Winter in Hokkaido, part 2

Renegade wife and I were recently on a ski trip to Hokkaido Japan. The post from that trip turned out to be much longer than anticipated so I split it into two parts. This is part 2, you can find part 1 here. Ok, lets continue with the last two places we visited:

Niseko
Niseko is one of the biggest ski resorts in Hokkaido. The reason it’s so big is because it consists of four smaller systems that are interconnected, Niseko Grand Hirafu, Niseko Hanazono, Niseko Village and Niseko Annupuri. We stayed in Niseko Grand Hirafu because it was easier to find a decently priced hotel there. When we were here two years ago we stayed several nights in Annupuri where there were a couple of hotels and one or two independent restaurants. From what I’ve seen of Niseko Village and Hanazono they both seem to be big resort complexes with hotel, restaurant and ski rental all in the same building. Grand Hirafu is nice because it is an actual town with accommodation and food in several price ranges, from hostels and food trucks to normal hotels and reasonably priced restaurants, to luxury. There are also several snow sports shops, a small supermarket and various other shops. Niseko is pretty easy to reach, there are plenty of buses from Sapporo as well as other ski resorts that go to the Hirafu Welcome Center and there is an in resort bus service. Check out the Niesko website for more details. Going there from Kiroro was a bit trickier, we had to book seats on the return leg of a day trip bus from Niesko, but ended up paying the full price.

Being so big means Niseko is very popular with foreign tourist and the town is full of Australians. Generally it’s not a problem but we did end up waiting in line for some of the more popular restaurants. Keep that in mind if you want to go eat at certain restaurants, and consider arriving early. In my opinion, it was worth it to wait when we did because the food is really good.  The restaurants I recommend are: Kabuki 1 where you cook your own Okonomiyaki pancakes on your own little teppanyaki table, Wabi Sabi that does some excellant rice bowls with different toppings, and finally the best restaurant in Niseko: Niseko Ramen Kazahana who’s potato ramen noodles are to die for.

The four sub-resorts are connected near the top of the mountain. The actual top is often closed due to high winds or poor visibility but it’s possible to go between areas even if it is. With such a big resort there are plenty of different slopes for different levels of skiers from beginners to advanced riders. There are also several ungroomed areas that powder hunters will enjoy. When we were there it didn’t snow for a couple of days so these areas quickly became tracked out and bumpy. Like in Kiroro there are a series of gates for entering the backcountry and we chatted to a couple who had hiked to the very top of the mountain and got a fantastic run from there. Like I mentioned in part 1, I didn’t have the equipment to go into the backcountry so I stayed within bounds.

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The street in Grand Hirafu

P1110393The view of Mount Yotei from the top of the hill

All four ski areas have their own family slope where the absolute beginners can practice their first turns. Due to a cold poor Yini was forced to stay indoors in Kiroro, but in Niesko she was finally feeling well enough to hit the slopes. It took her a few runs to dust off her skills but by the second day she was doing really well and with me as here coach she learned quickly. I really want to stress how far she progressed so I am listing all her achievements here:

  • She can stand up both facing uphill and facing downhill (many beginners struggle with one direction)
  • She can take the lift
  • She can keep her balance and make adjustments when things get a bit tricky
  • She makes some beautiful turns
  • Most importantly: she looks like she enjoys herself while snowboarding.

Yini in the slope

I even shot a short film

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Sunset over mount Yotei

Sapporo
Sapporo is the main city in Hokkaido and though it’s smallish by Japanese standards it’s a real city where people live and work, not just a resort. As such there are plenty of places you can visit from parks to museums to shopping streets. By pure luck we managed to time our arrival in the city with annual snow festival. Even luckier was that our hotel was located just by the Odori park which is where the snow festival is held. Consequently we spent a fair bit of time strolling through the festival area, looking at the various snow sculptures and performances. As it happened, this year marks 150 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Sweden and part of the festival area was dedicated to Sweden with a giant snow sculpture of Stockholm Cathedral (Storkyrkan), a Dalecarlian horse (dalahäst) made from snow and performances by fake ABBA.

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Snow sculpture with Final Fantasy theme

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They had a big air jump set up in the festival area, above are some of the snowboarders practice jumps

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Sapporo TV tower

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Ice sculptures

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Companies also sponsored some snow sculptures

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Impressive snow temple

General snow festival shots 

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I like this Cup Noodles sculpture

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Entrance to the Sweden Square

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Dalecarlian horse

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Fake ABBA performance in front of the Stockholm Cathedral snow sculpture

Some international teams were still carving their statues when we were there

Like always at this kind of event there were some pop culture references in the statues

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There was some impressive light work on some of the bigger snow sculptures

Except for exploring the snow festival we visited the Sapporo Clock Tower, Tanukikoji shopping street and The Sapporo Beer Museum. The clock tower is a quite small western style building that nowadays houses a small museum, for me it’s not much to see. The shopping street was much like other shopping streets all over the world with plenty of shops geared towards tourists. What surprised me was the low price in the restaurants which are usually high in such touristic areas. The beer museum is located in an old part of the Sapporo Brewery and showcases a bit of history of beer brewing in Hokkaido and Japan as a whole as well as some details of the Sapporo Beer brand. Most of the exhibition is in Japanese with little explanation cards in English, Chinese and Korean. Sadly, the disconnect between the information card and the exhibit makes it harder to follow. The best part of the museum is the tasting where you get a set of three different beers to try. There are also several restaurants in the brewery area and we tried the all you can eat barbecue which was good.

P1110844The Sapporo Clock Tower

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City Hall

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I like this glass installation in front of city hall

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Tanukikoji street

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The Japanese fake food outside restaurants is always fascinating

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Sapporo Brewery

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Beer barrels outside the brewery

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Big copper pan used in the brewing process

Outside Sapporo are several smaller ski resorts, knowing that it might be another two years until I get to go skiing again I insisted on going to one of them while Yini stayed to explore more of the city (she highly recommends the art museum). I’ve seen the name Sapporo Teine pop up here and there so I decided that would be the place to go. Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics and Teine, or at least part of it, is a remnant of that with the old Olympic torch still visible on the top of a hill. There are two areas in Teine, Olympia Zone and Highland Zone that are interconnect by a long, flat slope and a gondola. Olympia Zone is suitable for beginners with some short, rather flat runs while Highland Zone is better for more advanced riders  with longer and steeper slopes.

To get there from Sapporo you first take a train to Teine JR station and from there, you can take bus number 70 that stops both at Olympia and Highland. You can find the schedule on the Teine website. There are rental shops and restaurants in both Olympia and Highland but the lifts close earlier in Highland so if you plan to do any night skiing,  I would recommend renting gear in Olympia and taking the gondola up. That way you can just glide down Olympia when Highland closes without having to worry about returning your gear. i hadn’t snowed that much when I was there but apparently it’s not a very popular resort because the side country still had some good powder. As per usual there is a gate into the backcountry and this time I had teamed up with a guy I met on the bus so we ventured out for a backcountry run. I wasn’t fantastic but much better than anything we could find in the slopes, well worth the 10 minute hike. All in all Sapporo Teine is not a great resort but for something within commuting distance from the city, it’s pretty good.

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The view of Sapporo from the top of Olympia

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The guy and his uncle that I met on the bus

After two weeks in Hokkaido and almost nine days in the slopes my need for snowboarding has been satisfied, hopefully it will last me another year or two. I’ve had a great time but now it feels good to be home. With that its time to end the post.

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Sunset over mount Yotei

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