TRAVEL: winter wonders in Furano, Japan

A winter wonderland

Head for Furano in central Hokkaido to enjoy the best powder at a price that’s no prob

Here I am, taking a holiday in minus-20 Hokkaido instead of plus-20 Okinawa. I’m either losing my marbles or just a normal Canadian pining for a winter wonderland.

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The high life: A view from the 27th floor of the family-friendly Alpha Tomamu hotel at the Tomamu resort. CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON PHOTOS

At this season, for sure, Hokkaido can be Japan’s Siberia, a world of white where everything — from roofs to roads to parked cars and bicycles — is caked in snow. And in case anything had escaped, snow fell almost nonstop during my visit in January.

The snow is so deep, and the powder so fresh, that many skiers from Australia, Europe and even Canada insist that the island’s central Furano area offers the best skiing in the world — often at rates a third of the cost where they come from.

The locals, too, are so cheerful and full of life that some even volunteer as free ski guides for foreigners.

It’s wonderful, yes — but it’s really, really cold.

Asahikawa, the gateway to the ski resorts and hot-spring facilities of the Furano area, holds Japan’s low- temperature record, of -41°C, which was posted there in 1902.

With pavements and sidewalks covered in layers of snow and ice, it takes time to relearn how to walk — by shuffling and sliding — and to drive — by pumping brakes and steering in the direction of the slide. Luckily, there are red arrows suspended above roads so that drivers can see which way to go during blizzards and white-outs.

For all this apparent hardship, though, the hardy local residents — including penguins, polar bears, Japanese mainland exiles and Australian snowboarders — revel in this refrigerator, and many people say it’s Japan’s best place to work or visit (as long as you don’t mind your nostrils being frozen shut).

Actually, Hokkaido is balmy compared with Antarctica’s maximum recorded low of -89°C, and the emperor penguins at Asahiyama Zoo look positively blissed as they’re let out from their salubrious enclosures at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. every day to waddle around the zoo to the delight of children and giddy adults crouching around them.

With puffy chests and tuxedos, these wonderfully improbable creatures seem to enjoy strutting past the cameras like Japanese Cabinet ministers — and they, too, have no permanent leader, say their human handlers.

In a nation where so much has cuteness by design, the penguins are naturally kawaii(cute) — and well worth the ¥800 ticket that also lets you see wolves, polar bears, lions, leopards, Siberian tigers and masses of other animals besides.

After buying woolly socks and leg warmers in Asahikawa, I was ready to brave colder temperatures at higher elevations. And indeed, those protections were more than enough to keep me warm on the gondolas at the loveable resorts of Kamui, Furano and Tomamu.

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Up and away: Furano’s powder snow has to be skied or boarded to be believed.

Seeking something colder, I had to try Asobiya’s hot-air balloon. Sensing my anxiety (insanity) the night before, Ken McBride, an Australian snowboarder working with the helpful Furano Tourism Association, had soothed my nerves with hot sake ladled from a pot in the earthy Robata restaurant, whose spunky owner looking like Robert De Niro served up a juicy tsubodai(armorfish) and zangi, a tasty regional take on fried chicken.

Next morning, hungover on five hours’ sleep and with no breakfast, I hopped into a tiny woven basket before sunrise thinking I had nothing to fear, since gregarious pilot Takahiro Matsushita had, after all, designed the colorful Asobiya balloon himself and had been taking people up to 1,000 meters in it for the last 15 years.

But one minute into our scheduled 20-minute voyage, I realized that I’m afraid of heights. Very afraid. Clinging to a nooselike rope, I took photos nonstop to avoid peering directly at the ground below. As the balloon zoomed up higher than Tokyo Tower and the world’s highest bungee jump in Macao, my camera battery went numb, but I was too frozen in fear to pull my other camera out of my coat.

Furthermore, I had to deal with the reality that the tiny basket — now suspended 300 meters above the Furano valley at 20°C below — had no roof, window or exit.

Instead of motion sickness, I felt queasy from the lack of movement. The balloon just hovers there, with nothing but air and blowing snow below. At least in my uncle’s bush plane, or a treeplanting helicopter, or the open- ended Hercules C-130 I’d once taken to East Timor, there was the headrush of speed and a sense of nearing a destination.

