Jan 22, 2014

Posted by in Blog, Featured, Postcards, Reviews | 12 Comments

Why I Hate Skiing in Japan

I’m flying — no, floating — through clouds of powder. White sprays surround me. All I can see are trees, sagging heavy from weeks worth of fresh snow. And it’s quiet, so quiet. No sounds other than my own delighted giggles as I turn my skis in snow up to my knees.

I wonder to myself: am I in heaven?

Then, my thighs start to burn like crazy and I come to the screeching realization that I am not. (Because in heaven, I will be in perfect shape, have amazing endurance, and be able to ski powder for more than four turns in a row.)

I am, however, about as close as you can get.

Rusutsu.

Though you may have never heard of this Japanese village in the mountains of Hokkaido, it’s now one of my favorite places on earth. For one reason, and one reason only: the snow.

That is also why I HATE skiing in Japan. Nowhere else will ever compare.

I’ve been skiing in Hokkaido twice now, and I am forever ruined. It’s just that good.

(Click here if you want to skip my story and go straight to what you need to know about ski holidays in Rusutsu.)

I love skiing. I first started when I was three-years-old, and it is, without a doubt, the only sport that I am remotely good at. After college, I moved to the mountains of Breckenridge, CO to pursue my dreams of being a ski bum. The one winter I’d planned quickly turned into three — and were some of the best years of my life.

When I first went to Japan two years ago, I knew I had to go skiing. I’d read about the Japanese powder, and I wanted to see it for myself.

Ski holidays in Rusutsu, Japan

Love the “don’t rock the lift” sign in Japanese.

I spent several days skiing at Niseko, which is one of the most popular resorts in Hokkaido. The snow was great, as was my stay at The Annupuri Lodge, but something about the town didn’t click with me.

Almost everyone that was living, working, and visiting in the town was Australian. I love Australians, but I wanted a more Japanese feel. The few times I went out for après, I felt like I was at an Australian frat party.

So upon my return to Hokkaido, I wanted something different. I did some research on the incredible site Powderhounds and decided to try out Rusutsu. I was nervous; I mean, why fix a thing that isn’t really broken? What if Niseko had better snow?

In short, I’m delighted I gave Rusutsu a shot. It’s only an hour from Niseko, but is worlds away. Sicker trees, better snow, more Japanese culture, and fewer people.

All resorts are going to be beautiful…

What I’m looking for is a resort that has lots of snow, few people, and fun terrain. And Rusutsu is it.

Skiing in Rusutsu, Japan

Stupid happy.

The only problem is: I never want to ski anywhere else again! Now that I’ve seen what skiing can be like in Japan, it’s more difficult to appreciate any other resorts.

I’m going to try my hardest (because plane tickets to Japan are freakin’ expensive!), but Japan has forever ruined me. And that’s why I hate it.

Now, for the skiers and snowboarders amongst you, here’s a whole lot of detailed information about skiing in Rusutsu. For the rest of you, go practice at your local mountain this winter… then come back and read this!

What You Need to Know About Ski Holidays in Rusutsu, Japan

Snow/Trees/Lift Access

Ahhhhmazing. The snow was the best I’ve ever seen: light, fluffy, and ubiquitous. It just kept coming and coming, and we even ended up skiing a fifth (unplanned) day because it had dumped a foot the night before and we couldn’t bear to leave.

The lift access is unbelievable; it seems like no matter which random path you take, you’ll end up at a high-speed lift with a hood. (And hoods are awesome when it snows as much as it does there.)

One of my favorite parts about Rusutsu? There were never any lift lines. At all. Seriously — we’d get down from a run and ski right up to the lift.

The trails themselves are nice. Many of them were left ungroomed, which made even the regular runs fun in the abundant snow.

If you’re traveling all the way to Rusutsu, however, you’re not going for the trails. You’re going for the off-piste tree skiing. And let me tell you: it’s SO worth it.

