As I begin writing this piece today, I am sitting in a rather humble ski lodge in northern Japan. It’s not modern, or especially cool, and yet, it is arguably one of the best places to ski in the entire world. Adventurous skiers might assume I am in Niseko, but I am not. Today’s story takes us to a different location, to a mountain that is relatively unknown, but offers easy access to exceptional snow. Today’s story is about Sapporo Teine, in Hokkaido, Japan.

Sapporo Teine Ski Resort

As a foreigner, my first experiences with snow in Japan began with a reset of my expectations; if you have skied in North America or Europe, you’ve seen bigger, nicer, and more modern resorts. As you come to Sapporo Teine, you’ll find something different. And those differences can quickly become part of the appeal.

Let’s start with the snow:

Hokkaido powder

Tales have been told of what they call “Ja-pow;” the fluffy, buttery, chest-deep snow that makes Japan a prime destination for skiers and snowboarders.

Mt. Teine has perfect snow. In my three-going-on-four seasons at Sapporo Teine, I have seen every kind of snow; from tiny, frozen dots, to flakes the size of small birds, flakes so big they cast a shadow as they fall. Over and over I have cut into the snow, filling the air with “diamond dust”. And that snow can be deep. Too deep sometimes, where you dare not leave the trail. And so perfect, so often, you can get jaded and refuse to go up the mountain unless the snow is going to be “good” (which could still be three or four days a week).

“People that live here, ride a different way, they live a different kind of life, because of the way it is snowing. They have pow lines for days. Everywhere you look, pow, pow, pow, pow.”
— Rob Kingwill, from Warren Miller’s “No Turning Back”

Those “pow lines for days” is a feature of Hokkaido. It is true for the more well-known resorts of Niseko, and very much for Sapporo Teine as well.

Sapporo Teine is an uncommon destination

And yet, Teine remains an obscure destination. Like an incredible restaurant where you can, somehow, always manage to score a table, it continues to be a little surprising that Teine doesn’t draw a bigger crowd.

I did some research recently for a project about the best videos of skiing in Hokkaido. In a list of 35 videos, with so much coverage of Niseko, there was only one mention of Teine.

My theory is that for visitors to Hokkaido, Niseko is such a big draw, it captures all the attention, and Teine is consistently overlooked.

But not by everyone. As you talk to skiers that come to Mt. Teine again and again, year after year, you’ll see they are a special breed, each recognizing something special in Teine.

Uncrowded slopes at Sapporo Teine

On a typical day at Teine, I’m not in much of a rush. If the preceding night brought new snow, “first tracks” can be a much sought-after experience. But Teine is so much of a “secret,” that even on most powder days, you’re not really fighting the crowd. Quite often, there is no crowd at all. Particularly mid-week (but also on many weekends), there is almost no wait at the lifts. It is common for me to do what my buddy Ben calls “hot laps,” where I come down the mountain, ride through the gates, and am back on the chair in under five minutes. That is normal at Teine.

Scoring “first tracks” is a wonderful experience. And because Teine is not overly-crowded, I can do four top-to-bottom runs in the first hour. Most days, there is plenty of time to find some clean lines.

Sapporo Teine’s Highland Zone

The Sapporo Teine resort is divided in half, with the relatively flat beginner area called Olympia on the lower half of the hill, and the more interesting terrain up top called Highland Zone. While the process of grooming a run tends to take away its uniqueness (with one “bunny slope” much like any other), advanced and untamed terrain allows a mountain to show its true personality. The upper part of Teine’s Highland offers a lot of very special terrain that reveals itself as you take the time to explore.

The western side of Sapporo Teine's Highland Zone

The western side of Sapporo Teine’s Highland Zone. Image: Graham Hill

“For me, when I am coming to Japan, I’m not necessarily looking for high, alpine terrain, I’m looking for powder in the trees.”
— Dylan Robinson, from the film Mori

Teine has some perfectly fine groomed runs, but groomers are not what makes Sapporo Teine special. To understand the appeal of Japanese snow, you have to go off-piste, to where the powder is just as it fell: light, fluffy, and deep. At Teine, the place to find that fluffy pow is in the trees.

