Backcountry Ski Touring in Hokkaido
Join me for another season of backcountry skiing in Japan!
This isn't your typical resort-based powder ski trip that Japan is famous for (although that's great too). Instead of going to the well-traveled side country near the Niseko resort, let's explore the backcountry and go westwards to the sea.
Not your average backcountry skiing destination
I was stunned when I first visited Japan. 17 out of 21 days had daily snowfall of 20-30cm, “resetting” the slopes nightly. No joke. The backcountry skiing was amazing. When the avalanche hazard climbed too high there were no worries! Lower angle beech forests were perfectly spaced for tree skiing. The backcountry terrain was easy to reach, easy to travel through and fantastic to ski. And the snow… Niseko gets its snow from cold fronts coming out of Siberia, picking up moisture as they cross the Sea of Japan, then dumping it when it hits the mountains of Hokkaido and Honshu. This combination creates a huge amount of very dry snow. You get to ski it over and over again.
Other important notes for the trip
The pricing includes half room and board at the Moiwa Woodpecker Lodge – there are other lodging options if you want to be in the center of Niseko. The owner of the Woodpecker Lodge happens to be the regional avalanche forecaster, with 40 years of local experience. We also have the option to visit any number of local onsens (hot spring baths). Almost every day ends at an onsen, giving us a chance to clean up before dinner and after a full day of skiing.
- Saturday – Step on a plane and make your way to Japan. See you on Sunday.
- Sunday – Arrive in Niseko by train (my personal favorite), bus, or car.
- Monday – After all that sitting, today’s going to focus on the down. We’ll pick up a single-trip or half-day ticket to ski the back bowl of Moiwa, the local hill only 100m away from the lodge. This backcountry basin separates Moiwa from Mt. Annupri (1309m/4295′), and so we’ll traverse there and pick up a second ticket to reach the summit, a 20 minute bootpack outside of the ski area. There’s 1800-2500′ runs on the west and north aspects. We’ll ski what looks best before heading to the Moiwa-Io onsen. After a good soak, we’ll be fresh for a 15 minute climb back to Moiwa and a final run to dinner. More backcountry skiing tomorrow.
- Tuesday – All right, now we’re going to get after it. The north side of Mt Io (1090m/3576′) features some great 1000′ couloirs. From here we can explore north to Waisuhorun (1020m/3346′), which features incredible tree skiing and open glades on moderate slopes, and ends at the Hanazono onsen. Or we head east to climb the Chisenupuri (1130m/3707′) before getting an 1800′ ski descent to the Chisenupuri ski area for a pickup back to the lodge.
- Wednesday – We’ll drive back to the Chise ski hill to get one-trip lift tickets and a 800′ leg up. Our goal today is to ski and traverse as many peaks as we can – or want to – westwards. From Chisenupuri there’s Shakunagedake (1030m/3376′), Shirakabayama (930m/3051′) and Zenmennaidake (970m/3182′). From the summit of Shiraka we’ll have a 1400′ ski descent to Niimi onsen, where we can soak while we wait for our ride.
- Thursday – We’ll return to the Niimi onsen to continue the hunt for summits and snow. This time we’ll climb the massive Mt. Mekunnai (1190m/3904′), and Mt. Raiden (1220m/4003′) . Mt. Raiden is particularly special – this massive mountain sits right on the edge of the Sea of Japan, and features descents up to 3000′ – the longest in the area. We’ll finish the day back at the Niimi onsen.
- Friday – Mt. Yotei (1898m/6227′) is almost a perfectly symmetrical stratovolcano, towering over 6000′ above the valley floor, and one of the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains (a list penned by climber and author Kuuka Fukada in 1964). We’ll have a 4900-5200′ climb, depending on where we start. From the summit, we’ll get a one-of-a-kind summit, and a 1000′ ski descent in the crater! A short climb back out will give us a 4600′ descent back down to the car.
- Saturday – Bonus day – we’ll save this one for a rest day (if you want one) to shuffle into the week, explore the Raiden-Annupuri ridge further, or explore areas like Rusutsu Ski Area and Mt. Nukkibetsu.
Note – This itinerary has a heavy emphasis on “suggested.” Avalanche hazard and weather conditions will have a marked impact on our week. It’s best to be flexible. Remember that we’ll ski some of the best snow of our lives.
- Transportation during the week
- Lodging at Woodpecker Lodge for seven nights
- Dinner and breakfast at Woodpecker lodge for seven nights
- Guides' daily wages
- Transportation to Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
- Meals taken outside of Woodpecker Lodge - we usually eat out once at a local izakaya, or Japanese pub, on Thursday night
- Onsen visits (typically costs $8 USD)
- Lift tickets (which can range from $35-65 USD for a full day ticket, or as little as $4 for a single-trip ticket)
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I'm a licensed IFMGA American Mountain Guide - the highest professional qualification available. This license is required in order to guide in most of the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations' 26 member associations, but uniquely, not in most of the United States. I was the 75th American to qualify for the IFMGA license when I passed my last certification exam in 2011. I earned every bit of it, with about 60 days of instruction, over 300 days of prerequisite requirements, and 30 days of examinations. Because of course and exam schedules, in the United States this takes at least 4.5 years, and takes 7 years on average to reach this qualification. In 2016 I was invited to join the National Instructor Team of the American Mountain Guide Association.