After a few days of enjoying beautiful high pressure, Cooper and I were delighted to see snow in the forecast. We had heard of a spot called Tokachidake where the highest road in Hokkaido ends at the highest lodge. Described as the Rogers Pass of Japan we were thrilled to check it out. So, after a half day of fun turns outside Kiroro resort we made a run for it. Fueled by a steaming cauldron of ramen we drove through city traffic, along the ocean, and after four hours we were up in the mountains of northern Hokkaido.
Our destination was Ryounkaku, an onsen lodge at the base of Mt. Tokachi. Sitting in the heart of Daisetsuzan National Park, Tokachidake is one of many large peaks that offer limitless terrain. Even though we arrived late, the staff welcomed us as warmly as one can imagine with huge smiles, fresh tea and pressed robes. We hastily unloaded the car and then took full advantage of the amenities before we hit the sack. Time for the onsen! Snow accumulated on our heads as we soaked in the outdoor bath, watching the storm rage from the comfort of the geothermal heated water.
The howling wind and blowing snow hardly abated through the night and we woke to find snow drift filling the space between the window panes. We watched the snow blow as we drank our green tea and lounged in our robes, discussing our plan for the day. In the lobby we found a topo of the area which we would need to rely on heavily as it was a complete whiteout. With three new friends we met that morning, we layered up and ventured out to begin our day exploring the area.
Since no one in our group had been to the area before and it had been storming since our arrival, we cautiously headed for the trees and avoided exposing ourselves to the huge alpine terrain above. After a very mellow lap in fantastically deep snow we decided to head across the road to another knob that offered steeper terrain. The relaxed morning and mellow exploration only allowed time for one lap but man was it a good one! All five of us — a Kiwi, a Canadian and three Americans whooped and hollered with stoke as we floated through the deep snow, dipping and bobbing among the frost covered birches. With white beards and big grins we skinned 2 km back up the road to the lodge. When we got to our room we found a new robe with a different pattern and the belt neatly folded into a star. Time for the onsen!
After our soak it was time for food. Cooking our meals in the same kitchen the family used to cook meals for the guests was one of the many highlights of the trip. Working side by side the 5 foot tall grandmother was a blast as she gave cooking advice and shuffled the kids around to make room for the huge American (I’m 6’4″). After a restful night and another hearty meal cooked beside our host family we were ready to dive further into the winter wonderland around Tokachidake.
Nearly a foot of snow had fallen overnight but trail breaking was a cinch in the super low density fluff. We skinned up the first ridge and dropped into wonderfully fun, south facing terrain with good snow. Up the second ridge we went with plans to continue to the third but after noticing enticing pillows and untouched snow we decided to drop in. The snow was unreal. Incredibly light, fast and tons of it covered very playful terrain which we enjoyed with laughs and smiles the whole way down.
We took another wonderful lap on this ridge before heading back to the third which we found we had all to ourselves. The third ridge offered similarly splendid terrain and stellar snow so we wasted no time in making a couple laps before it was time to head back. We traversed around the base of the second ridge then up to the top of the first before dropping in to our last pitch toward the road. Again the five of us were spoiled with bottomless, light pow for our last run through the magical birch forest. To top off the day we were able to hitch a ride on the bus taking folks to the lodge, saving us the 2 km skin and expediting our transition from skiing to onsen!
When we found a new robe with a different pattern on the bed we laughed and quickly reached the conclusion that there was no better way to live. Skiing deep snow with exceptional people in a beautiful place, soaking in natural hot springs and eating phenomenal food was the ultimate experience. We could hardly contain ourselves as we tried to sleep, often keeping one eye glued to the storm outside hammering more of Hokkaido’s finest.
We were treated to more stable, deep snow our last day in the area and even got some sunshine! Our friends had left the day before which meant Cooper and I had our work cut out for us if we were going to try and track out the ridges. In the end, try as we might, we weren’t able to track out the seemingly endless playground of pillows and birch trees. But it was fun trying! We took our time savoring each lap, switching off trail breaking through the deep snow. High fives and laughter were the norm after each lap, punctuated by a delicious lunch of leftover ramen stir fry eaten out of a plastic bag. Revived by ramen we enjoyed two more fabulous laps in the the steep trees before heading out. Time for the onsen!
We made it back to the car and drove up to the lodge for one last soak in the onsen. The translator app on my phone came in handy again as we tried to express our gratitude to the family running the lodge. It seemed to work as they bowed repeatedly, thanking us for our stay and inviting us back again. That is one invitation I will surely follow up on. Until then, thank you Japan!