Not just a haven for snowbladers and schoolkids, Kokusai has great snow, fun inbounds terrain and some neat sidecountry. It’s sheltered and often has great conditions while nearby Teine is getting hammered by wind. It takes a bit of figuring out and there are a few flat spots, but once you’ve got a handle on where you’re going there’s plenty of good riding and very few people to share it with. Bring your friends, your windscreen-wiper googles and your onsen towels.
First appearances here can be a bit demoralising. It’s small, cleverly wrapping a bunch of redundant lifts around a pretty modest basin. There are also lots of people. It has a huge carpark that actually fills with cars (unlike everywhere else in Hokkaido). Usually, limited terrain and many people are a huge red flag, but here it doesn’t seem to matter. The vast, overwhelming majority of visitors stick to the groomers. Despite the healthy ticket sales, the lift lines are short and the
service in the restaurants is quick. It does get a few crews of local snowboarders who ride off-piste, but it's common to find fresh turns here days after a storm when Rusutsu and Niseko are utterly hammered.
The small size is also misleading. Almost all the good skiing is accessed off a gondola that goes from their base station to their highest lifted point. From here you can cruise down a variety of groomers, but the basin directly under the gondola line has a series of gullies that offer some really fun lines. It’s not super hard, but the terrain is intricate enough that each line feels different and you can ski in here all day without tracking it out. Best of all, it’s east facing and sheltered. When the winds are howling at Teine and the top chairlift is closed, the gondola at Kokusai is usually still spinning and the snow in the basin beneath in pristine condition.
The entries and exits are a little tricky – stick to the skiers’ left of the main drainage as you reach the bottom to ensure you can get back to the groomer. It’s easy to get out on skis if you end up too low, but on a board you could be slogging through some deep pow. If you’re starting out here, stay to the skier’s left of the gondola line until you get your bearings. The short steep slopes on the skier’s right are fun but can spit you out a bit low.
The best terrain at Kokusai is outside the resort boundary, on the southern side of the ridge to the skiers’ right of the ski area. This offers a range of open bowls of varying steepness that drop to a creek which takes you back to the base of the lifts. Be warned – the creek is very flat. If there’s recent snowfall you’ll want some skiers in your party to go through first and pack the track down for the run out.
This place will produce avalanches, and the creek at the bottom is a terrain trap. If you die here it’ll ruin the fun for everyone else, so please be safe. There’s plenty of riding inbounds on the days when conditions are sketchy.
And in case you’re so inclined: Lift accessed, huckable avalanche barriers. What more do you need?
Don’t let the humungous, James-Bond-villain-lair/Soviet-military-base inspired restaurant and shopping complex at the bottom of the resort fool you: There’s nowhere to stay at the ski field. Fortunately Kokusai is only a few minutes from two onsen towns. To the south, Jouzankei has the usual assortment of gigantic hotels, but also a few smaller onsens with a handful of restaurants and izakayas scattered around. Its picturesque location on a steep hillside above a lake is matched only by the quality of its public toilets, which are the finest I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.
To the north is Asari Onsen, which has fewer restaurants but plenty of bathhouses. Don’t be deterred, Asari is right next to Otaru with its range of food and entertainment options. There are a couple of friendly pensions in Asari, but then it’s a bit of a trek to get into town so we usually stay in Otaru. Sapporo about an hour away (depending on how far into the city you’re going, and traffic).
Kokusai offers a package deal where you can buy a combined lift and onsen ticket, which covers a bunch of onsens in the area. It’s well worth the money and a stop in Asari or Jouzankei to soak away the day’s exertions is a pretty perfect addition to the Kokusai experience.