My daughter and I have skied and snow-boarded in the central Hokkaido town of Furano twice now. I thought it would be a useful addition to this first edition of Sportsocratic to briefly review our adventures there.
Depending on what you are looking for in a ski holiday Furano may just be one of the best snow adventure holidays you will find anywhere in the world. One thing about Furano. It has snow! Lots of it. Lots and lots of it! In fact, after a week or so in Furano, one can even fall into the trap of thinking… “okay… it can stop snowing now”. Despite the bucket loads of super dry white stuff that seem to bucket down most nights in February, it gets its share of sunshine almost every day as well. Apparently sunshine days and powder nights is one of the benefits of Furano being nestled in the middle of the island unlike some other more famous resorts that suffer from some dodgy weather courtesy of their location near the coast. Now is that not a recipe for joy? Powder snow all night followed by bright sunny days.
The two-sided ski mountain of Furano is purpose built for the good intermediate skier who loves powder snow. The graded black diamond runs are not as challenging as some of the deep chutes you might discover in some of America’s or Canada’s craziest resorts but, that being said, the fact that the ungroomed steeper runs are almost always covered in deep powdery snow means that the difficult runs will still provide challenges for the better skiers. The degree of vertical drop and level of difficulty of bumps reminds me somewhat of some bigger Australian resorts like Fall’s Creek or Thredbo but the Australian versions never have top to bottom snow meters and meters deep and dry as a bone. If you could imagine the whole of the Thredbo mountain deep in snow, top to bottom deep/dry snow on every trail, no need for “super-trail” snow making, non-existent lift crowds, gondola lifts and inexpensive lift tickets then that gives you a pretty good idea of the Furano mountain.
On the other hand, if you like your challenges really wild, the untamed Daisetsuzan National Park is only an hour’s drive from Furano and there the most adventurous boarder or skier can take on steep powdery downhill unpatrolled wilderness to their heart’s content but for this kind of back country pleasure you have to be prepared for some serious hiking.
At this stage of my skiing career I am still happy to ski my heart out at a patrolled resort. And ski your heart out is what you do. While when I am fresh and flat out I can still ski a little faster than my boarding daughter but when you take into account that my old body gets tired after kilometres of uninterrupted crowd-free skiing it doesn’t take too long until I need to rest every half k or so enabling the younger brigade to blow me away. The skiing is so uninterrupted and continuous on glorious fresh snow at Furano that for old buggers like me you come to look forward to the lift rides to provide some respite.
Rest assured that the beginner skier or boarder is also well catered for. There are oodles of easy runs. In fact, some of the easier runs cruise on for ages providing fantastic confidence building opportunities for those new to the snow.
While Furano is a busy little rural village with oodles of friendly and inexpensive restaurants that serve delicious local food for both locals and visitors it is not St Moritz, Vail or Aspen. It does not have twenty-four hour boozy nightlife for the professional apre-skiers. That suits me fine… but it may not suit everyone.
The following story was first published in Verandah Magazine last year. It looks at the best aspects of a trip to Hokkaido from a surprising angle.
There are lots of reasons for a northern rivers family to choose Furano (Japan) as a destination for a ski holiday but the best reason is quite surprising. The obvious reasons are beautiful mountains and scenery, fantastic powder snow, average snow fall of over nine meters, exotic food and culture, great quality ski rental gear, minimal lift queues, ultra-modern lift system and prices for accommodation, food and skiing (board/ski rental, lift tickets, ski clothing rental) that are at worst comparable to (and probably cheaper) than our own resorts here in Australia. All of that aside, the most wonderful thing about Furano… and the thing that makes a Furano mountain holiday something to stick in your memory forever… are the people.
Furano is a rural village in central Hokkaido (the most northerly and by far the wildest and most sparsely populated island in Japan) that supports a local farming community as well as a beautiful ski mountain. The village itself is not especially pretty but given that it is surrounded by its own drop dead gorgeous ski mountains on one side and nestles near the foot of the amazing Daisetzusan National Park (Japan’s largest and wildest mountain park) on the other side, less than startling architecture is not a problem.
