November 25, 2011 10:24 pm

Splendid isolation

The Japanese island of Hokkaido gets huge quantities of snow but very few skiers – the perfect combination

If Chamonix, Aspen and Whistler are at one end of the ski resort spectrum, then Niseko Weiss is at the opposite extreme. Even locating it proves a challenge. The narrow road up to the ski area in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, is lined on both sides with vertical snowbanks as high as the car roof, so driving along you feel like a mouse in a laboratory maze. My girlfriend and I make a few wrong turns into farm tracks, a few 12-point turns, but eventually find the car park at the bottom of the slopes. It isn’t busy. In fact, when we go inside the restaurant-cum-resort-headquarters we find only one other skier, keeping warm beside the fireplace while he waits for the runs to open. He looks up, rather startled that anyone else has come to join him.

The resort has seen better days. The big restaurant is half in darkness; the posters on the walls show skiing stars from years ago. Through the windows we watch as two workers clear snow from a piste basher, then gesture for us to come out and join them. This is to be our means of transport up the mountain as none of the lifts are working. It isn’t a temporary malfunction, and is not connected to March’s earthquake and tsunami (Hokkaido was almost unaffected). In fact, the lifts haven’t worked for a decade. As we ride up to the top of the mountain, shivering on the back of the piste basher, we pass the broken remains of lift stations: the tangled cables, engines and concrete supports already half-erased by the ever-rising snow. Niseko Weiss is a ghost resort.

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IN Winter Sports

For the past 30 years, Japan’s ski industry has been on something of a roller coaster. In the economic boom years of the 1980s, skiing enjoyed a sudden surge in popularity. Office workers became suki-kichigai, ski crazy, pouring out of the cities by train on Friday nights, skiing all weekend, then rushing back to their desks on Monday morning. A hit 1987 film, Take Me Skiing, fanned the flames still further, and skier numbers grew from 8.6m in 1981 to 17.7m in 1993. Investment flooded in and between 1980 and 1993, 236 new resorts were created, taking the total to at least 600 – more than any other country in the world.

But just as suddenly as it had arrived, the craze began to pass, helped on its way by recession and the rise of an alternative pastime, the computer game. By the time the Winter Olympics came to Nagano in 1998, many resorts were struggling with dwindling numbers, and some, such as Niseko Weiss, closed their lifts altogether. By 2006, the number of skiers and snowboarders had tumbled to 10.3m.

Hokkaido location map

It all sounds rather depressing until you remember, entirely selfishly, that empty slopes are the stuff of skiers’ dreams. At the top of the hill we climb down from the piste basher, windmill our arms to restore circulation, then clip into our skis. Spread out before us is a private ski resort, covered in more than a metre of fresh, untouched snow. While it may lack the money to repair its lifts, this place has other riches – typically 14 metres of snow falls in this area each winter. Compare that with Val d’Isère in France, which last season managed less than 3 metres. And, on a busy day, Val d’Isère can get more than 10,000 skiers.

We take three glorious runs down the mountain, all for Y3,500 (£29), starting off on the piste, then switching to routes through snow-laden trees. It is a wonderful way to spend a day but the slopes aren’t really steep or extensive enough to hold your attention much longer. Besides, it’s time for us to move on to the next stop on our week-long tour of Hokkaido’s slopes.

“Middle-aged and retired people still ski but the young Japanese just want to play around with computers,” says Mitsuhiko Maeda, director of Kamui Ski Links, a small resort in central Hokkaido. Set up in 1984 by a golf company (hence the strange name), it was taken over by the local government when visitors numbers started to fall. Today it gets 1,500 skiers on a busy day, 300 off peak. “Young people don’t have the money for it any more, and they complain about the cold. The resort isn’t in the red but it’s certainly hard.”

I’m finding it hard to empathise. We are talking at the end of a day skiing at Kamui and my mind keeps wandering back to the powder runs through forests of silver birch, ezo pine and stands of bamboo. The lifts had been empty all day and we had lapped them at a frantic pace, only stopping to grab steamed char siu buns from the café at the bottom.

