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Editor's Choice

The Bear and the Melon

Just off Hokkaido's beaten path lies a totally unique ski area.

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Melon Kuma doesn’t initially strike visitors as a welcoming character. Created in 2010, the city’s unofficial mascot is based on a story of a bear eating so many locally grown melons that its head became a melon. It’s common to see the life-sized Melon Kuma “eating” the heads of unsuspecting children and adults skiing at the base of Mt. Racey, the ski area of Yūbari Resort.

Sam Beck in Yubari
Sam Beck finds snow between bamboo at Yubari Resort.Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

While silly and fierce at the same time, there is a deeper story surrounding the creation of the Melon Kuma and the plethora of melon-headed bear merchandise found throughout the Yūbari region. Formerly a coal-mining area, Yūbari fell on hard times when the mines closed in the 1980s, and then again in 2007, when the prefecture fell into bankruptcy. The mascot was created to promote tourism in the region, and it makes some of the most recognizable appearances at events all over Japan promoting winter activities in Yūbari.

Chairlift at Yubari
Getting a lift from Hotel Mt. Racey.Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

The economic development of the region is also one of the reasons the Cohn brothers at SnowLocals recommend spending time at Yūbari on either end of a Hokkaido ski trip: The community needs the tourism badly. And since Mt. Racey sees a fraction of the visitors compared to major resorts like Kiroro and Niseko, there’s even more of the deep Japanese powder left untouched for visiting skiers, and the local population is anxious to make sure everyone has a great experience during their visit.

Only 34 miles from the New Chitose Airport, Yūbari is a short ride from the arrivals hall via a train that delivers visitors to the ski area’s parking lot. From there, take the gondola and follow your nose into the trees for fresh pow on runs like Curving Line and Thrilling Line. Chances are, with so few visitors, the only tracks you’ll come across are your own.

SnowLocals Tip – Yūbari

Yūbari Lodging & Dining

Whether you stay for a day or a week, there is plenty of culture to keep skiers occupied off the hill.

Miso Ramen in Yubari
Name a better dinner combo than miso ramen and a pint of Sapporo Classic. We’ll wait.Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

Hotel Mt. Racey is a one-stop shop in Yubari for standard accommodations and very tasty black-noodle ramen, a regional dish loved by locals and visitors alike. The natural, open-air onsen at the base is the perfect way to unwind after skiing. In February or March, the town hosts the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, featuring a mix of Japanese, European, and North American cinema. Many of the Japanese films include English subtitles, and the event as a whole is a festive cultural experience, just in case you don’t get enough of that on the hill. 

Go Local in Hokkaido

While your North American season pass might provide free days at megaresorts like Niseko United, Hakuba Valley, or Kiroro, we highly recommend spending time at smaller, off-the-beaten path ski areas during a Japanese ski vacation. The slopes are emptier, the towns are friendlier, and the yen you spend goes further in benefiting local communities that need it. Not sure where to start? SnowLocals can help you find the best ski areas in Hokkaido for cultural experiences that match the powder skiing, and they can give you the scoop on everything you need to know while you’re there, too. Send an inquiry on their website to get started.

Originally published in the November 2018 issue of SKI Magazine. Video added to digital article.