International (Europe/Japan/NZ/Aus) Japan 2020 - Hokkaido Trip Report

Mattadvproject

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G'day Pugs,
Hope everyone is having a great season. Finally my season starts in earnest tomorrow as I head out to Japan again. This season I'll be out there for almost a month, from the 16th January to the 12th February. I'll have 2 weeks in Hokkaido and then 12 days in Tohoku. I'm excited to get back to Hokkaido as I didn't ski there last season (just did Tohoku). I have 2 groups coming out, a new group of 4 from Colorado with my guide Jeremy and then a group of 3 with 2 guys from California who have done many trips with me before and then David from Pugski (@UGASkiDawg ) who last skied with me in 2018 in Chile. So, a great crew.

I'm flying out of Denver on the direct Denver to Tokyo Narita flight with United. That's a really convenient way of getting to Tokyo. I'll be staying overnight in Narita (not many flights from Narita to Sapporo after 4pm), so I'll catch up on my sleep and then arrive in Chitose around noon. Then I'll grab our vans from Nippon Rent-a-Car and settle in for one night in Chitose at the ANA Crowne Plaza. Everyone is scheduled to meet at breakfast on the morning of the 18th and then we head to Otaru for our first 5 nights.

On the 23rd January we'll head north to Furano and stay there for 5 nights. As always, we'll be following the weather in each of our zones and hitting up the resort or backcountry area with the most favorable weather report. I know this season, Japan in general has been off to a very slow start. I'm hoping that when we get there, the taps will finally turn on properly. It's a tough call and looking at the weather reports with only light snow in the forecast, it's easy to get despondent about the situation, but I've skied boot top deep snow in Hokkaido before when the forecast has only called for 3cm's, so I'm always optimistic that there will be more snow than they are calling for.

We'll see. Either way, we'll have a fun adventure and enjoy what we can find. The trip officially ends back in Chitose on the 28th but this year we are going on a new adventure ourselves that I'm very excited about. For the first time, we are going to head south in Hokkaido to explore the Hakodate area where there are a couple of under the radar resorts. Then we'll drop off the remaining van in Hakodate and take the bullet train under the ocean to Aomori to start our Tohoku adventure on the 1st of February (I'll post a separate TR for Tohoku). That should be a pretty cool experience.

When we've visited Hakodate, that should tick off the bigger resorts in southern Hokkaido. There are 104 ski resorts listed for Hokkaido alone, but I try and focus on the resorts that have more than a 300m vertical. There are a ton of small areas that are just small hills that I'm unlikely to try and ski. There's a few further north past Asahikawa that I need to hit up and then that's most of the bigger resorts covered in Hokkaido. I'd be pretty happy to tick all the big ones off. Then I think the focus can shift to Honshu and heading south from Tohoku, which we are starting to do.

So, hopefully the next post will be from Japan. Until then! Wish me luck.....

- Matt
 

karlo

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There are a ton of small areas that are just small hills that I'm unlikely to try and ski
Unless they are high elevation? Two years ago, I was at Yokoteyama. Tiny resort, but way up high. Didn't do it, but looking around from the top, there was a lot of tempting offpiste-to-road?? or backcountry?? terrain, with a lot, I mean a lot, more vertical than the resort itself.
 

elemmac

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@SkiFiore -
Not sure about the best, but I’ve been watching these three sites (plus a number of backcountry ski groups in Facebook):

 
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Mattadvproject

Mattadvproject

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And then...
There’s https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Tokachi_(Daisetsuzan)
But, it’s active. How active, don’t know. But, there are hiking trails and a hut. Can’t be too bad, can it?