There was literally one run that we took over and over again because the snow was so good in there. The trees aren’t too tight, so there’s nothing to be scared of. And like I said, every line we took somehow led to a lift — with zero to minimal traversing.

We found the best snow and tree runs to be on Mt. Isola. In fact, in five days, we rarely skied on the East or West mountains at all. There was just so much fun to be had over at Isola!

Skiing in the trees in Rusutsu, Japan

One positive of epic falls? Easy photo ops.

The best part is that you’ll have the place all to yourselves. There are untouched powder fields right off the lift; all you have to do is duck a rope. Though there are “off-limits” signs everywhere, it seems like that’s more for liability purposes; nobody really cares. Very few Japanese people ski off-piste, so you’ll only be competing for freshies with the few other foreigners at the resort.

We found fresh tracks every single run. (If that sentence doesn’t make you book a ski holiday in Rusutsu right now, I’m not sure what else to tell ya.)

Lift Tickets

These are surprisingly inexpensive when compared with the US. Our pension sold discounted daily lift tickets for 4,200 yen ($40). These were nice, because if you hurt yourself or don’t want to ski, there’s no obligation; you just don’t purchase a ticket that day.

If you’re staying at the lodge, you can get full-day tickets for 5,300 yen ($50), or a 4-day ticket that works out to 4,700 per day ($45). They also have a half-day morning ticket, which is unheard of in the States. Getting first chair here isn’t as important, though, since you’re likely to find fresh tracks all day every day.

There are lots of different types and packages, with some even including a meal ticket. Though not all the options are listed, here’s a list of the official Rusutsu Resort lift ticket prices

Ski & Snowboard Rentals

There’s not a whole lot of competition here, so the rentals are quite costly. If you’re coming solely for a ski holiday, I’d highly recommend bringing your own equipment.

The rental shop at the resort only stocks Salomon and Atomic, so if you’re not a huge fan of either of those (raises hand), then you’re out of luck. The selection, though limited, is well maintained. They won’t ask you what your preferences are — so if you know what size/DIN you want, just let them know.

They also rent pants, jackets, hats, and goggles, in case you don’t have cold-weather gear.

We rented skis, boots, poles, and helmets. For four days, the cost was 16,000 (ski/boots/poles) + 6,400 (helmet) = 22,400  yen ($215). If you want to demo skis, it’ll cost $20/day more. We wanted to snowboard one day (during which I most definitely got stuck in the trees!), and the cost was 500 yen ($5 US) per person to switch equipment.

Though the shop is conveniently located right near the gondola, you can’t store equipment there unless you’re staying at the resort. (In which case, you’ll get your own ski locker.)

There used to be another rental store called Ciao Sports, which supposedly stocked better equipment, but it has since closed. I saw signs for a shop that was right across the street (next to the 7/11), but I didn’t have a chance to check it out.

Snowboarding in Rusutsu, Japan

About to get veryyy stuck.

Rusutsu Resort

Rusutsu Resort is dominated by the massive hotel, which is a truly bizarre place. There’s an indoor merry-go-round, a giant singing tree, and a group of fake furry dog mannequins that play music. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. There’s also a ton of kitschy souvenir and snack shops. It’s fun to wander through once, but other than that, I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time there.

The employees of Rusutsu Resort were fantastic. Everyone was friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful. Their level of English was also very good.

There seem to be many amenities at the resort, but we didn’t bother with them. We were a little busy with all the snow! Some of the activities included dog sledding, cheese making (what? why?!), and snowmobiling (warning: the sleds looked like they were from the early 80s).

The one thing we did take advantage of was the onsen (Japanese hot spring). These are all over Japan, and they’re amazing. Though you’re supposed to be a hotel guest to use the resort’s onsen, nobody checks. So just walk in like you own the place, and you’ll be fine. It’s such a wonderful treat at the end of a long ski day.