The mountains are steeper and more dramatic on Honshu, Japan’s main island, but Hokkaido has the snow. I have skied in the Alps, the Rockies, the Caucasus and the Himalayas but this is the finest I have ever encountered: light, cold and lying all around in profligate quantities. It’s the result of cold winds blowing from Siberia that pick up moisture from the Sea of Japan, then dump snow on to the first peaks they reach.

It is deep at Kamui but deeper still on Asahidake, which, at 2,291 metres is Hokkaido’s highest peak. There’s no resort here, just one lift, a cable car that rises up the flank of the mountain to 1,600 metres. Those figures might sound modest by alpine standards but not when you consider the highest lift at Kamui reaches only 750 metres. There are two narrow pistes but really this is an off-piste zone, so a guide is recommended. Ours, Makoto Takeishi, meets us in the car park where he has spent the night in his camper van, welcoming us with coffee brewed on his stove. Aside from his van and our car, the parking lot is deserted.

From the top of the cable car, we don snow-shoes to hike further up the mountain to the starting point of the best backcountry routes. Skiers talking about snow depth can be rather like anglers discussing the size of their catch, but for once there is no need to exaggerate: it is regularly waist deep and in places up to my chest.

Izakaya

An izakaya, or restaurant, in Furano

It’s worth the journey here just to experience the snow but, of course, a Japanese ski trip comes with far more diverse attractions. That night we stay at Yumoto Yukomansou, a ryokan on the flanks of Asahidake. Ryokans are traditional inns, and this one lives up to preconceptions so fully that I would have assumed it had been created for tourists, had all the other guests not been Japanese.

Shoes must be swapped for slippers at the entrance. The bedrooms are covered in tatami mat flooring, have paper sliding doors, and futons that are laid out while we are at dinner. In the cupboard are yukata (a more casual version of the kimono) and they are worn by most guests at all times. Breakfast comes in a beautiful tall lacquered box, from which drawers pull out to reveal tiny samples of different flavours. Just don’t expect après ski – an air of peace and reflection prevails.

Most of the other guests have come not to ski but to bathe in the onsen, or hot springs, attached to the hotel. Japan’s onsen obsession is long-standing and deeply ingrained, and, unlike skiing, shows no signs of abating. The previous day we had hiked up another volcano, Tokachidake, then skied down to Fuki Age Onsen, a natural hot spring in the woods, surrounded by mounds of snow. We hadn’t seen a soul on the mountain all day but at least eight other people were poaching in the steam of the pool. We stripped off layer after layer of ski gear, hung it on branches and hurriedly jumped in.

The largest ski area in central Hokkaido is Furano but even here skiing isn’t the number one draw. More tourists come in summer to look at the lavender fields, visit locations used in long-running television series From the Northern Country, and eat the town’s famous omelette curry in as many restaurants as possible. With agriculture still bigger than tourism, Furano feels like a laid-back rural town rather than a resort. We arrive in time to watch “Saturday Night Live”, a wonderfully homespun show put on by townspeople to welcome tourists. A women’s dance class performs a pop routine, then a harpist and a bamboo flute player take to the stage to recite a piece called “The Delusion of the Plover Bird”. The show ends with a raffle and the excited MC calls out the prizes: “Two jam packs from our friends at the the Furano jam factory! One entry ticket for the museum of art!”

The only downside to Furano is the authorities’ extreme nervousness about skiing off-piste. Anyone who wants to leave the marked runs must first register at the police station, and even then it’s unclear exactly what is allowed. But Furano’s pistes are excellent and it makes a good base for trips to resorts where off-piste is allowed, such as Kamui and Tomamu.

Opened in 1983, Tomamu must rank as one of the world’s oddest resorts. Dominated by four tower hotels up to 35-storeys high, it is surrounded by pristine forest and mountains. It also boasts a colossal indoor wave pool, an igloo village, and a station with direct trains to Sapporo. Even then it only gets 1,200 skiers on an average day, and one of the resort hotels now sits empty. Skiers are so scarce when we visit that wild deer scamper undisturbed through bushes beside the piste.

