Cyrus Shahrad hikes up Mount Tokachidake, then snowboards down the volcano for a maximum thrill factor.
There are few dress rehearsals more disturbing than learning how to dig your friend out of an avalanche. Our guide, Watanabe, showed us how to switch our tracking devices to search mode – reading the guidance beacons of other devices in the area as a distance in metres – before hiding one in the snow and having us converge on it from opposite sides of the car park, a process that took a distressing amount of time. He then schooled us in assembling probes and shovels – equipment I didn’t dare ask if he’d ever had to use – while groups of skiers filed past and began ascents of their own on the slopes above.
No one gave us a second glance: this was essential training for anyone hoping to play in the powder fields of the smoking Tokachidake volcano, a mountain that regularly claims lives and has been known to throw skiers so far off course that they’ve had to dig snow shelters to sleep in.
Daredevil powder play
The island of Hokkaido – Japan’s second largest and least developed land mass – is blessed with the sort of snow that most European skiers long ago stopped believing possible, with the prevailing Siberian air mass annually delivering metre after metre of the lightest, driest powder imaginable. It was this that had brought me to the base of the region’s most infamous mountain. I would be hiking up 800 vertical metres in order to snowboard back down – a run that a handful of articles in snowboard magazines over the last decade have described in language normally reserved for depicting the lives of saints.
Not that everyone embarking on ski or snowboard tours of Japan need engage in such daredevil pursuits. Those seeking more conventional runs will find lift systems, groomed pistes and well-equipped resorts. Contrary to appearances, Japan got a relatively late start in the world of winter sports. It wasn’t until 1911 – when Austria’s Major Von Lerch came to inspect the Japanese Army and, awed by the mountains in which he found himself stationed, began teaching local soldiers and postal workers to ski – that a national obsession started to take root.
Over the next 100 years, Japan went on to host countless World Cup events and two Winter Olympics, while the island of Hokkaido acquired ski resorts of all shapes and sizes. These now range from local municipality slopes like Santa Present Park, and privately run ski areas like Kamui, to major developments like the sprawling Furano resort.
Hokkaido’s mountains are crowd-free (Australians constitute the only significant contingent of non-Japanese tourists) and offer a wealth of cultural experiences – replacing glutinous cheese fondues with steaming bowls of miso ramen, and après-ski gluhwein sessions with soothing soaks in geothermal hot springs.
Contemplating the snow cone
The previous afternoon, from our vantage point at the top of Asahidake – another active volcano dotted with vents spewing sulphuric steam, albeit one scarred with ski pistes and accessible by gondola – the peak of Tokachidake had looked no more threatening than a collapsed ice-cream cone, its silently smoking crater as cheerful as the chimney on a country pile. Yet Tokachidake is a mountain bereft of gondolas, groomed slopes or the potential intervention of ski patrols: those who brave it do so under their own steam, and entirely at their own risk.
Not that we were given long to contemplate the dangers: our guide Watanabe estimated that the currently sun-spangled peak would be hidden by heavy weather come lunchtime, so we saddled our bags, set our avalanche beacons to ‘send’ mode and began the four-hour trudge to the summit – which was now seeming as welcoming as Mount Doom did to young Frodo Baggins.
The ascent, difficult under any means, is decidedly easier with skis, which can be adapted with mohair ‘skins’ that allow skiers to shuffle uphill without sliding back down. Snowboarders like us have no choice but to strap boards to their rucksacks and their feet into aluminium snowshoes, the increased surface area of which reduces the chances of sinking in waist-deep.
Standing on the top of trees
The early stages of the climb were unproblematic – the gradient was gentle and the snow still relatively secure beneath our feet – and the conversation was broken by fascinated silences as we took in the snow falling in glittering trails from trees and the green-leaved bamboo shoots poking from the snowline. An hour into the climb, the silence turned into one of exhaustion, with the mountain starting to throw us awkward angles and the snow three metres deep under our feet. We were sinking a good 30cm into the snow despite our snowshoes – and occasional powdery collapses revealed that we were actually standing on top of small trees, whose covering was far from settled. Hats, gloves and jackets were discarded despite the minus 10°C temperatures, then hurriedly replaced during our power-bar break, when the cold began to freeze our sweat and clutter our hair with micro icicles.
