Niseko: Skiing Japanese

Where to find 500 inches of powder, stashed in secret off-piste oases

    Photo: Illustration by Mark Stutzman

The Facts

Summit Elevation: 3,839 feet
Vertical: 3,117 feet
Skiable Area: 2,191 acres
Annual Snowfall: 551 inches
Price: An all-day lift ticket costs $38
When to Go: Mid-December through April is best
Contact: www.niseko.ne.jp

BORING A SKI POLE INTO two feet of powder, the crow's-feet of his crinkly grin peeking out the sides of his goggles, Yutaka Takanashi nods and says, "Niseko no bai wa, kore wa heikin desu yo." Translation: "This is about average for Niseko." We're traversing east through glades of adolescent birch trees with the sound of dueling woodpeckers in the distance. Takanashi, our 34-year-old guide, is one of Japan's top telemark skiers, and we've just finished skiing three off-piste glades of powder that, were it not for fat skis, might have been classified as too deep.

Sitting in the southwest corner of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, Niseko is one of the snowiest places on the planet, receiving well over 500 inches of snow a year. Storms from Siberia pick up a sudden surge of moisture from the Sea of Japan and slam into the 4,000-foot peaks of Niseko, exploding like a piñata that's been hit by Barry Bonds. Niseko is actually composed of three areas—Annapuri, Higashiyama, and Hirafu—all tied together at the summit, where a tangle of five lifts ferry skiers up into treeless, intermediate-level terrain. All told, Niseko has 2,191 skiable acres and 30 miles of trails. Only a few trails measure more than 30 degrees in pitch, but Niseko's 15 square miles of backcountry offer plenty of steeps—you just need to know how to find them. Which is where Takanashi comes in. Six foot one with a mane of black hair, Takanashi is light-years from the stereotypical small-frame Japanese salaryman. The name of his two-year-old guide service, Toyru, is taken from the language of Hokkaido's indigenous people, the Ainu. It means "to go into the mountains."

So we go, riding three lifts to the top of the ski area, hiking for ten minutes, then dropping over to the north side of 4,295-foot Annapuri. After three turns in some hard crust, I'm skeptical about Takanashi's slope choice. But a moment later I'm almost thigh-deep in fluff. For the rest of the day it's the same formula: heaping doses of powder, a final collapse at the end of the run, followed by a flurry of Japanese and English superlatives. When we started, I was worried there'd be no untracked powder; now I'm just hoping my legs will hold out.

My legs survive, but just barely. And as with all the best Japanese après-ski experiences, we wind down at an onsen, or hot spring—namely, the milky-green 108-degree waters of Goshiki, a 25-minute drive from the ski area. The bath even has a floating slab of wood, perfect for resting a frosty can of Sapporo. For Niseko, this is an average day.

WHERE TO SKI
For backcountry enthusiasts with proper gear, traversing north off the top of lift seven will lead to more sustained, open terrain, with plenty of powder. Warning: The backcountry isn't bombed or patrolled, so ski at your own risk.

WHERE TO STAY
Niseko Higashiyama Prince Hotel is a Japanese version of the Marriott and has English-speaking staffers—a boon for dog-tired ski bums (doubles, $130-$230; 800-542-8686, www.princehotels.co.jp).

WHERE TO EAT
B's Café, a five-minute walk from the Hirafu lifts, offers Sapporo on tap, Western-style sandwiches, and made-to-order vegetarian dishes.

GEAR & GUIDES
The Niseko Adventure Center (011-81-136-23-2093, www.nacweb.com/e_index.htm), founded by Australian Ross Findlay, can provide rental gear, guides (including Yutaka Takanashi), and evening snowshoe tours.

GETTING THERE
Fly to Sapporo from Tokyo on All Nippon Airways ($250 round-trip; 800-235-9262) and then take the train from the airport for $24, one-way. In less than three hours you'll arrive at Niseko station. From there it's just a few minutes in a cab to most hotels.

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