Furano opens the powder gates

snow action team 06.10.2012

Five years back Furano was set to be the next Niseko, at least according to the apartment spruikers. but then came the GFC, and more importantly, an attitude problem, their heavy-handed policing of the awesome off-piste made visiting frustrating, with so much great terrain on all sides you couldn’t get at.

Well, now you can — for the upcoming season with a simple registration in the tourist office at the Kitanomine base you will be able to legally access the available areas. Which is great, because Furano and the surrounding central hokkaido region is a destination to rival anything in Japan. Carmen & Owain Price checked out a chunk of it.

For the last couple of years a convoluted system of filling out forms at the police station (yeah, great marketing idea that one!) has operated, and with more ‘legal’ fresh lines appearing pow poachers have been encouraged. We watched some boarders off-load in a hurry, then sprint from the top of the Kitanomine Gondola, dive over the fence behind, right next to the no go avi danger sign, and disappear off the backside. Hopefully they had the brains to come back in further round than the obviously slidy big gully to skiers right of the lift – which can, and has, slid down onto the connecting groomed trail that links the two halves of this seriously big resort. The day was classic avi dangerous, warming up quickly, with cracks widening in the danger zones. So just because you can sign in to head out doesn’t mean it’s ever going to be open slather – like Niseko, there are zones that for good reason should be left well alone, and what’s open is always subject to prevailing conditions.

For corduroy chasers Furano is arguably Japan’s best – up there with Happo One at Hakuba for long fall-lines, with some nice steeper pitches and rolling options over a decent 964m vertical.

Remembering this was the last place an Aussie male won a World Cup race (a young Steven Lee in the ’85 Super G), it’s almost a patriotic duty to let rip a couple of flat chat top-to-bottom laps. No one will pull you up for speeding, and there’s almost no one in the way.

Which is fine, and along with the famously sunny weather – central Hokkaido gets way more sunshine than Niseko & Rusutsu – and fast gondolas base to summit on the Kitanomine side and almost basse to summit on the Furano side (there’s one double chair going higher there) it helps make Furano perfect for pisties.

But a couple of laps, however fast, is about my groomed run limit for a day though, so we went searching for something better in the company of Hokkaido Powder Guides’ Chuck Olbery. Furano based since 2005, Chuck knows his way round and we soon found more interesting lines.

It was one of those should-have-been-there yesterday type of days overall, with the sun coming out, the temperature climbing, and the previous day’s snow fall on the south facing slopes getting heavy and slidy on the exposed faces.

Even the snow mushrooms were deceptive, as Chuck found out launching onto one for the cause of fleeting fame in these pages, only to stick and blob off it.

While the tastiest steeper faces off the top lift (like the one on the preceding spread) were not in great shape, the shadier pitches in the trees were still sweet, so it ended up being another big day, finding enough lines to keep our Hokkaido record for the trip intact – found pow every day, at 7 areas in 14 days. Try that anywhere else in the world and see if you get so lucky.

The key to Furano is appreciating it’s just the centre and best place to base yourself in for the whole Central Hokkaido region. Within an hour or two you can find plenty of other powder options, pretty much on a daily basis from December to early March at least, at neighbouring areas like Kamui Ski Links, Asahidake, Tomamu, and the backcountry paradise of the Tokachi Mountains, plus Sahoro a little further afield.

Furano boasts a full size ‘country town’ just down the road, offering ‘locals’ shopping, eating and nightlife opportunities at very reasonable locals’ rates. A free night shuttle links town and resort.

For village atmosphere the Kitanomine base feels like a pre-boom Hirafu, with a few funky bars, restaurants and lodges, all within a few blocks of the base. Guess that was another reason some thought the Niseko boom could be re-run here. The empty lot opposite the base a with sign announcing a long-past completion date for the apartments is testimony things didn’t pan out that way, or not yet anyway – it’s still a cheap place to get a ski house.

For convenience you can’t beat the Prince Hotels – ‘Furano Prince’ at the Kitanomine base, and ‘New Prince’ by itself at the Furano base. Both have ski in/ski out access, which at the new one leads directly to Japan’s fastest cable car, taking just 5 minutes to the top. You could do some serious damage here by being first on a powder day, getting in 3 or 4 laps, and the equivalent of a 10,000’ vertical heliski day, before most guests had finished their battle with the breakfast buffet. Nice onsen for apres-pow as well.

International ski school with excellent kids programs round out the offering, making Furano very family friendly too. So now you know the powder is accessible you can find plenty of rational excuses to suggest it as the next family destination.

[the ticket] furano

snowfall 8m  summit 1209m  base 245m  vert 964m

terrain • 20% adv/exp • 40% int • 40% beginner

lifts 11 including cable car/ropeway, gondola, 2 express quads

day pass ¥4200 peak

To get there use the new FREE Hokkaido Resort Liner bus for International Guests from New Chitose (3 hours) or Asahidake (70 mins) airports. You need to pre-book at least 7 days ahead, after October 1, 2012 – sending your travel details (dates/flights/accommodation/names) to furano-res@access-n.jp

To stay the deals at the Furano Prince’s 2 options are often better than you would pay for off-snow accommodation of lower standard so check them first is our tip www.princehotels.com/en/furano/

feature pic by Patrick Fux powdermania.com