Day 1

Prior to travelling to Niseko, I was keen to spend every moment I could enjoying the famous powder and so had booked the earliest flight possible from Tokyo to New Chitose airport. Unfortunately, I had improperly researched the impact this would have on our ground transportation plans.

Firstly, it turned out that despite us landing at 07:40 in the morning, the first bus wouldn’t be until about 09:30 and by the time it took over 3 hours to reach our destination, the chances of me skiing that day would be slim to none. So, private transfer it was (which unfortunately meant paying around twelve times as much as the bus would have cost – good start!).

Then, there was the small matter of getting to Tokyo Narita airport for the 06:00 flight. It seems that at that time of night, there are no train services running to the airport. So it was either take another taxi (apparently costing around $300 as well) or take a train at 10pm and sit in the airport waiting. Luckily, I managed to find another alternative – there was a little advertised limousine bus available at 01:30 in the morning from Shinjuku to Narita; the bus wasn’t listed on their English bus schedule but it was on the Japanese one.

Once we arrived in the airport, we were of course the last to the party – all of the Japanese fliers had clearly arrived hours ago, probably on the 10pm train, and were sleeping on every possible surface (including many on the floor). At least they weren’t exactly queuing, allowing us to stake out a position at the front of the check-in line.

Once we arrived, the transfer went very smoothly, clearly our agent (Samurai Snow) had done a good job of arranging things for us. The hotel (Ikoino Yuyado Iroha - http://www.booking.com/hotel/jp/ikoino-yuyado-iroha.html?aid=1223809&no_rooms=1&group_adults=2&room1=A%2CA) looked very nice as well though unfortunately our room wouldn’t be ready until 3pm. Not to worry – we changed quickly in the onsen into our ski gear and grabbed the shuttle bus to go and rent some skis from Rhythm in Grand Hirafu.

It was at this point, after a good 40-minute bus ride, we realized just how far out of the way Annupuri was compared to the main ski area. If only we had known beforehand, we would definitely have booked one of the many hotels in the Hirafu area, or perhaps even Hanazono based on our later experiences on the slopes.

Equipped with a couple of pairs of nice fat Soul 7s we headed toward the Hirafu lifts – by this point it was around 11:30 so we weren’t doing bad all things considered. We took it fairly steady on our first day, getting to know the Hirafu ski area but enjoyed some nice powdery runs between the trees at the top end of the slopes. Unfortunately, the upper lifts were closed for wind that day (seems to be a common occurrence in the Niseko area so worth considering when you pick which resort to stay in) so there was no connectivity with Annupuri. We didn’t really fancy the bootpack over to Niseko Village either so stuck to Hirafu and took the bus back in the evening.

Help me!

Back at the hotel, the reception staff gave us our room key and then quizzed us as to what time we would like dinner. Uh oh. This was starting to sound a little bit like the ryokans… We picked the earliest slot and then headed to the onsen; although separated for men and women it was cool to have a volcanic hot spring right in the hotel and the outdoor area was a nice bonus, allowing you to sit outside and enjoy the scenery whilst soaking in the warmth from the springs.

Even the toilet shoes were back!

Dinner time was a definite disappointment. We were back to Gion Hatanaka style multi-course meals of various raw fish, pickles and raw egg based dishes. Not exactly what we needed after a hard day on the mountain and we went to bed feeling a little hungry and dreading the inevitable bowl of cold bark honey raw egg porridge in the morning.

Day 2

Up early to catch the first bus to the ski area, we apprehensively made our way over to breakfast (or at least I did whilst my fiancée was still getting ready). I couldn’t believe my luck when I got into the restaurant. A buffet. A breakfast buffet! Never mind that the bacon was really ham, the scrambled eggs looked strange and apple cider vinegar was offered as a beverage – this was way better than cold slop and so I texted my fiancée to get down here ASAP before it all evaporated.

Bit sharp for the morning...
We were in luck that day as the top of the mountain was open so we took the bus to Annupuri and headed up the mountain from there. When all the lifts are open, the mountain is very well connected, much like a less extensive Whistler, and we spent the morning enjoying some of the fresh powder on the Wonderland chair, which had been closed the day before.

Figuring out how to get out of Annupuri

After a quick run down to the village and back up, I decided it was time to step things up a level and left my fiancée to go and try the newly opened Gate 11. Ski patrol presented me with a set of the Niseko rules on my way out of the gate and I managed to follow a couple of other skiers down through the gulley, not wanting to ski off on my own into unknown territory.

The powder at the top was great but further down towards the village snow conditions were still pretty marginal given it was so early in the season – the gulley was narrow and the powder was scarce; the Soul 7s were not the ideal ski for the job but I made it down in one piece, and with both skis still attached (unlike the guy I spent 15 minutes helping to find his lost ski).

