For me, half the joy of snowboarding is the interaction with nature – standing on a mountain peak with the world at my feet, or stopping in a forest glade to listen to the silence as the snow falls all around. The other half is the physical rush of pushing limits and facing down fear. Personally, I’m most inspired when the spiritual and physical merge – and that’s when I’m riding fresh powder.
Of all the places in the world that snowboarding has taken me, nowhere satisfies the craving for fresh powder like Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. It’s the passion of the recent convert – Japan has no major international slopestyle contests, so even though I’d heard the stories and watched the videos, my relentless competitive schedule just didn’t allow a visit. But after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia were done, I found myself with a whole new set of goals, and a trip to Japanwas right at the top of the list.
That happened two years ago, when I stayed in Grand Hirafu, one of Niseko’s four ski areas, and my instant reaction was: “What have I been doing? Why didn’t I come here sooner?”
Talking to other people on chairlifts, it seems like that’s pretty much the standard response for visitors to Japan, especially anyone who’s gambled a precious week’s holiday on a trip to the Alps and lost. When it comes to fresh snow, Japan is a much safer bet.
Not that I’m knocking Europe – France is my winter base,and I love it – but it’s horses for courses. If terrain parks, challenging freeride terrain or long groomed pistes are your thing, Japan’s probably not for you. But if you’re looking for deep, deep snow and fun, user-friendly terrain (and aren’t particularly worried about not seeing the sun for days on end), you owe it to yourself to find out why Hokkaido is the undisputed powder capital of the world.
Still think a trip to Japan isn’t your cup of tea? Maybe it’s down to a few of the misconceptions I had at first – like riding in the trees is taboo, nobody speaks English, it’s too expensive…
Firstly, locals do ride in the trees. There’s an old chestnut that says tree runs are forbidden, because Japanese people believe the spirits of their ancestors live in the forest. The truth is that, for safety reasons, riding out of bounds is prohibited in some resorts (such as Hakuba, on Japan’s main island of Honshu), allowed in others, and in some (like Niseko) it’s a mixture of free access, gated access and banned. One thing’s for sure – no means no, and anyone caught ducking ropes in the wrong resort could soon be losing their lift pass or talking to the police.
Secondly, while most Japanese don’t speak English, Niseko is very geared towards Westerners. Most shops and restaurants are staffed either by native English speakers, or Japanese who speak enough to get by. Of course, if you’re looking for a more authentic local experience, there are dozens of smaller resorts on Hokkaido that will deliver it – and there’ll be fewer powder-hungry shredders to compete with!
Finally, Japan is not particularly expensive. Once you’ve shelled out for the flight, the rest is on a par with Austria or France, with plenty of options for riders on a budget. As in most ski resorts, eating out can be cheap or expensive, but it’s always good value for money – whether grabbing a tasty noodle curry from one of the cool food trucks on the main drag in Niseko for under a tenner, or splashing out on a delicious four-course Japanese meal with an emphasis on Hokkaido’s local produce at the Ki Niseko hotel, where I stayed in 2017, for about ¥8,800 (£63) a head.
Lift passes in Niseko are flexible and reasonably priced. A day pass costs ¥7,400 (about £53) and gives a full 12 hours of slope time (including floodlit night riding) in any of the resort’s four ski areas. A six‑day pass costs ¥38,400 (about £274). Passes are also available in or 50-hour blocks that can be used over non‑consecutive days.
Another thing that’s both cheap and exceptionally good in Japan is whisky! Every convenience store stocks a wide variety of local whisky starting from just over ¥1,000 (about £7), and their high-end single malts are now as sought after by aficionados as the best Scotch.
Which leads me to number one on my list of touristy things to do in Hokkaido – visit the Nikka distillery in Yoichi, about an hour’s drive from Grand Hirafu. The free tour includes three free samples. How’s that for a bargain?
This is Japan’s northernmost distillery, and I love its backstory. Masataka Taketsuru, son of a traditional sake brewing family, travels to Scotland in 1918 to study chemistry. Here he learns the fine art of whisky making – and meets his Scottish bride‑to-be, Rita. Together they return to Japan, where he founds Nikka Whisky, and they live happily ever after in Hokkaido. The house they shared is still there, preserved perfectly and open to visitors, so even if you’re not a whisky fan it makes a nice change from the daily routine of riding pow and soaking in onsens, Japan’s natural hot springs. Not that I’m complaining…