Article and photos by Barclay Idsal
It’s no secret. As Instagram profiles light up with faux-artsy pictures of deciduous tree laden powder fields, ski bums start to get crusty. And this year it seemed like every filmer, athlete, and two bit semi-pro ventured to the Land of the Rising Sun for #japow. However with copious amounts of terrain, heated toilet seats, and even more snow than you’d expect, it’s still Japan and it still delivers.
Here is The Unofficial Guide to Hokkaido.
1) Bank Accounts… Who Needs Em?
Forget what three digit number is sitting in your checking account and get a credit card. Find one that gets miles, doesn’t include foreign transaction fees, allows cash withdrawals, and has a $5,000 credit limit (that said you must have paid your water bill on time at least once in the past three years). Once you get a credit card find lodging and a plane ticket—This is going to be painful.
2) What’s the Hardest Part of Getting to Japan?
Digging the whole way there, that’s what. And that’s exactly what you’re gonna do. But instead of digging an actual hole to Japan, you’re going to dig yourself an equally deep hole of debt in order to fly the 5,000 miles it takes to get to Sapporo. But so what? You drive a Tacoma from the last millennium and some redneck with a mullet is driving a fully-loaded Tundra from last year—rednecks know the importance of debt too.
3) Find a Roof Over Your Head.
You have a few options: lodge, rental home, or The Hilton in Niskeo Village (Cost: low to high). The lodge is my favorite option and if that lodge has an “Onsen” or natural hot spring—even better.
Personal Preference: The Black Diamond Lodge is the ultimate in ski bum luxury.
Bunk beds, heated toilets, out of this world breakfasts, and its namesake guide service down the street make the Black Diamond Lodge the best bang for your buck in Hokkaido.
4) Time for Heinekens and Ambien.
The flight costs anywhere from $1,000-$2,000. Ouch. The Hotel will cost anywhere from $450-$1000 for 10 days. Woof. So find an Ambien and order a couple Heinekens to help you sort out your new mountain of debt as you fly across the largest ocean on the planet. You’ll wake up six hours later off the coast of Kamchatka and you’re almost there… just five more hours. Finally, you arrive at the Tokyo Narita Airport with one more flight to Sapporo and a 2-hour drive to the mountains. Fuck. At least you and your ski bag made it.
5) The US Dollar Goes a Short Way
You’re here! Just in time for #japanuary! After the lodge and flight expenses, you have $2,500 left on your $5000 credit limit. The exchange rates are pretty good and getting out of Japan spending just $800 is a complete possibility.
The food is cheap and the beer is cheaper, not to mention a trip to the Onsen only costs around $8. So hop in the hot spring and feel good about what you’re packing compared to the natives.
REMINDER: Japan is a cash country and many places will tag on absurd service fees to your card so make sure you have plenty of Yen on hand.
6) Play Under the Lights.
The skiing during the day is awesome but the single best part about skiing in Japan is the night skiing. The snow falls in sheets and the more it snows, the brighter it gets since each flake reflects light.
The Grand Hirafu is the best place for night skiing and the amount of terrain accessible is unbelievable. Get some pow in your face and then head to the Niseko Ice Bar and meet Arthur—the best bartender in all of Hirafu. Drink Sapporo Classics and take shots… lots of em. Why? Because that was the most fun you’ve had skiing… EVER.
7) Don’t Ski for One Day.
Check out the Japanese mountain culture and avoid the Australian mess that is Hirafu for 24 hours. Instead, make plans to visit Niseko, Kutchan, or Otaru. Otaru is on the coast and has some of the best Sushi you’ll ever taste. Check out the malls, fish markets, local industry… you know… culture bro. The people and places here are way different and you best recognize.
8) Ski the Backcountry.
Whether it’s Mt. Yotei, Shiribetsu-Dake, or the backcountry surrounding Niseko, the amount of accessible terrain is pretty remarkable and the snowpack is relatively stable due to steady temperatures and snowfall. That said always check your surroundings, get a guide, and know the snow.
After all is said and done, you’ll head back home with a mountain of a debt and a mind full of powder dreams. Was it worth it? You bet your sweet ass it was worth it.