So you’ve hit up Niseko many times and are now looking to get off the well beaten ski and board track in Japan. Fancy some road tripping?
A great base is Otaru. A coastal town about 1.5 hours north west of Chitose airport and similar distance from Niseko.
It’s an old port city with a cool gentrified waterfront canal filled with century old warehouses repurposed as restaurants and cafes. But more importantly it’s a satellite town for numerous ski fields including the powder filled Kiroro gaining popularity on the snow travel scene and Sapporo Kokusai and Sapporo Teine snow areas. So you’ll need that car if you like to be independent.
Once you’ve made the leap to driving a rental car on snow in Japan, your options are magnified. All rental cars will have snow tyres which makes driving easy and grab yourself a 4G mobile wifi router so you can use Google maps for navigation.
Cars may come with English navigation systems but tinkering around entering destination phone numbers (which is how most local navigation systems work) can be bothersome.
You’ll also want an ETC toll charge tag from the rental company or ensure to find the cash lanes on the freeway entrances.
If you come in to Otaru via Chitose then you’ll be passing by Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city of nearly 2 million inhabitants.
Stay on the ring roads and don’t detour into downtown unless you really have to. It’s a nightmare of gridded traffic lights that makes for slow going, especially when it’s snowing heavily.
Where to stay
For accommodation in Otaru, try the 4-star Grand Park Otaru Hotel. At $A250/night for a twin room including an incredible buffet breakfast, it’s a lot more affordable than on-resort hotels at the resorts.
With great views over the marina, it’s directly connected to the huge Wing Bay shopping and entertainment complex that retails groceries to camping gear, houses cinemas, a kid’s trampoline centre and includes some great eateries.
You’ll find English menus, but not a lot of English being spoken, so you know your living like a local. The hotel is affiliated with the Konami Sports Club, that houses the most sophisticated bathing setup I’ve ever encountered with steam rooms, multiple jet baths and many pools with varied ranges of temperatures.
Although a 20 minute walk away, the heritage town is Instagram heaven with jaw dropping canal vistas that are lit up with candles for the annual Snow Light Path Festival in the second week of February.
It has a range of restaurants, but the recurring theme is cook-at-your-table seafood. There are sake breweries and an aquarium for side adventures. A little further away (an hour by train or 40min drive) is the Nikka Whisky Distillery in Yoichi.
Resorts, resorts, resorts
Resort-wise, first up is Sapporo Kokusai. A fairly small resort about 25kms from Otaru.
It’s a relatively mellow setup with only a few lifts (three chairlifts and two gondolas) and mainly beginner level terrain inbounds. But its real attraction is the lift accessed terrain outside, but close to the resort.
A few minutes walk from the top of the gondola will have you in the back country if that’s what you seek. You can always find fresh lines even if a bunch of guided tours are taking advantage already.
This resort gets big snow dumps, some say bigger than Niseko
If you’re new to the area, stay close to lift line under the gondola, as straying too far wide can have you potentially walking out through deep snow back into the resort.
There’s not a lot at the ski base, but there are onsens and restaurants at the local town of Jozankei. Also, be warned locals fill the resort on weekends so plan your trip mid week.
Next is Sapporo Teine which is about 35km east with expansive views across Sapporo city and the Sea of Japan. Being close to Sapporo, it can be busy on weekends. There are two “zones”, Olympia and Highlands, and I’d recommend heading up to Teine Highlands straight up as Olympia is more beginner’s terrain. You’ll also get a fantastic view of Sapporo and out to the Japan Sea.
Teine highlands offers kilometres of groomed intermediate piste runs – but also lift accessed back country. A short walk from the top lifts past the telecommunications tower puts you above a large open bowl that leads straight back to the lifts.
Be cautious though, as dropping in too early along this ridge will put you above some very steep chutes, so don’t go alone and know what you’re doing.
Lastly, 26km’s south towards Niseko is Kiroro. Probably my favourite resort that I’ve visited in Japan. It’s location has seen it receive significantly more snow than Niseko in my observations over the last few seasons.
It’s a medium sized resort by Japanese standards with plenty of varied terrain and lift accessible back country. This resort has, to me, never felt busy, probably as the only local accommodation is the Sheraton and Tribute Hotels at the base and they are not cheap.
When it’s snowing consistently, there’s plenty of untracked powder in bounds. The resort also promotes responsible back country access via a series of gates and a sign-in process run by the Kiroro Mountain Club (head upstairs from the ticket office).
The gates are often patrolled with checks being done to ensure you are registered. If you want to make the most of the gate system, I’d highly recommend getting a guide for a day or hook up with someone who knows the area – especially when visibility is reduced due to snow storms – which seems to happen often.