story & pics Owain Price
We get around in this job, and in Japan seriously weird is normal, all part of the fun, but within a couple of hours at Rusutsu we had seen and done things we had never done in our entire ski lifetimes.
Like listening to an animated singing tree on arrival. Sounds kitsch, but actually it takes several presses of the replay button to fully grasp what’s going on: little buzzy bees whizzing round the hive; the talking toucan; the baby birdies in the nest; I could go on, but the chief dragged me away to start our resort tour after only 3 goes of it.
Next surprise was a ‘4D’ movie, ‘Tree Robo’ (kafkaesque post apocalyptic commentary for the cognoscenti) with cool 3D graphics plus funky moving chairs and compressed air sprays at surprise moments for that 4th dimension. Never done that either. A ride on a merry-go-round? Sure, done that, but not inside a ski resort hotel. Listened to an animated oompah-pah band? Never, or a live one for that matter. Rusutsu brings out the big kid in all of us, and it’s obviously a great place to bring your little kids – the owner has an obsession with Disney, creating a full size summer theme park with 8 life size Disney rides outside and a mini theme world inside.
Fall out the door access to the slopes is another family friendly bonus from the original Rusutsu Resort Hotel at the base of the smaller, cruisy West Mountain, with a long gondola or little monorail connection to the much larger Mt Isola/East Mountain side.
Which is where the real big kid fun starts once you launch into the magic mushroom forest, nicely spaced trees with some good pitches and heaps of great natural features to hit off, all with the same snow quantity and quality as Niseko, but way less people competing for lines.
There’s a lot of space here – Rusutsu is actually Hokkaido’s largest ‘single mountain’ area, with great terrain and a relaxed tree skiing policy. Luckily I had a ‘local’ in the shape of Thredbo rider Peter Wunder to find the best of it. He just hammers all day. I was getting a bit cranky my ass was being kicked by a boarder (yet again) until he mentioned he had won the Top-to-Bottom at Thredbo several times (for our international readers that’s Australia’s toughest ski/board race, a Chinese Downhill with a Le Mans style uphill running start, then 600m vert mostly over a gnarly track of frozen man made snow and/or mud).
Pete has spent the best part of the past several Rusutsu seasons developing property next to West Mountain, and he knows his way round the trees a lot better than most.
We kept finding the goods all day, and even into the night for the West Mountain night ski session later, a fun option on a powder evening.
Mostly you just run out to an empty express quad lift for a quick return to the top, so you clock up plenty of mileage even though the actual vertical drop is only 539m.
A bus of day trippers from Niseko may add more competition for a few hours in the middle of the day, but mostly they won’t know where to go beyond the obvious, and by mid-afternoon they’re gone. Following Pete around we hardly noticed their intrusion and basically skied all day only seeing a handful of others in the areas we hit. Can’t argue with that, or the endless features like the mushrooms to hit off. Though you have to be a bit cautious: the tasty looking blobs on a closed double chair that seemed ripe for smashing were actually solid lumps, so Pete took one for the team attempting a foto there.
Plenty of long cruising corduroy runs that end up back at the same lifts as you access the pow from makes it easy to keep in touch with partners/mates not into the fresh. If the sun pops out you get great views across Lake Toya to the Pacific Ocean.
Staying in Rusutsu for at least a few days should be a no-brainer add-on to any Niseko trip, and for families and keen tree skiers you could easily do it in reverse – stay here for a week or more with the odd day trip over to Niseko.
A couple of pensions offer cheap accommodation, and there’s a little cluster of restaurants and bars, including local favourite Rodeo Drive, and a Seiko Mart, but that’s about it for ‘village’ so don’t expect a town or much apres action.
Most people stay at the self-contained Rusutsu Resort Hotel, which has plenty of bars and theme restaurants, offering excellent value with no need to venture outside. It’s also home to the theme shopping arcade and Disney stuff, so is the best family option. The high rise tower is more up-market room wise, but it’s not as convenient as the West Mountain base. Or go a step further and grab one of the last freehold blocks on offer there – see next spread for more details on that.
[the ticket] rusutsu
snowfall 11m (base)
summit 994m base 455m vert 539m
terrain 42km marked runs • 30% adv/exp • 40% int • 30% beginner
plenty of readily accessible tree terrain
lifts 15 including 4 gondolas, 7 express quads
day pass (2012) ¥5100
other stuff snowmobiles, snow shoeing, XC skiing, tubing
bookings all the main Japan operators include Rusutsu eg www.skijapan.com
with some great specials on offer, especially for families