Hokkaido snowboarding

Hokkaido – Sapporo and Niseko

We flew from Cairns into Tokyo on the Jetstar Dreamliner which was pretty comfortable as we had a spare seat between us. Landing in Narita we got on the Skyliner which costs about $25 each and goes into Nippon then Ueno station. Our ryokan was only a 10 minute walk from the Ueno station, but it was a very cold walk, as Tokyo had a cold snap that day and was at about 3 degrees. Luckily we had come prepared and had extra jackets, beanie and scarves in our carry on.

My sister, Celia, met us at the ryokan that was a nice big Japanese room with our own bathroom. The stairs were so steep it feels like you’re going to fall backwards with your luggage. It was in a really quite part of town, but once we walked back to the station we were immediately surround by loads of people and bright flashing neon lights. The Ueno Zoo is close by so there are many panda themed things including gardens and cafes. We had a little walk around then our first of many ramen dinners. I got a type of ramen that is dipped into a soup rather than served in soup.

This was a quick stop because we had to get our Vanilla Air flight to New Chitose airport in Sapporo, Hokkaido the next morning. We had booked this flight a fair bit in advance and it was only $100 return. But first breakfast. In the train station we went to a French (Japanese) bakery with delicious breads and coffee made in glass tubes that boiled over an open flame. Back on the Skyliner and back to Narita we went. We were stoked to be given the emergency exit because it means Chris’s legs could stretch out but our flight was delayed by 40 minutes.

Landing in Sapporo was another temperature drop down to -3 in the afternoon. It was our first time in a town covered in snow and surrounded by snow capped moutains. It was so exciting. We caught the train into Sapporo station then changed to the subway. Our hotel was just around the corner from the subway station. It was the Vessel Inn and was a nice western style room. We dropped off our bags and went out to find the bus ticket office to book and pay for our tickets to Niseko. Finding the ticket office turned out harder than expected, but we eventually found it. There is a floor in the station building called Food Show, there was bento boxes, sushi, sweets, cakes, lollies, fresh produce, yakitori and so much more! Food is a major part of our trip to Japan, we would go there just to eat if we could!

We went to Ramen alley for our second ramen in 2 days. Sapporo is famous for their butter corn ramen, and it did not disappoint. Afterwards we went to a karaoke place and sung our hearts out for an hour with 2 foot yard glasses of beers. We walked around for a while checking out the snow covered parks, and half burried bicycles, but it was getting pretty cold, so we stopped for a hot chocolate and donut at Mister Donut.

The next day was another early start. We had a delicious buffet breakfast at the hotel, then checked out at 8am. Our Niseko ski bus left at 8.50 from the Sapporo Grand Hotel and was about ¥4,000 round trip. It took us 3.5 hours to get here and the views were amazing. Snowed covered roofs, fields of snows, snow capped mountains, snowy rivers, snow as far as the eye could see. We went over ravens and under mountains. It was so beautiful…like a land that had been turned into a big iced cake. It had not snowed much lately, so the snow was crunchy on top and soft underneath.

Mt Niseko Annupuri’s summit elevation is 1,308.5 m to its base, and is famous for its fine-quality powder snow. Niseko is made up of several ski resorts, the main four (Annupuri, Higashiyama, Hirafu, and Hanazono) are sequentially interconnected and may be skied on one ski pass. There are loads of lifts and gondolas. Because of its northern location, Niseko is fed by weather fronts that come from Siberia. The resort is internationally renowned for its consistently good falls of the lightest powder snow and its long ski season which runs from late November until early May. The snow is not as dry as other areas in Hokkaido, but the volume is high, with the average snow depth in March reaching 351 cm. Niseko was named as the world’s No. 2 snowiest resort in December 2007 with annual average snow fall of 15.11 m. There are many Australian’s here.

Arriving at Niseko Hirafu Welcome Center at 12.30 we walked down the road to Lodge Koropukkuro which was in the north of the village closed to the mountain, Mt Niseko Annipuri. The lodge is pretty awesome, it had public baths, vending machines, a laundry, a wet room to store your boards and it includes a great buffet breakfast! It averaged out to around ¥6,500/pp/night. The staff are really nice and friendly and the location is awesome, just a short walk to the nearest lift and the welcome center. After settling into our Japanese style room we grabbed some lunch at an organic cafe down on the corner. Then went to get fitted with our snowboard, boots and bindings, we hired them for 4 days at ¥10200pp. They then dropped us off at the lift ticket booth and took our normal boots back to the lodge for us. These guys also do a free pick up of the gear after you’re done. Ski gear is cool because everyone looks the part, you can’t tell if someone is seasoned or a beginner by just looking at them.

