Asahidake is indeed the roof of Hokkaido, the island’s highest mountain at 2,290m.
Not surprisingly therefore it offers great snow and an experience a World away from Niseko’s hustle and bustle.
Get past the ‘No Patrol, No Sweep’ sign and you’re often on your own, especially after each tram (cable car/ropeway) load disgorges and disappears.
Like everywhere else, it had got busier in recent years. Depending on the day there will be a bit of morning frenzy with day trippers over from Furano. But stay at the base and you’re still virtually guaranteed your fill of fresh lines says Owain Price.
When you get lucky and the clouds part and the steam from the fumeroles blows away and you get a first glimpse of Asahidake’s exploded crater horseshoe shaped peak in all its glory you understand why the local indigenous people call it the ‘Playground of the Gods’ (Kamui Mitara). It’s a magical place, in a beautiful setting.
The drive up from Asahikawa, through the snow laden pine forests of Daisetsuzan National Park is very pretty. A few hotels and pensions straddle the road to the ropeway base at 1100m, which is not much lower than the top of the lifts at Niseko.
You add 500m vertical on the only lift, the ropeway/cable car that runs every 20 minutes. Above that you can add almost 700m more by skinning/hiking to the peak, for near 1200m vert lines back to the Asahidake Ropeway base.
Not surprisingly at these altitudes in the heart of Hokkaido the snow quality is often superb. Up high the exposed slopes, like volcanoes anywhere, are subject to all weathers and get icy. Go equipped with a guide who knows their way around. But lower down in the protected tree runs the snow collects deep and dry.
Calling Asahidake a ski resort is stretching things.
There are just two groomed runs that snake down from the top station, barely a couple of groomer lanes wide in places. The one skier’s right from the top involves an uphill pole section, the other involves a flat section, so snowboarders be warned, keep your speed up!
The Asahidake trees are the bees knees. On our first trip we hit it with a local board shop owner Noaki Shimobo (owner of Leala board/lifestyle shop in Asihakawa) and his sponsored rider buddy, Takahiko Taniguchi.
We spent two socked in snowy days riding the lower mountain in knee to waist deep snow with just a handful of other riders.
It’s hard to actually make succesive cable cars here thanks to the little hike out from the top station and allowing for the flat sections. So catching one ride every 40 minutes is standard. That means about 6 laps, 3000m vertical, in a 4 hour session. Which is sort of a cat skiing pace for similar quality snow, only much cheaper.
Staying right at the base is the best idea. Closest is the Bearmonte, only 100m or so down the road. You can ski right back to the door beside the road and jumping on first ropeway every morning makes sure you get the most out of the day.
Day trip tours from Furano have got more and more popular. Even worse for clogging up the ropeway queue are sightseeing bus tours. If it’s just a couple of mini van loads from Furano usually everyone spaces out okay after their first couple of laps.
But if it gets too busy then heading higher is the go-to option, weather and conditions permitting.
We only got to see the whole mountain finally on the third day, but not for long. We did manage a short skin up to the fumeroles a few hundred metres above the top station. From there a wide line skier’s left back to the base opens up more terrain.
The original Hokkaido ski guide, John Morrell (who has been skiing here for 40 years) from Backcountryski Japan showed up with a group including intermediate telemarkers. He found them perfect terrain skier’s right from the top of the ropeway.
Which is one of the advantages of Asahidake, you certainly don’t need to be an expert to enjoy yourself here.
Conversely, our local boarder friends are seriously good riders, but they don’t get bored. There are endless hits of tree features and gully sides.
Hiking or skinning higher opens up steep shots with challenging conditions due to the exposure. Australian climber and ski guide Tim Macartney-Snape has been guiding here for Backcountryski Japan for years.
“If it’s a fine day there’s some great terrain around the back, you can find some nice powder bowls and gullies. But you’ve got to make sure it’s a fine day, if you get a white out up there navigation is difficult, plus you’ve got hot pools – fumeroles – to contend with. You wouldn’t want to ski into one of them in a whiteout.”
The great snow, accessible and totally wild setting make it one of Japan’s best. Stay a few days midweek is our tip.
And lock in some guiding as part of that. The normal reliably good powder season used to run from December right through to April when Morrell first started skiing here in the 1980s, but as climate change wreaks havoc that has shortened to December to late February. It does still snow heavily in March and into April still, but will warm up in between dumps, so conditions are more varied.
Official Asahidake Ropeway site is here