There was to be no stripping on the second half of the climb, though – above the treeline, we encountered a relentless 40-degree terrain, unprotected from the 45-mile-an-hour winds that forced the temperature down further. Clouds closed in and falling snow pixelated our field of vision – from above, I couldn’t help imagining that we looked like a line of arctic explorers, marching to our icy doom.
Not that there would be any such fate in store with a guide as scrupulous as Watanabe leading the pack. After the breathless hugs and handshakes that followed at the summit, he spent the best part of half an hour digging a pit to test blocks of snow for stability, only giving the thumbs up for the descent when he was sure the ground wouldn’t give way at the first tumble or overly aggressive turn.
Down we go!
Tentatively, we clipped into our boards, the run below – over a mile long – beckoning and taunting us with its immaculate powder and ridiculous steepness. Even then there was no rushing our route down: Watanabe skied ahead to test every hundred-or-so metres before giving us the all-clear to follow on the walkie talkie, a stop-start process that gave us time to admire both our silent surroundings and the majesty of the snow beneath us. It was so deep and light that it felt as though we were not so much gliding on top of it as inside it, every turn kicking up arcs of spray that broke like waves overhead, every jump ending in a landing so soft that I felt as though I were still in the air. If snowboarding in deep powder is akin to flying, then this was the closest thing to travelling business class I’d ever experienced.
After the first few hundred metres of treeless faces we were back in the forest, weaving between snow-burdened cypresses and keeping our eyes peeled for the great bears that roam the area (and make for warming if reputedly tough winter stews), until we returned to the car park, breathless and beaming, our clothes saturated, gloves frozen, hats and goggles caked in snow.
Less than half an hour later we were soaking our exhausted muscles in the mineral-rich hot springs at the foot of the mountain (the laid-back nakedness of Japanese communal bathing can come as a shock to Westerners convinced of the nation’s social shyness), and contemplating the dreamlike nature of the day. Before setting off that morning, Watanabe had promised us that we were going to omoide tsukuri – ‘make good memories’. He wasn’t bluffing. Half an hour of snowboarding might seem a minimal payoff for a four-hour uphill slog through deep snow, but liberating oneself from the metal drudgery of the ski lift lends an appropriately Zen-like quality to what was, by some way, the most memorable run of my life.
When to go
Hokkaido’s snow season runs from November until June, but it’s best to travel in February, when the snow is likely to be at its deepest and the harsh winter cold should have abated.
Flights with ANA (www.anaskyweb.com) to Asahikawa in Hokkaido operate from Tokyo’s Haneda airport and take around 90 minutes. From there, it’s best to hire a car to get to the region’s various mountain resorts.
Alternatively, navigate the region by rail (www2.jrhokkaido.co.jp) as services stop at most major resorts.
Where to stay
For traditional Japanese houses – complete with robes, straw mat floors and futons, try the Tokiya Ryokan in Asahikawa (www.tokiya.net).
For a glamourous stay, try the wood-panelled La Vista Hotel in Daisetsuzan National Park (www.japan-ryokan.net).
Organising your trip
Hokkaido Powder Guides (www.hokkaidopowderguides.com) operates out of Furano, and organises backcountry tours of Mount Tokachidake, as well as Asahidake and other mountains in the region.
Furano Tourist Association (www.furanotourism.com) is the tourist office for Hokkaido’s largest linked ski area, and a good source of information.
14,000 yen (£100) per day backcountry riding with Hokkaido Powder Guides; 3,000 yen (£22) full equipment rental.
Am I up to it?
Beginners should look elsewhere: even experienced skiers and snowboarders struggle the first time they encounter deep powder, which demands a different technique to piste riding – albeit one that half-decent riders can pick up as they go. Hiking hundreds of metres up steep snow faces is exhausting – a few weeks of exercise is good preparation.
More like this
Most resorts offer backcountry skiing and snowboarding in some form, if not with quite the quantities of powder found in Hokkaido. In Europe, Chamonix is considered the champion, and McNab Snowsports (www.mcnabsnowsports.co.uk) organises tours in the valley.
Canada’s powder paradise is Whistler: engage the services of the Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau (www.whistlerguides.com) to explore the area’s full potential.
Finally, for a ski trip with a similarly unusual cultural bent, try the Iranian resort of Dizin (www.skifed.ir), an hour’s drive north of the capital Tehran.
Ski Furano (www.skifurano.com) is a useful resource for Hokkaido’s ski areas – from backcountry mountains to purpose-built resorts.