Winter in Japan – Skiing on Hokkaido

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With the Northern hemisphere ski season upon us and winter holidays underway, now is a good time – if you haven’t already done so – to book a last minute family ski holiday, or get the family ready for Chinese New Year in Japan.

Last season our family headed to Furano on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island. The snow looked good, the season sounded awesome, and there were flights still available. So with a last-minute decision we threw caution into the wind and booked a skiing trip for Chinese New Year, still winter in Japan. While most of the mid-range accommodation was already booked we did manage to find self-contained, well positioned accommodation at the higher end of the market, that didn’t completely break the bank account. There is a vast array of accommodation to meet everyone’s needs in Furano – if you want the burden of choice, start looking now.

Why Furano?

Furano really appealed to us as it isn’t a big resort. We weren’t looking for shopping and nightlife, and our après-ski days now take the shape of a hot chocolate and early to bed. We wanted good snow, good food, fresh air and a family friendly laid back resort – the Furano ski resort ticked all of those boxes. While there are many family friendly options among the Japanese ski fields, this smaller resort appealed to us, and with the added bonus of a cheap Air Asia X overnight flight from KL to Sapporo, the deal was sealed.

Where we stayed – Chalet Fuyuri

We booked a two bedroom self–catering apartment. I know what you are thinking, with all the wonderful food that Japan has to offer, why cook? Full days skiing is fun, but exhausting work. Our children work best if they can come home, relax and play in the snow while dinner is on the go. And I enjoy my food far too much to have tired, cranky children out at a restaurant every night. The upside of cooking in Japan is that it was super easy to find fresh produce from the supermarket which didn’t need a lot of preparation. Miso soup was always only ever a boiled kettle away, and the bakery in Furano was well stocked with delicious baked goods to fill the gaps in between.

The accommodation is over two levels with kitchenette, living room and a small balcony upstairs, and two bedrooms, bathroom and two toilets downstairs. Plus, this accommodation had the added bonus of a washer-dryer – with an array of smelly socks,  sweaty gloves and face masks, this was a life saver.

Ok, so we have covered the domestics.  What was completely awesome about this was it was a short walk to the lift (10 min max, with boots on carrying skis – it’s a good way to warm up the muscles), and a beautiful ski off the slopes at the end of the day.

There were great restaurants and bars close by, so when we were all up for an evening out, it only required a short stroll.

And, if you are this way inclined, there is a cosy pub just across from the lifts heading home which serves everything from a cold beer and edamame to hot chocolate.  As an added bonus, this place also does hot coffee in the morning with the best brownies ‘ever’ according to my kids. But get there early, brownies go fast. If you are wondering the name of such an establishment, don’t worry, so am I. I have no photo’s or napkins with the name on, only very good memories – if we can stumble over it you should be able to as well as it was the only one heading back to our digs.

The only small downside to our accommodation was that it was a bit of a hike to the town centre where the supermarket is, but there is a bus that runs regularly. We walked it a couple of times – with kids in tow – and it took about 30 minutes – but apart from the trips to the supermarket and bakery we found enough to do, see, eat and drink on the side of our hill.

Skiing Furano

There are two zones to the Furano Ski Area: the Kitanomine zone and the Furano Zone. As our accommodation was in the Kitanomine zone, we hired our gear and started each day of our skiing from there. However, we made use of the whole mountain and both zones. Kitanomine zone has more beginner runs, so if you are a beginner there are some nice gentle slopes to test your prowess.

Whether this is your first time skiing, or you are a more seasoned skier Furano has something for you. However, only about 20% of the mountain is advanced terrain, but for those looking for real adventure there is back country off-piste skiing and seriously large amounts of powder. Furano is ideal for beginner/intermediate skiers. Our kids get a few days every year so while not beginners, the immediate slopes were ideal with the occasional black run to get a squeal or two. And, if you feel the challenge isn’t enough there is plenty of ungroomed powder to sink your skis into.

