We chat to co-author Rob Thomson about the inspiration for the map and his favourite Niseko Backcountry routes
Hokkaido’s backcountry enthusiasts will be delighted to hear that the Niseko area now has a large-format printed backcountry map covering 50 different ski routes spanning the Niseko Range, Mt. Yotei, and Mt. Shiribetsu.
It comes from the Hokkaido Wilds team who, for the last five years, have been documenting their adventures in the Hokkaido wilderness online – a pursuit that has seen them publish 134 ski touring routes, 83 hiking routes, 56 paddling routes and 42 cycle touring routes (and counting).
The new map, Niseko Backcountry, is Japan’s first professional grade English-language backcountry map. Hokkaido Wilds has pledged to donate all proceeds from sales of the map to mountain volunteer groups and Niseko non-profits.
In our latest chat with Hokkaido Wilds co-founder Rob Thomson, Rob discusses the inspiration for the map, the response from the local community, and a couple of his favourite Niseko Backcountry routes. For those interested, Rob has also written in detail about the process he and co-author Chris Auld went through in creating Niseko Backcountry, and has also addressed some of the resistance he and the team faced in taking the map to print.
We last talked to you in 2019 – roughly a year after you launched Hokkaido Wilds, at which point you’d published 54 ski touring routes. What have you been up to in the time since?
Since 2019, we’ve been super busy. In terms of skiing, we’ve published another 82 ski tour routes, for a total of 134 ski tour routes across Hokkaido. We also started paddling, both whitewater canoeing and sea kayaking. We’ve now published almost 60 paddling routes from around Hokkaido, with a view of exploring even more of Hokkaido’s wild and rugged coastlines over the next few years.
We were also thrilled to receive grand prize at the Japan Government’s 2021 national map data contest in Tokyo. This was an award for our use of government map data to create the downloadable PDF route topomaps we provide for each route we post on the site. We were super happy to see the Japan government supporting multilingual use of their map data in this way.
What was the inspiration behind the new map and how did you find the process of getting it published?
On a personal level, the inspiration behind Niseko Backcountry was a passion for maps. It’s incredible how detailed the Japan government map data is. Once we discovered how to work with it to create our own English-language topomaps, the writing was on the wall.
On a broader level though, ever since first coming to Japan as an adult in 2010, I’ve been awed at how much Japan has to offer to the serious outdoor adventurer. Whether that be the mountains, the rivers, the wild coasts, or gorgeous rural areas.
At some deep level, however, I always felt it somewhat unfair, in a sense, that so much of this outdoor adventure sat behind the great ‘firewall’ of language for experienced outdoorspeople who don’t read or speak Japanese. Maps, forums, guidebooks, and websites abound in Japanese regarding all these things. If people could access that information in English, so many more people would see Japan as a place that is more than the flashy lights of Tokyo. There’s a reason the first ever Adventure Travel World Summit to be held in Asia will be held in Hokkaido, Japan, in September this year. This is a country where life-changing adventure and cultural experiences can be had.
So to cut a long story short, Niseko Backcountry is a representation of the state of the art of where HokkaidoWilds.org is at in making Hokkaido adventure accessible to a much broader user base than ever before.
“…I always felt it somewhat unfair, in a sense, that so much of this outdoor adventure sat behind the great ‘firewall’ of language for experienced outdoorspeople who don’t read or speak Japanese…”
As for actually publishing the map, publishing information on the web is one thing – publishing information in a physical format is another beast all together. Logistics of printing, supply, sales, marketing. It has been one heck of a learning process. But it has been very rewarding. Publishing a map where adventurers can spread something physical on a table and take in context, gain spatial awareness, and read about conditions on the ground takes things to another level of informing oneself.
The process of getting it published was a matter of time. We had a very rough draft of the map done in mid-2021. Many of the routes we’d researched we wanted to ski either for the first time or re-visit since we’d skied them previously, to make sure our information was correct. So as of the winter of 2021/2022, we’d skied every peak in the range, and were feeling confident in our on-the-ground research.
From there, we had a solid final draft, and consultation with the local community could begin in earnest.
Has Hokkaido’s backcountry community embraced your efforts to make the backcountry safer and more accessible to foreign visitors?
On the whole regarding the Niseko Backcountry map, we’ve received a great level of support from local mountain safety associations, ski resorts, local councils, promotion boards, and local guides. Overall, the Niseko backcountry community gave us feedback that they view the map as a good tool to communicate safety and etiquette to a burgeoning foreign backcountry ski user base in the greater Niseko region.
