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Powder skiing in Furano Japan

Immediately after Christmas in 2005 I went to Furano on the island of Hokkaido in Japan to enjoy some on-piste and off-piste skiing.  To get an idea of where Furano is see these maps.

It is a bit of a worry to tell the truth about how excellent Furano is. I am fearful of it being spoiled and overrun by too many Aussies. I can sum up Furano as;

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Fantastic powder

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Great slopes with few flat boring bits.

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No crowds even during the Japanese New Year holiday break.

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Rarely any lift queues and long high capacity Gondola and Cable Car.

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Economical lift prices. About half the price of Australian resorts.

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Superbly friendly and helpful locals and business people.

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English speaking ski host program, where local volunteers offer a free guiding service. A lot of the guides are very friendly, attractive young women. Great opportunity to talk to local people on the gondola trip up.

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Excellent value meals, cheaper than suburban Australia.

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Good value accommodation.

I stayed at the Petit Hotel Suzuran across the road from the Kitanomine ski run and only a few minutes walking and skiing to the Kitanomine gondola. Masaki the owners son and his Thai girlfriend Boon, both with excellent English, could not have been more helpful.  Furano is not a ski resort, it is a small Japanese town with a ski area. There is only a kilometre between the edge of the  Kitanomine ski accommodation area and downtown Furano. The Kitanomine area has a variety of large, medium size hotels as well as small pension hotels like Suzuran. There was a choice of small restaurants in both Kitanomine and downtown Furano. Most had either a staff member who could speak English or a English menu you could point to. There was a free return bus to downtown Furano a few nights per week, but it was not a problem to walk if you were warmly dressed.

The total vertical at Furano is just under 1000 metres and the longest run is about 5 km. It is not a huge ski area like some of the interlinked European areas. The thing that makes Furano is the quality of the snow with 9 metres of dry powder falling per annum and an average depth of over 3 metres. The resort is extensively groomed, and the resort management tries hard to restrict skiing to the groomed runs.  The vast majority of skiers are Japanese who confirm to the directions to restrict their skiing to the piste. The Australians and others who are prepared to ski under the boundary ropes have the powder to them selves. Without this I would have got bored just skiing the same groomed runs every day, as I could ski a high proportion of the 28 kilometre of runs in a day. If you are going to go under the boundary ropes and ski the dry powder at Furano, keep away from the avalanche risk areas, ski with a partner or have someone know where you are, because even though you may be only a few minutes from the piste you are often out of sight and always outside the patrolled area. Also carry your mobile phone, which must be 3G to work in Japan. I recommend that you use powder straps, in case a ski comes off. If you loose it in this much powder, ski brakes are no use and you are on your own to find it anywhere in up to 4 metres of powder.

However the absolute highlight of my week was a backcountry tour on the other side of the valley on New Years day, my last day, in the Daisetsuzan National Park. My only regret for my week was that I did not have the information early enough in my week to do this more than once. My guide was Fukuda Hiroyuki and his partner Kuni from Hokkaido Adventure Tours (HAT). There were other operators advertising in Furano at higher prices, but they never seemed to have a group actually going, where I had to wait to get a place on a HAT tour. HAT does not seem to advertise in the Furano resort, their customers seem to be mainly experienced Japanese back country skiers who are staying in Hot Spring Hotels in the Daisetsuzan National Park and back country skiing each day. They seem to be doing shorter tours self guided and going further a field with HAT. In fact I was the first foreigner who had ever been on a HAT ski tour. All the Japanese skiers on the tour with me had their own full touring equipment, including super wide skis with a waist 80-95cm, equipped with touring bindings, telescopic poles, powder straps, climbing skins, avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe and shovel. The HAT price does not include equipment or lunch or the Onsen at the end of the day. Fortunately I have my own all terrain extra wide body 70cm waist skis equipped with touring bindings, telescopic poles, powder straps and skins. I managed to borrow a transceiver, and share a probe and shovel. Maybe it is possible to rent touring equipment in Furano. I was too busy enjoying the fantastic powder skiing to check it out.  Before I came to Japan I read a recommendation to use a ski of at least 80cm waist for back country skiing because of the deep dry snow. I had skied some fresh dry thigh deep powder in my Atomic Beta Ride 9.22 skis, I decided I should be able to ski the Hokkaido powder on my skis. The reality was that I did not have any problems skiing with my skis. The only problem was climbing up on the skins. In some sections the compressed snow on the track was very steep. With narrower skis and therefore narrower skins maintaining the same traction climbing these very steep sections. Fukuda solved the problem by wrapping a rubber ski strap around my ski under the foot. I will remember this trick and carry a couple of straps in the future. If I was living in Japan and regularly skiing Hokkaido I would probably get a pair of these super wide skis, but as an Australian occasionally skiing this snow my 70cm extra wide body are adequate.

Hiro was an excellent guide with great skills and comprehensive knowledge of the area. He led us to the best and safest runs for the conditions. For each run he skied down first and radioed back to Kuni after determining it was safe and advising the best track to take as each skier completed the run one at a time for safety. Fukuda took us to some excellent runs in open and close tree powder with fantastic views, including the active volcano Mt Tokachidake. At the end of a fabulous day the other clients went back to their accommodation. I went with Fukuda, Kuni and their friend from Tokyo to a mountain Onsen with a semi-outdoor pool, for a relaxing bath before they took me back to Kitanomine.

Below is a link to a 90 sec clip from various HAT back country tours during 2005 at Furano. Unfortunately I have only been able to get it to work in Internet Explorer. If you use Mozilla, Firefox or Netscape you may need to open this page in Internet Explorer for the clip to play.

Click here to view the Clip in Internet Explorer

 

The bus trip between Chitose airport and Furano was most interesting. I was expecting to see picture perfect villages and farms like in Austria. Instead Hokkaido was more like Australia, with functional economical buildings, and the occasional tacked on extension and derelict barn. In Hokkaido the wages are not particularly high by Australian standards, the standard of living seems to be similar to Australia and the Japanese do not all drive new cars. A few inconsistencies with vending machines everywhere, and even automated cahiers, but service station attendants and apparent over staffing in some areas, but not many credit card facilities or ATM machines.  I had a four hour stop over at Tokyo airport and took the train into Narita township to see the shrine. Again I was surprised at how ordinary it was and easy to get around. The restaurants and shops that I checked out had prices a bit more expensive

Furano Photo Gallery

I had a fantastic week in Furano and it is probably true that it is the best powder skiing in the world. I can thoroughly recommend a week there. However I would not be in a hurry to do another whole week there. I would probably get a bit bored. Next time I go to Japan I would like to try skiing at Hakuba. But I definitely want to go back to Hokkaido. A good program would be three or four days at Furano, three days back country touring staying at an Onsen in the Daisetsuzan National Park and three days lifted back country skiing at Asahidake.

The ski resorts in Hokkaido is not just the well known names of Niseko, Rusustsu and Furano. There are a myriad of small resorts dotted all over the place, often with just one or two lifts. A great holiday would be to head to Hokkaido for a month, get a car and wander from town to town staying in local inns, meeting the locals and skiing the local hill.

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