Ski at your own risk

I should pause here to say that as we prepared this profile we talked to the marketing team at Sapporo Teine (which is owned by Kamori Kanko Co., Ltd.). Their official position is that visitors should keep to the runs that are clearly designated on the map. While the resort posts signs that say, “This is not a denial for backcountry skiers and snowboarders”, Sapporo Teine does not encourage that kind of exploration, and takes no responsibility for what happens beyond the ropes.

Off-piste skiing at Sapporo Teine

With that said, it is well known that many locals and visitors to Hokkaido come for the freeskiing. And from your first moments on the chair in Highland Zone, as you watch skiers moving through the trees, the potential beyond the ropes will begin to call to you.

Sapporo Teine is a relatively small mountain, with only nine lifts total. The main chair for Highland Zone is called “Summit Express”. It’s a quad, and it does take you up to the summit, travelling directly over what I have heard to be called “Heroes Run”, with Kitakabe to your right (as you ride the chair), and the off-trail Nakazawa area to your left. As I take my first ride up the mountain on a given day, I am often trying to decide which of those runs I want to do first.

Kitabe Run

Kitabe Run. Image: Graham Hill

Heroes Run is a narrow, tight line, in a roped off section, running directly under the chairlift. (We asked Sapporo Teine to confirm the name of this part of the mountain, and it officially has no name). I rarely take it all the way to the bottom, but the section that begins near the top of the lift is often deep and steep, with exceptional snow, sometimes alarmingly close to the chairs over your head. I hit that section a lot, and then cut over to Kitakabe to finish the run.

Kitakabe is a “black diamond” run, in-bounds, but ungroomed, which quickly forms into moguls on most days. As you start down Kitakabe, there is a section of steep, challenging, glorious tree skiing to the skier’s left (to the west); I am much more likely to head into those trees. When the snow is deep you’ll find fantastic conditions. Even though those trees are no secret, with careful choices you’ll dip in and out of fresh powder stashes again and again.

And then, the area called Nakazawa is a series of three ridges and two valleys to your left as you go up the chair, to skier’s right of “Heroes Run” as you descend. (Nakazawa is also not an “official name,” but Sapporo Teine confirmed this is what that area is commonly called.)


Nakazawa. Image: Graham Hill

Nakazawa was intimidating for me during my first seasons. The snow can be deep at Teine, and I was reluctant to dive in and potentially get stuck in a gully, drowning in powder, trudging my way out. It wasn’t until my third season that I started to really explore that area – and it is now one of my favourite parts of the mountain.

There is no obvious way into Nakazawa, you just make your way through the trees and find your own line. Early season, when the snow is light, the trees are mostly too tight to make it much fun. But on a good year, and later in the season as some of the smaller trees are buried, there is a so much powder locked in those valleys – all of which sits between Kitakabe and the Sapporo Olympic Course.

Even two or three days after a dump, there are sections of that area where I end up all alone, just me, running fresh tracks in thigh-deep powder.

But wait, there’s more… there is so much more.

Beyond the gate at Teine

What we call Sapporo Teine now, is the “new” Teine. According to our communication with the Sapporo Teine staff, the “old” Teine was built for the 1972 Winter Olympics. In the current iteration of the resort, while the Sapporo Olympic Course is sometimes called Women’s Giant Slalom, the “Men’s Giant Slalom” is one of those unnamed runs beyond the gate. All of that terrain is to the far west (skier’s left) and “out of bounds,” but still available.

Sapporo Teine gate

Sapporo Teine gate

As you get to the top of “Summit Express,” you’ll notice a steady stream of more advanced skiers and snowboards starting a small hike up the hill from the lift. About 10 minutes later, those hikers reach the peak, buckle up, and dive into some big, burly, ungroomed, unmanaged open bowls. The access can be a little challenging, but once you’re “in,” there are several big, very steep runs, with even more ridiculous powder.