Dining/Drinking

The town of Rusutsu is tiny, so there aren’t a lot of options here. If you’re looking to party, or eat gourmet food, you’re better off going to Niseko.

Other than the lodge, there are literally five restaurants, all huddled in a row together. The one night we tried to eat out, every one of them was booked solid. (Lesson: Have your hotel make a reservation if you want to enjoy a meal out!)

Our pension served delicious, but expensive, dinners (see below), so we opted to fuel ourselves at the 7/11 convenience store. We purchased ramen, mochi, cookies, microwaveable rice dinners, and $5 bottles of wine — and were quite pleased with ourselves.

As for food on the mountain, it’s expensive, but not insane. You can get a bowl of steaming ramen for 1,300 yen ($13), or a two-person bowl of curry and rice for 1,500 yen ($15).

My advice, however, is to buy snacks at the convenience store inside the lodge. They have hot chocolate for only $1, whereas it’s $4.50 from the cafeteria line. They also have candy bars, meat buns, and other snacks.

What we ended up doing was buying $1 onigiri (triangles of rice + tuna + seaweed) from the 7/11 and bringing them up with us. There was a microwave at the lodge, and when combined with a candy bar and a hot chocolate, they made the perfect economical meal.

Tree skiing in Rustsu, Japan

Can you spot a person?

Money/ATMs

Though our pension didn’t accept credit cards, the resort did. This meant that we could pay for our lift tickets and rentals with credit cards.

If you need cash, there’s one ATM that works with international cards in Rusutsu. It’s located inside of the 7/11 directly across from the resort. It even works with American cards, which can’t be said for many ATMs in Japan.

Lodging

There aren’t many lodging options in Rusutsu. You can either stay at the Rusutsu Resort hotel, or at one of a handful of small hotels (called pensions) scattered on the outskirts.

The hotel seemed like a fine option — if you wanted to spend an arm and a leg. Though it does offer in/ski-out access, it didn’t seem worth the $400/night price tag!

If you want a more personal and Japanese feel, I’d recommend staying at one of the small pensions. We stayed at the Pension Clydesdale. It had wonderful reviews on TripAdvisor, and deservedly so. Here’s my review:

It occupies a farmhouse a few miles from the resort. The owners are extremely nice, and it’s obvious they truly care about their customers. (They didn’t know I was a travel blogger.)

Most importantly (for me, at least): it was absolutely spotless. The bathrooms are shared, but there are enough that you’re never waiting, and they keep them really clean.

The rooms are comfortable and warm, though I wasn’t stoked about the two twin beds. They come with a thermos of cold water and access to tea. There’s also a small TV that we never turned on. The view out our window was a beautifully snowy field.

Each evening, they fill the bathtubs with steaming hot water, so it’s like the pension has its own private onsen. (If you’re not familiar with the Japanese way of bathing, you take a shower and scrub down, before getting into a communal hot bath. It may seem gross at first, but you get used to it — and once you soak your bones in that hot water, you’re not going to complain!)

If you’re concerned about the fact that it’s not on the mountain, don’t be. Morii-san (the owner) drove us to the mountain every morning, and would pick us up as soon as we called in the evening. He was always extremely prompt, and the ride took less than five minutes.

Rusutsu Resort gondola, Japan

Empty gondolas.

The food provided by the Pension Clydesdale is where it’s at. Breakfast is included in your room rate, and it’s delicious and filling. It includes an omelet, homemade bread, soup, salad, tea or coffee, and fruit for dessert. Perfect fuel for a day on the mountain!

They also serve dinner at the pension for 2,500 yen per person ($25). This sounded shockingly expensive to us at first, but after seeing the prices in the lodge, it didn’t sound like such a bad deal.

They serve an exquisite SIX-course meal: salad, fish, soup, meat, pasta, and dessert. (The owner’s mother was trained by Italian chefs.) It’s delicious, but was almost too much food for us. I wish there had been a cheaper (and smaller) option!

