of powder on the Cottonwood Canyons, the new cycle was a few inches into what some forecasters predicted could be a few more feet. It turned out to be six feet in seven days.

Chikushou!

The irony wasn't lost on us. And it wasn't lost on many of the people we met along the way, either. Skiing in Japan means skiing with a lot of Australians—for whom Hokkaido is hardly a hot, new ski locale—and plenty of powderhounds from the rest of the world, who have caught on in recent years to the glory of this place. Everybody we ran into seemed to have heard about Utah's epic storm—the one we were missing.

Some felt compelled to rub it in.

"I imagine you must feel a bit foolish leaving in the middle of a storm like that," said Paul Young, a wisecracking Aussie we met in the first day of our arrival in Hokkaido.

It was a fair dig. But here's the thing: Even in a bad snow year (the infamously disappointing 2014-15 for example), I'll still get a good week of blower days. I'll get that and more this season, which was going well even before that storm hit. But I get those days one and sometimes two at a time. A straight week of snow like that, though? Sure, it happens sometimes, but it's been two years since I could take advantage of something like that.

That last happened in 2017, when this same group of travelers—myself, Jared "JJ" Jones and Erik "Swede" Price—set off to ski all of Utah's resorts in seven days. The whole state got puked on that week, and long before we'd bagged our 14th hill, the question had already been asked many times over: "Where in the hell are we going to go to top this?"

The answer: Not in Utah. There's simply no guarantee that our biannual snowbro excursion would just happen to fall on another perfect powder week.

We've all seen this happen to Beehive vacationers. They drop a bundle on airfare, rental cars, hotels, food, drinks and lift tix, and are met with a dry Christmas, an unseasonably warm January, or that slushy early spring week that always comes and goes in February. That's the way it goes. Ski vacations are a roll of the dice.

I thought that was a universal rule. It's true everywhere I've ever taken my snowboard. You go. You pray for snow. The gods take things from there.

But that's not how it works in Japan. Freezing winds that gather in Siberia pick up moisture as they cross the Sea of Japan, then promptly dump it on Hokkaido's west ranges.

This happens again and again. Relentlessly. Predictably. The cycle of snowy winter days in Japan is as certain as rainless summer days in Death Valley.

Want to ski powder every day? Hokkaido is as close to a sure thing as you'll ever get.

Sure enough, it had snowed overnight, a good 10 centimeters, and it was still coming the next morning as we drove to our first resort, Rusutsu, about 50 kilometers southwest of Sapporo.

That sort of storm would pull tens of thousands of people into Utah's resorts. And, yes, there were plenty of people at Rusutsu on that day, but it wasn't anything close to as busy as Snowbasin—perhaps the best Utah analog for Rusutsu—would have been on a day like that.

Michelle Leonard, a Massachusetts native who moved west to Wyoming to ski and is now in her first season as a guide in Hokkaido, told me the crowd at Rusutsu on that day was "pretty average."

And the snow was, too.

Rusutsu gets upwards of 14 meters of snow each season. But it doesn't come feast-or-famine. It just drops steadily.

All. Winter. Long.

It's truly amazing.

"I still wake up every morning, look out the window, and feel surprised to see that it really is still snowing," Leonard said. "I never want that feeling to go away."

"How many days have you had when it didn't snow?" I asked Will Borg, an Idaho native who has spent parts of the past few winters as a guide in Hokkaido, as we hopped on a quad to the peak of Mt. Isola.

"So far?" he said. "Three."

"This month?" I asked.

"This season," he replied. "Or, let me put it another way: I've had three bad turns this year. Not three bad runs. Three bad turns. It's unbelievable, this place. There's good skiing every day."

Later, we traversed a ridgeline flanked on either side by short poplars lined with snow crystals. "We're going to drop down here," Borg said. "It's a little tight, at first, and then it opens up and, well, just wait for it."

