Land of the surprising run

In numerical terms, Japan is top of the ski world with over 500 centres and an estimated 12 million snow users.

The peaceful scenes of the semi-wilderness around Niseko and Furano can resemble a Japanese woodcut.
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In numerical terms, Japan is top of the ski world with over 500 centres and an estimated 12 million snow users. I've known these things for a long time, yet I never planned to go there. In the late 1990s, pioneering non-native skiers on Hokkaido, the most northerly of Japan's four main islands, ordered from menus that provided no clues as to what they'd get to eat. I took this on board along with the remote location and headed for the Himalayas, the Andes, the Caucasus instead. How stupid can you get?

A decade later, I arrived in Rusutsu, via Osaka and Sapporo, in the middle of the night in the middle of a blizzard and awoke in fantasy land. As I would soon learn, Japan triggers surprise that often borders on astonishment. It is hard to imagine an architect sitting down to design Rusutsu, a stand-alone 3,000-bed hotel in semi-wilderness. Surrounded by garlands of fairy lights that twinkle 24/7, it has a monorail to connect the main building to a residential tower and a fairground carousel that fills the 16-storey atrium between its two enormous main wings. There are a dozen restaurants, ranging from Oktober Fest to Bon Apetit.

Can't find your room? Pause for thought in an armchair in one of many corridors and sing along to Musical Fountains, a water, sound and light show featuring popular tunes from The Sound of Music. This is excellent training for karaoke, Japan's entertainment of choice. At the top level, it is an art form, practised in private booths by serious singers. At the grass roots, it's a horrible cacophony as no-hopers compete to seize the mike. No point saying you can't sing or you won't do it because you can and you will.

Seduced by the promise of a snowcat to deliver us to the summit before the lifts opened, we rose from a four-hour sleep to make fresh tracks before breakfast. After it, we plundered the slopes uninhibited, led by Clayton, our gung-ho Canadian guide. Hokkaido's secret is awesome powder provided by prevailing winds that leave Siberia at -40 degrees Celsius. As they cross the Sea of Japan, they pick up moisture. When they hit the mountains, they dump it as snow. In theory, this happens every night throughout January and February. It doesn't make for many blue-sky days but who cares when the payoff is feather-light and at least knee deep.

"Do you powder?" asked Clayton, an Edmonton man of very few words. Before anyone in our group could agree to this exciting prospect he was off, plunging into the silver birches with barely a backward glance to see if we were following. We were, of course, heedless of large notices proclaiming that going under the ropes is strictly forbidden. As Japan loves to regulate and the forests are sacred, its citizens have no history of skiing in them. However, the foreign lust for powder has persuaded some authorities to turn a blind eye in the interests of profit - and where visitors led, locals followed. We had plenty of company, most of it Japanese, as we swooped and swerved and whooped among the trees. No matter. There was more than enough for everyone.

On an epic day, we took on line after line of snow that surged over our knees and sprayed into our faces. Only when the lifts closed did we tackle other serious questions. A reviving sake in the bar or a massage in the room? Massage is available day and night wherever you go. Tossing and turning at 3am? Call the concierge for instant gratification. But I had an even more pressing need: where could I dry my gloves? I looked around blankly. No radiators, but there lording it over the bathroom was a toilet with the mandatory heated seat. Problem solved.

In recent years, Rusutsu and neighbouring Niseko have been partially colonised by Australians and Canadians. Many go as ski-mad students and stay as husbands, setting up guiding and rental businesses with their Japanese wives. The result is a compelling mixture of local culture and imported accessibility: Japanese cuisine and English-language menus make for the best of all possible worlds. The food is light and healthy, with sushi, tempura and teriyaki in many exotic combinations wherever you go. Cod sperm may not be everyone's favourite, but hey, you've got to try everything. For the record, the taste is OK, but the texture lets it down. The food on the mountain is semi-automated and surprisingly inexpensive. Make a choice from the picture display on the machine, punch in your selection and put in your money - roughly US$5 (Dh18) for noodles or rice with meat and vegetables. Within moments, your steaming bowl is ready for collection at the service counter. In the bar, the beer pump tilts the glass to pour a pint with a perfect head. On the hill, the drink dispensers spit out cans of hot coffee. All these devices would be most welcome in the Alps, but the hot seat is top of my wish list.

