When it comes to skiing the powder on Japan's northern island of
Hokkaido, bigger is definitely better.
Illustration by Jeff Nishinaka
Photographs by Steve Ogle
"Whooo! Hooo! Whoo! Hoo-oo-gag-ack-gag."
"Shut your mouth!" my mind screams, as my lungs gasp for air. Too late - I'm already inhaling mouthfuls of the snow billowing up from the ground. With nothing before me but a calm sea of untouched powder, I race downhill. Every turn leaves a deep trough in my wake as I silently plow through the flakes, ducking under the low branches of silver birch trees. The forest is open here, and the hill rolls gently between steep sections. I let gravity take hold as I launch my skis off buried stumps, flying high into the air and landing on an embracing cushion of deep fluff. I yelp. I whoop. I spit out snow. I smile. All around me, skiers and boarders emerge from the woods. Caked in white, faces plastered with ear-to-ear grins, they shuffle back to the gondola for another run. We exchange thumbs-up and high fives, the international symbols of joy on a powder day. Suddenly, the Japanese word I need pops into my head, and I yell it out, pole raised in triumph: "Yuki!"
The other riders look at each other for a second before bursting into laughter. The sight of a gaijin screaming the Japanese word for snow must be hilarious. More fives and thumbs ensue. Soon, everyone is yelling "Yuki!" while sumo-size flakes cascade from the sky.
Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, lies just off the main island, Honshú, though it might as well be a world apart. Take off from the endless metropolis of Tokyo, and in less than two hours, you glide in for a landing over white forests. Space, a costly premium throughout Japan, is abundant in Hokkaido, a mostly wild territory the size of Austria that is full of mountains, rugged coastlines, volcanoes, and forests. The population density is fewer than 70 people per square kilometer, so there's more than enough room to stretch out.
And then there's the snow.
Hemmed in by the Pacific, the Sea of Japan, and the Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido is in the path of every type of winter weather pattern imaginable. Cold air sweeping down from Russia loads up on ocean moisture, reaches the island, and unleashes more than 15 feet of snowfall annually. In the mountains, the snow dumps in relentless waves, hiding the sun for weeks at a time. Because winter is so cold, the flakes that fall are dry and light - perfect for skiing. Hokkaido's residents have known the sport for nearly a century, thanks to an Austrian army officer named Theodor van Lerch, who taught skiing here in 1911. Small hills and resorts jut out from the main city, Sapporo, site of the 1972 Winter Olympics, which was the event that transformed the enjoyable regional pastime of skiing into full-fledged national mania in Japan.
"In the 70-meter ski jump, Japan won all three medals," recalls Osamu "the Green Lantern" Yamazaki, Japan's first Olympic mogul skier. "It was the beginning of the boom. From that day on, every [parent] put their kids into a ski program. … When I was young, almost everybody skied. You got back from school, you went skiing. You even walked the dog on skis. In Hokkaido, skiing plus snow [equals] life."
Over the years, Yamazaki's adopted hometown of Niseko has been the secret spot for Hokkaido's dedicated skiers. Just two hours southwest of Sapporo by train or car, and framed by the imposing face of the majestic Mount Yotei volcano, Niseko is Hokkaido's answer to Steamboat, Colorado, a haven for deep powder and great tree skiing. With an expanding crew of international ski bums flocking into town, Niseko, and its snow, is growing in legendary status.