Reunited with my fiancée, we decided it was time for lunch and headed for a nice bowl of udon with pork cutlet curry (my new favourite) at the Lookout Café (lured in by the adverts from Hilton pasted all over the village gondola). Refreshed and warm again, we spent the afternoon back in the hirafu area before heading back over to Annupuri for the last run of the day.

We planned on enduring another meal in the hotel as we didn’t want a late night, given that we would be CAT skiing the next day. However, our plans quickly changed when we found out that CAT skiing had been cancelled due to a lack of fresh snow. Very disappointed, we managed to re-book onto a tour the next day (and our agent quickly confirmed that this was all fine) and decided to drown our sorrows with some junk food in Hirafu. But not before eating/looking at the meal that the hotel had already prepared for us.

Armed with a nice English translation of the menu, we could now confirm that each of the dishes was not really fit for consumption, the highlight being the pumpkin with egg custard (and surprise octopus, not worthy of being listed on the menu). It’s truly amazing in just how many Japanese dishes octopus shows up as an unexpected ingredient...

Custard and pumpkin with surprise octopus

Another 40-minute bus ride and we found ourselves in the Bigfoot bar in downtown Hirafu. The atmosphere was lively and we enjoyed poutine (a new ski resort favourite of mine after Whistler) and chicken wings whilst playing 9 ball (there weren’t enough balls left to play a full game of pool). At the end of the night we were forced to take a taxi back to Annupuri – a nice $50 treat meaning we probably wouldn’t be heading into town for food again.

Day 3

We decided to check out the last remaining Niseko resort, Hanazono, given that our CAT skiing wouldn’t be happening that day. We were lucky to have had a fresh dusting of snow overnight (reports were saying 1cm but I’m certain it was much more) and after a couple of runs down we’d decided that Hanazono was definitely our favourite resort out of the four. There were plenty of nice tree runs for me to enjoy, ducking underneath the top chair lift and then either into blueberry or strawberry fields. These were tracked by nice groomers with a fresh dusting for my fiancée to enjoy.

Whilst eating lunch in 308 we confirmed with the Hanazono team that CAT skiing would probably go ahead the next day; it had been snowing none stop all morning and seemed likely to continue throughout the day so the tracked out CAT runs should be good to go by morning.

We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the powder fields of Hanazono before the long traverse back to Annupuri, seemingly impossible in a single run; we made it as far as the Wonderland chair.

As we had to be up early for CAT skiing in the morning, we decided to brave the hotel menu again (it couldn’t be worse than pumpkin custard with surprise octopus right?!) and then had a quick soak in the onsen for our sore muscles – three days in and we were already starting to feel the pain from the onslaught of exercise.

Day 4

We had picked to go CAT skiing at Niseko Weiss, which our agent had assured us would be a suitable level for my fiancée who didn’t have any experience with powder skiing. Overnight there had been even more snow and we were looking forward to a great day. After a long drive out to Hanazono we had a quick safety briefing (I was quite surprised that we were all given beacons but only shown how to switch them on to track mode – unlike the brief avalanche training we had received when going heli skiing in Whistler). Then, it was just a short drive up to the disused Weiss resort where we loaded into the CAT.

The top of the first run was cold and blustery, with an unfortunately steep drop off onto the first run. This did not give my fiancée the confidence boost she much needed and we were quickly back to snow plough turns and falling over. I tried to reassure her but the first run was a bit of a disaster, even if by the end of it she was linking turns nicely again in the deep powder.

However, the second run didn’t drop off from the same point and the snow at the top didn’t have the same crust to it. She began to get into the swing of things and enjoyed the powder. I was having a blast, cutting in and out of the trees and enjoying the long runs down. This was what Japow was all about!

By lunch time, she couldn’t get enough of it and even the Japanese bento box couldn’t bring us down – despite similarities to our hotel’s cuisine. Over lunch, snow was dumping outside and by the time we got back up to the top, tracks from the morning had almost been covered over. The afternoon was a blast and we finished around 8 or 9 runs in total, which was well above the average despite having had to stop for somebody to be taken down with a knee injury at one point.

The guides were great and managed to grab some good photos of us throughout the day. I also got some cool footage on the Nikon Key Mission, which performed much better in the deep powder than it did in the resort (much less vibration on the footage). I would highly recommend taking this trip to anybody looking to get a taste of off-piste for the first time!

Our CAT skiing group

Unable to bear the thought of another night of hotel food, and not wanting to foot another $50 taxi ride on top of dinner, we decided to head to the Korean BBQ place over the road (but booked in for dinner at 19:30 in any event to avoid being impolite). On the way over the road we joked about how they would probably report us to the hotel for cheating on them and ordering BBQ food before dinner.

