Japan: land of the falling snow
Powder-covered ski slopes. Sake, sushi and hot-springs. Heated loo seats. There's only one place that offers all this and more: Furano on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, as Danielle Demetriou discovers
Saturday 23 February 2008
Beneath a Turkish-delight sky filled with tumbling snowflakes, I am deep in conversation with a woman about the vagaries of the weather. Slightly less conventionally, we are sitting with nothing but white towels on our heads in a steaming hot spring on the slopes of an active volcano.
Welcome to the world of après-ski Japanese-style. Some people like to relax after a hard day on the slopes by getting tipsy on vin chaud and dancing on the table to Madonna at the local nightclub. In the land of the rising sun, however, things are done a little differently. Along with heated toilets, well-dressed skiers and indecent quantities of sushi, one of the highlights of skiing in Japan is the "onsen crawl" – when you soak in one of the hundreds of natural hot springs dotted around the slopes.
With mountains accounting for 80 per cent of its landscape, and having twice hosted the Winter Olympics, Japan has long enjoyed a love affair with skiing. But the icing on its snow-flecked cake is its northernmost island Hokkaido. Blessed with endless cloud-brushing mountains, great snow and economic boom-fuelled state-of-the-art facilities, it is also dotted with more than 125 skiing resorts.
While most tourists head to fully fledged resorts such as Niseko, I was making my way to Furano, a quiet town in the heart of central Hokkaido celebrated for its lavender fields in summer and perfect powder snow in winter – and soon to become acquainted with British tourists for the first time following this season's UK launch of skiing holidays in the region.
It is during the flight from Tokyo to the city of Asahikawa that I realise how unusual it is for Westerners to head to this part of the world. After take-off, my imagination runs riot as a huddle of Japan Airline's hostesses point and stare in my direction for a heart-stopping 10 minutes, before coming over merely to ask which language I speak. When I clarify that English is fine, they smile in relief before making a bilingual announcement – at which point, I notice that I'm the only non-Japanese passenger and I'm getting my own personal broadcasts.
The novelty of being Western in Furano is even more pronounced. "Apart from the occasional Australian cowboys who come to snowboard, there have been very few Western visitors in the past," says Noriko, the friendly representative from the Furano Tourism Association, as we drive past snow-covered rice fields, mountains dissolving into clouds in the distance. "Everyone always knows when new Westerners arrive in Furano," she adds, ominously.
This, I soon discover, only adds to its charms. Memorably dubbed Heso no Machi (Belly Button Town) due to its location at the centre of the island, Furano bears all the hallmarks of a northern Japanese conurbation. Home to around 16,000 people, there are wide streets with wooden houses painted in pastel colours and a string of low-key restaurants as well as the ubiquitous pachinko (a type of pinball machine) parlour, karaoke bar and konbini (convenience) stores.
Looming all around is the Taisetsu mountain range, known as the roof of Hokkaido. Twelve state-of-the-art ski lifts span the mountains overlooking Furano, accessing 25km of runs. And the snow simply doesn't stop falling. Large, fluffy snowflakes tumble endlessly from the sky – 9m of snow falls a year, apparently – prompting the local mantra: "It's the best powder in Hokkaido."
Keen to put this to the test, I venture up the mountains. Furano is home to a new hosting scheme that involves locals, in their twenties to their sixties, volunteering as tourist guides for Westerners free of charge. Step forward Mari, with a wide smile, a gentle manner and a pretty bobble hat, the thirtysomething mother-of-two is as friendly as she is informative.
It is Saturday morning and a throng of young children, dressed in local racing-team outfits, are queuing patiently at the bottom of the ski lift. "Furano has the best powder in Hokkaido and this is the fastest lift in Japan, travelling at 10m a second," she informs me, in between telling me about her son's birthday party the day before. "That's one of my sons," Mari adds, waving at a boy skiing at breakneck speed down the mountain. We follow at a more sensible pace.
Finally sampling the famous powder on blissfully uncrowded slopes, I discover run after run of lusciously frothy snow without a scrap of ice in sight. Even the bad Japanese pop music blasted at avalanche-inducing levels from mountainside speakers fails to temper the pleasures of skiing on such soft, light snow.
My fellow-skiers dispel the myth that skiing has to be a fashion black hole. A peak-season mountain anywhere else in the world is likely to yield an indecent quantity of 1980s-style canary-yellow jumpsuits and garish accessories. In Japan, however, the nation's style gene shines through on the slopes, with tastefully dressed skiers and snowboarders gently making their way down the mountain.
