It was time to fly north for some snow. We left Hiroshima on the shinkansen to Shin Osaka station and then changed to an express train to Kansai airport. Once again we had been unable to reserve seats on the shinkansen and a large group of people were lining up for the non-reserved cabin. Our strategy was for me to run on and chuck bags on seats while the others wrestled with the suitcases.
Luckily we were all able to get a seat, but some people had to stand. A reserved seat is definitely the way to go if you can get them. We had certainly made good use of our rail passes and it is such an efficient way to travel around Japan.
Once we arrived at Osaka’s Kansai airport, we checked in to our Jetstar flight to Sapporo’s New Chitose airport which cost around NZD$240 each. We landed late afternoon at an airport covered in snow and a chilly -15ºC outside.
Getting around Hokkaido
James and Elisa had booked us tickets on the Hokkaido Resort Liner bus from the airport to Furano. There is a train station at the airport, and also one right outside our hotel in Furano, but it required a couple of train changes, so the bus is the way to go. There were only a few people on our bus and so the trip didn’t take as long as expected as we didn’t have to faff about dropping off at lots of different resorts. Our ticket suggested the trip might take three hours but we arrived much earlier. The cost was around NZD$110 per person return. The bus also has transfers between ski resorts.
The other alternative would be to rent a car. The roads were really snowy but everyone seemed to be driving ok with their snow tyres, and there are no steep ski field access road to negotiate as there is snow right down to the villages below. If you did fancy driving then car would give you a few more options as there are about five ski fields within an hour or so drive from Furano. All the signs are also written in English, so navigating shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
When we arrived at our hotel our bags of skis and boots were sitting there waiting for us. What a fantastic system. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been trying to get around the train stations with an extra two huge bags. It cost about $30 per bag to send them from Tokyo airport direct to the hotel. This is much cheaper than paying for another bag on a domestic flight as well. Check out Yamato Transport for more info.
The town of Furano is located right in the very centre or belly button of Hokkaido. In fact there is a belly button monument in the local school.
Although Hokkaido is at a similar latitude north as Christchurch is south, they get about 14 metres of snow a year and significantly lower temperatures to New Zealand – it got up to -20ºC while we were out walking around one night. This weather is caused by all the cold air blowing down over Siberia and then picking up moisture over the sea before dumping it all in snow over Hokkaido.
The town is split in half by the river. On one side is the ski field and the other side is the town. Our hotel was on the town side, right next to the station and about a 10 minute or NZD$15 ish taxi ride from the ski field. The benefit of being on the town side is that you have got lots of local restaurants, a supermarket and convenience store to choose from. If you stay on the ski field side of the town then you don’t have as many options for eating out. There is a bus that goes around but it had an odd schedule and with the four of us, it worked out only slightly more expensive to take a taxi when it suited us.
The Natulux hotel is modern and the rooms have an incredible view out over the town and to the snowy volcanic mountains beyond. There was a great restaurant/bar downstairs, and the staff were super friendly and helpful. Once again the rooms were quite small, but we had paid extra for a larger bed and we had a bit more space this time to walk around. The room cost about NZD$200 per night.
We were super keen to hit the slopes, so we got up early the next day and headed to the Furano ski resort. You could buy full day tickets or part day – three and five hour tickets – a great idea that more NZ ski fields should consider. A full day ticket was about NZD$65 and a three hour ticket was about NZD$45. There were two sides to the ski field. We jumped in the gondola and headed up to the top where we had an incredible view out over the town and countryside beyond.
We had a great time exploring both sides of the mountain. On one side is the gondola, and on the other is a ropeway. In NZ a ropeway sounds like something you would use with a nutcracker to drag yourself on skis up a mountain. In Japan a ropeway is a massive funicular gondola which can carry up to 100 people at a time up the mountain in about 5 minutes! There were heaps of other chairlifts as well dotted all over the mountain giving you access to heaps of terrain. The snow was amazing and there were no people around! It was bliss and we spent the next few days exploring all over the mountain.
The hotel had an Onsen which is a Japanese public bath. Onsen’s are particularly popular around geothermal areas. Hokkaido has a number of natural hot springs. The Natulux hotel Onsen is inside and there is a seperate one for males and females. Once again there is a bit of etiquette involved with using an Onsen. Bathing naked with strangers isn’t everyones cup of tea, but once you get over the initial embarrassment, it is actually really good! Firstly when you go in, take your shoes off. Then you go in to the changing room, take off your clothes and leave them in one of the baskets or lockers. From there you head to the washing room. There are little stools and a hand held shower. You sit here and give yourself a good wash and rinse off before you get in the bath. The idea is that as you are sharing the bath water, then if everyone goes in clean, the bath water doesn’t get all soapy and mucky like a regular bath. You fold up your facecloth and put it on your head so that doesn’t go in the bath either.
The bath is super hot and this one could seat three people. It was a great way to warm up and ease our sore muscles after a day skiing.