Nothing could have prepared us for the scenario where we entered the BBQ restaurant and were greeted by the same hotel waiting staff. Turns out reporting back was the least of our worries – they owned the damned restaurant. If only we had picked the pizza joint, though they probably own that as well! They then proceeded to ask us for our meal voucher! Wait, what?! You mean to tell us that all this time we could have been eating Korean BBQ instead of pumpkin custard surprise octopus?! Unbelievable.

Unfortunately, things then got very awkward when they confirmed that tonight, they had already prepared dinner in the other restaurant and so we could not eat in the BBQ restaurant. We persisted, insisting that we would pay for the BBQ ourselves and later eat in the hotel restaurant. When this was translated to the BBQ restaurant chef he just couldn’t contain his look of amazed disapproval. Who were these two foreigners that thought they could eat all you can eat BBQ followed by another meal an hour later. Obviously he had not been privy to the fact that we had sent back most dishes from dinner so far uneaten…

After stuffing ourselves full of delicious meat, cooked on the little grill in the middle of our table, we made our way back to the hotel for a lie down to try and digest something before dinner. At least we wouldn’t be going to bed hungry tonight!!

We could have eaten this every night!

Even after a rest and showing up 10 minutes late (how could we!), dinner was a particularly torturous affair that night; even the couple of dishes we could eat were a struggle to keep down after all of the tasty BBQ meat. Finally it was over and time for bed, up early again in the morning for our trip to Rusutsu.

Day 5

Our last full day of skiing and we had booked our final tour – a day’s guided skiing in Rusutsu. For this trip, our agent had used Niseko Photography and after picking us up at our hotel, we arrived at Rusutsu in plenty of time for the opening of the lifts. Although the resort was smaller than Niseko’s four resorts in one, we were promised plenty of nice tree runs and good on-piste runs for my fiancée that tracked the tree runs down so we wouldn’t need to split up.

Once again the day wasn’t off to a great start when on the second run, we needed to take a double black diamond run to connect us to a different chair lift. The slope was steep and my fiancée was definitely worried about the grading – despite my assurances that she had braved much worse on our trip to Squaw and done just fine. Things seemed to be going well though as she linked some nice turns down the top half so I head off with the guide into the trees and blasted down to the bottom.

When we emerged from the trees, I was worried to see that my fiancée wasn’t anywhere to be seen on the piste. She wouldn’t have gone past us already right? After 5 minutes had passed and all I had seen or heard was what I thought was a yelp coming from the tree line I started to get really worried. Yelling her name didn’t receive any reply and we were about ready to take the two chairs back to the top and search for her when, out of nowhere, we spotted her coming down through the trees, skiing like a pro.

From then on, the day went swimmingly – she had a great time on the piste and I pushed my limits in the trees, with things getting a little gnarly in a couple of places when I nearly skied off a cliff and when I did get stuck after skiing into a small gully. By the end of the day, my legs were shot and we decided to take the groomers back to the van and call it a day – it was 3pm already after all.

Incredible powder at Rusutsu

If you’re in the area, then you should not miss out on skiing in Rusutsu. If we went back there, I would want to spend some more time in this resort – as magical as Disney for me – but I highly recommend taking a guide at least on the first day; not only was I stopped from skiing off of the top of a sizable cliff but the guide also warned a number of times about not taking certain lines down through the trees as it would lead to long hike outs from places you didn’t want to be. Even after a fairly dry week though, Rusutsu offered plenty of fresh tracks and was much quieter than the Niseko resorts.

Our last evening and we had finally managed to book the BBQ restaurant without paying extra for it. I really needed this after a tough day on the slopes so enjoyed the tasty meats and tried to make up for all the nights we hadn’t eaten there.

Day 6

Thanks to our prime location on the outskirts of Annupuri, most of our last day revolved around getting the skies back to Grand Hirafu and then catching the bus back to Annupuri in time for the coach to the airport at 3pm, which also didn’t leave from our hotel.

Despite a day of tricky maneuvers, we did manage to grab a few runs over at Hirafu resort but snow conditions were not that great – the lack of fresh powder meant the trails were pretty bumpy and the pistes were all groomed; definitely not equipped properly with the Soul 7s and definitely not enough time to switch them out for the day (you can notice little things about the lack of development in Niseko compared to major resorts like Whistler – there were no on-mountain ski exchange centres here; only down in the village).

Yotei popped out to say goodbye
At least the cloud lifted to present us with a rare view of the Yotai volcano, often referred to as Hokkaido’s Fuji. What a great way to end our trip and we were both sad that we wouldn’t be getting up for skiing in the morning. Sat on the flight home, I even began to wonder if I would miss searching my meals for surprise octopus… Until I thought I found some in my chicken roulette.

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