Standing just off the summit of Mt. Isola, peering beyond my ski tips at untouched pillows of creamy powder, my skiing partners are chatting about the 13 meters of average annual snowfall that Rusutsu resort sees every winter.
Thirteen meters. That’s nearly 43 feet, or a four-story building. It’s a full three meters taller than an Olympic high dive. From my perspective, standing in the falling snow, getting ready to take yet another deepest-run-of-my-life, 13 meters of snowfall doesn’t seem like an exaggeration. In fact, it seems like an underestimate.
Anyone who has watched a ski movie from the last decade has likely seen epic powder segments filmed in Hokkaido. The mountains of Japan’s north island consistently get more snow than almost any other region in the world, enticing skiers in search of lift-accessed, bottomless powder. What these ski movies don’t always show is that many of the shots are in the backcountry or in closed terrain: Skiing in the trees isn’t necessarily permitted by all of the ski resorts in the region.
But this isn’t the case at Rusutsu. This ski area not only allows tree skiing, they encourage it. In the glades between the cut runs, snow-covered fallen—and still standing—trees form natural launch pads with pillowy soft landings for any amount of air. And there’s plentiful powder for skiers who prefer to keep their bases on the ground.
For our first lap, we take the gondola from the Rusutsu Hotel and Convention Center to the summit of East Mountain. At the top of the gondy, a narrow path cuts into the trees not unlike the Daly Chutes at Deer Valley or the trees off Steamboat’s Mt. Werner: You can’t quite see where the traverse leads, but it’s inviting to any skier worth their fat boards.
Sure enough, the trees clear to present perfectly white natural fall lines, tree launching pads, and, most importantly, soft and bountiful powder everywhere. We descend the trees, scoping landings like any savvy North American skier wary of rocks would. There’s nothing to indicate hidden stones, stumps, or any sort of foreign object in any of the landings, as it’s all likely buried under meters of snow. We blast down, slashing pillows and wiping the snow from our goggles, anxious for more.
SnowLocals Tip – Rusutsu Resort
We hop on the Isola No. 2 quad, where the liftie greets us with a hearty “arigato gon-zai-ee-maas” (thank you very much) just before the chairlift bubble automatically comes down without warning. The tallest of our group, Sam, gets a forceful reminder that wearing a sturdy ski helmet is critical for lifts as well as descents.
At the top of the chairlift on 3,261-foot Mt. Isola, the highest point on Rusutsu’s 4,200 acres, we meet Jake and Charlie Cohn, brothers who grew up in Telluride, Colo., but have spent the last seven seasons digging deep into Japanese ski culture. They own and operate SnowLocals, a planning service that helps western travelers survive and thrive on Hokkaido ski trips. Trusting their experience, we follow them from the view of the shimmering Pacific Ocean at Mt. Isola’s summit into the trees skier’s left of the Isola No.1 quad. In the glades, even more massive marshmallows of snow are presented for our skiing pleasure.
The group spreads out, whooping in pleasure and leaving clouds of snowflakes in our wake. Our outerwear’s bright colors are the only way to determine who’s who, as everything else is obscured by snow billowing up from our skis and falling hard from the sky. We arrive at the base of the lift with smiles almost as big as our hunger for another lap, which would soon become an insatiable appetite that keeps us skiing for 12 hours a day, three days in a row. Needless to say, SnowLocals made a strong first impression.
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Rusutsu’s name comes from the Ainu language, meaning “road at the foot of the mountain.” The first recorded settlement in the village was in 1870, and it has since blossomed to 2,500 year-round residents. The area relies mostly on tourism, with skiing in the winter and a large outdoor amusement park in the summer. Agriculture remains the second largest economic driver, and there is a seemingly never-ending supply of locally grown or raised potatoes, asparagus, and pork in the ski resort’s cafeterias and hotel restaurants.
Besides the powder and tree skiing, North Americans are likely to notice the resort’s indoor amusement park, open year-round, which makes Rusutsu’s hotel and conference center a rather odd place. The large building at the base of West Mountain features a full-sized indoor merry-go-round, dated themed storefronts, plus ski area cafeterias, authentic Japanese restaurants, and vending machines full of beer and who-knows-what.
There is a surprise around every corner in the hotel and convention center, best exemplified by Obrist, an amazing cocktail bar in the south wing, and the so-slow-it’s-funny monorail to the Westin Resort. The bar features a lengthy Japanese whiskey menu in a very classy setting, while the creeping monorail plays cringeworthy children’s music, but delivers riders to a clean and modern sento (bath house) in the Westin Rusutsu Resort.
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On our last day at Rusutsu, as our tired-yet-satisfied group sits in the Sekkatei restaurant eating locally sourced cuisine from Japanese farms and fisheries while swapping stories about powder turns and pillow drops, I feel an uncontrollable urge to get just a few more powder turns.
With the lifts spinning into the night on West Mountain, I politely excuse myself and hustle to the lift. There is still an hour left of skiing to be had, and I plan to use all of it. Making turns in the deep Japanese powder at night, sharing the lift with friendly locals, and enjoying the buzz that every skier knows when it’s snowing hard, makes for the best night of my season.
Even though the food, people, and whiskey comes close, there’s really nothing quite like the deep powder of Hokkaido.
Originally published in the November 2018 issue of SKI Magazine.