Edit: Found this
Good morning @karlo we LOVE the Tokachi mountains and the Daisetsuzan National Park. It's got to be one of the most beautiful areas in Japan that I've ever been too. We've been there several times over the years. It's all backcountry skiing, no lifts (can be easily seen from Furano) and they get a lot of snow, but the weather can be brutal up there. It changes quickly and I don't think we've been there in January and the weather hasn't changed on us, so you have to be careful. I think the weather conditions would be more stable in the Spring but we are never there that early. Here's a few photos for you -

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- Matt
 
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Mattadvproject

Mattadvproject

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@Mattadvproject

I'm heading over soon to Furano. What is the best site to check snow forecast, current base depth, etc for Hokkaido? I've come across J2Ski, any others?

Your trip sounds great!
Hope you have a great time in Furano @SkiFiore ! I love Furano! Great vertical, good snow, plenty of sidecountry access. Great skiing. I think @elemmac has given some great links. I'd add meteoblue.com onto that list as well as they have a free 14 day forecast which snow-forecast doesn't have, so I use both of those. I'd also say that snow-forecast can often under report storm totals (which I personally don't mind). I've had some pretty deep days when only 3cm's was forecast! You can use this link to find all the current snow depths for Hokkaido - https://www.snowjapan.com/search?words=hokkaido.

- Matt
 
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Mattadvproject

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Travel Day – 15th January
I left Denver on the 15th January on the direct Denver to Narita flight with United. Given it’s a 11.5 hour flight that arrives in Tokyo around 4pm, the plan was to stay awake until I got to Japan so I could get into the time-zone asap. I watched 5 movies back to back and stayed awake. David was also on the same flight as me.

When we arrived in Narita we went through immigration and noted straight away how friendly and welcoming all the officials were. They speak English and the process (biometric finger printing, photographing and then issuing of tourist visa into the passport) was very quick, pleasant and done in a friendly manner. You have to remember that the Olympics are coming to Tokyo this summer so it seems like they are gearing up for that. I was impressed by it all.

Then I had to take care of a few odds and ends (purchasing WiFi for around (@ 6,000 JPY for 30 days unlimited, purchased through the JAL store near Terminal 1 domestic departures, plus I stored my ski bag there overnight) before we could jump on the free shuttle to the JAL Narita Hotel (around $80 for a single room, with breakfast).

Jeremy, my other guide, was already at the hotel. I had dinner with David (Katsudon with soup and big beer for around $20 which is up there in price but what you expect from an airport hotel in Tokyo, it’s much cheaper in Hokkaido, so all good) and then was in bed asleep by 9am. I got a solid 7 hours and then was up at 4am the next day.

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Back in the land of the hi-tech toilet! I love Japanese loos, this one has a heated seat, makes a loud running water noise when you sit down to disguise any noises you make, front and back sprays. And this is a basic one.....


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Katsudon, miso soup, some pickles, orange and chocolate covered figs, plus a large Kirin for around $20


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@UGASkiDawg experiencing his first meal in Japan. He's enjoying his Tempura bowl.

- Matt
 

karlo

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purchasing WiFi for around (@ 6,000 JPY for 30 days unlimited,
That’s about $20/day? At AT&T, if you have their unlimited plan, you can port over the same service to another country at $10/day, only for days used. I also use my phone’s hotspot to connect my computer.
 
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Mattadvproject

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That’s about $20/day? At AT&T, if you have their unlimited plan, you can port over the same service to another country at $10/day, only for days used. I also use my phone’s hotspot to connect my computer.
I have AT&T Karlo but don't have unlimited data. Admittedly I didn't do much research on WiFi pricing and just bought an extended version of the WiFi I bought cheaper last season. Not too worried about it.
 
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Mattadvproject

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Travel Day – 17th Jan
I was on the 10:20am flight from Narita to Chitose and was with Jeremy and Eric. David was flying out later in the afternoon. We took the free shuttle at 7:45am from the JAL hotel and arrived with plenty of time. We found a much quieter check-in for ANA downstairs on level 1, Terminal 1 south-side where there were no queues. I finally have Star Alliance Gold status so didn’t get charged for my second bag. That was a nice change.

We also had time to go down to the railway station and check out the JR East ticket office to inquire about the JR East South Hokkaido rail pass (which we need for Hakodate and Tohoku legs). The queue was massive so we found out that we can purchase in Chitose so we didn’t bother buying passes here.