I’m not so experienced that I know the proper names for that area, but I have heard them referenced by number. The first time I went back there, a ski instructor took me on “1”, and “2”, and “3” in the same day, each run a little farther to the west (and each one with a more difficult traverse to get back the resort). Rumour has it there are eight runs (but I assume it would be a proper hike, and one that would require some extra equipment) to get back from those outer runs.

Sapporo Teine confirmed those runs are often referred to by number, and suggested there could be more than eight. They also stressed, again, that area can be used “at your own risk” (and they recommend you bring and all equipment you would need take care of yourself).

If you go over the top and past the gate, it gets a little wild back there, but for well-prepared skiers it’s a great time.

Sapporo Teine’s powder bowls

This one time at Sapporo Teine I ran into a guy from New Zealand. He and I had the kind of relationship that was mostly about giving each other the “head nod” when we would see each other at the lift line. This one particular day he asked me if I wanted to go to one of those out-of-bounds runs beyond the gate. We get off the lift, and hike up together, and he pulls me across the top of the run, and then back at it from the western side, saying the entrance was “a little easier from that angle”. And… it was a 10-foot drop-off from a wind-sculpted, overhanging cornice. I asked him to go first, and he did. So I followed him off that drop into some perfect snow. We did that same run two more times. Awesome day. I’ll never forget it.

Eastern side of Teine’s Highland Zone

This review of the opportunities at Teine thus far has focused almost exclusively on the western part of Highland Zone. If you work your way east, there is that Sapporo Olympic Course, which is steep, often icy, and can be roped off to host slalom events (in February) each year. I don’t intentionally take that run, but when I go top-to-bottom, my route (usually through the trees) will spit me out onto Sapporo Olympic Course (and depending on the conditions, I can look forward to it).

Olympic Course

Sapporo Olympic Course. Image: Graham Hill

Working further east, there is a series of cat-tracks on a run called Natural. That run can accommodate very basic and intermediate riders, but provides a lot of opportunity for excitement for more advanced riders. Inside all of the turns of those cat-tracks are various combinations of trees and powder. I am still finding new lines where you cut through the trees, find a steep section, and drop down onto the next section of track.

Going further east still will take you to an intermediate groomed run called City View Cruise (as it has a view of Sapporo, down below). That is a relatively entertaining intermediate groomed run, with more access to trees, and some wide-open powder at the end of the run to the skier’s left. To the skier’s right, the area under the eastern-most chair (called “Panorama”) is a fun ride (if the powder isn’t too deep, it’s easy to get stuck in there). And further east still, past the chair into the eastern trees, is another, less-steep, but fantastic section of endless choices and opportunities for original lines and untouched snow.

City View Cruise

City View Cruise. Image: Graham Hill

Sapporo Teine offers an opportunity to “get lost” in the trees – even while being less than five minutes from the lodge.

I haven’t talked about the bottom section of Teine, about Olympia, as I don’t ski groomed runs that much. If I did, I would say that Teine’s groomed experience can’t compare to the more expansive mountains, and longer runs, that I have sampled in the US and Canada.

Low elevation, but perfect snow

Compared to mountains in the west that are closer to 2,000 (Whistler) or 3,000 (Breckenridge) meters, Sapporo Teine, which tops out at 1,023 meters, was underwhelming at first. In the west I have seen sharper peaks, and spent a lot of time above the tree line. In contrast, the appeal of Teine is the interplay of deep, billowing powder and a landscape of softer, rolling hills. That combination is what makes Hokkaido skiing so special, and that is where Teine shines.

We could say more about how easy it is to get to Teine (even on public transportation), about how you can ski at Teine and be back in downtown Sapporo (a city of almost 2 million people) in about 30–40 minutes, about how accommodation in Sapporo is more plentiful and less expensive than Niseko… but we don’t need to; even if Teine was remote (which it isn’t), it would be worth the effort to get there.

To everyone, to all of you, I wish for you the opportunity to get some personal time with the mountain we call Teine. And when the snow is deep enough (which is often), to reach back into the hilly contours, to have a few days to blast though stashes in the canyons, to get intimate with the mountain, to be alone as the snow falls all around you, and to fall in love with this flavour of Hokkaido.


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