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Backcountry Skiing in Japan: ‘Powder Kingdoms’ in Hokkaido and Nagano

Nagano and Hokkaido are Japan's two "powder kingdoms." Both destinations are full of unique backcountry terrain that will challenge you at every level of your skiing, split boarding or snowboarding abilities.

By 5 min read

Backcountry skiing in Japan has blossomed in popularity over the past number of seasons. There are various options available here for those who are branching out and pushing their boundaries to the seasoned vets taking the sport to new limits.

Most backcountry skiers and snowboarders progress from skiing on groomed runs at resorts to searching out tree runs and other sidecountry options. Eventually, they will gain the confidence and experience needed to leave the resorts at the established backcountry gates and further explore the possibilities.

Welcome to Asahidake

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Daisetsuzan National Park Asahidake

During my first trip to Hokkaido, I developed as a skier. I had my introduction to Asahidake in the Daisetsuzan National Park. This mountain is the highest peak in the prefecture at 2,291 meters. Thus, consider your group’s ability when planning a trip to Asahidake, as it is nothing more than ropeway access to supreme backcountry conditions.

There are no gear rentals, no ski patrol and two thin, cat-groomed trails that serve largely as a highway system to push you through the flats and guide your way back to the ropeway base station.

The more experienced riders, with proper backcountry gear, will affix their skins at the top ropeway station and begin their two- to three-hour climb to the mountain’s peak. You’ll bypass a small emergency lodge and several steam vents releasing sulphuric gases into the freezing mountain air.

CocoHeli

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Soft, white powder as far as the eye can see in Niseko.

One safety feature that is extremely useful and available in Hokkaido is known as CoCoHeli. Essentially, a tracking beacon that riders attach to their packs or jackets that allows emergency responders to find their location. You can rent the device from the Asahidake visitor center for roughly ¥1,000 daily.

CoCoHeli and similar systems are separate from regular beacons that backcountry riders typically wear, enabling them to be found by fellow riders in the case of an avalanche. If time permits, divide your time in Hokkaido between Niseko and Asahikawa. Advanced backcountry riders can take advantage of Japan’s only heli-skiing in Niseko and can also access Mount Yotei, while Asahikawa offers access to Asahidake and one of my favorite small resorts, Kamui Links.

Accommodation is also much more budget-friendly in Asahikawa, where it is not uncommon to get hotel rooms for around ¥5,000 per night. Most of the ski resorts in the area also offer a direct bus from Asahikawa station to the ski area. Furano is also accessible from Asahikawa.

The legend of Nozawa Onsen

Rumor has it that Nozawa Onsen in Nagano Prefecture is a beloved backdrop of several of the best ski videos featuring Japanese ski destinations. It certainly lived up to its reputation.

The deep pockets of snow delivered face shots of the stuff down the forest runs and had me wanting to spend a week exploring. I was so inspired by Nozawa that I decided to start collecting some of the necessary backcountry gear: like an avalanche beacon, a probe and a collapsible shovel to add to my growing list of ski accessories.

Progressing as a backcountry rider

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Climbing into the backcountry in Hakuba, Nagano.

As my interest grew, I purchased my first set of climbing skins before heading to Hokkaido for the winter break. A good friend and I spent a week in a comedy of errors. We had planned a few days at Asahidake, yet some essential equipment left in the hotel room 50 kilometers away had nullified our first attempt to climb to the peak.

The second day of Asahidake began with clear views of the summit. However, an hour-and-a-half into our climb, we found ourselves in whiteout conditions. We decided on a hasty descent, where we encountered an ill-equipped father and son group attempting the climb on snowshoes. We assisted in getting them back to the ropeway station before giving up on the day’s plan.

In January 2021, my riding group and I scheduled a three-day “backcountry basics” training course through Northern Heights Guiding based in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture. This was to equip ourselves with essential safety knowledge, including terrain identification, avalanche risk factors, beacon and other safety equipment training, route planning and rescue training.

It is essential that you know the weather forecast, snow conditions and avalanche hazards of the place you intend to travel.

Our guide James had the following advice to offer to budding backcountry enthusiasts:

“If you are completely new to backcountry ski touring or split-boarding and snowshoeing [in Japan], I would first recommend getting acquainted with how to move through the snow and terrain so you can become familiarized with your gear and equipment.

Get comfortable with transitions (changing from ascending to descending and vice versa). It is essential that you know your entry and exit points from Japan’s backcountry and the weather forecast, snow conditions and avalanche hazard of the place you intend to travel.”

Great advice. Especially if it might save your life.

Backcountry safety tips

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You don’t want to get lost out here.

Here is a quick list of safety precautions when traversing Japan’s snowy wilderness.

  1. Route identification: Let someone know your plan and scheduled return time.
  2. Fill out a tozan todoke (mountain-trip form): If you leave a resort area, let the staff know where you’re going using this.
  3. Check your beacons: Use a beacon checker, and do a group check at the BC exit gate.
  4. Be aware of the weather conditions: Always check for snow and avalanche conditions before the trip using a service such as Nadare.
  5. Go prepared: Take adequate food, water and gear to deal with all potential situations.

Have you ever traveled in Japan’s backcountry? What kind of stories do you have? Let us know in the comments below!

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