Andrew Spragg from Rising Suns Guides reveals his favourite backcountry skiing zones in Hokkaido

When we asked our readers earlier this year about the most important factor in choosing a ski resort, the overwhelming number one response was the quality and quantity of snow. Everyone has seen pictures of skiers and snowboarders ripping through fields of untracked powder in places like Niseko and Rusutsu, and the desire for the quintessential Japanese powder experience is the reason many make the effort to travel from countries that require hours sitting on an international flight.

Hokkaido ski resorts, the mecca for powder skiing in Japan, are a pretty safe bet to ensure at least a day or two of great skiing. Most get in excess of ten metres of snow a season. But with the increasing popularity of these resorts and the reality that runs are getting tracked out faster than ever, more and more skiers are taking to the Hokkaido backcountry in search of the perfect line.

“If you’re just taking lifts all the time in Hokkaido, in an average week you might have three epic days versus four so-so days skiing tracks” says Rising Sun Guides founder Andrew Spragg, whom we’ve come to for some advice on the best spots in the Hokkaido backcountry.

“But if you show up with an interest in ski touring, you might have three epic lift-assisted days and an entire trip of epic skiing. Because you just have to work a little bit harder to get awesome skiing if there isn’t fresh overnight snow.”

Kurodake NE face

Dropping into Kurodake’s NE face. Image: Mark Barsevskis, Rising Sun Guides

Of course, a trip into the backcountry comes with inherent risks, so for those without an understanding in avalanche safety or a familiarity with the terrain, it’s critical to go with a certified guide (here’s what you should look for in a guide).

But Andrew, who is an ACMG splitboard guide, reminds us that the benefits aren’t limited to the added layer of safety, but also leveraging the guide’s knowledge of the area to get the best skiing.

“For people who have a 1-week holiday, to be able to get off the plane and just know that they’re getting taken to the goods every day, I think that’s really our goal”, he explains.

“And then backing that up with a really solid professional safety program, which I think is a major point of difference between us and some of the other companies out here. We have professionals; we’re forecasting and maintaining a really high standard of safety for our clients so that they don’t have to worry about that. They can just come out and ski and have fun.”

Ski touring versus lift-assisted backcountry

Many of the backcountry tour operators in Hokkaido (and around the world) make the distinction between lift-accessed backcountry, which utilises resort lift infrastructure to access backcountry terrain, and ski touring, which requires hiking with touring skis and skins (splitboard or snowshoes for snowboarders).

Andrew tells us that his clients sometimes have a preference for one over the other, but that, for the most part, his tours include a mix of both.

Ski touring in Kiroro, Hokkaido

Ski touring in Kiroro. Image: Rising Sun Guides

“We do blur the lines between the two a lot, because maybe we can get some good turns off the lift in the morning, then go for a ski tour in the afternoon.

“As much as possible, we try to prepare people to do both. So even if people have booked to do a lift-assisted trip, we’ll try to have them set up with ski touring gear. So on the day of the trip, if there’s no fresh snow [directly off the lifts], we’ve got more options and can go further.”

He also notes the higher risk involved when venturing further away from the resorts.

“If something goes wrong, it’s going to be more difficult to manage because it might be a hike out. Whereas on a lift assisted trip everything is typically downhill to a chairlift so you can get people out of situations more easily.”

Best Hokkaido backcountry terrain

Andrew’s business Rising Sun Guides is based out of Niseko, which he tells us is a great jumping-off point, but that it has always been his focus to get people away from Niseko to more remote parts of Hokkaido – both for backcountry and resort skiing.

“Hokkaido is a really accessible place to ski powder”, he tells us. “You don’t have to have a helicopter budget to do it, and it’s amazing”.

Here’s what Andrew had to say on his favourite Hokkaido backcountry areas, some of which are better for their lift-assisted terrain, and other areas for touring.

Furano

Best for: Lift-accessed backcountry
Where to ski:“The dam run”. Access from Gate #1 (top of Downhill Romance Lift #1)
Recommended for:“…some of the longest, continuous uninterrupted fall-line skiing of any of the ski resorts in Hokkaido”

Andrew on the Furano backcountry:

“Furano definitely stands out as one of the best resorts for lift-accessed backcountry terrain, which is a big change in the past five or six years since they changed their rules. Everything fun [originally] wasn’t allowed in Furano; it was a piste-only ski resort if you were following the rules. Then they completely flipped and became one of the most open ski resorts.

“…some of the longest, continuous uninterrupted fall-line skiing of any of the ski resorts in Hokkaido.”

“The resort has a gate system [providing access to the backcountry]. It’s a cross between Niseko and Kiroro’s system in that, like Kiroro, the gates never close. Unlike Kiroro, they don’t require registration. You are supposed to sign up at the ropeway station but most recreational skiers do not and it is certainly not enforced.

“There’s a huge amount of terrain that’s accessible out of Furano’s gates with virtually no walking, though definitely a bit of traversing. The gates give riders access to some of the longest, continuous uninterrupted fall-line skiing of any of the ski resorts in Hokkaido.

“There’s a lot of vertical and a lot of terrain open. And many aspects available as well, so depending on wind direction, you can actually get really good skiing in most conditions.

“Most of the terrain is accessed from Gate #1, though there are other gates as well. It’s off the top of the double chair (Downhill Romance Lift #1) on the upper mountain. You basically head skiers’ right off the double above the ropeway and you`ll find the entrance. We call it the ‘dam run’ because on any route you take, you end up on a long ski-out track that leads to a small concrete dam at the bottom. Shortly after the dam, the track feeds back into the ski resort making for really efficient laps.

