Every winter, Arctic winds sweep cold air across Siberia to the east. As the frigid air reaches the eastern Asiatic coast, it picks up plentiful moisture from the warm Sea of Japan on its way to the greater Pacific. But before this cold, saturated air arrives at the ocean, the mountains of Japan stand in waiting, forming obstacles that create lift and produce some of the heaviest snowfall in the world.
If you’re drooling at this point, you must be a powder hound. Luckily, the past decade and a half has seen the advent of skis wide enough to handle the deep snow of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, where ski resorts big and small feature smartly designed chairlift systems, relaxing onsens, and massive amounts of authentic sushi, ramen, and sake. From the friendly mountain operations teams that greet you on every chairlift ride to the helpful cashiers at the ever-present 7-Elevens, the island’s hospitality is world class.
At the center of it all stands Sapporo. No stranger to winter visitors, the city of almost two million people hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics and has endless taps of what is perhaps Japan’s most-famous beer of the same name. During the day, the city maintains the standard urban hustle and bustle of city dwellers making a living, but at night, the city comes alive with karaoke bars and nightlife that shines extra bright thanks to the snow-covered streets and infinite number of snowflakes that fall from the sky practically 24 hours a day.
Read More: Sapporo Classic
Short bus rides from the city through the forested countryside deliver skiers to the mountains. Rusutsu, one of the largest ski resorts on Hokkaido, is one-part amusement park, one-part conference center, and one-part sprawling ski area. It offers three unique lift-served peaks and heli access to the Mt. Shiribetsu volcano. On a clear day, you can see the monolithic Mt. Yōtei—but you can go for weeks at a time without a clear day.
Smaller ski areas dot the island, such as Mt. Racey, near the town of Yūbari. The region of Yūbari’s melon-headed bear mascot and powder-filled glades are both doing their part to inject tourist money into the dwindling economy—originally built on coal mining—by luring more skiers and visitors to the hidden skiing gems beyond the big resorts.
Japan can be overwhelming for any tourist, which is why we worked with SnowLocals, a company that has spent years exploring every nook and cranny of Hokkaido for the sole purpose of crafting the perfect trip. The only thing we had to focus on was getting the deepest turns of our lives. For our second annual Editor’s Choice trip, we discovered the secrets to making your fantasy ski vacation to Japan better than you could ever imagine.
Read more: The Land of Smiles
Getting to Hokkaido
One of the finest transportation infrastructures in the world makes everything easy.
Flights to Hokkaido
The hardest part is getting to Japan. A round-trip flight will run you around $1K–$2K for a week-long stay. Once you pull the trigger, the itinerary can be simple and provide plenty of time to catch up on movies. Most flights to Hokkaido go through one of Tokyo’s massive airports, so make sure you book enough time to get from the busy international gates to the eerily quiet domestic terminal.
Public Transport around the Island
New Chitose Airport isn’t very close to downtown Sapporo, so it may be more convenient to take a bus to Rusutsu, Yubari, and other ski areas from the airport for a small fee. If you spend one night in Sapporo, however, you can get a free ride to Rusutsu on a bus that leaves from a stop near the train station every morning. The public transportation between the airport and Sapporo is clean and efficient.
Hokkaido by Car
If you’re comfortable driving on the left side of the road, in snow, and plan on skipping the complicated streets of Sapporo, then renting a car might be an option. Taxis are a better choice for most, and hotels will gladly organize one for you.
Originally Published in the November 2018 issue of SKI Magazine.