Rusutsu's Sugarbowl was breathtaking. The fairytale trees did indeed thin out, and when they did, the snow was thigh-deep and silky soft, and I only stopped whooping when I took a couple of facefulls of it.

I spotted Leonard, who was waiting at a spot high enough to allow an easy path out of the gully for me and JJ, the two snowboarders in our group.

"Pretty good stuff, huh?" she asked.

"Meh," I teased.

"Skiing here is like that every day," she said. "Every day. I honestly can't believe my luck."

COURTESY BACKCOUNTRY CLUB
  • Courtesy Backcountry Club

In-bounds/Off-piste
Japanese ski patrollers generally won't come get you if you hurt yourself off-piste. Not off-resort, mind you—just off the groomed runs. Areas we'd assume are inbounds in the United States aren't treated that way everywhere.

It might sound cold, but the logic seems sensical to me. Theoretically, at least, people who shouldn't be off-piste will think twice before dropping into something they're not ready for.

But in practice, it would appear, skiers and boarders who have little business even going off-piste in-bounds skip that step entirely. If ski patrol isn't going to come help you a few meters from the groomers, I suppose they must be thinking, what's the difference if you stray even further? A lot of them carry backcountry gear—I've never seen so many people wearing beacons in a resort lodge—but not all of them seem adequately prepped for side-country skiing.

At Moiwa, quickly gaining a reputation as one of Japan's top resorts for side-country skiing, we watched with equal parts humor and horror as skiers and boarders with the grace and balance of a baby giraffe—the sort you might see struggling to make turns in a sea of moguls—dropped out of sight out of Gate 6, at the top of Mt. Moiwa.

I'm still trying to understand why. Moiwa is a small resort, about the size of our Nordic Valley, but it stood up favorably to the bigger and better-known Rusutsu for in-bounds-but-off-piste skiing. Wary not of the conditions and terrain, but rather of the dangers of inadequately prepared fellow vacationers, we declined to follow the crowd of skiers and boarders out of that gate. Instead, we looped the perfectly spaced trees and small bowls between the resort's quad and Shirakaba Slope—for hours—with little competition for good lines.

"I understand the appeal," local skier Takahiro Takagi said. "Everyone comes to Japan and they want to have an adventure. But nobody needs to go looking for snow. There is new snow here almost every day. Today, there are nice conditions. And tomorrow, there will be nice conditions. Almost every day in January and February, there's going to be snow. And the conditions don't get bad until April."

The situation in and around Niseko United—the Park City Mountain Resort of Hokkaido's ski scene—on the following day was even more disconcerting.

Once again, there was plenty of powder to be had in areas of the mountain that, by way of tree-covering and slope pitch, are less likely to be the site of a large slide. There was plenty of the deep stuff. A few steep drops. Glorious trees and—an otherworldly treat—bamboo-lined glades.

Yet from just outside of Gate 1 at Niseko Annupuri, high on west-facing ridge, I looked across the cleuch to see skiers and boarders, spaced just feet apart, traversing under a bellowing cornice the size of several city busses, parked end-to-end, as other skiers zig-zagged across the cornice's top, apparently unaware of what was below them, both in terms of the precariously overhanging ice shelf and foolishly close-together human beings.

"Oh man," JJ said as he watched from over my shoulder. "That just looks like bad news waiting to happen."

I'll grant that many of these skiers and boarders have spent far more time in the Niseko sidecountry than we had. But I'd wager my board and bindings that very few of them had as much time in this area as Sam Kerr, who was in his 10th year as a snowboarding guide in Hokkaido when he was caught in a 90,000-square-meter slide in February 2017.

He won't be the last to die near Niseko.

MIKE YOSHIHITO
  • Mike Yoshihito

Not Quite Endless Powder
There were only a few cars in the parking lot at Kamui when we pulled up. But for Jim and Jane Browning, who have been visiting this resort for more than a decade, that was a few too many.