That said, while maps like Niseko Backcountry are extremely common in other world-class, internationally popular ski destinations around the world, to our knowledge, it’s the first backcountry-specific, detailed, large-area topographic map for backcountry skiing ever published in Japan. As such, we did receive some pushback on the map.
We conducted two in-person town-hall style public meetings about the map in Niseko. We also spoke to two prominent local guiding associations. Overall, there are some within the community who have a strong perception that the Niseko backcountry is already saturated with skiers – particularly foreign skiers – and the area won’t benefit from a map that might encourage more foreigners into the hills. This refers to physical limits of parking room at trailheads, as well as perceived clashes of local vs visitor culture on the mountain (e.g. unspoken local rules about uptracks and descent zones).
“Now is not the time to ask the question ‘how can we restrict the flow of backcountry information,’ but it’s time to ask the question ‘how can we make sure backcountry skiers are as informed as possible'”
At HokkaidoWilds.org, we understand those concerns. We also have experienced how the Hokkaido backcountry (including Niseko) has changed over the past 10 years. Any serious backcountry skier anywhere in the world now knows about Hokkaido. At certain times of the powder season (Jan/Feb), some zones can get very busy. This is particularly on the weekends when one also factors in the explosive growth in popularity of backcountry skiing among local Japanese these past few years – Niseko is very close to Sapporo, a city of 2 million.
Our strong conviction on this point, however, is that the cat is out of the bag already. With or without HokkaidoWilds.org, with or without a paper map, skiers from around the world will be drawn to Hokkaido, and Niseko in particular. Now is not the time to ask the question “how can we restrict the flow of backcountry information,” but it’s time to ask the question “how can we make sure backcountry skiers are as informed as possible,” both Japanese and foreign.
Ultimately, the overarching motivation of the map comes down to this: empower skiers to enjoy the Hokkaido backcountry in an informed, respectful, and safe way.
How did you find the Hokkaido backcountry over the last few years with borders closed, and are you seeing numbers return now to pre-Covid levels?
Overall, the situation in the non-lift-access backcountry in Hokkaido wasn’t really much different during the pandemic. Hokkaido is a massive place, and we rarely ski tracked up zones here, borders open or closed. The two pandemic winter seasons were, however, some of the biggest snow years we’ve seen in a while, so yes, that was different!
Infrastructure is, however, once again being stressed with the return of visitors from overseas. This is even more so now with more of the local population taking up backcountry skiing (the pandemic led to a huge surge in popularity of all forms of outdoor activities in Hokkaido). Winter trailhead parking is one of the biggest issues that we believe needs to be addressed urgently in the coming years.
Last time we spoke, you singled out Rishiri Island in Hokkaido’s north, and Shiretoko Peninsula in the far east as the two ski touring adventures in Hokkaido that you’ve enjoyed the most. Has anything eclipsed those?
I have a penchant for remote, long, and inspiring ski tours with high levels of uncertainty, so those two regions of Hokkaido still hold a certain sway on me.
That said, skiing Ashibetsu-dake in the Yubari Range near Furano now also holds a clear hold on my heart. From a distance, the peak and surrounding topography is gnarled and looks forbidding. The skiing from the summit can be excellent, and the approach requires good route-finding skills. A really rewarding peak. After spending more time in the Niseko area, I’ve also really come to appreciate how incredible Mt. Yotei is. There’s so much terrain, character, and challenge in that beautiful volcano.
And of the routes marked on the Niseko map, are there any personal highlights?
Skiing the crater on Yotei-zan was a special highlight last season. Skiing the full length of the Niseko Range – the Niseko Haute Route – from the resort area to the Japan Sea over two days was also a huge highlight. The Niseko Range really is a paradise for backcountry ski touring – amazing accessibility, amazing snow, incredibly unique views.
What’s on the cards for the Hokkaido Wilds team in the next year?
With such a big focus on the Niseko Range these past two seasons, we’re keen to get back to exploring a bit further afield. There is so much to explore in central Hokkaido – the Yubari Range near Furano and the Daisetsuzan Range – as well as eastern Hokkaido.
Also, we have a lot of sea kayaking planned this coming summer. We’re building our skills and experience with the view to paddle around the Shiretoko Peninsula (World Heritage Site) in eastern Hokkaido in summer 2024.
What’s the best way to get your hands on the new Niseko Backcountry Map?
At the moment, you can buy the map within Japan from Amazon.co.jp, Amazon.com, Rhythm Japan, or Hokkaido Ski Club. Rhythm Japan is the only retailer that will ship internationally. We’re currently working hard on getting stock to Amazon fulfillment centers in Oceania and Europe.
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