The on-piste skiing runs are wide, and in February, covered in soft powder.  Sometimes we felt like we were the only ones on the slopes. The intermediate runs are long and connect well all over the mountain, with easy accessibility to lifts and gentle runs among the birch trees. We felt like we had completely fallen off the grid. But if the feeling of isolation leaves you feeling like a scared rabbit don’t worry, there is always a hot chocolate, cold beer, or piping hot bowl of noodles not too far away. But beware in February it is cold, we had -14 °C one day, but the temperature usually hovered around a barmy -7°C.

Ski Rental

Because we were so last minute with our bookings, and to be honest this is our usual laisse-faire approach to all things holidaying, we hadn’t booked gear in advance, or even researched rental options. So, while we travel with our own goggles, gloves and ski clothes we always hire skis, poles, boots and helmets. On the afternoon of our arrival we ventured over to Sportpia Furano, at the bottom of the Kitanomine Gondala, to be fitted out with gear. The service was efficient, and as we speak no Japanese, we were lucky to find fluent English speaking staff. There was a full range of gear available, as you would expect from all major ski fields. We were able to do a 5-day rental making it easy for us to ski back to our chalet each afternoon/evening, and then be ready to hit the slopes early the following day.

Top Tip for clothing:  It is cold, freezing cold – do make sure that your have good quality clothing, gloves and goggles which are designed for those temperatures. If you don’t have the gear, then hire. You cannot get away without cheap copies, if you want to buy your own look for the reputable brands. For me, here in Malaysia, I would consider The North Face, Columbia and have a look at Sports Direct, they generally support good brands. There may be others, but this is what comes to mind.

Essential clothing:

  • Gloves – inner and outer
  • Googles
  • Face masks
  • Thermal underwear
  • Woolen, or polar fleece inners
  • Ski outerwear
  • Ski socks
  • Snow boots

Ski Schools

Alas, in-so-far as ski schools, our relaxed approach did impede our quest for ski instruction for the kids. This wasn’t really an issue for us as the kids ski well enough, but for beginners, or for those going for the express purpose of instruction – book in advance. Because we were all happy to spend our days skiing without instruction we didn’t research other ski schools even though there are two available on the mountain. The ski school at Sportpia Furano, however did offer us a wait list option in case something became available – it never did.

Ski Schools on the mountain:

Furano International Snowsports School

Sportpia Furano

 Night Skiing

Furano offers night skiing for those that didn’t get enough during the day. The lifts are only open on the lower slopes but they are well lit and worth a few very cold but fun runs to finish your day.

 

Lifts

Apparently, Furano has the fastest cable car in Japan, but it also offers chair lifts, including high speed quads and a gondola.  Queues were always short and waiting times, if there were any, were minimal.

And, Something for Free

Lift passes are free for kids 12 years old and under.

Getting to Furano and away

There are buses that leave from New Chitose Airport and Sapporo that take you right to Furano. There were two the day that we arrived, one leaving directly after our plane landed, and another three hours later. Because we booked late we missed out on seats on the first bus, and as my husband had to be in Furano in time for a conference call we couldn’t take the second. So we took a car. We organised a taxi to meet us at the airport which suited our needs. However, the buses are super efficient, as is the train system which we used for our return journey for our one and only night in Sapporo.

The train is super efficient, super easy to navigate and linked well with the metro for us to get to our hotel. The first part of the journey leaving Furano is what is referred to as the ‘limited express’, my Mum would call it a rail-car. It is the local train which ambles along stopping at every station. We then changed, effortlessly, to the express to Sapporo. We didn’t reserve a seat, only to find there was standing room only in the non-reservation seating area, and there was not much room for standing, either. It was an early morning commuter train so it was packed to the gunnels. The train conductor very ‘efficiently’ issued us with new tickets for the reserved seating only section, and we rode to Sapporo in roomy comfort.  Whatever you decide on transportation you’ll have made the right decision. The Japanese have public transport nailed.