The flight to Sapporo is only about 1.5 hours, pretty much up and then back down again. I had a window seat and could see several ski resorts on the way up, plus some cool volcanos. Our bags were there on arrival so next we could head to the Nippon Rent-A-Car and pick up our two vans. There was a slight kerfuffle as they gave me a van with 2 rows of bench seats but we were able to swap it out for a different van with just the 1 row of bench seats (the vans with 1 row of bench seats have more legroom and more storage in the back). These are AWD Toyota Regius vans that we use every year and they are perfect for the job.

We still had a couple of hours to kill before we could check into our hotel in Chitose, so we went out for lunch. Jeremy knew of a small ramen joint with a Hello Kitty inspired theme, so we went in there for some noodles in broth. The food was great for only 850 JPY. Then it was back to the hotel (ANA Crowne Plaza Chitose) to check in and wait for the rest of the groups to arrive in preparation for departure on the 18th to Otaru and skiing. It’s snowing lightly outside so hopefully more is hitting the mountains.

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One of my favorite games, spot the resort! This resort to the north of Tokyo was where the snow started.


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Some cool volcanoes


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Arriving at Sapporo International Airport in Chitose


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Our trusty Toyota Regius rental van. Not sure what we will name her yet!


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Hello Kitty-inspired Ramen bar


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Noodle time, with Gyoza as well. 500 JPY for the Gyoza and then 850 or so for the massive bowls of ramen noodles.


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Sumo was on the tel when I got back to the hotel.....

- Matt
 

karlo

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Hope you have a great time in Furano @SkiFiore ! I love Furano! Great vertical, good snow, plenty of sidecountry access. Great skiing. I think @elemmac has given some great links. I'd add meteoblue.com onto that list as well as they have a free 14 day forecast which snow-forecast doesn't have, so I use both of those. I'd also say that snow-forecast can often under report storm totals (which I personally don't mind). I've had some pretty deep days when only 3cm's was forecast! You can use this link to find all the current snow depths for Hokkaido - https://www.snowjapan.com/search?words=hokkaido.

- Matt
I agree. @SkiFiore, I find that snow-forecast is easy to use, to look at forecasts. Forecasted snowfall, min max temperature, and freeze level. All available in metric or imperial, at top, mid and base elevations. Snow Japan is a great resource for a lot more information including local observations. So historical data can be perused; e.g.,
Unfortunately for us, the historical information shows how little snowfall there’s been this season in comparison to the past. Overall, I think you’re lucky to be at Furano. Avoiding thaws and rain is the key at this point, rather than seeking powder.
 
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Mattadvproject

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That’s about $20/day? At AT&T, if you have their unlimited plan, you can port over the same service to another country at $10/day, only for days used. I also use my phone’s hotspot to connect my computer.
Karlo, I woke up early this morning and had to re-check this as I was thinking $20 per day was pretty high ($600! Ouch!). I found the SIM receipt and it cost me 6,610 JPY for 30 days unlimited WiFi and that's roughly $60 USD, so only $2 a day. So that's pretty darn reasonable......

- Matt
 

karlo

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@Mattadvproject, you look for good snow for a living. Some advice please. I’ve been keeping an eye on Hakuba, where I will be latter part of next week. Here’s what Happo-one looks like around the 23rd, when I have a lift accessed offpiste tour scheduled, ending out of resort.
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Snow at the top. Heavy rain at mid. Freeze level above the top. Colder the days before with a bit of snow. Colder the days after with some snow late Friday. The amount of precipitation forecast has varied the last couple days. The warm spell on the 23rd has persisted. If you had until Saturday, would you reschedule the tour for the 22nd, the day earlier, or the 24, 25? I’m thinking if the 22nd, what’s there will be decent. If 24, 25, could be icy? You use snow-forecast.com, so you can see more. What do you think?