Mount Yotei

Mount Yotei, seen from the slopes of Niseko

Only one Hokkaido resort has convincingly bucked skiing’s downward trend. Niseko, 20 minutes’ drive from Niseko Weiss, has managed to replace the falling numbers of Japanese with an influx of foreigners. In 2000, fewer than a thousand foreigners came to Niseko; by 2008, more than 13,000 came here from Australia alone. Today it stands on the brink of a new boom. Investors are pouring money into the resort, hoping to create a destination for the nascent ski market in China, Malaysia and Singapore. Malaysia-based YTL has spent $66m acquiring land and $10m redeveloping the Green Leaf hotel, while Hong Kong-based Pacific Century Premium Developments is spending $1.2bn developing the Hanazono sector of the resort. The developers talk of turning Niseko, whose logo is still a rather unglamorous skiing potato, into the “St Moritz of the east”, with shops from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chanel.

Some are already speaking disparagingly of how it has lost its Japanese identity. Compared to Furano it undoubtedly has, and on busy days there is a feeling, familiar from resorts such as Verbier or Chamonix, that if you don’t get to the powder early, someone else will get there first.

Nevertheless, you’d be mad to miss Niseko. The slopes are by far the most extensive in Hokkaido and there are sensational views of Mount Yotei. The lifts run until 9pm and huge floodlights on the mountain mean you can ski deep powder in the trees long after dark.

So go to Niseko, enjoy the skiing, the nightlife and the smart new hotels but then head off to the empty slopes of the rest of the island.

Tom Robbins was a guest of Inside Japan Tours, Japan Airlines and the tourist boards of Niseko and Furano

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A SKIER’S GUIDE TO HOKKAIDO

Ghost resorts and off-piste adventures

Niseko (www.niseko.ne.jp/en) is Japan’s most famous resort, with extensive terrain both on- and off-piste. There are four resort areas, spread around the base of Mount Annupuri. Hirafu is the largest and offers the best choice of bars and restaurants, Niseko Village is more secluded and has two resort hotels, the Green Leaf (www.thegreenleafhotel.com) and the Hilton (www.hiltonworldresorts.com). The ghost resort of Niseko Weiss (www.nisekoweiss.com) makes a fun half-day trip from Niseko.

Furano (www.visitfurano.com), the largest resort in central Hokkaido, gets slightly less snow than Niseko but the powder is typically drier and lighter. Accommodation includes the huge, modern, New Furano Prince hotel (www.princehotels.com), which is right by the pistes and the smaller Natulux (www.natulux.com) in town. Buses run several times a week from Furano to Kamui Ski Links and Tomamu.

Kamui Ski Links (www.kamui-skilinks.com) has no accommodation but is easy to reach from the city of Asahikawa, as well as Furano. Despite only having six lifts, it has a reputation for excellent tree skiing. Tomamu (www.snowtomamu.jp) feels rather like a skiing theme park: the tower hotels, spas, swimming pools and restaurants are connected by a series of walkways, bridges and tunnels. Off-piste skiing is allowed but you must register and wear a helmet and special bib. Tokachidake is an active volcano, which is popular with skiers and snowboarders despite having no lifts. The hike up takes you past smoking fumaroles. There are several ryokans nearby, including Kami Horo Sou (www.tokachidake.com/kamihoro/e). Hokkaido’s highest peak, Asahidake (www.wakasaresort.com) has lots of off-piste options – none of them are very steep but they usually have the best snow in the country. Ryokans nearby include Yumoto Yukomansou (www.yukoman.jp).

Japan Airlines (www.jal.com) flies via Tokyo to the two most convenient airports, Sapporo New Chitose for Niseko and Asahikawa for Furano. A return flight from London, for example, will cost from £789. Tailor-made packages to all these resorts are available from Inside Japan Tours (www.insidejapantours.com). An eight-night package with two nights at a five-star hotel in Tokyo and six at the Green Leaf in Niseko, with transfers, domestic flights and lift pass, costs from £1,500. See also www.jnto.go.jp

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