An onsen appeared before us, below melting cornices of snow and powder piles that were layered together like cakes.
“This place is kind of secret,” Andrew Spragg said at the end of our long first day on the Annupuri Traverse, a three-day ski and camping trip on Japan’s Hokkaido island. Spragg, our guide, dropped his pack beside the steaming, sulfurous, recessed hot spring pool, and the other five of us—me, three friends, and another guide—followed suit.
“Careful not to step in there,” Spragg said, pointing to where the hot water entered the pool, before he gave the all-clear to jump in. My buddy Wyatt executed a nude cannonball, the first I’d ever witnessed in 20-degree weather. Jakub, the second guide, backstroked around the mountain-side pool once he entered. I stepped in gingerly—but was the last one out.
The hot water was like a double dose of aspirin for shoulder pain I was experiencing— I’d taken a hard fall earlier that day—and watching my friend Justin accidentally step into a puddle of sulfurous mud with his socks on made us all forget our aching muscles for a minute. After the soak, I felt light-headed on the subsequent ascent, in part because we’d also taken a few pulls on Wyatt’s flask as we stared at the volcano behind us.
“Nice to have this place to ourselves,” Wyatt said. “It’s hard to have a tour like this to yourself back in the States.”
Therein lay the reason we’d flown halfway around the world to Japan’s legendary island of snow: It was all ours. While resort skiing in Japan began to catch on a decade ago, its stunning backcountry opportunities, like this traverse, are still startlingly crowd-free. And there are now more tour operators, like Rising Sun Guides, who facilitate them.
The morning of our onsen soak, last March, we’d trudged out of the Green Leaf Hotel in Niseko Village, leaving behind a misty mountain spa and a massive international buffet, wondering if we’d made a mistake in deciding to forgo the all-you-can eat offer for cold tents and 20 miles of hiking in the snow. It took an entire gondola packed with gear to carry all of our skis and backpacks halfway up the mountain, than another lift toward our starting point. It was so crammed that we had to ride another one to the top.
But after unloading the gondola and a 20-minute hike in our boots, we stood in our skis atop 4,000-foot Annupuri, looking northwest to the Sea of Japan, where we’d end our ski traverse three days later. Almost the entire route—rolling white smooth ridges and valleys—could be seen. It looked both stunning and deceptively straightforward.
“Let’s rip it,” said Chris.
He and I are old friends and decidedly average skiers with one multiday traverse—the bitterly cold Wapta, in British Columbia—under our expanding, mid-30s belts. Justin is a boarder, and newer buddy, who was game to try out a traverse, because… why not. Wyatt, meanwhile, was our slightly younger ace from Jackson Hole, who began touring shortly after birth and looked forward to “hucking stuff” on Hokkaido.
The island sits between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean and, come winter, the village of Niseko is its hub. The town is surrounded by geothermal onsens, and 6,000-foot Mount Yotei, a dormant volcano, towers in the middle distance—when the sky isn’t dumping some of the 600 inches of “ocean effect” snow that Niseko receives annually. That’s nearly twice as much snow as most North American resorts expect, which is partly why Hokkaido is a fever dream for skiers from around the globe. (Sake, sushi, and the aforementioned onsens also play important roles.) There are four ski areas around Niseko—Annupuri, Niseko Village, Hirafu, and Hanazono—which offer thousands of acres of skiable terrain. But we were headed for the backcountry.
The island of Hokkaido narrows in the southwest, and that’s where the Annupuri traverse takes place. It’s only 20 miles, which for us meant some five or six hours of daily skinning up, traversing over, and—if our skills sufficed—bombing downhill. By mid-March, the powder had mostly stopped falling from the sky and some of the snowpack had melted, which meant a very low probability of avalanche and near-constant bluebird skies. It was spring skiing in the Far East, and when we found a slope with good snow, we shed our packs for a side hike and some easy vertical. Still, we carried beacons, probes, and shovels to be safe, per Spragg’s instruction.
Spragg is a nonchalant Canadian who came to Japan more than a decade ago to ski and, like so many other Westerners, fell in love—in his case, with both his now wife and the snow. He never left. Spragg now runs Rising Sun Guides. His chatty Czech guide, Jakub, came along with a perma-grin, a pack half his size and the patience that traversing with us required. Fifty-pound backpacks change the physics of skiing and require some serious getting used to. This lesson hit home for me on the very first descent from Annupuri, down variable terrain—chop, ice, mashed potatoes, and all—to a valley. I lost my balance, caught an edge, lost a ski, and, in my rush to retrieve it, fell again and partially popped out my shoulder. It popped back in, quite painfully.
After redistributing some gear in my favor and popping some painkillers, we schussed onward. Japanese hares darted about. We put on our skins and fell in line behind the guides.
The Annupuri traverse is not as popular as it likely would be in Colorado or Wyoming. Local skiers in Japan don’t tour as much, and for skiing tourists it’s all about that powder, which was not abundant in late March when the traverse is best attempted.
But the route was stunning and surreal: studded with short shirakaba, or silver birch trees, and the occasional deeply buried speed-limit sign signified the existence of summertime roads deep below. The skies were bluebird. We snacked on green tea Kit Kats. We ate Japanese mushrooms and bacon for breakfast, salami and mayo sandwiches for lunch. Black crows circled, waiting for crumbs and perhaps a carcass—most likely mine or Justin’s.
“I may have slightly underestimated the difficulty of learning to split board on a three-day ski tour on the other side of the world,” Justin said at one point. But we held on, adjusting to our tipsy loads.
Wooden summit markers with hand-carved symbols stood atop each peak we reached—Nitonupuri, Chisenupuri, and Mekkunaidake, which we crested in the evening alpenglow—some by ski, others by crampon, often two a day. Rime ice came off one side of each sign, giving the feel of much higher peaks. But my lungs never burned as they would have in the Rockies.
I finally found my climbing rhythm on our penultimate afternoon, before reaching our final camp, as we skinned up steep ice with lightened packs. Wyatt disappeared down the other side with a “whoop!” and had his tent half set up by the time I arrived after cruising down at my own speed, at one point unable to see any of my trip mates.
Camping on snow isn’t much different than camping elsewhere, as long as you have proper insulation between your bag and the ground. Waking up to a sprawling white landscape, however, trumps a forest, especially when you have a day of ski runs in front of you.
We traversed a gradual ridge to the summit of Raidenyama on the last day. The Sea of Japan came into full view as we skinned across its flat top. Seemingly surrounded on three sides by the ocean, there was the odd and exhilarating feel of a jutting peninsula.
“See why I couldn’t move back to Canada?” Spragg said.
I saw. Heading down, we donned crampons for a stretch and picked our way through treetops, crossing creeks and logging roads. Eventually, the skis returned.
“Kinda reminds me of Wyoming,” Wyatt said, “except for the ocean.”
At the end of our descent from Raidenyama, Spragg’s wife, Yui, arrived in a van, on a forest service road, with a round of Sapporo beers. I skied right up to mine, as did Chris, who pressed his against a bruised rib. We were banged up but blissed out. Spragg shouted “Kanpai!” and we tossed back our beers before heading to another hot, healing pool.