Hokkaido Guided Backcountry Skiing COVID-19 UPDATE: AAI is open and operating with new policies and procedures for COVID-19. Click the following link to learn more about AAI's COVID-19 Operating Plans. Note that AAI’s no-cost postponement policy ended February 18, 2022. Overview
Legend has it that the forests of Hokkaido, Japan are haunted. They are supposed to be haunted by mystical spirits called Kodama that disguise themselves as trees. It’s easy to understand why people might believe the legend. In the winter, snow sculpts the trees into crystalline goblins that silently stand frozen in the landscape, guarding the moderate mountainsides like sentries.
The trees look like spirits.
Skiers and riders visit the frozen forests like visitors to a mystical world. The snow on the northern island of Japan is so incredibly light that it’s like fairy dust. Indeed, the mountains are so beautiful, the powder is so deep, and the culture is so rich, that it feels like a dream.
This is Hokkaido …
AAI's Hokkaido Ski Program is designed to provide seven full days of skiing or riding, all of which takes full advantage of a combination of both backcountry and sidecountry on the island. The program starts with a couple of days skiing out of resorts and then graduates to a variety of different venues.
The itinerary is not completely set before the trip. It will be determined specifically by the weather and snowpack. Some trips will have a bigger focus on tree skiing, whereas others will attempt one or more of the area's volcanoes. Regardless of what combination you experience on the program, one thing is certain: you will have an incredible experience.
Hokkaido Guided Backcountry Skiing Itinerary
The goal of AAI’s Hokkaido Backcountry Ski and Snowboard program is to provide you with as much time on your skis or board as possible. There are ample options for both big snowy days as well as blue bird days. As a result, the following itinerary is only a sample. If the snow is better on a different part of the island, the team will transition to that area. It’s important for program participants to be flexible.
A pair of skiers skin up through the Hokkaido backcountry. Donni Reddington
Fly to Sapporo. The guides will pick you up at the airport and transfer you to a nearby hotel. There, they will complete an equipment check. And then that night, the team will go out to dinner.
The team will leave early that morning to make the drive to Niseko. The team will drop their gear at a local hotel and then begin to explore nearby backcountry terrain. In the evening, we will sample the local restaurants, as well as the many
onsens (hot springs) found in the area. We will go to dinner and visit onsens in the evening on most nights.
Days Three and Four:
On days three the team will explore the “slack country” or sidecountry of some local ski resorts on the periphery of Niseko. If avalanche hazard is an issue, the team may explore additional ski resorts. The terrain that can be accessed out of both the Rusutsu and Kiroro resorts is absolutely epic.
Days Five and Six:
The team will explore runs through the forests of Hokkaido. Most runs are short at 800 to 1000 feet, but that allows for more runs in the “fairy dust” snow.
The team will ski for a half of a day near Niseko before driving north to Furano. The team will then spend the night in the north.
On the final day, the group will get up early to ensure a full day of skiing in the North of Hokkaido at Furano. When this area is good, it’s really good. If the area is in good shape, the team may visit earlier. At the end of the day, the group will drive back to Sapporo and spend the night.
Fly home from Sapporo.
Mt. Yotei. Donnie Reddington
Optional Ascents and Descents
This program is deeply affected by the weather. So it's important not to get too caught up on a single objective. If the snow in a given area isn't as good as in another area, we will go to where the snow is best. And when it's stormy, we will stay in the trees and avoid the alpine. That said, here are a few objectives that we may explore if the weather and avalanche conditions are favorable:
Mount Yotei - This volcano -- sometimes called the Mt. Fuji of the North -- towers above Niseko. It is one of the most visible mountains in the region. The descents down its flanks are long and exciting, but that's not why people ski this peak. No, instead it's for the phenomenal skiing found when one drops into the mountain's crater.
It takes between five and eight hours to skin up to the top of the mountain. Each participant's fitness needs to be top-notch. This is more of a ski mountaineering objective than a backcountry ski line, and as such avalanche and weather conditions need to be perfect.
Tokachidake Volcano - There is something extremely cool about skiing or riding down the flanks of an active volcano. Tokachidake Volcano hasn't had a real eruption for several years, but the mountain steams and the smell of sulfer is always in the air. The peak is exposed to high winds which can have an impact on both avalanche conditions as well as on snow quality. That said, if the mountain is in good shape, we'll certainly check it out. Asahidake - This volcano rises up above a small ski area and some of the terrain isn't terribly steep. But the snow is epic. It is some of the lightest snow anywhere...! Hokkaido Guided Backcountry Skiing Dates and Details
Transportation during the program
Lodging during the program (Shared hotel rooms and communal lodges)
Food, when included with lodging (this will be based on where we are and could vary).
Transportation/Flight to Sapporo (Chitose Airport)
Food, when not included with lodging
Onsen (Hot Spring) Fees
Private Hotel Rooms
Bustling city life in the snow. Donnie Reddington
Travel to Hokkaido
This program starts and finishes in Sapporo, Japan. You will fly in and out of the Chitose Airport. Most people will fly to the Tokyo Narita Airport and then take a communter plane to Sapporo.
Hokkaido Guided Backcountry Skiing Skiing/Boarding Ability
Many of the slopes in Hokkaido are moderate. And many of the runs are short, in the 800 to 1000-foot range. Additionally, the dry snow makes both trailbreaking while skinning, as well as deep snow turns easier than in many backcountry locales. However, this is not a good location for rank beginners. Those new to backcountry skiing should take an
intro course before going to Japan.
Experience skinning and backcountry skiing/boarding
An ability to ski/board an in-bounds single black diamond run
Experience with avalanche rescue equipment
Endurance for uphill skinning
Skiing in pixie dust. Donnie Reddington
Hokkaido Guided Backcountry Skiing Weather
Many consider the snow in the Hokkaido region of Japan to be some of the best snow in the world. It's common for there to be at least 600-inches of snow a year in the Niseko region, and in many areas of Hokkaido there is a great deal more. Indeed, Niseko has clocked in 1500-inch snow years! But this isn't the same kind of heavy wet snow that many other high snowfall climates experience. No, instead it is light and dry. It's what many skiers and boarders refer to as "blower" or to as "champaign powder."
The island of Hokkaido is perfectly positioned to take advantage of one of the best weather systems in the world for winter recreationalists. It has a warm body of water right next to a very cold continent, and winds that blow the right direction.
A weather map of Hokkaido.
The prevailing winds come directly out of the heart of Asia, blowing across some of the biggest mountains in the world. This makes the wind incredibly cold. As it crosses the warm Sea of Japan, it picks up moisture. When the moisture reaches the mountains of Hokkaido, it dumps in the form of incredibly dry snow.
The massive amounts of snowfall over a large region lead to another exciting element of Hokkaido travel. Those who live in the region really do love winter. The island sports 22-percent of Japan's landmass, but only 4-percent of its population. And that population is inspired by winter, not just recreationally, but culturally as well. Several well-known Japanese artists, musicians, poets and sculpters have been deeply inspired by the natural beauty of the region.
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