There's nothing like a nuclear scare to really keep the numbers down on the mountain. Despite warnings from a typically sensationalist western media Myself, my wife Alison and best mate Carsten recently headed to Japan's Northern Islands to try and get some spring goodness away from the normal Westerner haunts of Niseko, and found the friendliness and generosity of the people eclipsed even the fantastic riding.
(Unfortunately due to some file management issues all photos of actual riding have been misplaced - if found I'll update later. For now it will have to be words, scenery and climbing only.)
It was snowing when we arrived in Furano and although half the mountain was shut due to lack of people we had a couple of days lift accessed fun riding knee deep Hokkaido pow under the chairs which was a great start. Then it got super warm so after a short afternoon of splitboard skin practice (our brand new toys were at this stage fresh out of the wrappers) on the deserted, closed half of the resort we headed to the other side of the valley for some genuine adventure.
Deserted Inbounds at Furano
We had planned to go to the peak of Mt Tokachidake, but unfortunately some poor route finding on my behalf (not aided my the map being in Kanji) and high winds mean we only made about 600m of vert and didn't make it all the way to the peak, but we did have an excellent introduction to skinning over wind crust and there were a few tricky transitions with absolutely no edge or skin hold - we all made notes to get some crampons before next trip! Got some pleasant spring snow turns in on thew way down but the bottom half of the mountain was super sticky - something that would be repeated throughout the trip.
Tokachidake Trail Head
We rounded it off with an outdoor onsen at the start of the trailhead before catching the bus back to Furano Hostel - which it has to be said was awesome! We had the place to ourselves and they acted as chef and taxi to us the whole time we were there, despite not speaking a lot of English, and our virtually non-existent Japanese I think it went sensationally.
Next day (day 4 in Furano) we headed back to Tokachidake, but started at a different trailhead. Was very flat light and the wind had built overnight so we stayed off the peaks and tried to pick some sheltered lines and get some wind blown. We had mixed success and again had some sketchy transitions in trying conditions but managed to keep it all together. Skinned up to have lunch by some smoking volcano vents which was very cool though, and then cruised back to town.
Tokachidake Backcountry - high winds and spring avy risks kept us to the more sedate pitches unfortunately
Tokachidake Sunset with Smoking Vents in Distance
Next day it was super hot and raining and it seemed like a pretty good time to get out of Dodge. After an amusing session at the car hire place where they took one look at the size of us and our 3 snowboard bags and decided the small car we had hired was not going to do the trick. With a lot of smiles, bows and Arigato's we found ourselves in a free upgrade and on the road for the resort town of Sounkyo Canyon.
We arrived in Sounkyo in the middle of a serious snow storm to find the town deserted. Due to a number of amusing events during the planning stages of our trip we had been upgraded to a suite in the best hotel in town, but the lobby was deserted and all the lights were off, so we shrugged our shoulders and went to the cable car to see if it was running.
Fortunately it was running, and after a quick change in the lobby of the cable car station we were kitted up and on our way up the mountain. At the top it was really puking down, and there was absolutely noone there. I mean, I have in the past said things like "there was no-one on the mountain today", but that has just been a turn of phrase to express that there were not many people there, but on this day, there was literally no-one there other than the staff. The winds weren't too bad tho, and after a brief conversation with the lifties they agreed to turn the chain for us (and us only) and we proceeded to ride fresh tracks for the next 4 hours for free. Unbelievable... seriously weird feeling riding down through the light fluffy snow to get back to the lift and the lifties would see us and restart it turning... Unfortunately there was a severe lack of lifted vert, but certainly plenty to enjoy ourselves for a short time, and after a couple of brief hikes we bailed to sort out the hotel situ.
