AS THE BUS CLIMBS mountain passes on its way from the New Chitose Airport, outside Sapporo, the snowbanks rise along with it. What started out as a one-foot bank has quickly grown to two, and then three, then five feet, until it towers past the height of the bus, and the highway resembles a bobsled track. Flashing LED lights suspended above the road keep vehicles on track, but the rush of flakes is the only sight visible in the headlights. "You ever seen so much snow, mate?" asks a clearly intimidated Australian in the seat next to mine. I can't say I have, and I'm from Canada. As we pull into the main parking lot at Niseko Grand Hirafu Resort, the largest of the resorts that make up Niseko, I get a sense of just how much snow I'm seeing. Cars are indistinguishable white mounds. The only houses that aren't totally buried are the ones with full-size construction loaders parked out front. The snowbanks by the sidewalks are easily two stories tall.
Spilling down half of a dormant volcano's slope, Niseko is actually four separate ski resorts that are linked together by lifts. Hirafu, geared mostly toward foreign tourists, offers a wide variety of terrain, including spacious sidewalk-smooth groomers and acres of pristine forested powder stashes. I'm joined by Steve Ogle, an outdoor photographer from British Columbia, and his friend Mark "Parm" Parminter, and we're following the advice of Ian MacKenzie, the Scottish owner of Niseko Powder Connection, the tour company that arranged our trip. We cut to the left of the Hirafu gondola on our first run and dash around the trees in Miharashi, a vast area of mellow lines and untracked turns in wide-open birch forests. I remark how the bushes look almost like trees. "That's because they are trees," says Ogle. "We're just skiing around the treetops. The rest is below." A chorus of "Sweet!" parts from our lips, and we make our way over to Niseko Higashi-yama, the next resort on the volcano.
Anchored by the giant Niseko Higashiyama Prince Hotel, which resembles a futuristic moon base rather than a rustic ski lodge, Higashiyama has few crowds on this stormy day, and we're free to play amid the steeps near the bottom. Ogle snaps frames as Parm airs 360s off jumps into endless soft landings. I'm content to thrash in the shin-deep snow, having not skied powder like this in years.
Breaking for lunch at a small restaurant, buried and identifiable only by the flags poking up from the snowbanks, we're treated to our first taste of Japanese ski-hill cuisine, and we find that Japan's obsession with quality food remains, thankfully, intact. Deicing our bodies, we help ourselves to steaming mugs of green tea and dig into hearty seafood ramen soups. Fresh clams, prawns, and mountain mushrooms soak in a fragrant miso broth. "This is how it should be done," I say. Ogle and Parm nod in agreement as we bow profusely, utter many arigatos, and then head back into the swirling madness.