Overall, the Pension Clydesdale was a lovely place to stay. Service, food, convenience, and comfort were all excellent — and at 15,000 yen/night ($143) for the room, it was far cheaper than the resort. (Be warned: They don’t accept credit cards. I know Japan is a cash-society, but that was a shocker to me!)

How to Get to Rusutsu

The best and cheapest way to get to the island of Hokkaido is to fly. There’s an overnight train from southern Japan, but it takes a long time and is very expensive.

You may be able to get flights from your home country directly to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, but they might be more expensive than flying into one of the major cities.

Be sure to check on the cost/availability of Skymark flights before booking anything. They offer extremely cheap flights from the major cities in southern Japan to Sapporo.

Our flight from Nagoya to Sapporo was only $100/person, and I flew from Tokyo a few years ago for the same price. The key is to book your flights as early as possible. Skymark has a limited number of cheap tickets, and they sell out very quickly. Their cancellation/change policies are very lenient, so just book something!

To get from Sapporo airport to the ski resorts, you can take the Hokkaido Resort Liner. This plush bus offers service every few hours and costs 1,800 yen one-way ($18). You can make reservations online and pay through Paypal.

Once you’re in Rusutsu, you won’t need a car. There really isn’t a town, and if you’re staying at a pension, they’ll drive you everywhere. Unless you’re adept at driving in the snow and on the left side of the road, you wouldn’t want to drive anyways.

To travel from Rusutsu to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, you can take the Hokkaido Resort Liner. If you have an early flight the next day, I’d recommend just staying at the hotel inside of Sapporo’s airport. It’s a bit pricier than the budget hotels downtown, but you’ll make up for it in train/subway fees and headaches.

To travel from Rusutsu to Sapporo city, you’ll have to take the public bus. Just ask at the front desk of the hotel, and they’ll be able to arrange it for you. It costs around $20. If you want to explore the city of Sapporo a little bit, there are a lot of budget options downtown. I’ve stayed at the Marks Inn twice and would recommend it; the rooms are tiny, but clean — and at $40/night, you can’t complain.

I hope that answered all the questions you might have about skiing in Rusutsu, Japan! If you have any others, please leave them in the comments (so everyone can benefit from them), or feel free to contact me directly.

Enjoy! A ski holiday in Rusutsu is something you’ll never forget — though don’t get mad at me if you don’t want to ski anywhere else ever again!

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  1. Looks amazing! I finally got around to taking my first ski lessons last weekend. Once I’ve gotten the slopes of Kyrgyzstan good and mastered, perhaps Japan’ll have to be next?

  2. Ahhhhh! You are making me want to ski so bad… But I am in Australia for a business trip until the end of February… so not really possible.
    Great photos, the powder looks amazing!
    Claire @ ZigZag On Earth recently posted..UDU’s Moonwalk: an unforgettable night in natureMy Profile

  3. Susan, this place looks awesome! I didn’t even know that existed!

  4. Been going for 5 years now as I could never count on the snow to be here in North America. It has long been a guilty pleasure and it looks now that the secret is getting out.
    Neisko especially has seen a huge jump on development by Aussies and kiwis.
    Thanks for this report, it’s great to see other find out about this place!

    • Hi Freddy! Don’t worry: I don’t think the Rusutsu secret has gotten out yet. Hope to see you on the slopes someday!

  5. I would never think there is anything more than can be added to the list of things I wanna do and see in Japan, yet there is! I’m a total ski addict and I so want to go now! But deep down I hope it won’t ruin me like you, as i love skiing in Europe!

    • Haha sorry to add to your list, Marysia — but skiing in Japan really is the best. Even better than Europe, I’m afraid!!

  6. Hi. Great article.
    My mates are trying to convince me to go next year.

    Is it really better than Europe, and worth the journey from the UK?
    We usually go to St Anton, Ishgl, Chamonix etc. snowboarding off piste..

    Thanks
    Rob

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