While getting to Furano proved somewhat of a mission, given that it provided us with our first examples of Hokkaido hospitality, friendliness and helpfulness the journey was still deeply satisfying. Our Coolangatta flight took us to Narita Airport (on Honshu) where we connected with a flight to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. From New Chitose we took a fast train to Sapporo (the capital of the Hokkaido province) where we connected with a bus that finally brought us to the resort. Given that I had not pre-planned any of these connections my seventeen year old son (who incidentally spoke a little Japanese) had been quite worried that journeying would prove difficult in a place where very few people spoke conversational English. Levi didn’t have to worry. The local people demonstrated that through a deal of pointing, gesturing, good grace and sense of humour as well as a much better grasp of our language than we had of theirs we were able to find our connections with a minimum of fuss as well as have a lot of fun with our helpers.
The people at the Sapporo Railway Station Tourist Office were a great example of this. The tourist information officer managed to inform us that we needed to catch a Chuo bus from a nearby terminal that would take us to Furano… but that we only had ten minutes to find the terminal, buy a ticket and get on board. Before I freaked out the lady had found an elderly volunteer tourist helper who was appointed with the task of getting us to our bus on time. The old man, breaking into a trot, led us back out into the crowded station, through a tunnel, down a corridor, into another tunnel, up some stairs and into a huge underground plaza where thousands of people were rushing purposefully in different directions. He then looked up at a huge glowing instructional sign, scratched his head and frowned.
“Oh, my god”, I thought. “The old man is lost. Well, we’ll miss that bus now for sure”.
I then noticed Chuo Bus written in English on one corner of the sign with an arrow pointing up some stairs. I nudged our puzzled helper and pointed to the sign. He slapped himself on the head, broke into a huge grin, laughed out loud then sprinted up the stairs with us in tow. Within a minute we had purchased our tickets, exchanged bows with our helper and saviour, climbed on board the bus and settled into our seats with less than one minute to spare. We hadn’t even arrived in Furano but the helpfulness and friendliness of the Hokkaido people had already been demonstrated by any number people including one very energetic elderly volunteer.
There were many other Hokkaido characters that made our stay special.
Mr and Mrs Ebine (always accompanied by their furry sausage dog named Hino), the owners of the log cabin we rented while in Furano, were particularly kind. Within twenty minutes of meeting Mr Ebine he had made up his mind that I was a fan of the local Hokkaido brown bear. On deciding this he scurried off to his store room where after several minutes of rummaging around he emerged with a beautiful forty centimetre carving of just such a bear which he presented to me with a deep bow. Mr and Mrs Ebine were attentive in every aspect of our stay, treating me to free glasses of sake, doing our washing, pointing out local wild life, recommending budget restaurants with great food and in the politest way possible pointing out cultural faux pas such as stomping shoes all over their tatami mats… something that only the most uneducated and uncultured of foreigners would do!
My daughter had decided early in our stay that she wanted to buy an instamatic camera. Being Japan, we assumed that the town would have an ultra-modern, hi-tech photographic store. But this is Furano, a rural Hokkaido village… not Tokyo. We did find a little family-run camera store that was staffed by a middle aged man, a middle-aged woman (we assumed to be his wife), another middle-aged woman (we assumed to be the next door neighbour), an elderly lady (we assumed to be grandma) and a collection of elderly cats (one of which was totally blind). None of them spoke English… especially not the cats.