So begins our learn to snowboard adventure. We didn’t buy a pass straight away as we were at the bottom of the family run and were just going to spend sometime working out what to do. Celia helped us learn how to stand up, balance and turn. None of which we could master! It is a fine line between balancing and over-compensating and turning into an out of control spin! There were a lot of spins. Chris found he could only go toe-side, which means facing the mountain and balancing on your toes. I found it much easier to go heel-side, which is facing down the mountain and balancing back on your heels.

After not mastering any skills we decided to get the lift up to the top of the family Ace run. We bought a 5 hour pass because it was already late in the afternoon. The lift was scarey for me to begin with as I’m scared of heights, but I got over that fear after the first ride up. getting off it was hilarious, the guy at the top had to catch both Chris and I and help us get out of the way. Coming down we went the wrong direction first and had to shimmy up and across across to the right slope which is REALLY hard to do, because you’re meant to go down not up! We slowly made our way down the hill, falling on our butts and falling forwards onto our hands, but we made it down eventually. It was so fun …. I kept laughing at myself and there were other learners too, so we didn’t feel so bad. There were tiny little kids flying down the mountain on skis, they were so cute and talented! But they also made it worse for me because I was scared that I would take one out and the run is quite narrow.

We went back up for another go and felt a bit more confident. It was starting to get dark so we went back to the lodge, we called my little brother Richard who had missed his flight to Sapporo and was waiting around in Tokyo for another flight the next morning. We grabbed a beer and took the gondola up to the top of the mountain, it was soooo cold, but there were snow flakes falling and piles of powdery snow. It was awesome playing around up there. The slopes are so steep, I can’t imagine being good enough or brave enough to go down anything like that! We saw a wild fox…it was so fluffy and cute!! What did it say, I hear you ask 🙂

Back at the village we walked around trying to find a place to eat, everything is really busy from 6-8pm plus it is Chinese New Year. Chris slipped over on the ice and I went down with him….it’s more dangerous down on the road than up on the hill. We found this little house with a husband and wife team cooking pasta and homemade cakes. The food took ages to come out, but it was delicious and the couple were so cute. We had a hot mulled wine which was good for the soul. By this stage we were exhausted and passed out in our warm beds.

The next morning we went down to have a bath at our lodge. You wear the robe they give you fresh each morning then put your towel in the first room and just take your little towel into the wet room were you get a stool and bucket and sit in front front of a tap and wash yourself, then you can go into the bath and let your muscles relax. After a breakfast of miso soup, rice, salmon, fruit, salad and bread we did some washing and sat in the massage chair while our washing dried.

Round 2 of learning to fall down a mountain. We bought a 12 point pass this time for ¥3,500, so most lifts are 1 point and the gondola is 4 points and you can use the points over a number of days. Today we went up a different lift, the King Pair lift. I managed to get off the lift with some amount of grace this time. This slope was heaps better than the day before because there were less people and it was much wider and the snow was softer. I can still only go heel side and Chris and still only go toe side. I am waiting for the light bulb moment where I work out how to turn without bailing and stacking it. I think I am just starting to understand how the weight change between heal and toe works, but am nowhere near capable. Doing down forwards is fine and quite fun. The views from the mountain side are magnificent and we are only a little way up. We spent more time taking photos and admiring the view than snowboarding! The view is of a volcanic mountain called Mt Yotei opposite the ski slope that is huge with a snow covered peak at 1,898m high. It is amazing, especially when the clouds part and the skies are blue and clear. We fit in 3 runs before it was time to go back down and find Richard and have lunch.

