The first time I stood on a pair of skis I was only three years old and I have gone skiing pretty much every year since then; that is, until I moved to Taiwan. Though it does snow here, it is very rare; and while I can cope with it most of the time, I sometimes feel a deep need for strapping on my snowboard and hitting the slopes. At the end of last year I felt that need kick in so I decided we should go for a skiing vacation in Hokkaido, Japan. Since Renegade Wife is not quite as avid a skier as I am we decided to spend a few days with normal sightseeing as well. The map below shows the places we visited:
Otaru is a small town on the coast of Hokkaido, about 35 kilometers west of Sapporo. It used to be an important port town but nowadays a lot of the shipping goes through other ports. To be completely honest, there’s not that much to see in Otaru. The main attraction is the Otaru canal which used to be an important part of the shipping industry and it’s sides are lined with old warehouses from the glory days. In some circles Otaru is also known for sushi as the town is the backdrop for a sushi themed manga. There is an entire street lined with sushi restaurants and the most famous one is Masa Zushi; the food there is excellent. Except for the canal and the sushi there are also a couple of small museums like the Otaru City Museum, the Otaru Art Museum, the Museum of Literature and the (when we were there) overcrowded Music Box Museum. These museums are good for killing an hour or two of your time but not much more. There is one famous place that we didn’t visit and that is the Otaru Aquarium, it has some good reviews and people seem to like the penguin walk but I can’t really say anything about it.
Various cute snowmen and statues around town
About 10 kilometers south east of Otaru lies a small ski resort called Asarigawa Onsen. The easiest way to get there is by your own car but it’s possible to take a local bus which takes about 30 – 45 minutes, the price is only about 300 yen but remember to bring coins. The resort is pretty small, only a couple of lifts and about 8 slopes but the terrain is good and prices are low, I only paid 5500 Yen for a combined full day ticket and rental package. When I was there the slopes were mostly empty, there was never any queues in the lift so I could have all the fresh powder to myself. As an added bonus the resort is close enough to the coast that you can see the ocean on a clear day. It’s perfectly serviceable for beginners but considering the small size, advanced skiers wouldn’t want to spend more than one or two days there, but it’s good for what it is.
Kiroro is a high-end ski resort about 25 kilometers south of Otaru. You can get there from Otaru by a bus that goes twice per day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon but you have to book it in advance. It takes about an hour and costs around 930 yen per person. Check out the Kiroro website for more details. The reason I call it a high-end resort is because the only accommodation is in either of two five star hotels, the Sheraton and the Tribute Portfolio, and most of the restaurants will cost you a minimum of 3000 yen per person. Lift passes, rentals and food in the slopes are quite reasonably priced so one option is to live in Otaru and commute to the slope by bus. However, I met a couple of guys who attempted this but didn’t manage to get the booking system working and ended up in another resort.
When we were there the slopes were mostly empty and I think that the high price level contributed to that fact. The resort is medium sized with a number of lifts and a total of 22 different slopes. There is a good mixture of slopes with one specifically made for beginners, several intermediate ones and a few more difficult ones. For powder hunters like myself there are a couple of ungroomed expert areas but not as many, or as big ones, as I would have liked. Furthermore there is plenty of side country and if you can handle skiing between the trees, there is a lot of powder to be had there.
Like in many Japanese ski resorts they don’t like it if you duck the ropes and you can get your lift pass confiscated if you do. However, for people who really want to get out in the backcountry there are several gates where you are allowed to exit the resort without losing your lift pass. Before making use of the gates you must write a safety plan and register with the mountain club. I thought about doing this but considering that:
1. My ski clothes were cobbled together from what I had at home in Taiwan.
2. I didn’t have any avalanche rescue equipment what so ever.
3. I was on my own.
I decided it would be better to stay inside the resort boundary.
When we were there it snowed almost every day and/or every night so there was always a bit of fresh powder and thanks to the low amount of people it took a few hours before it started to get tracked out. My recommendation is to be at the slope early and catch the gondola right when it opens, that way you get the most of it. One night it dumped around 20 cm of fluffy snow and the following day I was one of the first to hit the slopes, meaning that I had the entire 4 kilometer long Asari Dynamic (slope #1) full of virgin powder all to myself; it was awesome.
Except for skiing, the Tribute Portfolio hotel offers a number of other activities for you to entertain yourself (not limited to hotel guests). There are snowmobiles and quad bikes that you can ride, you can get pulled around a circuit on a rubber raft or banana boat; there’s snow tubing, snow shoe trekking, cross country skiing and probably a couple more that I’ve forgotten about. In the evening you can go grab a drink in the ice bar, drinking your shot of flaming rum out of glass made from ice, or go relax in the hot spring bath. Naturally all of these activities cost money but if you’re already paying for the five star hotel you might as well splurge a little.
I had some really great skiing in Kiroro but I felt my wallet was a bit too slim for any extended stay. Besides, I always feel a bit out of place in this kind of high class environment.
This post is starting to get long I will continue in the next one.