Given the limited stock on display we were not surprised when the man, through pointing and sign language, informed to us that he only had display stock of instamatic cameras left and that they were not for sale. Seeing Salem’s disappointment, the man disappeared into a back room and started making phone calls. After a few minutes he re-emerged and indicated to us that he would like us to stick around for ten minutes. He then ran out the door. For the next fifteen minutes or so we entertained the family by playing with their cats and the really old blind tabby entertained us by bumping from piece of furniture to piece of furniture in an effort to demonstrate his grasp of the shop layout. Just when we were starting to wonder whether we really should be hanging around the man arrived back toting a new baby blue instamatic camera… just the type Salem was after. The next small block of time was spent with the whole family wrapping, bowing, smiling, accepting money, offering other small items as gifts and laughing with delight at our attempts to communicate with their Japanese speaking cats. The top end retail experience in Furano involves being treated as one of the family!
Another fantastic shop that we found quite near the camera shop was a bakery. I initially walked into this place expecting to buy a simple loaf of bread. Instead I walked out with around 20,000-yen worth of exquisite delicacies. When I first entered the bakery the immaculately dressed baker emerged from behind his counter, shook my hand then escorted me around the shop describing in broken English the inner secrets of each of the items that were lovingly displayed. I selected honey glazed croissants, brioche with whole eggs baked into them and the crispiest of whole meal loaves to take home for lunch. The baker hand wrapped each item in beautiful paper, emerged again from behind his counter, bowed deeply as he presented my purchases to me then escorted to me to his front door. It seems ludicrous to describe buying bread as a deeply pleasurable experience but that was what it was!
Even the McDonalds people were fantastic in Furano. I have been howled down by my Byron Bayster friends for being so low-brow as to have breakfast in McDonalds while in Japan. Well they have not been to the Furano Maccas. Locally grown organic eggs and avocado on a crispy bun served by middle-aged women who clearly honour and love their jobs (so much so that they arrange the food on the tray into artistic shapes both honouring the products and their customers) and eaten in a spotless dining room with spectacular views of snow covered mountains is hard not to enjoy. As we opened the front door to leave all the staff (counter attendants, drive-thru attendants, cooks and cleaners) all momentarily stopped their work to bow and wave goodbye.
The mountain crew were also wonderful. A huge bloke (ex pro rugby player) named Take who managed the ski shop took care of our rental equipment every night making sure that skis and boards were waxed and serviced and ready to go each day. At the end of a week he gave me an amber necklace as a gift in exchange for a ratty old pair of Vans sunglasses. His boss didn’t do a lot of work but she was sure entertaining. This woman, seemingly in her fifties, was always on the mountain either skiing or boarding. One morning she boarded up to me and explained that she had seen Salem zipping down one run and commented that Salem was boarding very well. She also added that she had not seen Levi on the slopes that morning. I responded that I had not seen him either. She replied that he had probably been eaten by a bear! No problem.
On another occasion an attractive female stranger skied up to me and the kids at the base of a run and greeted us warmly. What’s this all about, I thought. We have never met this lady before? It turned out to be the woman from the tourist office I had been emailing over the previous few weeks to organize our Furano accommodation. I stupidly asked how she recognized us on the mountain and she shyly explained that since I was just about the only non-Japanese person in town with two teenage kids in tow picking me out on the mountain was not exactly rocket science.
Our favourite of all the Furano characters was the owner, manager, head chef and front of house person at a curry restaurant we liked so much that we returned to three times. Another Furanoan with only a smattering of English this woman provided us with wonderful home-cooked food (at ridiculously inexpensive prices), fantastic service and a kindness and attention to detail that is rarely found in our home town of Byron Bay. Decoration around the restaurant made it clear that that the restaurant owner was a dedicated supporter of “seeing-assistant dog” charities so given the lady’s refusal to accept tips we put tip money into the doggy charity box each visit. After our last visit to the restaurant the host and her husband escorted us to the car park to wave goodbye and wish us a safe onward journey. We didn’t have to speak Japanese to know that this Furano local was a really special person with a terrific heart.
When it comes to a ski holiday Furano has it all… even on a budget! Great snow…. wonderful mountains… scenery to die for… wild national parks to explore nearby… exceptional rental ski equipment and lift system… terrific restaurants and food… zero crowds. Even better, the kindness and warmth of the local people will leave you on a high for months!