Edit: Happo-one because it’s the highest lift service in Hakuba. Other lower resorts are grim throughout.
 

karlo

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@Mattadvproject, another thought came to mind. The warming, then cooling, are those fast enough to elevate avalanche risk? What’s the safe(r) warming and cooling rate again?
 
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Mattadvproject

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@Mattadvproject, another thought came to mind. The warming, then cooling, are those fast enough to elevate avalanche risk? What’s the safe(r) warming and cooling rate again?
I think you should speak to you local guides @Karlos and ask them about the likely conditions and the stability when the weather changes. My thought is that temperature change, especially rapid warming, could decrease stability. Any condition that can add increased load to a snowpack would likely change stability in a negative way. Rapid warming could add more moisture content and add further weight to a snowpack and make it more sensitive. If it rains and then sets up colder, then you could see the formation of a rain crust which could then act as a barrier to vapor transportation through the snowpack and faceting under that layer could develop. A slick rain crust could also act as a smooth, shearing surface that could enable subsequent new snowfalls to more easily slide on. There's a myriad of things that could happen with a rapid temperature change, whether it be positive (maybe the rain penetrates into the snowpack without forming a crust and then as it gets colder and helps solidify the snowpack?). Those are all events that could occur and to be mindful of and something you could look for yourself or perhaps a local guide is already looking for? That's where I would start and would be looking for red flags and digging pits, performing stability tests if I had concerns. Just my 2 cents.....

- Matt
 
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Mattadvproject

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Jan 18th – Teine, first day skiing
The weather forecast was calling for sunny skies and mild temps, so we decided to head to Teine from Chitose as it was the most convenient resort on the way to Otaru. The base was sitting at about 160cm’s so it would be interesting to see how good the coverage was in the trees. Unfortunately for me, I had hurt my back and needed to see if I could still even ski. The group was fine to warm up on some groomers so we didn’t take out our avi gear.

On the drive up, there was definitely a lot of sassa grass (bamboo still poking out) as we made our way past the Olympia zone to the Highlands area. We bought 4-hour tickets for 4,100 JPY ($39) and headed up to the high-speed quad chair that gets you to the top in about 5 minutes. It’s a very fast and efficient chair that makes it easy to get a lot of fast sidecountry laps in. The views of Sapporo were great from the top, so we stopped for some photos.

We took one of the black runs down and it was a little scraped off on the steeper parts with some sugary bumps starting to appear. The lower-angle groomers were nice and you could make some nice pure-carved turns. We then headed over to try some of the red runs up high and then take the slower double chair back to the top. It was nice in places and scraped in others.

Then since we were just out to cruise, we decided to ski down to the other ski area at Teine and explore the Olympia area, something I’ve never done before. It’s accessed by a long and somewhat flat green run that a snowboarder should still be able to make without any help. We took that all the way down and eventually we came to some of the lifts. There are several connected, small peaks and it’s quite a large area, but the runs are very short. I don’t think I would need to head over there again, even on a powder day as it’s too short and not steep enough to warrant the effort. But it was good to finally ski it after driving right past if for the several years. Good to know.

The highlight was seeing the old abandoned fairground with rusting Ferris wheel and small rollercoaster, sitting there, somewhat eerily. It was a little sad but interesting to see. The old Olympic torch platform is also still standing, but this is just a concrete arm/pillar and not very inspiring. We skied from nearly all the chairlifts there before making our way back to the gondola and riding back to Highlands.

We stopped for lunch before heading out for 1 more lap on the quad. We were done around 2pm and then took the coast road back towards Otaru for our 3pm check-in. We settled in and then we had a couple of different groups go to different places for dinner in the mall at the side of the hotel (quick and easy!). I ended up at a pork only place which serves huge portions of pork dishes. I had the pork Katsudon which is a breaded pork cutlet on top of rice, caramelized onion and an egg on top. Tasty stuff. It was so big I couldn’t finish it. Gotta save some room for breakfast tomorrow!

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- Matt
 
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