Buses from New Chitose Airport – Furano

Train from Furano – Sapporo

Eating Out

So my Northern hemisphere husband’s comment when I mooted Japan as a ski destination was, ‘I can’t imagine eating sushi and sashimi while on a skiing holiday’. Food features hugely in our household.  And while there is plenty of fresh sushi, sashimi and all manner of varieties of fresh seafood to be found, Hokkaido also supports a large agricultural industry so there was no shortage of choices when it came to food – one of our most favourite was the ramen noodles, which is synonymous with Hokkaido. And, for the adults, an amazing selection of boutique beers. So all things being equal, it is no wonder that the breads, baked goods, beers and ramen noodles are so fabulous in this large wheat growing region.

Restaurant Downhill

Found on the Furano Zone at the top of the Furano Ropeway cable car this on the mountain restaurant was our go to most days. The ramen noodles were fantastic, and  there is a great selection of hearty hot fare to keep you going for the day. The quirk for us was that we had to buy a ticket from a machine to be able to place our order at the counter. It is all very efficient once you know what you are doing.

Yama no Doxon

A stones throw from our chalet was this traditional building which housed an amazing microbrewery and restaurant. There is an option for long tables with floor seating or conventional western style chairs and tables. The kitchen is just off from the entrance and the seating is up a flight of stairs, but what fascinated my girls was the tube system in which the waiters sent our orders to the kitchen.

Yama no Doxon is famous for its homemade array of sausages, beer, and its’ piping hot curry and egg dishes. As edamame was a staple, the girls would munch away on edamame with a cold drink until the main courses arrived. This place is always busy, so get in early.

We also hit the Furano Delice Cafe for incredibly sweet and creamy cakes freshly made from locally produced Furano milk; and the Furano Bakery for exceptionally beautiful breads and pastries.

There are also plenty of delivery options if you can’t bring yourself to step back out into the cold.

And there’s no guilt – with the amount of walking and skiing we were doing each day breakfast, lunch and dinner were extremely important. Even if we were lying around all day – in Japan – due to the freshness of the food and their clever culinary skills, breakfast, lunch and dinner would always be important.

Things we didn’t do but wished we had:

There are hot springs or onsen throughout the Furano area, if you can – check them out. There is an onsen on the mountain at the New Furano Prince hotel – we didn’t go even though it was handy because it sounded more like a crowded hot bath than a natural spring – but I may be wrong.  We usually take a day or even an afternoon off skiing to explore a little, but on this occasion we couldn’t pull ourselves away from the fantastic powdery snow. Next time!

We spent one night in Sapporo on our return journey, and half of the time was spent traipsing the streets looking for a flute and a saxophone – a whole other story. I think the city is worth a longer visit than that, if you have the time stay a while in Sapporo.

Niseko

We have friends who return to experience winter in Japan in Niseko, also on Hokkaido, each year and this is what Audrey told me when I asked about Niseko :

Accommodation:

“We always return to Hirafu Village situated near the Family Ace lift.  It is an ideal location close to restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacy and bars, and is only a 3 minute walk to the lift.

And, we always use self catering chalets and prefer chalets over apartments,  so the kids can play outside in the snow and be easily supervised. But now both are teenagers, apartments would be an option for the coming year.”

Skiing:

The full four valleys have a good variety for all level of skiers.  But if you are based in Hirafu, and are only a beginner it would be difficult to across to Niseko village, and beyond to Annupuri. However, there is an option to catch the local bus for free using your lift pass to get across to the other areas. Hanazono would be easy to get to from Hirafu for beginners.

Top 3 Restaurants:

  • Abu-cha 2
  • Senchou 2
  • Tozaniken
The first 2 places need reservations, but the last doesn’t accept reservations as it’s tiny.
Did you know there is a place to learn skiing in KL? Check out our review of the first indoor ski centre in Malaysia!

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