Exploring Hokkaido

For Ski and Snowboard Bliss, Go to the Island Where It Never Stops Snowing


Photo Essay By Photo by Henry Phillips
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From Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today for 15% off the GP Store.

There’s something transcendental about skiing the endless gray of Hokkaido, something so far removed from the Alps or the Rockies that it makes you wonder why more people don’t hop across the Pacific and try it themselves. To put it in its simplest terms, it’s just fun. Sure, there’s an exhilaration to threading your way down Corbet’s in Jackson or arcing GS turns across a hardpack glacier in the shadow of Mont Blanc, but I’d argue that neither are particularly fun while you’re actually doing them, instead requiring that handful of seconds huffing and puffing at the bottom of the run to look back up and grin at your accomplishment. Hokkaido’s not like that.

The physical cause for Hokkaido’s intoxicating effect is the result of two pretty simple things. The most immediately noticeable from afar is that the mountains of the stingray-shaped island on top of Japan aren’t particularly big. While the Rockies will oftentimes put you north of 12,000 feet and alpine terrain is nearly all above tree line, the major resorts of Hokkaido hover around 3,200 feet, and the tallest, Asahidake, only just manages to break 7,500. As a result, you won’t find too much gnarly high-alpine or steeps skiing; the best stuff on Hokkaido is found on the relatively mellow runs through old-growth spruce forests. The second, and most amazing, phenomenon is the snow. Sure, the Rockies will catch a solid powder day every couple weeks during a good winter, but the snow in Hokkaido is just unyielding. Constant gray skies and snowfall mean that it’s not unusual for five inches to pile up during the day and even more to come overnight. Our first morning at Niseko, reports were saying that somewhere around 10 inches had fallen overnight. The locals’ verdict? Just another day.

This combination of factors leads to an amazing mentality among those who ski Hokkaido. There seems to be less of a sense of one-upmanship than you’ll find anywhere else. You’ll never impress with the concrete: how steep, how fast, how big. What really makes an impact is the abstract: how genuine, how stylish, how much fun you had doing it.

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The Gear

What to Take into Japan’s White Room
Super 7 HD Skis by Rossignol $850
Lotus 120 Spoon Skis by DPS $1299
Spectre Boot by La Sportiva $649

Hightide Mfg Hippy Slasher 150 Snowboard by $594
Atlas by Union Binding Company $239
Taro Tamai Snowsurfer Boot by K2 $500

Variance Helmet by Smith Optics $180
Range MIPS by Giro $250

Loka UL Pack by F-Stop $249
SnowDrifter Pack (20L) by Patagonia $90
Quintic 20 Pack by Arc’teryx $169

Flight Deck XM Prizm Goggle by Oakley $300
Contact Goggle by Giro $240
Fovea Goggle by POC $140

Army Leather Heli Ski Glove by Hestra $140
Army Leather Abisko Glove by Hestra $135
Ergo Grip Active Glove by Hestra $110

Elevation Shell by Helly Hansen Read More
Refugitive Jacket by Patagonia $499
Mission Pro Jacket by Black Diamond $699
Mission Pro Pants by Black Diamond $549
Deployment Hybrid Hoody by Black Diamond $249
Alpha AR Jacket by Arc’teryx $549
Stryka Hoody by Arc’teryx $129
Procline AR Pant by Arc’teryx $399

Read More in Our Magazine

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A version of this story appears in Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 286 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from five distinct locations around the world. Buy Now: $20