Before I left for Japan last winter I put the word out to everyone I knew: If you're thinking about heading to Hokkaido, let me know and I'll help sort you out with a fun trip.
An old school buddy of mine named Anthony (Anto) took up the offer. He was in Australia visiting family before heading back to the US, where he's been living for a few years, and was swinging through Hokkaido on the way.
We had plans to roll around for a week or so chasing good snow, but some visa delays meant that Anto had to push his flight back and ended up with just three nights in Japan. For a lot of travelers, trying to get decent skiing on three night stopover would be almost more trouble that it was worth. After you've caught trains and buses and found rental gear and checked into you accommodation, and then done that whole process again in reverse, it doesn't leave a lot of time to ski. So just how much can you do with three nights in Hokkaido?
It turns out you can do a lot. Of course, it helps to have someone to chuck you in a van, sort your life out and show you the best skiing. But that's exactly what I was there to provide.
Anto's flight got into Chitose Airport at about noon on a very sunny Friday the 4th of Feb. We took some tourist pics at Lake Shikotsu, checked into a pension in Rusutsu, and then rolled on to Niseko for the evening. After a quick stop at a rental shop to get the right gear, we hit the slopes for some night skiing. I'm not normally one for big resorts but the night skiing at Niseko is pretty awesome. Anto hadn't skied in a while, and had never been on fat skis, so after a bunch of laps to find his ski legs and a few tips to get the most out of his setup (Kastle BMX 108s - pretty much the greatest ski of all time), it was ramen time.
Rusutsu was calm and bluebird the next morning. Anto met up with some family friends (Brian and Matt) and I showed the crew a few sneaky stashes of pow that had survived the sunny weather. With the solar aspects crusting up pretty badly and much of the resort skied out, we put first tracks into some days-old shaded pow that the rest of the Rusutsu hordes had overlooked. Then it was back to the pension for an excellent meal courtesy of Yamada-san, and over to a local izakaya to join Brian and Matt for some warm potato sake.
We made an early start on Sunday, heading north to Kokusai to ski for the day. Again, anything on solar aspects was pretty ugly, but despite three days of sunny weather since the last storm, there were still faceshots to be had under the gondola and quad chair lift lines.
When Anto arrived in Japan he had basically only skied on piste. But halfway through our day at Kokusai he turned to me with a profound look of clarity and exclaimed: "I get it, you just use the groomers to get to the pow." Mission accomplished.
Heading north from Kokusai took us through Asari Onsen. We'd bought the onsen pack ski tickets earlier in the day, so we stopped off here for a chance to chill out in a hot bath before rolling into Sapporo for the night.
Once set up in our hotel room, we grabbed some dinner from a takoyaki vendor, jumped on the subway and rode a few stops into the middle of town to see the snow festival. Odori park in the centre of town was pumping with people eating street food, listening to J-Pop concerts, and checking out snow scultpures that range from the incredible (5m tall Star Wars figures with accompanying sound and light show, or an entire bhuddist temple carved from snow and ice) to the feeble (some kind of native wildlife diorama from Australia). On some nights they have moguls and big air competitions but while we were there the stage was reserved for aspiring pop stars singing covers.
By Anthony's third night in Hokkaido we'd skied three ski areas, found faceshots days after the last storm, been the only westerners in an onsen and checked out the Sapporo snow festival. Logically, the only thing left to do was head to Teine the next morning to ski a few more laps before Anto had to catch his flight.
Teine is shady, so we managed to find some good stashes of untracked pow in the trees to skiers' right of the lift line. It was a regular Monday with no recent snowfall, so there were no lift queues, no hassles in the carpark, just us and a bunch of good lines. Anto was now confidently smashing pow on his Kastles, so we headed into some tighter trees to stick to good snow.
By three it was time to grab some pork buns for the road and drive down the expressway to Chitose Airport. Teine is right next to an on-ramp for the expressway, so you can skip the traffic and be at the departure lounge in well under an hour. I saw Anto safely to the check-in queue and then headed back to Niseko to return his skis.
We'd done four hills in three nights and skied fresh snow everywhere except Niseko (where we were skiing under lights). It just goes to show how much is possible with transport and a bit of local knowledge.