As we wound our way North from Sapporo on Japan’s largest northern island, Byron and I quickly began to understand what all of the hype was about; Hokkaido meant snow, and a lot of it. Cold dry Siberian air collects moisture as it crosses the Sea of Japan heading south, depositing it in the form of the lightest, driest powder snow on earth. On average Hokkaido and its surrounding mountains receive seven meters of average snowfall, which rarely sees the freeze/thaw cycles we are used to in North America, meaning that that seven meters is there to stay for the winter. We arrived in the small town of Furano mid-February, eager to experience what we would quickly start to term ‘Japow’.
Furano is a small town right in the middle of the Hokkaido island; not quite as developed as the Niseko resort area made famous in recent years through various ski movies and magazine articles, it was a great place to get our ski legs back, make some new ski buddies and enjoy our first real taste of winter. After enjoying a couple of rare sunny days exploring the resort area and its backcountry, we had our legs back and were ready for some steep and deep. Our prayers were soon answered, and the snow began to fall. And fall it did. Throughout our stay in Japan, the weather patterns and snowfall would be a constant learning experience. Everything we knew about snowfall and snow conditions changed; snow fell at -5C but also -30C, and it was always dry, always light, and always bonded quickly and well to existing snow to create a stong, stable snowpack (ie a backcountry skiers dream).
After our few introductory days at the local resort, we began to explore the surrounding backcountry terrain with new friends we made at the local hostel we were camped out at in town. Seeing our lust for snow and the desire to explore more of the region, they put us onto a backcountry area accessible from a few small onsens (locally developed hot springs with attached accomodations) located only a short bus ride away across the valley in Hokkaido’s largest mountain range, Ishikari. Surrounded by the Daisetsuzan National Park, these onsens were open year round via a narrowly plowed mountain road, and guaranteed fresh tracks for days. If the weather happened to clear while we were there we would also be afforded views of Ishikari’s highest peak, Ashahi-Dake; an active volcano topping out at 2200m.
With the promise of fresh, deep tracks and hot springs at the end of each day, we bade goodbye to our new friends and the little town of Furano. After many rounds of “sumimasen” (excuse me/sorry in japanese) we wedged our over sized load onto the mini bus loaded with Japanese elders heading for their daily mountain onsen (it’s hard to remember who ‘sumimasen’ed’ more, us or the bus driver. As we quickly learned the Japanese are ten times more polite than your average Canadian, and will apologize for even the slightest inconvenience, even if it’s clearly us that should be apologizing). Our lodge for the next five nights was perfect; a spotlessly clean dorm room (the Japanese are also fastidiously clean, another welcome trait), kitchen for cooking, and an expansive network of hot spring baths to spend hours in after a day out playing in the snow. At the end of each day everyone gathered in the kitchen regardless of language or age and ate, laughed and drank together.
During our stay at the onsen we met a pair of adventurous and hilarious friends from Colorado also out in search of deep snow in Japan. The four of us hit it off immediately, and after bidding the Ishikari range goodbye we spent the next 5 days together road-tripping through Hokkaido skiing powder, eating sushi and sharing new adventures and a lot of laughs. When me met Phillip and Jeremy we’d been on the road for over 6 months; their energy and enthusiasm for adventure was, for us, a needed recharge. They lived and travelled with an infectiously calm but fierce love for adventure and life; they traveled and started each day with little expectation other than to enjoy and live in the experience, a motto that Byron and I wholeheartedly embraced and still try to carry forward with us each day still. Their thoughtful yet carefree attitude toward adventure made us all fast friends, and we were very sad to say goodbye when it was time for their flight home.
To most, Japan seems like a daunting and expensive travel destination, and they’re not wrong; unfortunately, south east Asia this is not. We knew that our time in Japan would quickly deplete our resources the longer we stayed, so we did everything we could to find ways to minimize the blow to our budget.
As it turns out (and not surprisingly), this is a common conundrum for travellers everywhere, and several networks have been set up to accommodate those looking for a live/work exchange. After completing our profile we were bonafied jobseekers according to workaway.com, and after a few emails we were set to swing hammers and help out with some renovation work while our host put us up in a shared house with others in the same boat; the deal seemed pretty reasonable, and there was a network of local hills in the area to ski at during our time off. After six months of total freedom this would be the first time we would be required to answer to someone and return to a semblance of responsibilities. All we could think was it was a good thing there was a ski resort in town.
Our communal house was located in Kutchan, a small town about ten minutes from the resort center of Nesiko. The Aussie whom we were working for had lived in the area for twenty-odd somewhat years, and had grown accustomed to using ‘workaway-ers’ to staff most of his commercial operations, which included a few restaurants, a hotel and a small ski school. Although we didn’t agree with all of his business practices, the situation did allow us to prolong our departure from the endless snowfall of Japan. We committied to a month of hard labour before we moved on; and just as with most of our other experiences in the country thus far, it turned out to be a worthwhile one. For one month we found a place to call home, and were able to share it with others from around the world, adding to a long list of friends whom we’ll forever be grateful to have met. For one month we skied together, “worked” together, cooked together and partied together. It was an awesome family of travellers who for a short time made a home away from home that much better.
The area around Niseko is blessed with some of the highest snowfall in Hokkaido, and even on this reported ‘low snowfall year’ it didn’t dissapoint. One morning we woke up to almost a meter of fresh snow; it took us nearly fifteen minutes to shovel a short path for the van to the street but everyone knew we weren’t going to work until it was skied; there was so much powder that we enjoyed fresh tracks all day that day and even the next. At one point when we had to do a short boot-pack Byron volunteered to cut the trail; I was shocked into giggles as he plowed into the snow; waist-deep on his 6’5″ figure. The longer we stayed in the region the more secret pockets of fresh snow we found, a few quick minutes from any of the resort trails would often lead to soft, fluffy turns undiscovered by those skiing the groomers only a hundred meters away.
Dominating the Niseko area is the dormant volcano Mt Yotei. This massive 1900m beast dominates the local vista on the rare days when the clouds part, and with constant snowfall throughout the winter her flanks are constantly filled with deep snow just waiting to be skied. With a clear day in the forecast coinciding with our day off Byron and I along with two others from our house made plans to get an early start on the next day and summit the volcano. After an early start we were already cutting our track up the side of the mountain when the sun came up, giving light to the birch above us and sparkle to the snow crunching below our skis, promising a day that wouldn’t soon be forgotten. After six hours and 1600 vertical meters of breaking trail we crested the peak and got our first glimpse down into the crater; it was perfect. After a lap down into the belly of the beast we cheered and screamed every exclamation and explicative we knew (at least I did); we had just skied into a volcano! I was beyond giddy to say the least; if the volcano decided that was the moment to come back to life and blow her top I would have died a happy girl.
Our luck with the weather held and we descended into the crater one more time before we headed for home, enjoying the vertical mile of powder skiing we had worked so hard to gain that morning down the other side towards home. We owe the weather and volcano gods a huge arigato gozaimos for our day on Yotei, as it will be one that will live in our hearts and memory forever.
Unfortunately our love and pursuit of snow in Niseko didn’t always coincide with our work responsibilities and we usually neglected the latter. Our volunteer boss eventually felt that we were no longer holding up our end work/live deal, and so it was on this note that we were unceremoniously fired from our ski bum jobs. This was a first for both of us, and one we did in the end, take very lightly, and with a large dose of humour. We spent a few more nights in our Kutchan house as refugees, and after a large farewell party with our adopted workaway family left the Japow behind and boarded a short flight to Beijing. Little did we know our ski adventures were only getting started.