The hotel situ turned out to be exceptional. By the time we got back there they had the power on and the concierge were delightful, and after a few reprimands regarding us wearing our filthy snow gear and sopping wet boots through their lobby we found ourselves in our rooms with complimentary yukatas (Japanese bathing robes) and house shoes with a beer vending machine outside the door and a free roof top onsen to relax in. We quickly established that pants were highly optional in this hotel and for the next 4 days, if we weren't going riding we were dressed in our yukatas and house slippers only - be it going to the onsen, going to get a massage, or going to the outstanding dinner buffet complete with steak chef, sashimi corner and tempura chef... Words simply cannot explain how amazingly awesome this place was and what an amazing time we had here.
Where is everyone? Deserted Sounkyo with Kurodake beckoning in distance
The next day was a pow day, and after a few quick warm ups under the chair we started laying a skin track to the peak of Mt Kurodake 600m above the top of the lift. The ride down was amazing, with light, dry pow on a consistent open pitch, ending up with perfectly spaced tree runs... it was so damned good we just had to do it again.
The First of Many Tracks We Laid Down on Kurodake
The next couple of days were much the same, with the temps getting warmer and winds picking up, but still we managed to do a bit of exploring off the back of the peak and got in plenty of nice turns, still finding perfect untracked lines through the trees on the lower mountain all the way to our last run.
After such an amazing 4 days it seemed like it would be tough for our next and final stop to be able to live up to expectations. But we piled back in the car, waved goodbye to the 10 or so hotel staff bowing to us as we left and made our way to Asahidake where we expected things to be much less salubrious as we were staying in the local YHA.
Fortunately we couldn't have been more wrong. I won't say its the best YHA ever, but it comes a very close second, has it own onsen, and served up the most amazing local food you could imagine and was walking distance to the tram station.
The mountain too served up a number of delights. The highest peak in Hokaido at around 2300m, Mt Asahidake is also an active volcano and it was in fine form when we got there. Unfortunately we arrived in the middle of a very warm spring day. We got in some nice spring turns in beautiful surrounds, but the lower mountain was quite flat and the snow was sticky which made fro some frustrating rides out.
View from the Asahidake Tram with Volcano Cone in Background
The next day dawned colder and overcast which meant that yesterdays slush had turned to crust and ice, but we headed out on a couple of shortish hikes and rode down an adjacent valley. Snow quality was poor, but the serenity and views were second to none, with us all agreeing that the walk back into town was worth the trip alone. Better still it started to snow promising some quality turns for the next day.
Next day we were slightly disappointed to find only a couple of inches had fallen which gave it a bit of a dust on crust feel - still there were some nice pockets of windblown, and by early afternoon the clouds had cleared long enough for us to make an attempt on the peak of the volcano.
It was a pretty challenging trip up. Clouds and winds made for mixed visibility, and the sulfurous fumes from the vents made us all feel pretty sick. Added to that we had a variable snowpack for skinning and there were some hairy moments where edge hold was non existent and ice axes were reached for.
But as we got further up the viz cleared and the wind must have shifted slightly so that the smoke from the vents was blown away from us. We made the peak just after 3pm and enjoyed the views, although the winds meant we didn't stick around for long. Then we strapped in and took a safe line down the outside of the crater - we had wanted to ride out through the crater but wind direction and the volcanic activity made this a very foolish choice. The ride down was not overly enjoyable - other than for simple accomplishment sake, but we felt a little extra justified in destroying our 3 course meal and a couple of extra bottles of beer, wine and sake for dinner.
Braving the Sulfur Clouds Approaching the Peak
The next day was our last on snow and unfortunately it was very hot again. The snow was super sticky all the way to the peak and had us poling along most of the ski out. It was so slow I even attempted to ski one run with my board split but gave it up about halfway down in the interest of not dislocating both my knees...
The next day we departed and the skies were full of clouds and a foot of snow was forecast for the next day, but all in all, given the lateness of the season I think we all felt like we had been particularly blessed on this trip. Fantastic hosts everywhere we went, really interesting and varied terrain with at times some fantastic snow and stunning vistas.