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Backcountry skiing and snowboarding - Japan

Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding/Splitboarding - Japan

 

Backcountry scene and vibe

Japan’s backcountry scene continues to grow, but is still burgeoning compared to the scene in Europe and North America. It has been largely a foreigner-led push, with Japanese skiers and snowboarders still more likely to stick in-bounds and on the marked trails.

Japanese resorts often take a strict approach to backcountry access. Some resorts, though relatively few, are starting to embrace backcountry access off the resorts. Others, aware of its growing popularity, turn somewhat of a blind eye. Yet others still, probably the majority, still make it illegal and will confiscate your pass if you attempt to go outside the resort boundary.

In this respect, the scene still has some way to go. But for those who make the trek, the rewards are exceptional in terms of powder, and the backcountry skiing in Japan can be awesome.

 

Japan snow

The snow in Japan is incredible, perhaps unmatched on earth. Up in Hokkaido, the northernmost island, during the months of January and February, on average the number of days it DOESN’T snow is one. For that reason, once you get outside the tracked runs of the resorts, you can quite quickly find yourself in incredibly deep powder out in the backcountry.

You need to be a little careful, in fact, given how deep the snow can get. Sometimes it can get so deep it can be difficult to extricate yourself after a fall! Be careful of tree-wells too out in the backcountry.

 

Best time to ski/snowboard in the backcountry in Japan

Across Japan, the snow really starts to fall in the middle of December, and tends to be fairly consistent up to the end of March. January and February are the months with the most snow. Hokkaido gets a little more snow than Honshu.

Given the huge number of snowy days, the backcountry riding is excellent in January and February. However, a good number of people consider March to be the best time to go, given the weather tends to have cleared up a little by then (and also visibility), while the snow base has consolidated, allowing good access out back to get to the powder. In addition, the days are a little longer, which lets you trek a little further, including if you get lost. 

 

Access to Japanese backcountry and sidecountry

Access to backcountry varies by resort and region, so it’s important to check the local rules.

 

Within the ski area boundary of a resort

 

Open runs will be controlled by the resort crews, and is where most people will ski. These are the on-piste runs of the resort. Outside these runs, you are often not permitted to ski or snowboard, even if seemingly within the resort’s overall boundary. Make sure to check the signs at the resort. Ski patrol may chase you at some resorts if they see you going outside the resort boundary.

 

Gated access: Some resorts have relaxed access to the off-piste areas, to give access to the terrain off the obvious trails. These are often labelled as ‘self-responsibility’ zones. This often includes many of the tree runs on the resort. These areas, in North America or Europe, would more likely be labelled as off-piste, rather than sidecountry or backcountry, as you generally end up back at the lifts. In Japan, however, these areas are also referred to as sidecountry or backcountry, and these areas aren’t controlled.

A number of places in Japan still aren’t yet open to sidecountry, and make it illegal to access the sidecountry or backcountry by going under the ropes. Some resorts are more open to it now, however, and provide specific gates to access sidecountry, while some will just turn a blind eye.

For example, in places like Niseko, backcountry access will be limited when the snow conditions or weather is risky. In Kiroro, you need to provide a route plan at the lift office, and hand your card back in when you return. If you don’t, you may need to pay for the search party that is sent out for you. In popular Nozowa Onsen, they don’t typically allow riders outside the resort boundary at all.

Resorts that allow access to sidecountry up on Hokkaido include Niseko, Furano, Kiroro and Rusutsu. In Honshu, these include Hakuba.

 

Backcountry access: In addition to the sidecountry options, there are also a number of places where you can go deeper into the backcountry. These are places where you can just park the car and go exploring, and where there is no lifted access.

Avalanche safety precautions must be taken into account whether you go into the sidecountry, or venture further out into the backcountry. The correct gear is necessary as soon as you leave the resort boundaries, whether just next to a resort, or far away from the crowds. It’s important to realise that these sidecountry areas are not controlled and are subject to avalanche danger, just as in the backcountry.

 

Best backcountry skiing and splitboarding in Japan

There are two islands where skiing is possible in Japan, Honshu and Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan, while Honshu is the same island as Tokyo. In general, Hokkaido receives more snow than Honshu, but the terrain is slightly flatter, and there are fewer rocky peaks. Hokkaido is also generally more permissive in terms of backcountry access. For these reasons, Hokkaido backcountry is a little more popular.

Of course, each of these areas are massive and you need good local knowledge of conditions and routes before venturing out. Some of the best Japanese resorts and areas are below.