Before I'd totally unravelled Rusutsu's complexities, it was time to move on to Niseko, Hokkaido's largest resort, 48km down the road. It lies in the shadow of Mount Yotei, a near perfect Fuji-style volcanic cone often partially obscured by cloud. With a choice of three centres of an extensive lift system circling the faces of Mount Annupuri, Niseko is less exotic than Rusutsu as far as overseas visitors are concerned.

Hirafu is village style, with foreigner-friendly rental shops and internet cafes run by the resident Australians and Canadians. It also has Alpine après: drinks round a log fire at Hank's followed by classical jazz and cocktails in the fridge make for a fine night on the town. Despite its name, the Hilton Niseko Village is another stand-alone hotel, a dramatic hollow circle with instant access to the slopes. After a comprehensive refurbishment, it reopened under the Hilton banner a year ago, the first international chain to dip a toe into the Hokkaido market.

My favourite though is the Niseko Northern Resort Hotel, much smaller than it sounds with a modest 152 rooms - almost a cottage by Japanese standards. It is also run on a more human scale than its rivals, with a very warm welcome and quality food, as the red foxes that prowl the slopes outside the dining room would probably testify. Clip into your skis in the boot room and you're a schuss away from a nice fast chairlift. Enjoy it during the day, but savour it at night when it takes you up to floodlit tree skiing, a treat you may never have found anywhere else.

Historically, the three bases of Hirafu, Annupuri and Niseko Village were fiercely independent, investing in their own lifts - they vary from gondolas and covered quads to bleak single chairs - and selling their own lift tickets. However, the coming of strangers has resulted in rapprochement - and an area pass. The 30-minute hike up Annupuri Peak, easy on the lungs as the summit is only at 1,308m, is worth it for the views as much as the descent.

After this relatively soft introduction, we graduated to Furano, the most developed of several resorts near Asahikawa, the island's second city. It has enough prepared pistes on two mountains to keep intermediate cruisers happy for a week, but its location deep in the traditional Hokkaido heartland makes it less flexible when it comes to ducking under ropes. Until recently, the notices were enforced by police with the power to confiscate lift passes. They're still out there using it, but off-piste wannabes can now get a free permit from the local station - time consuming and linguistically challenging, but worth it for the incomparable tree skiing.

Another must is Mount Asahidake, the island's highest peak at 2,290m. When we reached the top of the ropeway (a cable-car in Japan) at 1,600m, we were greeted by clouds of vapour rising from the vents at its base, a dramatic backdrop to wild slopes of 35 degrees and more. This gnarly terrain requires mental agility and pinpoint accuracy to find the most rewarding route - or at least one that doesn't end with an unforeseen cliff jump.

In Japan, the downtime between powdering and singing out of tune is spent underwater. The hotels have showers and tubs, but they also have onsen, gender segregated public bathing areas. For non-Japanese visitors, nudity in the communal bath place may be an alarming prospect, though no way as alarming as the reality of stripping off in front of a couple of dozen perfectly formed Japanese teenagers. After cleaning thoroughly with a hand held shower while crouched on an upturned plastic bucket, it's time for the walk of shame to the main pools, heated to around 42 °C. Try as you may to avoid eye contact en route, it's best not add to the humiliation by falling flat on your face.

We were lucky enough to get the chance to try a natural onsen in a frozen forest. As we headed down an icy path, it was hard to imagine removing a jacket, let alone the rest of the kit, but by the time we reached the bathing pool, the need to escape the chill factor overcame all other considerations. So off it came and in we went, squealing first with naked cold, then with shock as the heat hit home. Soon we were totally immersed in glorious warmth, the water striped by the dying rays of sun filtered through trees at dusk. A sacred forest? Maybe. Pure magic? No shadow of a doubt.