In Japan's Northern Wonderland, Winter Is Coming

The first snow has fallen on Hokkaido, where Japan’s largest national park will soon be buried under some of the best powder in the country.

Looming above the other volcanic peaks that clutter the interior of Japan’s northernmost island, Asahi-dake is Hokkaido’s tallest mountain. It’s also one of the coldest, despite the steam that plumes from its concave southern face year-round.

On October 1, a storm dusted Asahi-dake’s upper slopes with a half foot of snow and coated its summit with thick feathers of rime ice—the first snowfall in Japan this winter. By November, it will be buried under some of the driest powder in the world.

THE ROOF OF HOKKAIDO

Asahi-dake’s winter conditions have made it legendary among backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Standing at the heart of Japan’s largest national park, Daisetsuzan, there’s plenty of nearby terrain for climbers and trekkers, too.

Daisetsuzan spans more than 500,000 acres, and Japanese Red Fox, brown bear, and Ezo sable roam its mountains, wetlands, old-growth forests, alpine meadows, and river gorges. In the northern Omote Daisetsu region, Asahi-dake is surrounded by most of Hokkaido’s highest summits.

The native people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, called the area Kamui Mintara, or God’s Playground, to honour the spirits they believed lived among the mountains. Its current name, meaning great snowy mountains, caught on after the park opened in 1934, though some visitors are drawn by its nickname: the roof of Hokkaido.


At the mountainous Daisetsuzan National Park, visitors will find rare wildlife, natural hotsprings, and a plethora of hiking trails.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

THE ISLAND THROUGH THE SEASONS

During the summer, backpackers trek east from Asahi-dake to the alpine meadows at Susoaidaira. Others head south along the 34-mile Grand Traverse trail, scrambling the steep ridges of the Tokachi Mountain Range to the park’s most active volcano, Tokachi-dake. Some follow the Ishikari Range southeast to Shikaribetsu, the highest lake in Daisetsuzan, on which the locals build an igloo village each year after the surface freezes.

Most visitors head to Asahi-dake in the fall when temperatures begin to drop. White alpine flowers dot the mountain’s upper slopes, and each September they turn scarlet—always the first foliage in Japan to get its autumn colours.

In early December, long after the maples have turned on the Sugatami plateau farther down the mountain, icy winds start blowing in from Siberia. By the time they die down each spring, Asahi-dake has usually been covered by 45 feet of powder. In North America, Mount Baker is the only ski resort that gets more snow.

A WINTER SPORT HAVEN

Hokkaido is the cradle of snowsurfing, a snowboarding style rooted in elegant turns and beautiful lines. “Caligraphy is a good analogy to snowsurfing,” says Taro Tamai, a local snowboard designer who pioneered the method nearby in the 1980s. “It’s a form of dance and art between the human and the mountain.”

Over the past decade, more Western skiers and snowboarders have begun joining local snowsurfers on the single tram up Asahi-dake, carving down from the steep alpine bowls on long runs through the glades below. The mountain is too remote to draw crowds, but professional riders often rank it among world’s best powder destinations—a quiet alterative to the legendary resorts in Niseko, 200 miles southwest.


A hiker travels through Mount Asahi-dake's snowy ridges. The park gets more than 45 feet of snow on average each winter, making it an excellent winter sports destination.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

A COMMUNITY OF CLIMBERS

“The skiing in Hokkaido is well-known because of media coverage, but there’s a great climbing culture, too,” says Yoshiko Miyazaki-Back, a climbing guide with Mountain Madness in Seattle, who grew up in Kyoto. “Hokkaido’s climbing scene is small, so it has a ‘community’ feel. It’s friendly and less competitive than big areas like Chamonix.”

Just north of Asahi-dake, the sheer cliffs in Sounkyo Gorge loom nearly 350 feet above the Ishikari river. By mid-winter, Ginga No Taki, Ryusei No Taki, and many of the other waterfalls lining the 15-mile-long canyon freeze, and the 15 or so difficult ice and mixed climbs there rank among Japan’s best.

The highway bordering Sounkyo is crowded with resorts, but sheltered on the far side of Asahi-dake, the village named after the peak hasn’t grown much since it was established in 1914. It’s home to a few small hotels, natural onsen hot springs, and a visitor centre with trail maps for when the tram reopens each morning.

Seth Heller is an Oregon-based writer focusing on travel, science, conservation, and adventure sports.

Lead Image: Mount Asahi-dake on Japan's northernmost island was home to the country's first snowfall in 2017. This active volcano—and the tallest peak on Hokkaido—rests inside Japan's largest national park, Daisetsuzan National Park. PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITLOW DELANO

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