 

Hokkaido

1. Gated Access

Niseko

 

Niseko, where there are 10 separate gates to access the backcountry and sidecountry, is a very popular place for Japanese sidecountry. Most of these areas are over the back side of the main resort runs. The runs around Niseko pretty much take you back down to the lifts, where you will likely loop back up. In terms of touring options, there are fewer, given the mountain is not that big and is surrounded by flatlands.

On the Hirafu and Hanazono side, east ridge is one of the best sidecountry areas. You can ski down the closer side to the resort area, where you can get back to the Hanazono 2 lift. The other option is to continue down to the bottom, including the so-called ‘Jackson Hole’ area, from where you can walk back to the Hanazono car park.

On the backside, there are two main backcountry areas to explore. The back bowl goes back down to the Annupuri ski lift area. It’s a nice, long run through a gully with a steep entry. The north face is an area to explore if you drop off the back of the east ridge. This ends up around the back, so you may need to hike back up.

 

Rusutsu

Rusutsu is a very cool place to explore sidecountry. Less crowded than Niseko, quieter on the runs and out the back, and a good lift system to get you up and out for the day. Rusutu is an example of where backcountry is tolerated, but not promoted. Permission was granted by the Forestry Office for riders to enter the backcountry, as long as this is not actively promoted on the resort’s website. The area between the resort’s West mountain and Shiribetsu mountain is another area to explore, but this is a little more serious, and requires good avalanche knowledge. For sidecountry, Rusutsu is well known for its good tree runs.

 

Furano

Furano is another cool area to explore sidecountry. You can now ski anywhere in the resort boundary, and there are six backcountry gates to do some exploring. There are great tree runs at Furano, so it’s a good spot to test your skills through the timber.

2. Properly backcountry – non-gated access

Mt Yotei

Mt Yotei is the volcano that faces Niseko. There are no lifts here. Skiing the volcano is certainly a cool story to recount (and embellish) to your friends in the bar at the end of the day. The terrain is relatively gentle most of the way down, and can be good for a day trip if you’re in the Niseko area. The hike straight up, of course, is the tiring part.

 

Asahi-dake

Located in the Daisetsuzan Mountain Range, Asahi-dake is an awesome place to explore the Japanese backcountry, and one of the more intrepid areas of Hokkaido. Asahi-dake is the highest mountain in Hokkaido as well as being a volcano. The snow around here is some of the best in Japan, and that’s saying something.

There is a single ropeway here that will take you 1,600 meters (5,250 ft) up Asahidake, which leaves every 20 minutes or so. From there, there are two trails back down to the bottom – home trails in the scheme of things.

Backcountry enthusiasts venturing here will want to continue the climb up to the top at 2,291-meter (7,516-ft). From there, you choose any line you want, in completely uncontrolled terrain. You will need full backcountry gear to tackle this given the avalanche risk. A number of English-speaking guides now work at Asahi-dake to get you up and back safely.

There are a few accommodation options at the foot of the mountain, otherwise Asahikawa is an hour away and has a few more options if you’re on a roadtrip around Japan.

 

Tokachi

This is a mountain range east of Sapporo. There are no resorts out here, so plenty of open space to explore by putting on your skins and heading off. Mt Tokachi is a volcanic peak which has both alpine terrain on the high side, and great tress down lower. There are tour guides that operate around here as well, Sandan-yama, or Mount Sandan are the ones to look for.

 

Honshu

1. Gated Access

 

Hakuba

The Hakuba Valley is one of the biggest ski areas in Japan, with several ski resorts dotting the valley. Here, you’ll find much more in the way of couloirs, cliffs and steeper terrain compared to Hokkaido, though the snowfall is slightly less. There are a few places through the valley which have gated backcountry access, including many of the tree areas which are so much fun to explore and which can be easily accessed from the lifts. Happy-One and Goryu are closer to the village, while Cortina further out has a bit more in the way of untracked powder. Be careful though, just because it’s accessible doesn’t make it safe.

 2. Properly backcountry

 

Hakkoda

Right up north of Honshu, closer to Sapporo than Tokyo, Hakkoda is a region located around 45 minutes from the town of Aomori. Here, you will find a 100-person Ropeway to take you up. There are only two official trails down, while the rest is unmarked, open backcountry. The entire mountain range is surrounded by a road, meaning easy access for a pick-up, if you have one arranged.

This region is very cool to explore, and fairly quiet given it is not located in the popular Hokkaido or Nagano areas of Japan. You can find guides around here too, to take you out safely.