Lunch is a concise, Japanese affair. We choose and pay for our meal at a vending machine in a large, clean dining room. After receiving a receipt, we collect our food from the counter – in my case, a large bowl of salmon sashimi, crab and rice with miso soup and pickles. The bill dispels the erroneous notion that Japan is expensive: the meal costs only Y1,400 (£6.70), with hot sake Y500 (£2.40) extra.
It is at this point that I inadvertently discover another advantage to skiing in Japan: the mountainside loos are spotlessly clean and heated!
But skiing is not the only activity that Furano has to offer in wintertime. "Now, it is time for your onsen crawl!" exclaims Noriko brightly, as she comes to collect me clutching a bright pink bucket full of toiletries and accessories, from shampoos to combs.
Our destination is Tokachi-Dake, an active volcano in Daisetzusan National Park, and home to numerous steaming onsen. First stop is the spa Hakuginso, where we follow the golden rules of Japanese onsen-bathing: washing thoroughly indoors before venturing outside to sample the open-air baths.
As the snowflakes continue to fall, the sky starts to turn deep pink and the hot water works its magic. The experience is so blissfully relaxing that we fail to notice time passing as we sit gossiping like a couple of Japanese housewives in a bath filled with water that apparently boosts fertility.
Rushing to get dressed before heading to onsen number two, I'm instructed to wear minimal clothing. "There are no changing-room facilities at the next one," Noriko warns. The sky is dark by the time we arrive. "We have to walk for a while but it's fine, I know the way," says Noriko. I follow behind, in a pair of borrowed farmer's wellies and my thermals.
Treading tentatively as a tightrope- walker into an abstract tangle of dark trees, we slip and slide through deep snow along an invisible path. Eventually, a clearing appears – and as my eyes adjust, the view is breathtaking. White mountains loom around us and giant snowflakes continue to cascade silently from a star-filled sky.
Unfortunately, after shedding our clothes – not that easy in the chill night air – Noriko dips a toe into a steaming pool of water only to find that the water is too hot to swim in. "This happens sometimes. It is a volcano after all," says Noriko.
There is more to come. After getting dressed and heading back to the car, we make our way to onsen number three, this time in a family-run spa. The orange mineral-rich waters of Ryoun Kaku – at 1,280m, the highest point of the volcano – once again work their magic and the memory of our chilly forest foray swiftly evaporates.
Afterwards, more après-ski entertainment beckons. Suitably soaked and red-cheeked, we make our way back to town for dinner at Robata, a Japanese-style pub known as an izakaya. A red lantern glows like a welcoming beacon in the snow and we step through the traditional split noren curtains and slide open the door. Wooden benches surround an open stove known as an irori, where food is cooked and a giant pot of sake is heated.
An array of regional delights including hoke, a white Hokkaido fish, and a sashimi mix are promptly produced. Among the more acquired tastes I sample is a rich, creamy dish that resembles a human brain. It may have gone down better had I not known in advance that I was eating cod testes.
The next morning, I venture further afield to Kamui. With seven lifts and 100 runs spanning a 300-hectare site, the mountain is home to the most liberal off-piste skiing regulations in the country, attracting sportsmen from around the world due to its lack of course restrictions. I am treated to a guided tour by Maeda-san, who designed and created the courses 25 years ago. Serenely defying his 67 years, Maeda-san weaves gracefully through the silver birches, stooping from time to time to pick up the odd leaf or stone that has strayed on to the slopes. Various friends and acquaintances of Maeda-san join us en route, and eventually we're a motley crew of snowboarders and skiers, including an Australian boarder who runs the mountain restaurant, and a 65-year-old who tells me that he swapped skis for a snowboard when he turned 60.
All in all, with its crowd-free slopes, heated toilets and steaming onsen– not to mention bumper snowflakes – skiing in Japan couldn't be better.
The writer flew to Tokyo with Japan Airlines (08457 747 700; www.uk.jal.com), which offers daily flights from Heathrow; the nearest airport to Furano is Asahikawa, which is connected to Tokyo and Osaka by Japan Airlines.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
The writer then travelled to Furano with Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk), which offers seven nights' half-board at the North Country Inn Hotel from £1,228 per person, including international flights from Heathrow with JAL and resort transfers. Six-day adult ski and boot hire can be arranged by Inghams for £95 per person; six-day adult ski school starts at £104; and a whole area lift pass costs £114.
Inghams can also combine a skiing holiday with short breaks in Kyoto or Tokyo. Three nights' B&B in Tokyo starts at £266 per person, and three nights in Kyoto from £252.
Furano Tourism Association: 00 81 167 23 3388; www.furanotourism.com
Japan National Tourist Organisation: 020-7734 9638; www.seejapan.co.uk
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