Winter Sports: Go east to powder heaven

So there's not enough snow on Europe's mountains. In Hokkaido, Japan, they get daily doses of fresh white stuff. And there are luxuries you won't find in the Alps, too, says Minty Clinch
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The Independent Travel

You'd have to be crazy to go skiing in Japan. Or so I thought. But a week in Hokkaido's powder heaven for less than a posh Alpine chalet was too good to miss. Sub-zero Siberian winds pick up moisture over the Sea of Japan and dump it on Hokkaido, the most northerly of the four main islands. In January and February, they do it every night, resulting in "freshies" every morning.

Hokkaido has 100 resorts, but Rusutsu and Niseko are the business. You'd have to be crazy to design Rusutsu, an isolated complex surrounded by fairy lights. A monorail here, a travelator there, a British pub here, a fairground carousel there, a Bavarian stube here, a row of seats in front of a row of fountains there. Come the hour, the fountains fount, the soundtrack kicks in and the seated ones sing along to The Sound of Music.

Arriving at dead of night, we rose early to check the legendary white stuff. There it was, tipping down. Twentieth-century Hokkaido veterans spoke of a foreigner-free zone where meals were randomly ordered by pictures, drinks by blind chance, and routes by "if it's there, ski it". Not any more. Australian and Canadian powder-hounds have colonised Hokkaido, persuaded to stay by the love of Japanese partners.

Clayton Cannahan left his native Canada to marry a local girl, establish the Black Diamond Lodge and start a guiding service. "Do you powder?" he enquired. Taking silence for agreement, he flashed past a notice forbidding off-piste skiing and disappeared into the forest. We followed joyously, whooping through the trees. "Pity about the snow," said Clayton. "It's the worst in a decade." We refugees from snow-starved Europe could only gape and hustle back up for more.

Until recently, ducking under ropes was a no-brainer in a bureaucratic country, but needs must where necessity drives. Most of Hokkaido's pistes are perfect for beginners and intermediates, but the authorities recognise that their target foreign market is adventure skiers.

At midday, there was another surprise. Japan is notoriously expensive, but we ate rice or noodles topped with meat or fish for £3.50. With a beer, we had a delicious lunch for a fiver. Go tell them that in Courchevel. The price is partly controlled by superb automation. Select a pictorial delicacy, punch in the numbers and your meal appears within moments. A tilting ale dispenser produces a perfect pint and a machine dispenses hot coffee in cans. The toilet, like every other one in Japan, is a hot seat. Where are these little luxuries in the Alps?

Niseko, half an hour away, sprawls over three sides of An'nupuri Peak, a 1,308m hill overlooked by Mount Yotei. After years of wrangling, the areas have negotiated a joint pass (£20 a day), but separate development has resulted in lifts ranging from gondolas and quads to single chairs.

Skiers who love villages should stay in Grand Hirafu, a development where foreigners run rental shops and bars. The evening starts with the Alpen Hotel's delectable sushi and gathers momentum on the best pub crawl in the area. Kick off with a bevvy at Hank's and finish at Fridge for jazz, sofas and cocktails at 3am.

The Higashiyama Prince, in Niseko's second sector, is as isolated as Rusutsu, but nowhere near as quirky. Like all tourist hotels, it offers western beds and baths, but it also has extensive hot springs. The Nikko An'nupuri, in the third sector, is ski in, ski out, straight off the deck to the chairlift up the main drag. Its sushi-sake combo is irresistible.

The best blizzard came on our last morning, but it was time to leave. I enjoyed Sapporo's Winter Festival and trips to Tokyo and Kyoto, but it was the white stuff that ruled.

Compact Facts

How to get there:

Inghams (020-8780 4433; inghams.co.uk) offers seven nights' half-board at the Rusutsu Resort Hotel from £1,275 per person, based on two sharing, or the Nikko An'nupuri from £1,176, including return flights on JAL via Osaka and transfers.

Further information:

Japan National Tourist Organisation (020-7734 9638; seejapan.co.uk).

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