 

Tanigawadake Tenjindaira

‘Tenjin’ is a serious backcountry area for those with some expertise. It is located near the border of Niigata and Nagano. Access to the resort area is via the Tanigawadake Ropeway, which opens up 10 marked trails and a few lifts. There is some great sidecountry tree-riding to be found here. However, if you keep climbing up, you will find some great, big mountain terrain, including chutes and cliffs. A guide is a good idea around here, given the steeper terrain and higher risk of avalanches. Sometimes, locals don’t fully appreciate people going into the backcountry around here, so a guide will also assist with local frowning.

 

Hut-based backcountry skiing

There are relatively few huts to speak of in Japan for hut-based touring. One place that does have one is around Tenjin. Generally, if you go out overnight, you will need to be completely self-sufficient.

 

Avalanches and snow conditions

Avalanches are a real danger all throughout Japan. The amount of snow that falls makes it a threat by definition. Going out into the backcountry requires you to be aware of the risks, and have the appropriate gear. Taking a guide is a good idea if you are unsure of local conditions or routes

Some guides say that avalanche risk is lower overall in Japan than in the Alps in Europe or the Rockies in North America. This is due to the consistent snowfall and consistent lower temperatures meaning the layer bonding and snowpack consolidation is a little more regular. This is the kind of specialised knowledge a local guide will have for you, so don’t overestimate your local knowledge if you have only been backcountry touring overseas. An article in the Japan Times points to the local dangers.

Japan Times - Backcountry

Lots of new snow, recent wind, and rising temperatures are dangers in Japan, as for elsewhere in the world. Given the large amount of snow, wind can pile up snow very quickly.

 

Terrain traps

Terrain traps are also a big problem in Japan. The valleys can be quite sharp, with many areas ending in sharp valleys with creeks at the bottom. It’s very difficult to avoid these terrain traps in Japan, so good decision-making on snow stability is key.

 

Avalanche Resources

The backcountry scene is less established than in other parts of the world. As such, there is less in the way of avalanche ratings information. This means local knowledge and good skills are even more essential.

Niseko has started to put together an avalanche advisory service, which is a very handy reference tool if you are going out into the Niseko sidecountry.

http://niseko.nadare.info/

 

Course Providers

Doing an avalanche course and getting the right backcountry skills is very important before trekking out, even if you are gong with a guide. A few course providers in Japan include

Guides

Taking a guide is a very good idea if going into the Japanese backcountry. They will be able to show you the safest spots, while also guiding you to excellent powder stashes. The growing popularity of backcountry means there are a good number of English-speaking guides through Hokkaido as well as in Nagano and Niigata. Look out for the guides’ qualification with an internationally recognised body such as the IFMGA, ACMG, AMGA, NZMGA, JMGA. The guide industry is not fully regulated, meaning there are a number of unqualified guides out there.

Maps

https://hokkaidowilds.org/skitour has a list of downloadable, topographical maps for Hokkaido to take out into the backcountry.

 

Gear

Check out Backcountry Gear for further information on the necessary gear to head out into the backcountry.

A transceiver, shovel and probe are essential. 

Take this recent example of a guy near Hakuba, who had been snowboarding alone when caught in an avalanche. Despite deploying his airbag, he was buried. Another couple, who were skiing nearby, saw the avalanche debris and decided to look, just in case. They picked up a signal of his transceiver, and managed to pull him out just as he was losing consciousness. https://skiasia.com/news/solo-snowboarder-buried-in-hakuba-avalanche-is-rescued-by-strangers/

 

Availability of rescue options

Mountain rescue

There are fewer options for mountain rescue in Japan, so you really need to have good knowledge before going out into the backcountry.

https://sarcontacts.info/countries/japan/ has a list of Search and Rescue contacts in Japan for each prefecture. It is advisable to contact them if you have any local questions. Personal Locator Beacons are illegal in many parts of the country, for example.

MT-Compass is a free service around Japan which allows you to submit your backcountry trip planning to regional police databases. https://www.mt-compass.com. You can put in your planned route. The police would use this if notified that you haven’t returned.

The Hito-coco personal locator beacon is an option if you can provide an address in Japan. Hito-coco beacon. They are similar to a Personal Locator Beacon, except that they have a smaller range, which can be received from the air. Sign up is in Japanese. You can enter these details in the Mt Compass app to submit to local police, as well. There is a yearly cost and a set-up fee.

 

Insurance

Make extra sure you check your insurance before heading out into the Japanese backcountry. Some policies are void if you go outside the resort area, and you may need to foot the bill for any rescue. You will probably need to specifically get insurance that covers backcountry touring.

 

Happy touring!

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