Rusutsu straddles two mountains on either side of highway 230 in Hokkaido’s southwest. It’s close to Niseko (about half an hour’s drive), easy to get to from Chitose airport, sports seemingly endless tree skiing and gets great snow. There’s an awful lot to like, and with a combination like this it’s amazing that the place managed to fly under the radar for so long. But a very smart marketing campaign for international visitors, years of rave reviews from forums and travel websites, and a market that’s looking for alternatives to Niseko have finally started sending people and their credit cards Rusutsu’s way.
Rusutsu specialises in gigantic groomers and trees. It’s almost like a curated museum collection of tree skiing: Steep, mellow, tight, open, coniferous, deciduous, really any combination of snow, slopes and trees (except for super-steep) gets represented. Do you want a moderate pitch with open spaced trees and plenty of hits to jump off? It’s under the Isola No. 3 lift line. Want something a bit steeper and tighter? Skiers’ left of the Isola No. 1 lift line or under the East No. 2 double chair should meet your requirements. If you’re looking for genuine gnar, this isn’t really the place, but then you probably knew that already.
West Mountain is directly adjacent to the main resort hotel complex and, because of its smaller size, is often overlooked by visitors. It’s easy to navigate, has a bunch of groomers of various levels, and is right next to the ski school, so it sees a lot of local tourists and intermediate skiers. Many fat ski riding, helmet wearing types are put off by hordes of folks in novelty hats on carve skis, but there’s actually some fun backcountry terrain to the skiers’ right of the runs, from which you can traverse back to the bottom of the lifts. To the skiers’ left of the groomers is the sidecountry terrain park made famous in the “Rusutsu Supernatural” edit that did the rounds on social media back in 2014. On video, with a deep end-of-season snowpack, those features all look reasonably sized. In real life, with a normal mid-season snowpack they look downright terrifying, but if that’s your thing go nuts.
On the other side of the highway lie East Mountain and Mt Isola, which you can access via a gondola that goes from the resort complex to the base of the West Mountain lifts. If you want to get your vert on a lift, this is where most of the action is. The two mountains have a series of steep sided, flat bottomed gullies that run straight down from the peaks. The bottoms of the lifts are in these gullies and there are two ways down: You can follow the ridges, which have mellow pitches and gigantic groomers, or you can drop into the gullies and ski along the drainages. Some of these have groomers, others have goat-tracks but they’re all pretty wide and easily navigated.
Riding off-piste usually means taking a groomer along a ridge, turning off partway down the mountain and heading through the trees on the side of a gulley, and then following the gulley bottom back to the lifts. All that time riding groomers means the pow laps are often pretty short, but since you can turn off the groomer at any time and still find good trees, there are lots of different lines that take a while to track out.
Rusutsu has had a smart marketing campaign for international skiers for the last few years, and it shows. Lots of people are making the trip over from Niseko (which is only half an hour’s drive away) or spending their whole trip here. If you’re here to ride pow you’ll find your brethren in the gulley under the Steamboat express quad on Mt Isola. It tracks out faster than anywhere else, so it’s a bit of a mystery that they don’t spread out a bit more - there’s good riding all over that side of the resort. Maybe people think it’s the only steep terrain around, but there’s plenty of saucy lines between Mt Isola and East Mountain that don’t get hit so hard. Plus, there are lifts that start halfway down that drainage, so you can just lap the upper part of the basin and skip the long flat groomer on the way out.
With the clientele it’s getting now, you can usually get about two days of decent skiing after a storm before the place tracks out, but you’ll be skiing some pretty mellow runs if you’re still looking for fresh tracks. Fortunately, storms are in plentiful supply. This place gets heaps of snow and the quality is good.
There’s limited backcountry riding on Isola and East Mountain. The two form a bit of a stand-alone peak, and the gulleys on the side with the lifts mean traversing back from out-of-bounds can be a bit tricky. If you’re looking to hike some turns, the best bet is to follow the ridge from West Mountain up towards Mt Shiribetsu. There are a range of gullies that drop back towards town and a bunch of good lines through some well-spaced trees. You can also follow that ridge all the way up to Shiribetsu itself, which has beautiful steep lines. This place is serious avalanche terrain – the trees are well spaced because they get regularly smashed by slides. You can read as many forum posts about stable Japanese snowpacks as you want: The guys who brag about skiing those lines have either carefully checked conditions, carried the right equipment, and been in a smart, experienced party, or they’re idiots.
A note about Shiribetsu. There’s a heli operation running up there now (much to the disappointment of some locals I met), so don’t be surprised to see tracks early in the day if the weather is good. This is a mixed blessing – more skiers means more slope testers, so hopefully you can get a better idea of stability. It also means more tracks. The merits of putting your heli operation on a stand-alone peak, adjacent to town, that was already regularly being accessed on foot is a topic for another day. The skiing is great, so it certainly makes sense on one level.
Most of the accommodation and food options at Rusutsu are in the gigantic resort complex at the base of West Mountain. This gargantuan building is an exemplar of kooky Japanese resorts, featuring such wonders as an olde-worlde shopping boutique, a carousel, an indoor ski slope and bouldering wall for kids, a jillion restaurants and a gigantic animated plastic tree that sings and blinks at you at the push of a button. It is a strange place indeed. Oh, and it has a rollercoaster. Actually several. But they don’t run in winter. Truly one of the great misfortunes of our time.
The crazy factor alone means the resort hotel is worth a look, and it would be a very convenient – albeit slightly kitsch and sterile – place to stay. But if you’re looking for a slightly more homely experience, there are pensions on the highway as you drive into and out of the resort area. These are run by local couples and offer the gracious hospitality that makes Japan such an amazing place to visit. We usually stay at a pension with Japanese style rooms and excellent food that’s within walking distance of the convenience store, ski lifts, and the few nightspots in town.
If you’re staying in Rusutsu it’s a good idea to include meals with your accommodation most (if not all) nights. The pensions do great meals, and there are limited options elsewhere in town. There are a couple of restaurants and izakayas just next to the main resort hotel, but they’re often full. The food is great, so be sure to make a reservation if you’re thinking of checking them out. Uphill from the cluster of little Japanese places is a restaurant that serves western food to a large number of white folks, if that’s your thing. If all else fails there are two convenience stores with the usual assortment of thought-provoking baked goods, quick meals, beer and dangerously cheap spirits.