Furano is steadily building a reputation as the next big destination for foreign skiers in Hokkaido. In many ways, this is no surprise. With great lift infrastructure, a variety of terrain, and a fun village right at the base of the lifts, the only thing holding Furano back has been a strictly enforced ban on skiing off the groomed runs. Over the last few years, this policy has eased, and the resort has become increasingly appealing to international visitors.
Furano has a lot to offer: There’s a range of off-piste skiing with a lot of sheltered tree runs. The town has plenty of food and accommodation options but hasn’t yet turned into the circus that often develops around international tourists. It’s a good base for trips to Tomamu, Asahidake, Kamui, and the Tokachidake area. But the smaller average snowfalls here mean it’s a good place to have a plan B. A dry spell in Furano can be rough on those who have locked in a week of accommodation and lift passes with no transport to chase better conditions.
Boasting uncrowded slopes, short lift queues, dry snow, immaculate grooming, and endless tree skiing, Furano sounds like the perfect ski destination. And when it’s good, Furano is very good. Blower pow, great tree skiing, and little to no hiking to access good lines means you can ski a lot of quality laps in a day. There’s sidecountry skiing on a range of aspects with plenty of trees for shelter, so fresh snow tends to hold up pretty well after a storm. Some of the entries and exits are a bit obscure, so much of the sidecountry takes a long time to track out.
Here’s the catch: Furano faces east and is the rain-shadow of Mt Furano-Nishi, so it gets less snow than its main rivals to the west, with around 7-8m a season compared to the 15 metres commonly recorded at Rusutsu or Asahidake. The advertising brochures will assure you that this is OK because the snow is drier and lighter than the more maritime snowpack that forms elsewhere. Blower pow is certainly great, but the biggest strength of skiing in Hokkaido is that it’s consistent. If you’ve only got time for a 10 day trip, Hokkaido is one of the safest bets in the world for powder. A bad season at a resort that gets 15m still has a lot of powder days. A bad season at a resort that gets 8m can be pretty grim.
The worst way to experience Furano is on a package trip where you’re locked in to pre-paid accommodation and lift passes. Most people on package trips don’t have their own transport either, so it’s difficult and expensive to chase good conditions elsewhere. Furano is actually a great base to day trip to Tomamu, Asahidake, Kamui, and the Tokachidake area, so there’s likely to be good snow somewhere nearby, but that’s little comfort if you’ve got no car and you’ve already paid for a lift pass. To make matters worse, most of the package trips stay at big hotels just outside the main ski village so you end up stuck at the hotel restaurants most nights.
The silver lining to Furano’s sheltered aspect is that it protects the lifts from the strong westerly and northwesterly winds that accompany most of the big storms. While most of the main ski areas on Hokkaido will be closed due to high winds, Furano will still be operating most of their lifts. Better yet, there’s excellent sidecountry skiing that can be accessed from lower on the mountain, so even if parts of the resort are on wind-hold, there’s still likely to be good skiing. So on a storm day, you could spend 30 minutes queuing for the gondola at Niseko Hirafu to ski some wind-hammered trees, or you could lap the link chair at Furano and have a whale of a time.
For many years Furano had a strictly enforced ban on tree skiing. This ban is still officially in place, but it no longer seems to be enforced. It probably wouldn’t be wise wouldn’t duck a rope if ski patrol were standing by watching, but it looks like the ski area is happy to turn a blind eye provided you’re discrete about where and when you leave the groomers. This is great news, because there’s heaps of sidecountry skiing here. The resort is divided into two parts, the Kitoname Zone near the main ski village area, and the Furano zone next to the New Prince Hotel. There’s sidecountry on either side of the resort and in the area between the two zones. Skier’s right of the resort offers a variety of reasonably sustained lines which drop into a drainage. There’s a fairly sporting goat-track running along the drainage that passes a large concrete dam and returns you to the lifts at the base of the Furano zone. Skier’s left has some sheltered gullies, but many of these drop away from the ski field and so you need to exit pretty early to return to the lifts.
The real gem of Furano’s sidecountry is between the two zones. The easiest access is from the top of the Link Chair, and you can drop any of the gullies below the lift station and return to the lifts – some funnel back to the Kitoname zone, while others come out near the Furano zone gondola. Better yet, you can get to this terrain using the Link Chair or the Furano gondola, which both tend to run in low wind. There’s also some nice lines above the Link Chair that you can access by hiking the ridge from the top of the lifts. This terrain is pretty avalanche prone and a slide here could endanger skiers on the runs below you, so you need to be extra careful. Endangering yourself is pretty dumb, but killing other people is not cool. If you don’t have avalanche education and plenty of experience, just ride somewhere else.
You’ve got two options when it comes to eating, relaxing and sleeping in Furano. You can stay in downtown Furano, which is a bustling agricultural centre of around 24,000 people, or the ski village, a collection of hotels, pensions, bars and restaurants on the edge of town near the lifts. The ski village is much more convenient for tourists: It’s close to the lifts, has plenty of restaurants and bars, and staff tend to speak more English. Be warned, however, this isn’t Niseko: Furano’s main tourist market is Japanese visitors coming in the summer, so there are still plenty of places that speak little to no English. The lower visitor numbers in winter give Furano a slightly sleepy feel, but there’s actually plenty going on and it’s a pleasant change compared to the madness that often accompanies international ski tourism.
We stay in a Japanese pension right at the base of the Kitoname gondola. Nearby there are Japanese restaurants, izakayas, western style bars, and even a micro-brewery. There’s also a cool bar in downtown Furano called “The Bridge” which is worth a look for its amazing range of cocktails and spirits.
One word of advice to those who are organising their own accommodation in Furano. Don’t get sucked in by travel agents trying to send you to the big hotels. Most of the major hotels are off to the side of ski village and although there’s a shuttle bus it’s a hassle getting away from the hotel at night. Many of the guests who stay there end up eating at the hotel restaurants each night, the atmosphere is soulless and the food is expensive and not great. There are plenty of other accommodation options which are cheaper, better located and have a bit of local charm – do your research.