Words by Matt Sklar | Photos by Jamie Walter
Jamie Walter and I have known each other for what seems like forever after we bonded over a mutual love of skiing and photography. For years we’d cross paths once or twice a year at various ski events, but before this trip, we had never had the chance to plan a trip of our own. Having been on two trips to Japan before, I knew it was the perfect place to link up for the trip of a lifetime. Rounding out the crew were my buddies Matt Larson, and Brain Alsberg. Together Matt and I have been through it all from disastrous hut trips to epic ski descents in Iceland. Brian, meanwhile, is an old friend who was eager to get to the other side of the boot fitting lab where he works and get out to make some memories of his own. Only I had been to Japan before, so I was more than ready to watch these guys’ minds be blown.
We wanted to have the most flexibility possible in order to chase the best snow in Hokkaido, so we choose a mobile basecamp as our home for two weeks – a delightful toaster looking Japanese RV. This little box on wheels was equipped with bunk beds, four wheel drive, and a small butane stove - it was our ticket to the goods as we crisscrossed the island, exploring both longtime favorites and lesser traveled areas.
Before the RV venture began we spent a couple of nights in Sapporo to get our bearings and gorge ourselves on conveyor belt sushi. After a 4AM wake-up thanks to our fresh jet lag, morning one brought us to the local Sapporo Kokusai ski area. We skinned just outside the resort for our first run of the trip. Cruisy pow and fun little terrain features (that I may or may not have ragdolled down) made for a sweet lap. With knowledge from my previous trips, I played the de facto guide role, basking in the glory that is showing your best friends the overwhelming bliss of japow - the smiles from that first run lasted the entire trip.
While Sapporo was a good introduction, we were jonesing to hit the road in our new RV to begin the real adventure. Leg one of the trip brought us to the central part of Hokkaido where there are several ski areas and a huge national park that has some of the best ski touring I’ve ever seen. We sampled both, from a bluebird day skiing around volcanic vents on Asahidake, to slashing deep powder inbounds at Furano. Human powered, we may have only skied a couple of runs per day, but the terrain and snow are unparalleled. This was a perfect introduction to skiing in Japan - yes, because of the skiing, but also because of the epic onsens (Japanese hot spring bathhouses) and newfound addiction to Japanese convenience store food.
Fleeing the bitter cold, but reluctant to leave the blower snow, we pressed on to explore Hokkaido’s classics in the Niseko area. The resorts here are more easily accessible, with terrain and snow that are famous for building the legends of japow. Weather kept us down one day, but we also had some of the best skiing of the entire trip on this part of the island.
As skiers we’ve heard for years the stories of untouched powder in the untouched land of Japan. While this still remains true, there are certainly more foreign visitors than ever, all contributing to a new chapter in the stories of these places. Wrapped up in vacation and epic skiing it can be hard to remember that these areas existed long before our visit and will exist long after we leave. A weather day in Niseko drove this reflection for our crew, as we witnessed the booming resort culture. Coming from the insulated culture of the RV and smaller towns in central Hokkaido, this put some nice perspective on the trip, reminding us to respect the small things that make a place unique and different.
Our reflections were quickly interrupted, however, by the largest storm of the trip. The timing of this dump couldn’t have been more perfect as we pulled the camper into the ski area with perhaps the best inbounds terrain in Hokkaido, Rusutsu. Where many ski areas in the region consist of mostly short pitches, Rusutsu has some great long fall lines, which we certainly took advantage of. Beaming from our deep turns, we took a short break for a soak in the onsen and some yakitori, then returned to the slopes for the night shift. With plenty of leftover pow we skied the short runs under lights with reckless abandon to end what was an all-time day for the entire crew.
The following day would be our last on snow, so we made the collective decision to return to the backcountry - smashing the fresh powder with a side of skintrack reflection seemed like a fitting end to the trip. Staying within the Rusutsu area, we took a short drive to a beautiful zone with classic Japanese birch trees and nice sustained ski pitches.
It's the contrast that we see when traveling that make a place feel special, and Japan is full of them. From the epic infrastructure, to the impeccably friendly service staff, to the scale and beauty of the landscape. Yes, we go to Japan to ski, but what keeps me going back, and what I love to share, are these small moments - miming your way through language barriered conversations, eating delicious food, and exploring the nooks and crannies that we overlook back home. When everything is new, it’s the smallest things that can leave the most lasting impressions.