"It used to be that the only foreigners here were Australians, like us," Jane said. "Now it's Brits and Canadians, and a lot more of you Americans. No offense, but it's changed things a lot, and maybe not for the better."

The crowds were a surprise to Midori Okamura, who grew up near Kamui "when it was just a little ski hill that only locals used."

Okamura left Japan for 15 years. When she returned, a few years ago, she was shocked by the changes to that little hill.

"I said, 'What the hell happened?'" she recalled. "It was so surprising. It has gotten so international."

Okamura is not complaining. She now works in customer service at the resort, and she loves the way people have fallen in love with her home. "The word is out," she said. "People are tired of Niseko, and the snow conditions here are really good."

In size, variability of terrain, and off-piste magic, Kamui reminded me very much of Big Cottonwood Canyon's Solitude resort. On the day we visited, the snow wasn't as almost-Utah-dry as we'd experienced at some of the other resorts, but it was plentiful, with eight centimeters on top of the groomers and 20 or more on the sidelines. We took a few laps under the lift on the far northern edge of the resort until the top-side lift attendant slowed down the chairs as we approached, ran over to drop a gate, and ran back in time to offer us a bow as we passed.

There were no bad lines in an area we were told was called Endless Powder, which was also the location of the most magical moment of the trip, as Swede, a Telemark skier, dipped a knee past a large tree, startling two green pheasants, which took to the sky with a flurry through the lucent sheen of snowfall in a sunbeam.

We took two more laps through that area before it started to look a bit tracked out. The powder, it turned out, wasn't so endless after all.

But even for three people making their first trip to this resort, it wasn't hard to find other lines.

That, again and again, was what we were finding about Hokkaido.

"There's no stress with this," Swede said. "Every time you go up one of the canyons in Utah on a powder day, by the time you get up there, by the time you arrive, you're just feeling so aggro, racing for first dibs. Here you traverse out a bit, drop it, and then do it again."

It's good that there was such joy in Kamui on that morning, because by the time we reached Furano, early that afternoon (after our quick diversion skiing under the watchful gaze of a Buddhist icon taller than the Salt Lake Temple) the conditions had taken a bad turn. Wind had shut down several lifts, and the ones that were still open serviced icy groomers lined with trees far too thick to play within. We took a run and shrugged.

"I'd love to see this place at its best," JJ said. "It feels like it could be amazing."

We'd later hear—from some fellow Salt Lakers—that the following day at Furano was damn near perfect. The resort, they said, compared favorably to Brighton on a good snow day.

But, alas, even in places where a few inches of new snow is practically guaranteed each day, the weather doesn't cooperate every hour of every day.

We finished our week of resort skiing at Sapporo Teine, one of the island's steepest resorts, which offered the widest diversity of terrain we'd seen. Once again, the parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived, and we laid down first tracks with little competition on the same mountain where American Barbara Cochran took gold in slalom in 1972.

We spent most of our morning in the trees below the quad in the resort's Highland Zone—very cautiously, at first, since we didn't know where the gulley released, and then with far less wariness on our second swing once we knew that it would drop us right onto an easy green run that would take us back to the Highland Ski Center.

By that time, we'd been joined on the mountain—Hokkaido's version of Snowbird, I decided—by a few hundred ski schoolers. Everything is adorable in Japan, and that rule applied doubly for the little grommets, always in matching ski school uniforms, who we saw in droves at every resort we visited. By midday, Teine was crawling with them—I counted 25 school busses in the parking lot—and my legs were ready for a break. Swede and I called it. JJ headed back out for a few more runs.

In the lodge, there was off-the-hook-good ramen and taiyaki fish waffles stuffed with red bean paste, matcha crème and custard. It was damn near perfect.

If we'd only spent our time in Hokkaido on the island's resorts and the immediate side-country, though, I'm quite certain it would have been hard to stomach the storm we were missing back home.