“The dam run, actually, has about 10 to 15 potential lines that you can ski. It accesses a whole bunch of terrain and a lot of options. There are a number of other good zones, but that’s the easiest to get to and there’s a huge amount of terrain just in that one area.”

Kiroro

Best for: Touring
Where to ski: Kiroro base area (accessible from the Family Lift) / Mt. Yoichi
Recommended for: Consistently getting more snow than other ski areas

Andrew on the Kiroro backcountry:

“For easily-accessed backcountry terrain, the Kiroro backcountry is amazing. The lift-assisted is still great, but the ski touring terrain is one of my favourites. It also gets some of the most snow – consistently more than other ski resorts.

“The ski touring works in almost all weather conditions. You don’t really need the lifts to run, although they do require you to take a lift, but you can just take the Family Lift which is basically going to run in all weather. That gets you to an access gate where you can get to some really good skiing.

Kiroro backcountry, Hokkaido

Kiroro backcountry. Image: Rising Sun Guides

“If it is sunny and good weather with stable conditions, you can hike the peak at Mt. Yoichi. There’s a whole bunch of different options from there on how you can get back to the ski resort.

“The main face [on Mt. Yoichi] is typically wind-scoured and not great skiing, but there’s a relatively easy line on the south east face, which you can usually get in the morning. It’s the best line for intermediates. But what we usually end up skiing on Yoichi would be more advanced terrain. There are some steep chutes and really good lines. Generally, I would only go there with a strong group.

“Whereas some of the base area stuff is good for most people, as long as they are reasonably confident in powder. And there’s a wider variety of terrain available in the base area.

Tokachidake

Best for: Touring
Recommended for: “Proper big mountain ski terrain”

Andrew on the Tokachidake backcountry:

“You can’t talk about backcountry skiing in Hokkaido without talking about Tokachidake. It’s spectacular and has amazing skiing, with access to some proper big mountain ski terrain.

“But there’s also lots of below treeline stuff that we can do in all weather conditions.

“Another highlight of Tokachidake is the many really nice onsen. When we have backcountry touring groups, we’ll always try and spend a couple of nights at Tokachidake.”

Rusutsu

Best for: Lift-assisted backcountry
Where to ski: Off either side of the Isola No. 1 Quad, Sugar Bowl (between Mt. Isola and East Mountain)
Recommended for: The person who doesn’t want to do any walking

Andrew on the Rusutsu backcountry:

“Rusutsu really hits the mark – you just get so much volume. It’s such a well laid-out ski resort with almost all of the off-piste lines skiing right back to high speed chairlifts. It also has a lot of terrain, and gets a lot of snow. On a good day at Rusutsu, people are stoked. You just get so many laps of fresh snow.

“[At Rusutsu] everything inside the resort is permitted. There’s this challenge in Japan of understanding what’s backcountry and what’s not. The way that ski resorts work is that their lease area is basically the ski runs and the lifts, and anything outside of that is technically backcountry. So a good example of that on the trail map is basically anything that comes off the piste down to the Isola #1 Quad. There’s a ton of terrain in there and it’s super fun. You can ski it most of the day.

“Rusutsu’s the classic place for that person who doesn’t want to do any walking.”

“So you’ve got all that, then you’ve also got that bowl between Mt. Isola and East Mountain which is known as Sugar Bowl.

“Rusutsu’s the classic place for that person who doesn’t want to do any walking. You can just get off the lift and ski pow at Rusutsu. They’ve opened up all the terrain in the ski resort and called it ‘in-bounds backcountry’ – but along with that, they have also essentially said: ‘don’t leave the ski resort’.

Shiribetsu peak, Hokkaido backcountry

Shiribetsu West Peak. Image: Andy Coyle, Rising Sun Guides

“So any ski touring you do in or near Rusutsu needs to start from the bottom because there are no gates allowing you to legally leave the ski area.

“For the ski tourers out there, Mount Shiribetsu is located right next to the resort area and offers a wide range of great skiing options on all aspects. If you are planning to ski Shiribetsu, keep in mind that you are not allowed to climb from the resort, so start either from the parking lot or a road access point (where parking is permitted).”

View from the Kurodake Ropeway

View from the Kurodake Ropeway. Image: Rising Sun Guides

Kurodake

Best for: Touring
Where to ski:NE face of Kurodake peak or use it as a stepping stone to get deeper into the Daisetsuzan range
Recommended for:Being a “great backcountry access point to a truly amazing zone”

Andrew on the Kurodake backcountry:

“Kurodake is truly an amazing zone with so much to do. If I’ve got a strong group of people who are into ski touring, then Kurodake is great. You can hike the main peak of Kurodake, and ski back down the front side, which is amazing and super fun. Once you’re out there, it’s relatively easy to lap up the peak run two or three times.

“But if you go over the top and behind Kurodake peak there’s a whole lot more terrain – some really, really good skiing that’s also super fun. The risk level does go up for many of those same reasons I talked about before and we only take returning clients any further than the peak. You can end up quite far away from things and in valleys that you have to hike back out of. Some routes also cliff out so it’s important to know where you’re going.

Kurodake peak, Hokkaido

View from the Kurodake peak. Image: Rising Sun Guides

“I love doing the Asahidake-Kurodake traverse as well. It’s a nice day of ski touring and the actual distance is not that far though very remote. It can be done in a day and you can get some really good skiing along the way. Just make sure you have a shuttle lined up because it takes about three hours to drive between the two areas.”

To learn more about Rising Sun Guides, visit risingsunguides.com