Monday, January 29, 2024

A Road Trip to Central Hokkaido

The whole point of me coming to Japan for the season is to go skiing. So when work got very light on the ground after the busy Xmas/New Year period I arranged to head off for a week to go ski some powder.

Working at Winkel I already have access to two mountains where I can ski for free. Asari, just a few hundred metres up the road from our accommodation, and Kiroro, a 40 minute drive over one of the most hazardous road passes in Hokkaido. There's been a few hairy drives, where the visibility is limited to almost zero, when it's pure whiteout and you're driving at less than 20km/hr, with cars driving off the road into snowbanks and the like. Luckily, we've had no mishaps, but the drive can sometimes be quite exhausting.

Asari is a small mountain, with not a lot of off piste terrain to explore, but its piste slopes are excellent for working on technique. Kiroro, however, boasts the highest amount of snowfall in Hokkaido, and its tree runs can be epic, if rather short in length. The touring is supposed to be great, but I've not had the pleasure due to lack of companions to go with. Julian and Ella never invited me on any of their ski touring forays so I had to make do with inbound powder.

I was pretty keen to get away from the house, and the somewhat toxic environment of one grumpy old lady requesting four typically lazy teens\early 20s to respect the rules that had been expected of them by their employer. These rules, around respect for communal property, cleanliness, work uniforms, use of office vehicles, were continuously ignored, and even deviously circumvented through lying about use of the office cars for personal use to avoid paying for them. Unfortunately, young people don't realise that their deviousness is pretty transparent, particularly when a trip to the supermarket is only a 5 km round trip and the odometer reads 20!!

I hired a car and headed north. Fujiisan, my boss, had secured a 40% discount on the hire charges, and had suggested I visit a small ski field called Hidaka on my way to Furano. It wasn't far out of my way, about 30 minutes once I left the motorway, and I could ski there for 2 hours for the grand price of 1500Yen, approximately $15. Bargain!

It hasn't been a bumper year for snow in Hokkaido, and Central Hokkaido, being further inland, gets less snow than the resorts closer to the coast. The upside is the snow is drier, being further from the coast, but Hidaka hadn't had fresh snow for a few days and was pretty firm hard pack, even icy in places. I'd brought my piste skis as well as my big fat touring skis, so I spent the afternoon lapping the groomers and playing with a few skill drills. I got my $15 worth!

On the way back over the pass to rejoin the road to Furano I spooked a deer by the side of the road. That was pretty cool.

It snowed most of the way on my drive to Furano, a good omen for the next day. I was staying 3 nights at a small 1-star hotel in downtown Furano, so after checking in and having a hot shower and soak in the communal bath, I headed out to try one of the ramen places I'd heard about. Unfortunately they were booked out, with at least another hour of waiting before a table would be available, so I popped over the road to another place instead. This place, The Witch's Spoon, was run by an elderly couple who were very welcoming. I ordered the curry soup and it was spectacularly delicious. Best Japanese curry I've ever had.

Day 2 I awoke to snow everywhere, our host busy clearing snow outside delaying his ability to provide hot water for my morning coffee. An elderly Japanese guest sorted the hot water, and since he was reliant on our otherwise occupied host to give him a lift up to the ski field, I offered to give him a lift instead.

We headed up to Kitanomine, where I dropped off the elderly gentleman and found a carpark. I began walking towards the main building to buy a lift ticket, but instead spied Hiromi, who I knew worked for the International Ski School there run by my friend Naoko. Hiromi is Ellie's mum, Ellie being the girl I shared a room with at Winkel in 2020, and we'd gone to visit Hiromi at Furano also in 2020. I chatted to her and another chap I knew from Cardrona, who told me that the lifts were all on hold due to wind. I then continued on to the main buildings, to pop in and see Naoko at the main ski school office. She was understandably preoccupied with trying to reschedule lessons. I waited around a little to see if much more than two lower mountain chairs would open, then decided to call it a day. I didn't fancy paying 7000 Yen to access only a small portion of the mountain, though later the main ropeway opened so it may have been worthwhile after all. By then I'd decided to go visit an onsen.

The Daisetsuzan National Park encompasses the highest peaks in Hokkaido, and is spectacular in both summer and winter. It's extremely popular for ski touring, but it's remote and unforgiving. There's active volcanoes, and lots of geothermal activity, which means quite a few onsens. I decided to visit the onsen in the highest hotel in Hokkaido, a pool of muddy iron rich water perched on the side of Tochidake.

The drive there was spectacular. Across the Tokachi plains on pancake flat roads with occasional glimpses of the nearby peaks, and then a winding road up through giant birch and pine forests, to the hotel at the end of the road. The road further on is impassable in winter, and the wind was blowing one hell of a houley when I at last arrived.

The onsen itself was a bit of a disappointment, mainly because the outside area was essentially an enclosed cave. There was a second pool with amazing views out to the mountains, but this was not only fully exposed to the wild winds, but the water was frigid. The hot water was only being circulated in the inner "cave". The muddy water, however, made my skin feel magnificently soft.

On my way out I met a North American split boarder and his film crew, so I chatted to him before heading back down the mountain. They were going to skin up to a nearby ridge and then ride the ridge down to the road and get picked up in their van. I was jealous that I couldn't go skiing here, the snow looked so nice. Instead, I drove back to Furano, and went looking for somewhere to have dinner.

Again, my first choice wasn't available, so I wandered around until I spied a little bar, and headed upstairs. They said they weren't open for meals yet, but I could stay and have a beer. I ordered a locally brewed dark beer, which was delicious. It was made by the chef's son, who runs a local brewery, and who popped in to see his dad before heading off to Australia for a few days on business. The chef has a daughter in Melbourne, and other relatives in Tasmania. He's of indigenous Ainu heritage and a very fine cook indeed.