Lunch was a katsu chicken don followed by some shopping a power nap. We walked back over to the Holiday lift for a couple of night runs with Celia and Richard. They are a good combo of teachers, Celia is patient and teaches you the basics and is encouraging, Richard is more tough love and gets you moving and carving down the mountain. I am jealous of how fearless him and his mates are. I’m too scared of hurting myself. The night runs are fun and everything is well lit up but the ground was so much harder as it had iced up. We have black bruised knees and elbows now! We booked dinner at a Genghis Khan restaurant where you cook your food at the table, mostly lamb and vegetables. After dinner we went to Wild Bills and met up with Richard and Celia’s school friends Gemma, Sarah and Krystal. The bar was really fun, they had a DJ, dance floor and cocktails. The men to women ratio around here is like 10-1, so Celia was having a good old time being a single gal! Everyone is really happy and it was a good night.

Day 3 at the snow and our muscles are really sore. We got up for breakfast a little hungover then went back to the room for a while. Celia had to leave to go back to Tokyo at 2. Rich went down with Gemma to check in at Grand Papa and have a morning snowboard. We met for lunch and had a katsu curry with goyza then saw Celia off at the bus stop. Chris and I chilled for a couple of hours then we all met up again to get the bus to the An’nupuri and Konbu onsen area to go to the Niseko Grand Hotel onsen. The bus costs 1 point of our lift pass. The bus ride was over an hour but the views were great and we got to see the bits of the other 2 villages. This is one of very few mixed onsens. In the women’s side you first go into a change room then in the wash room there are 3 baths. Just outside that are 2 women’s only baths that are on a balcony overlooking this beautiful snow covered raven. You walk further down to a really big open outdoor onsen. The water is so hot but the cool air and cool rocks on the sides make it bearable. Apparently we were supposed to wear a bathing dress into the mixed area, but we didn’t know and were the only fully naked females there. We got some surprised looks. We didn’t stay in the onsen for too long as the heat is pretty intense.

After drying off we walked up the street to a restaurant that sold Japanese/Napalese food. Chris and I Napal Curry set menu that included a lamb curry, curried veggies, picked veg, bean soup, rice and nann bread, we also got a potato donut and gyoza. It was all delicious washed down with a few 500ml Sapporo Classic beers. Sapporo Classic can only be found in Hokkaido and is my favourite Japanese beer so far. It started to snow quite heavily while we were eating and we walked out into a winter wonderland. We got the last bus back and it was heaps quicker too. Tonight we have the whole big room to ourselves as Rich moved down to Grand Papa a swiss style lodge down the hill and Celia had gone home.

It was our last full day at the snow so we bought 12 points. Today it was so much softer to fall on and we were able to start linking our turns and it actually felt like we were snow boarding!! We took the GoPro up, but it had no battery left and we forgot the spares 🙁 We practiced until lunch time when we all the rest of Richard’s mates turned up for lunch at this place where you select and purchase your meal and drinks from a vending machine, then they prepare it in the kitchen out back.

After lunch we went snowmobiling! It was so fun!! They picked us up from Grand Papa where Rich was staying and drove a little way out of town. The snow mobiles were big old things, but still pretty cool with the boys driving and us girls on camera duties,. The guide lead us through forests, down valleys and over mountains the views were breath taking. At the top we were allowed to free ride so we chased each other around getting the mobiles up on 1 ski. At the back it felt like I was going to slide of any time especially because I could only hold on with 1 arm with the other arm sticking out holding the GoPro. The ride went for 1 hour and cost ¥18000 per couple, any longer and I think we would have got too cold.

After we got back we went back up the slopes to use the rest of our points. By this time, however, it had got hard and icy and we weren’t as good as before. But we finally got some dark GoPro footage of ourselves. We met everyone at Grand Papa for a foundue dinner. It started with vegetable soup, then steak and salad, then the cheese fondue served with meat, veggies and bread and finally some fruit and ice cream. We were sooooooo full! On the walk home it started snowing again big fat snow flakes that land on your eyelashes and if you breath too fast they go up your nose!

When we woke up the next morning, it was still snowing but we had to leave …. noooooooooooooooooo … It looks like today would have been a pleasure to fall in 🙁 We really wish we were staying for another day or 2 because I think we would have really got the turning and linking down pat by then and really started enjoying ourselves on the slopes. We packed up and checked out and Rich saw us off at the bus station. The bus back to Sapporo New Chitose airport was nice as we had the back seat and the scenery was so white and magical.

Our first snow mountain experience was everything I wanted it to be….the only negative was it was too short.