Sat, Feb 12, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Backcountry skiing in Japan

Adventures amid volcanoes and hot springs and neck-deep, untouched powder await travelers who venture beyond Niseko, Hokkaido’s biggest skiing resort

By Gemma Bowes  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Watching the sunrise over Mount Yotei is one of Hokkaido’s more sedate wintertime activities.

Fat snowflakes were falling as we walked through the pine forest along a path deep in powder when something suddenly caught my attention through the branches. A flash of pink, and then another — two bare bottoms that suddenly dropped out of sight into a thick white cloud.

The path turned into a series of slippery, ice-coated stone steps and descended to a series of small pools, just visible through the fog of steam that rose gently from their surface.

A group of wrinkly Japanese men sat poaching in the lower one, while some were lying on the rocks around its edge to cool down, naked but for a handkerchief-sized “modesty towel,” strategically placed. They nodded hello. I tried to maintain eye contact, before remembering that, aside from staring at someone’s genitals, this is one of the rudest things you can do in Japan, taken as a sign of aggression. Even out here in the wild backwoods of Hokkaido, Japan’s cultural etiquette applies.

The men I was with stripped completely, hanging their five layers of ski clothing on a tree and scuttling barefoot across the ice to the pools. I, on the other hand, was grateful that on the rare occasion the sexes bathe together in Japan’s natural hot springs, or onsen, women are allowed swimwear. Easing my limbs into the 40°C water, and leaning back against a mossy stone with a can of Sapporo beer in my hand felt amazing.

That day we’d hiked for three hours up the undeveloped peaks around the mountain called Tokachidake, through thigh-deep powder, with our skis and snowboards on our backs. The run down had been lovely, between trees painted white by a perfect coating of crystalline snow — but the few short sections of powder riding had been interspersed with tiring traverses and more walking.

Mountains, volcanoes, enchanting forests, natural hot springs and the famously deep powder — this is what brought me to Hokkaido. Japan’s northernmost island actually attracts more summer tourists — they come to see the lavender fields and dairy farms that make the Japanese think of it as exotic and, weirdly, European. But it is perhaps best known for its premier ski resort, Niseko.

Niseko is rapidly turning into the Whistler of the East, with large accommodation developments and overseas investment, several linked areas and hundreds of bars and restaurants. Australians and Asians flock there, and for good reason: it is a fantastic resort. Starting our trip there, we skied meter-deep powder until 9pm in a vast nightskiing area that is so well lit you can go off-piste, in goggles. Down in the main village, Hirafu, there are funky bars including Blo Blo — an ice bar with fairylights, icicles, and 1970s porn on the ceiling, where they top up your beer with vodka — and Gyu Bar, accessed through a fridge door. One morning we booked a “first tracks” trip, riding up to the Niseko Village ski area on the first piste-basher of the day at 7am, before the lifts opened, to watch the sunrise over Mount Yotei, which looks like Mount Fuji. Down the road in nearby Niseko Weiss, a disused ski resort where they have set up a cat-ski operation, we took US$16-a-go rides up to deep, untouched powder — pretty flat, but still a great experience.

Niseko has some amazing off-piste riding, and though you have to access the backcountry areas through special gates, which close at 2pm, and the terrain is nowhere near as challenging as the Alps, the powder is wonderful.

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