MIKE YOSHIHITO
  • Mike Yoshihito

Right Side of the Ocean
Two days of snowcat skiing began at a family-run lodge in the village of Shimamaki, in Hokkaido's southwest Shiribeshi Subprefecture. We arrived after hours of driving in blizzard conditions, on the evening before we'd embark on the cats.

"Utah, huh? We've had plenty of you guys here,'" Hokkaido Backcountry Club guide Peter Leigh said on the night we arrived.

Like me, Leigh is a San Francisco Bay Area native who started chasing snow and never looked at California the same way again. I landed hard in Utah. He never really landed—that's the life of a guide—but he said he feels at home in Hokkaido, "because that's where the best snow in the world is."

"No matter where people come from, they all say the same thing," Leigh said. "This is the best skiing they've ever experienced. Welcome to the right side of the ocean."

I must have shot him a bit of a dubious glance.

"Oh, it's OK," he said with the confidence of a circus ringmaster. "You can let me know if it meets your expectations tomorrow."

The lodge, the last building on a road that disappears into a national forest, is built on a hot spring. The men's onsen isn't big—it's about the size of a standard outdoor hot tub—and packed with six or seven naked dudes things can get rather cozy, but it's restorative after a long day on the mountain.

And that's good, because those were indeed long days. The powder pilgrims we rode with at Shimamaki were all eager to get as many runs in as the club's guides would allow. And the guides were only too happy to oblige.

The cats pick up their human cargo just across the road from the lodge. It's 45 minutes up to base camp from there. A perfunctory lesson in using avalanche beacons follows. And, with that, it's off to Mt. Kariba.

There's a good mix of terrain off Kariba. The steepest parts of the mountain don't go on that way for long. These were five- and six-turn drops on my snowboard—enough to get plenty of speed, but not enough to fall into the warm hypnosis that comes when you're stringing together endless turns like a knitter's strokes.

That's fine. I love steep and deep, but I love cruising even more. And Shimamaki's tree skiing was a meditation on the connection of nature and community.

Our community, on that day, included skiers and snowboarders from Australia, Scotland, France, Poland, Canada and the United States. There were bankers, engineers, scientists, soldiers, entrepreneurs and a rock musician. Oh, and a journalist.

Skiing in general is a sport of exceptional privilege, and it's important to acknowledge that this sort of adventure is privilege stacked upon privilege. There's a high probability, in groups built like this one, that someone is going to be a dick.

That's not what happened. There were absolutely no egos. There was nothing but laughter and whooping through the birch and aspen forests.

We got nine runs in on day one. We did 10 on day two. The snow fell off and on across both days, and the wind sent the powder back into our tracks almost as soon as they were laid.

There were no bad runs.

Midway through the second day, over a quick lunch of miso soup and onigiri, a 30-ish Aussie named Ben Johnson, who comes to Hokkaido to ski each year with his father, consecrated the experience with a superlative blessing.

"I've probably skied 80 days in Japan," he said. "These are the best two days I've ever had here."

Hearing that filled me with a sense of tremendous fortune for what we'd found in Hokkaido, and also an overpowering surge of appreciation for what I had waiting for me on the other side of the globe.

Because—yes—Shimamaki's backcountry exceeded every expectation I had for Hokkaido. I was sincerely sad when Leigh announced we were taking our last run. This was one of the best weeks of skiing of my life, and the two days at Shimamaki were the best days of that week.

But I don't think either day in Shimamaki would have cracked my Top 10. All of those days have come in the Mountain West. Once in a while, in weeks like this, but mostly in one- and two-day increments, when the skies open, and work can wait, and the Greatest Snow on Earth earns its fame.

Dear God, I'm spoiled. I know this. I really do.

But it's true what they say.

This is the place. And there's no place like home.


Matthew D. LaPlante is an associate professor of journalism at Utah State University and the host of
UnDisciplined on Utah Public Radio. His forthcoming book, Superlative: The Biology of Extremes, is set for release in April.

COURTESY BACKCOUNTRY CLUB
  • Courtesy Backcountry Club
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