In the balloon, I couldn’t wait to go down and eat breakfast, but didn’t want to disturb the young couple who’d paid ¥13,000 each and were calmly admiring the blissful blankets of snow and farmhouses below. I was at least relieved to hear dogs barking at our alien presence above their territory.

Unable to contain my anxiety any longer, I finally jumped out of the basket — which had just landed — and enjoyed Capt. Matsushita’s stories about how he had only tried skydiving once, because “it’s too scary.”

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High jinx: Even at -20°C, daredevils are willing to brave the small basket of a hot-air balloon (above) to rise 300 meters above Furano — where this writer realized he is afraid of heights.
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After that, pumped with adrenaline, I skied all day on spectacular runs at Kitanomine overlooking fast-growing Furano town, whose 25,000 residents now host some 2 million visitors per year. Night-skiing until the last lift at 8:30 p.m., I followed McBride’s shadow as he carved through magical fields of powder and gleaming light on a lonely mountainside above the Prince Hotel.

The next morning, after a deep sleep in the comfort of the Natulux Hotel, I saw balloons hovering in the distance and wished I could go up again — this time on a full stomach.

As an alternative to the crowded runs and lineups of the world-famous Australian-dominated resorts at Niseko near Sapporo, the ski hills around Furano are ideal for families and are now also being enjoyed by a new wave of novice skiers from Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China — not to mention the odd Canadian craving top-class powder.

Ski schools in the area even provide separate classes for English or Japanese speakers, plus nurseries for kids. Meanwhile, both at the bottom and up on the slopes as well, good food and drink options are easy to find.

What’s especially gratifying, too, is how officials in Furano are making extra efforts to integrate foreign visitors into the proud local culture, made famous 20 years ago by the Japanese TV drama “Kita no Kuni Kara” (“From a Northern Country”).

Among these efforts, the free Saturday Night Live event is a great entree for tourists into “real” Japanese culture. There are ladies there in kimono singing and dancing; men with fat bellies dancing half-naked; and important decisions (such as who gets a free hot-spring ticket) are taken based on mass games of janken poi(rock-paper-scissors).

For serious skiers (such as I used to be), Kamui, nestled between Furano and Asahikawa’s airport, has the most liberal policy for safety-conscious groups looking to ski or board backcountry trails at their own risk.

Kamui’s manager, Mitsuhiko Maeda, who designed the runs 26 years ago, trims the trees himself, and many of them are grandiose works of natural art frosted with snow. With day passes costing only ¥2,800, Kamui has to be one of the best-value snow resorts in the world.

For a luxurious escape, however, I headed off to Tomamu, just 50 minutes by train from Sapporo’s Chitose airport. To overcome my newfound fear of heights, I stayed on the 27th floor overlooking a fairy-tale complex featuring an ice village, an ice chapel and Japan’s largest indoor wave-pool.

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Photo hops: To the delight of both themselves and visitors, the emperor penguins at Asahiyama Zoo are allowed to take a walk around outside their enclosure twice a day.

Since taking over the resort a few years ago, Hoshino, a group based in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, has hired about 500 youthful winter staff to take care of up to 2,700 guests a night, including increasing numbers from across Asia, says Sales Manager Koichiro Hashimoto, whose job — I was delighted to discover — turned out to include showing me some wicked snowboard jumping techniques.

The positive vibe at Tomamu was echoed at the Natulux boutique hotel near Furano’s funky bus station. Kiyomi Ishihira, whose family has owned a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Furano since 1930, says Natulux means “nature and relax” — and it’s easy to do that in a spa with bossa nova music and hallways scented with locally grown lavender.

The Japanese washoku breakfast was so stocked with healthy local vegetables, fish and Furano’s own fresh milk and cheeses that I didn’t need lunch on the slopes. Along with other places I visited in central Hokkaido, Natalux has a warm “heart and soul” often missing in hotter parts of Japan.

Maybe it was the 2007 bottle of Higuma no Banshaku red wine with the bears on the label, or the feel of the endless supply of fresh powder under my skis, but I never really did “suffer” from the cold. Thanks to the region’s hospitality and natural wonders, I have only the warmest memories of Japan’s Siberia.

The Japan Times: Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011

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