There's more to Hokkaido ski resorts than just powder ... but there's plenty of that too
Hokkaido is to powder skiing what the Hawaiian North Shore is to surfing. The northernmost island of Japan is a Mecca for powder hunters – its reputation built upon the staggering quantities of snow that fall every winter. Hokkaido ski resorts often receive in excess of 15 metres per season, though many of the resorts simply don’t measure (why bother).
But it’s not all about quantity. Snow storms over the north of Japan are mostly the result of cold winds blown over from Siberia, which pick up moisture over the Sea of Japan before depositing huge amounts of snow on Hokkaido’s many ski resorts.
The outcome? Some of the driest, coldest snow you’ll find on the planet. The consistency of the snow is truly like powder, and the effect on a skier carving through a fresh 50 cm snowfall is the sensation of weightlessness. It is the pinnacle of skiing – the feeling that every skier on the planet strives for.
Over the last decade, international skiers have cottoned on to the quality of skiing in Hokkaido, and the result is that many Hokkaido ski resorts now offer services, facilities and accommodation geared towards overseas travellers.
And while Hokkaido was once considered a destination for the seasoned ski bum in search of a powder fix, its resorts are now being visited – and truly enjoyed – by beginners, families and luxury travellers.
We’ve put together a list of the top 5 Hokkaido ski resorts, and we genuinely believe that the resorts in our list offer something for everyone. So read on, and let us know in the comments if you have any questions.
Furano earns a mention in our list as a strong all-rounder that scores points in most categories. Yes, it has the deep, dry powder that has become synonymous with Hokkaido skiing, but that’s just the start.
Grooming is where the resort really stands out, and its expansive runs with perfect corduroy are the reason that many skiers list it as a favourite. That Furano has developed a long-standing relationship with the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup speaks volumes on the quality of its on-piste offering. It has hosted 12 FIS World Cup events.
And where Niseko is criticized for being too developed, Kiroro and Rusutsu for lacking ambience, Furano seems to have struck an appealing balance of culture and convenience. Its resort accommodation is a mix of upmarket hotels (the resort is owned by Prince Hotels) and a small selection of self-contained units. Furano Town, a short distance from the resort itself, provides “adequate creature comforts, including the ability to cater to English-speaking guests, without losing the essence of Japan“.
We hesitate to pigeonhole Furano as a “family resort” because that simply wouldn’t do it justice. The resort has an appetizing mix of terrain (steeps, bumps, off-piste & groomers) that will satisfy all but the most extreme skier.
It does, however, cater especially well to young children, who will benefit from a dedicated English speaking ski program, major resort discounts and even a snow adventure park known as Family SnowLand. For parents looking for a stress-free holiday, this might just be the clincher.
The Niseko name is an iconic one; virtually no conversation on skiing in Japan passes without some mention of the country’s most famous resort. Critics who say it has become too developed, too international or too busy tend to ignore the reasons the resort became famous in the first place.
Its terrain is unmatched. Four separate resorts are linked by a single lift ticket, offering everything from wide beginner expanses to mellow glades to technical mogul lines. And, of course, the famous Hokkaido powder. Any skier, regardless of ability, could spend weeks here and not get bored.
Add in to the mix Niseko’s famous night skiing – where almost the entire resort opens each night under powerful spotlights. Or its gate system, which gives skiers lift access to sidecountry and backcountry areas that almost guarantee deep, fresh tracks.
Perhaps, though, Niseko’s biggest benefit is also its most common criticism. It has developed in such a way that skiers can venture to the resort and not worry about the small inconveniences that are so often a cause for frustration for travellers in Japan.
English speaking staff are there to cater to one’s every need at slopeside accommodation, Australian ski instructors roam the beginner slopes, and restaurants – all with English-language menus – offer a variety of Western and Japanese cuisine.
In short, Niseko’s world-class skiing is matched only by its world-class convenience – the kind of convenience that many of us are not only used to, but expect, when travelling overseas to go skiing.
Read Ski Asia’s comprehensive Niseko United ski resort guide.
The jury is out on exactly how much snowfall Kiroro receives each season – reports put the number somewhere between 13 and 21 metres. The correct answer, though, is that “there’s more than enough to go around”.
Of all the Hokkaido ski resorts, Kiroro has a reputation for being one of the first to open and the last to close, and, for every day in between, there’s a very good chance you’ll be skiing the best powder of your life.
So if powder were your only reason for visiting the resort, you’d be well and truly justified. But with its 5-star ski-in ski-out accommodation, international snowsports school and world-class facilities all conveniently under the same roof, Kiroro makes a very good case for being one of Hokkaido’s top choices.
Keep in mind that Kiroro is a resort in the truest sense of the word, and is not the best place for partygoers or budget-conscious travellers (there is no town to speak of). But for those who appreciate the convenience and comforts of a destination resort, and have a thirst for the world’s best powder, it is the place to go.
Read Ski Asia’s comprehensive Kiroro ski resort guide.
Rusutsu has never really emerged from the shadows of its neighbour – the larger and better-known Niseko United – but fans of the resort will list this as one of the best reasons to visit. With relatively few crowds and more than 42 km of scenic trails, the tantalising prospect of untouched powder and non-existent lift lines is genuine.
Rusutsu’s terrain is expansive and offers something for everyone. Expert skiers will not find anything overly steep, but the biggest drawcard of the resort is its sensational tree skiing, which is as good or better than any other resort in Hokkaido.
As one of the big-name Hokkaido resorts, Rusutsu offers an English-language snowsports program, top-notch facilities and world-beating accommodation. And like Kiroro, it is a destination resort where you’ll find virtually everything (barring the skiing!) contained under the same roof. It’s a setup that’s not for everyone (après fanatics are advised to head to Niseko), but its admirers swear by it.
Read Ski Asia’s comprehensive Rusutsu ski resort guide.
Sapporo Teine featured in the Ski Asia bucket list for good reason. Its terrain is somewhat more limited than its Hokkaido competitors (think Furano, Niseko & Rusutsu), but it has two major drawcards that we feel many skiers will appreciate.
Firstly, the views. Visitors to the resort can enjoy the stunning, uninterrupted sight of Ishikari Bay and downtown Sapporo as they wind their way down the mountain, which is a breathtaking experience (particularly at night). In the past, we’ve likened it to Grouse Mountain’s “The Cut”, which overlooks downtown Vancouver.
Secondly, with central Sapporo in striking distance, it is also the perfect opportunity to move après-ski celebrations into the city. Refuel with Hokkaido specialties Genghis Khan (grilled lamb) or a spicy soup curry, washed down with the city’s namesake – an ice cold Sapporo Draft.
It’s a ski resort for visitors to Hokkaido who wish to see more than just the slopes of the resort and the inside of their hotel room. It’s also a great one-stop option for the many travellers visiting Sapporo en route to their main destination (which is most of you).