words and photos: Mary Walsh
It had snowed the night before, as it had done every night on our trip so far. Tracks from the previous day had been erased and in their place, soft flakes that glistened in the mid-morning sunlight. We had shouldered our boards and hiked right when we got off the Hirafu gondola, heading further up on a short, well-trafficked trail. We had ducked into the trees and left the crowds behind; just our crew amidst the Japanese White Birches.
Christine Savage and I had been to this spot before. A small, steep bowl that funneled out to a pinball-esque gulley that ricocheted between bumps and berms before spitting you back out onto the trail. It was just off the beaten path, but felt so far from the groomers and liftlines. On rider's right was a cornice that had a graded drop depending on whether you hopped over close to the top of the bowl or hucked further down the line. Christine and I stood above the bowl with Yui Sotoma, Hakuba-based snowboarder and our Japanese guide for the week while we were leading a trip of Americans and Canadians to Japan's North Island for the first-ever Japan trip of Beyond the Boundaries, our women's snowboard camp. Our crew of female rippers gathered with us and we described the terrain we were about to tackle. Manon, Brandi, Deidre, Sarah, Mekayla, and Jess are all strong snowboarders, hailing from the mountains of Alaska, Colorado, California, Quebec and beyond. Our goal was not only to cash in on as many powder slashes as we could while snowboarding in Hokkaido, but also to push one another further in our all-mountain capabilities. And here, we were presented with a perfect cornice drop. We walked through what to expect, different things to consider, and various line options if anyone preferred an alternative way down. I cruised down to take photos. Christine went next, and then, everyone in our powdery posse hit the drop.
Japan in January is two things: stormy, socked-in snow days and bright, bluebird deep days. Both powder days. Both amazing. And both on repeat for the duration of the month (and often beyond). It had long been a dream of ours to bring Beyond the Boundaries to Japan and in 2018, we stepped off the plane at the New Chitose airport in Sapporo to one of the best starts to winter on The North Island in multiple decades.
From the airport, we headed northwest to the port city of Otaru. For the BTBounds crew's first day on hill, we decided to warm up everyone's legs at Ansari, a small resort where, when you're at the top, the Sea of Japan is visible. The resort has few lift lines and lots of glades. We took quick laps through the trees before hitting the onsen, Japanese traditional hot spring baths, to ease our muscles into a week of powder boarding.
From there, we headed to Niseko, our homebase for most of our stay in Japan. Over the next four days, we explored the various peaks of Niseko United. There are four resorts within Niseko United: Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono. All of the resorts can be accessed from one another via the top of the mountain, where well-laid-out lifts that all above treeline take you from resort to resort. On clear days, there's a lot of terrain accessible with a quick hike (and the proper avalanche safety preparation, of course). We lucked out with plenty of snow and spent a lot of our time exploring the trees of Hirafu. Within the boundaries of Hirafu there are both wide-open gladed areas and runs peppered with tight trees. One day, we spent our whole morning hiking repeatedly to the same zone and getting fresh lines over and over before changing locations to find more snow. It was unreal. A quick stop at the base of Hirafu for a coffee to warm up and we were back out for the afternoon, stacking even more powder turns. For all of us, coming to Japan was a dream come true, and our timing couldn't have been better: the winter was dry in North America and so for most everyone, these were the first fresh snow runs of the season. Japan provides!
Niseko Village blew our minds. We scored with conditions when we were there and experienced run-after-run of fresh snow. The runs are long at Niseko Village; a single lift ride can lead you down open faces, through trees, down bowls, back through trees, and down the trail to return to the gondola. When conditions allow, the backcountry gates offer incredible terrain; it's so varied and offers up ample opportunities to expand your all-mountain experience. On one run, we found a big pillow that popped into a nice landing not too far down. Yui tested it out with a boned-out method and then our crew proceeded to hit their first poppers, ever! It was so rad—everyone was so excited we hiked up for round two so missed landings could be stuck before we finished out the day.
The final resort we went to was just a short drive from Niseko and Kutchan, the neighboring town and a hub lined with restaurants, grocery stores, and a 99 Yen store. Our posse piled into our Toyota Alfard and cruised 30 minutes to Rusutsu Resort. Rusutsu is the largest resort on Hokkaido, made up of three different peaks, West Mountain, East Mountain and Mount Isola. Rusutsu averages over 42-feet of snowfall annually and the terrain is like no other mountain our crew had been to. Rusutsu is truly a mountain playground, filled with wide bowls and tight trees; open powder fields filled with poppers, bumps, and berms; and winding groomers lined with sidehits. The mountain is expansive and powder can still be found days after a storm hits, if you know where to look! Verts come in handy here, too, if you have a guide to lead you to the right zones.
We were lucky to link up with Peter Richer at Rusutsu. Peter has spent the past few years as an advanced instructor and guide at the mountain and knows it like the back of his hand. Rusutsu's terrain is so vast that while you can definitely explore the resort on your own and have an incredible time, we were treated to an insane time experiencing the best spots and exploring each of the peaks with Peter as our guide. We hopped from mountain to mountain, checking out tree runs and picking lines down bowls and gullies before emerging on the perfectly-groomed trails and cruising back to the lifts for more, smiles plastered on our faces.
As we reached the base lodge at the end of the day and packed our boards into the van, we were sad to leave the mountains of Hokkaido, but stoked on the snowy runs we had gotten and the terrain we had traversed. The next three days were about exploring Tokyo, with a quick evening spent in a traditional Japanese ryokan in a small onsen town before jetting off to Honshu, Japan's main island.
A weekend in Tokyo is enough to whet one's appetite of the incredible city—the lights, the sounds, the sights, and the food leave you, of course, wanting more. We were determined to pack as much fun in as possible into our Tokyo stay, so we checked into our hotel in Shibuya and stepped out into the bustling streets. What's a weekend in Tokyo look like? Robot Café, Shinjuku nightlife, gyoza and more gyoza, shopping in Harajuku, introducing ourselves to owls in Shibuya, green tea, crepes, rice bowls, sky high buildings, peaceful temples, enormous koi fish, vending machines selling hats for cats, dinner in Roppongi, and of course, karaoke! By the time our flights rolled around Sunday afternoon, we were excited, content, and ready to sleep on the plane.
Thank you to the whole crew for snowboarding in Japan with us! Thank you to Dee and the crew at Black Diamond Lodge—you guys are incredible and we can't wait to come back next year! Thank you Ansari, Niseko United and Rusutsu Resort for the incredible experiences. We already can't wait for next year. Thank you to Yui for joining us and thank you to all of our sponsors for their support!
If you'd like to join a Beyond the Boundaries tour in Japan, are interested in a Chile trip with BTBounds x Steep-N-Deep, or a weekend park camp in the US and Canada, check out www.btbounds.com for more info and follow @btbounds on Instagram and Facebook.