Inspired by the chap sitting next to me, who I ended up chatting to most of the evening, I let the chef bring me a variety of dishes. Washed down with the excellent black beer, it was a truly stupendous meal. I even tried the home made Furano gin, but it was a bit too ripe for my tastes. With jazz playing in the background, a humorous camaraderie between the chef and his co-conspirator in the kitchen, and a bunch of people coming and going, it was a memorable evening. I wandered back to my lodgings feeling I'd had a great day, even though no skiing had occurred.

Day 3 I returned to Furano. The wind had settled, but the lines for tickets and the gondola were wickedly long. I managed to actually have a wee chat with Naoko, but she wasn't able to come for a ski with me, so I went off by myself to track down some pow.

The wind had packed the snow down pretty firmly, and anything exposed was wind affected, but I still managed to find a few stashes of soft pow in amongst the trees. By the afternoon my knees were complaining, so I swapped to the skinnier piste skis and smashed out a few groomer runs before calling it a day.

That evening I went to a nearby vegan restaurant I'd heard good things about. This time I had no trouble getting in, and had another memorable meal. And it was only a very short walk from my lodgings too..

Day 4 I checked out and headed further north. My destination was the small resort of Pippu. I'd visited there many years ago on my very first visit to Japan, but there had been no fresh snowfall and it had been somewhat disappointing. Not so this time!

There had been significant snowfall overnight. My first run was on a groomer with a wonderful layer of fresh snow on top. Heaven! Then I headed over to a different lift, and skied down a slope with fresh snow up to my knees. And that's how the next 2 and a half hours went until I stopped for lunch and all the lifts bar one closed due to wind. Each side of the runs had huge swathes of untracked pow to play in, as well as under the lifts. There wasn't much need to go through the trees, there just weren't enough other powder hounds there to track it all out.

I didn't fancy lining up in the queue with the school kids and army guys for the one remaining two seater chairlift, and I was beat anyway. My day ticket included a visit to the onsen at the nearby hotel, so I retired there and spent a couple of hours soaking, relaxing, and chatting with a couple of other western women who'd also been enjoying the powder morning at Pippu.

The drive back to Asahikawa, where I would be staying for the next three nights, was on a very icy road, wind scoured and extremely treacherous. I had an incident where the rear wheels lost traction and I spun the car. Luckily there was no traffic coming in the other direction as I came to rest against the snowbank on the other side of the road. I was on a perfectly straight stretch of road at the time, and going well under the speed limit (40 or 50km/hr). No damage to the car, but a few nerves strained on my part, I drove off, turned around, and drove back even slower than I'd been going beforehand.

My lodgings were in a quaint little ryokan right in the centre of town, run by an elderly gentleman and his family who were incredibly hospitable. I was able to park my car in his garage each evening, and he even pulled out a boot dryer for my ski boots.

After a hot shower and communal bath I headed out for dinner. My host had recommended a ramen place not far away. It was a no thrills affair with a fast throughput of what looked like a lot of regulars. The ramen in Asahikawa is a bit different in that the broth has a lot more fat in it, due to the climate being much colder. The roast pork that was added to the ramen was the best cooked, most tastiest I'd had. That and the tasty broth made this ramen one of the best I've ever eaten. I'm having quite the culinary experience on this trip!!

I've mentioned communal bath a couple of times. In Japanese hotels that don't have onsens, they have communal baths instead. An onsen is a bath using water from natural hot springs, and most onsens are big enough to have two separate bathing areas, segregated by gender. In either an onsen or a communal bath you always shower first, scrubbing your entire body with soap and water before soaking in the bath. Small hotels with just a communal bath generally work just like a normal bathroom, where you lock the door whilst you are in there for privacy, but everyone uses the same hot bath water to soak in. On the assumption that everyone is clean before they get in the bath!! 

Day 5 I headed to Kamui Links, another ski field I'd visited on that first trip in 2015. Though there'd been no fresh snow overnight there was still lots of fresh pow to be found in the trees. It's impossible to get lost, and there's lots of terrain to explore, so I had a ripper of a day.

Back in Asahikawa I found a cute little isakaya just around the corner and ordered a few different dishes. The whole squid was delicious, perfectly cooked, but so were the chicken skewers, and the eggplant and roast tomato dish, both of which I didn't photograph. 

Day 6 was the icing on the cake. Asahidake, also in Daisetsuzan National Park is an active volcano with ropeway access to just above the treeline. I had packed the avy gear and my skins, but the weather didn't play ball, so I didn't bother skinning up higher to visit the fumaroles. The wind had scoured all the faces above the trees, so the skiing up there would have been diabolical, but once down in the trees it was fantastic. A little heavy, and thigh deep, so you really had to keep your speed up. Something I failed to do on my second run and ended up having to dig myself out!! All part of the adventure!

By the third run I was toast, so called it a day and headed to the onsen before driving back to Asahikawa. I got tired of trying to find a yakiniku place that had a free table, so ended up back at the yummy ramen place. An early night for me.

My final day I lingered over breakfast chatting with two other kiwi couples also there for the skiing, before driving back to the Winkel House then dropping off the hire car. I was surprised to find the house clean and tidy, the kitchen especially so, though I suspect it may have been the handiwork of a visiting Japanese ski instructor rather than the laziest of the teens who was home that day. Her boyfriend was coming to visit, but I still don't believe her capable of that much effort!!

Breakfast at the ryokan in Asahikawa

Next it's back to work, this time working for Club Med at Kiroro.

That's next...

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