By Charley Doyle
Being from Whistler, I was prepared to take the “Legendary Snows of Hokkaido” with a grain of salt. But even by our standards, they really get the snow. In December, January and February the cold winds originate in Siberia, pick up their moisture over the Sea of Japan and dump it in copious amounts of cold dry powder over the mountains and rural farmland of Japan’s northern island. The ski resorts of Niseko, two hours from Sapporo, where we spent two weeks, received 3.5 metres of dry white fluff in January alone.
As one might expect they are masters of handling the white stuff. No old dump trucks with blades for their highways department. The main roads are cleared by teams of six-wheel drive, two operator, industrial strength snow blowers that clear the middle of the road, wing back a walking space, cut a vertical bank and blow it all away, all in one pass.
On a more personal level, the average hardware store has dozens and dozens of snow removal implements, from different size shovels, adzes, trimmers and scrapers to whicker brooms and large capacity powder movers. No self-respecting home would have less than half a dozen hand snow tools at the front door, and probably a tracked snow blower as well. The B&B’s sport mini excavators.
Niseko United is comprised of four main resorts, separated by 5-10 km on the road which runs around the base of Mount Niseko An’nupuri. The lifts from these base areas ( all at an elevation between 300 to 400 metres) converge near the summit at 1,308 metres and one ticket gives you the whole ride. I’m told by my translator and resident Hanazono mountain planner that according to a complicated formula involving uphill and downhill capacity, area of terrain and a few other things that I can’t remember right now, the entire show is comparable in skier capacity to Whistler-Blackcomb. I had trouble with that at first but with 1,000 metres of vertical and tons of terrain both in and out of bounds, it definitely is big.
They lack the serious rocky alpine terrain that we’re so famous for but more than make up for it in the trees. The trees are deciduous; mostly birch, maple and some unidentified Japanese varieties, and unlike our coastal coniferous forests, they let all the light and snow in. As well as looking like Japanese brush paintings there’s no tree wells or frozen tree debris. To my delight, the trees are further apart and there are not as many tracks in between them.