Snow Mobile Trip
After a couple of days skiing we were keen to check out some of the other activities available in the town. A company called Asobiya has got a whole range of different things to do like snow shoeing, ice fishing, hot air ballooning etc. We got the hotel to make us a reservation and we headed out for some fun. We chose the 10km tour which took about an hour. After a quick safety briefing we were off, hooning through the powder around a golf course. It was heaps of fun, but our hands were absolutely freezing and we were quite pleased we hadn’t done the longer trip.
Whiteroom Tours – Tomamu Ski Field
After a few days at Furano, we were keen to explore some new terrain. We checked in with a company called Whiteroom Tours which were based just across the road from the Furano Gondola Station.
Elisa was keen to check out a mountain called Asahidake, which is also an active smoking volcano, it has a ropeway (i.e. massive gondola) and some great back country skiing. However after speaking to one of the people in the Whiteroom cafe, she suggested that we might be better off at a resort called Tomamu which was a shorter drive and possibly a bit more appropriate for us “kiwi skiers who are more used to scratching around on ice than deep #japow”
So the next day our guide Taneli picked us up at 7.45am and we headed off to Tomamu. About an hour or so drive from Furano, we pulled up to the resort. The carpark was nearly empty and there were four huge apartment towers at the bottom of the mountain. There were heaps of other accommodation units around as well – apparently all empty… There wasn’t really a town like Furano nearby, it all just felt a bit deserted… but the skiing was amazing! It had snowed over night and we did our first couple of runs down an untracked slope in ankle deep powder – ahh bliss!
This was just a warmup for things to come. Taneli then took us up to the top, where we jumped the ski field boundary rope and headed in to the trees. Note: you are only supposed to go out of bounds with a guide, and we were all wearing avalanche trackers as well.
Skiing in deep powder is way different to skiing on groomed slopes. I was completely out of control and couldn’t turn, which of course presents a problem when there are trees to avoid. I hurtled down the (not very steep) hill, got my ski stuck on a hidden stick and fell flat on my face. Then I couldn’t get up! I would put my hand down to push myself up and it would just sink in to the snow. I floundered around like a turtle on my back for ages until James managed to help haul me back upright.
I persevered for a couple of runs, but felt like I was holding the others back, so after lunch I returned to the nice groomed slopes and left the others to go to some more extreme terrain. I am actually quite pleased I left them to it as it sounds like they all had some pretty spectacular crashes!
Even though it was snowing quite heavily, the visibility was still good, the snow flakes are just like fluff – you don’t get wet, so even though it is super cold, it doesn’t actually feel as cold as it gets sometimes here in NZ.
The cost for a guide for the day to Tomamu is JPY60,000 which is about NZD$700.00 plus lift tickets. This is divided by the number of people in your group – up to six people. They don’t tend to mix groups as you get lots of mixed abilities – so same price if it is just the two of you. While it is expensive, we did get to see some new terrain, and go places we wouldn’t have been brave enough to venture to on our own. Great fun.
One of the best things about visiting Japan is the food! Furano is no exception, and after finding all the local restaurants booked one night, we went to the hotel concierge and got them to book us in to a variety of different places for the following nights, all within a block of the hotel.
During our time in Japan we had:
- Sashimi – raw fish
- Teppanyaki – meat & veggies cooked on a hotplate in front of you
- Yakiniku – BBQ meat and veggies that you cook yourself on a little BBQ on your table
- Shabushabu – very thinly sliced cuts of meat that you cook in a pot of boiling water on your table
- Ramen – a noodle soup with pork and hard boiled eggs and other stuff
- Donburi – meat on rice sometimes with some egg in there as well
- Nabe – similar to shabushabu but with thicker cuts of meat – all boiled in a pot on your table.
- Tempura – deep fried crispy prawns, fish and vegetables
And much more. Delicious!
Another thing you will notice about Japan is the toilets. You just about need a license to drive these things! However when you have been out skiing in -18ºC then it is actually very nice to come back to a heated toilet seat! They play music, have special warm water ‘wash’ features and much more. I wonder why they haven’t caught on in other countries. Brilliant.
Japanese people generally speak very good english, however I was super keen to practice my very rusty school girl Japanese. With the help of a phrase book it was amazing how much I could remember and people certainly appreciate you having a try. Most menus are in English or you can point at pictures or plastic models of what you would like to eat. Some of the translations on signs in to English and things are so funny to read. We saw an absolute shocker on a jersey being worn by a lady in a ticket office, wish I had been able to get a photo.
Sadly after a couple of weeks away it was time to head home to our boat and kids. We’d had a great time. Japan is an amazing destination to visit. Things are reasonably priced, it is clean and easy to get around, we felt very safe the entire time we were away, the food and beer is amazing (although I had some pretty average glasses of wine) there are lots of interesting and beautiful things to see and do and the skiing is incredible.
Special thanks to our friends James and Elisa for asking us to join them on this great adventure. It was wonderful travelling with you guys.
Have you been to Japan or are keen to go sometime? Let us know.
Get yourself a Lonely Planet Japan book here.
Check out our time in Tokyo