AS the snowiest place on Earth, Japan’s north island should be pretty good for snowboarding.
And it would be if it weren’t for all the monsters in Hokkaido’s woods.
Locals speak of Juhyo — ghostly figures made of ice and snow that line up along the pistes. And don’t get me started on the roaming packs of man-eating melon-bears.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see those bobbly Juhyo giants are just trees — so laden with snow that they’ve become an invasion of Fifties sci-fi blob monsters.
And the melon-bear? Only scary as an insight into the Japanese imagination.
Hokkaido’s unofficial mascot, this bear with a melon for a head celebrates the island’s native brown bear and its unlikely crop, the watermelon.
I had travelled to Hokkaido on a Japan Airlines flight, where the nation’s famous hospitality and attention to detail were on full display.
As well the incredible food and perfect service, JAL has the world’s best airline LOOS.
The heated seat, built-in bidet and robotic “bum-gun” left me fresher after my 14-hour flight than before.
From Tokyo it is a short hop to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital and one of the world’s snowiest cities, with 16ft falling here each year. Aomori City, to the north, is No1, with 26ft a year.
And the people here make good use of it. For a week each February, thousands flock to the Sapporo Snow Festival for enormous sculptures, ice carvings and a huge ski jump set up around the city-centre park.
The festival is also a great gateway to local food. Despite the cold, Hokkaido produces a massive potato and melon crop in the toasty volcanic soil.
Wacky souvenirs display the Ussuri brown bear with a watermelon for a head on the observation deck of the Sapporo TV Tower.
The silly merch alone is worth the entry price but the views of the festival aren’t bad either.
Back on ground level, I tucked into baked potatoes, yakitori chicken skewers, okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake and takoyaki octopus balls.
And don’t miss the buttery giant crab legs, longer than your forearm, washed down with hot sake.
Next morning, it was a scenic drive through ancient woodland and past steaming thermal rivers to the Kanko Toya hotel in the spa town of Toya Onsen.
Traditional Japanese rooms offer panoramic views over Lake Toya, the flooded caldera of a dormant volcano, with a lonely island at its centre.
In the garden is a traditional nude Japanese bath. There are indoor pools, outdoor pools, cold pools, hot pools, very hot pools and saunas, all gender-segregated. But before diving in, bathers must shower . . . in front of everyone else.
In traditional Japanese style, guests line up on individual stools facing a wall of mirrors and with showers, washing-up bowls, soap and shampoo, scrub themselves squeaky-clean. By day three, I was tired of staring at the snow and ready to play in it.
On nearby Rusutsu’s three mountains, 42ft of snow falls every year and the floodlit pistes are open 11 hours a day.
For someone used to the wheezing snow-machines and grass-speckled pistes of the Alps, snowboarding in Japan felt like a different sport.
There is an off-piste terrain park with natural features and jumps in the woods, as well as a regular snowpark. Best of all were the acres of off-piste tree runs.
In the evening I unwound at my hotel, the Rusutsu Resort Hotel — a plush, maze-like, modern complex that feels like a high-end Center Parcs.
Everything you need is under one roof, from bars and restaurants to spas and an Onsen public bath-house.
For an authentic Japanese experience, head out to the tiny hotpot restaurant Nabe Sho Youchan. Beers here at are served in ice-cold glasses, while the table-cooked beef hotpot will warm your bones.
Staying in Rusutsu means you are also close enough to the Niseko ski resort, the largest in Japan. It features four interlinked zones — Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village and An’nupuri.
The lift queues here are longer — there aren’t any queues at Rusutsu — but the wide-open powder bowls make it a must-ski spot.
Just watch out for all those man-eating melon-bears.
GETTING THERE: Return flights to Sapporo with Japan Airlines from £785pp. See uk.jal.co.jp.
STAYING THERE: A night’s room only at Nest Hotel Sapporo Ekimae is from £26pp based on two sharing. See nesthotel.co.jp. A night’s room only at Kanko Toya, in Toya Onsen, is from £26pp for two sharing. See toyakanko.com. A night’s room only at Rusutsu Resort and Convention is from £40.50pp for two sharing. See hokkaido-rusutsu.com.
Source: Read Full Article