Nearby Niseko gets all the attention, but just over Mt Yotei there’s an equally glorious, snowy spot, with far fewer people, and some of the world’s best tree skiing
The secret is most definitely out regarding Niseko. I’ve only been visiting the Japanese resort since 2012 (first attracted by, then rapidly addicted to its ever-so-regular Siberian blown snow) but even in this time, first-lift queues have almost doubled, while the fight for fresh lines gets ever more brutal.
It’s not quite Whistler or Chamonix, thank goodness. And the sheer amount of snowfall in this part of Hokkaido (15m annually) means there’s enough for everyone to get some fresh. But let’s just say the crowds, and rising number of fine skiers (all ABS packs and 120mm underfoot) mean every so often you need a re-set from the constant rush, rush, rush.
And that’s where Rusutsu comes in. Just a 50-minute drive from Niseko’s main base at Hirafu (with a handy morning/evening bus for £6 each way) it’s the perfect place for a spot of soul skiing. No queues, powder lines that last well beyond the final bell, and just the odd Japanese school group to manoeuvre past when you’re anywhere near the triple mountain’s lower slopes.
The trees, too, are sensational, as good as Colorado’s finest. And in so many ways this mid-sized resort (37 trails and 18 lifts) echoes ever-so-tasty Steamboat. Both used to be owned by the same company, and while not mega-steep, offer ideal pitch for ripping powder in a single, dreamy top-to-bottom take.
The sidecountry is also exceptional, so easily accessed, and well gladed, that you can lap and lap and not feel short of choices for days.
The best area, in my view, is under Mt Isola (Rusutsu’s highest peak) accessed by the hooded No1 Quad, which bowing lifties tell me has been putting a smile on skiers’ faces since it was installed in 1989.
The ride up is glorious, with views of the Pacific shimmering in the distance, while Lake Toya spirals down to your left, reminiscent of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay (minus the sail boats).
I like to begin by blasting the top of Isola Grand (the resort’s longest trail at 3.5km). Possibly laying down a few switch turns to honour Eric Pollard and the Nimbus Crew who film incredibly snowy segments here, before jagging into the trees for one of the north island’s most enticing fall-lines.
It’s not hugely long but in terms of density and gradient, near perfect. Lower down, it bisects the lift line, however you go, so you’ve no navigation worries, and unless you take a total idiot route, there’s plenty of juice to flow you back to the loading area, however deep the snow (40cm of fresh isn’t uncommon).
Back up the four-man Doppelmayr seven minutes later, again keep skier’s left of the pylons, but this time below the piste. The traverse in here is best taken fast, with the aim of holding the ridge as long as possible, before losing a little height as you gracefully pick your way through the forest.
Done right it’s absurdly enjoyable, with even my best ski pal Zak – who’s rarely one for self-expression (well, he is Scottish) – forced to let out a whoop or ten this January when early afternoon it was still knee deep, and deserted. Aim to pop out on Rusutsu No1 (one of the resort’s handful of steep double diamonds) and you won’t go far wrong.
Easier to navigate is the classic – and just as fabulous – top to bottom Isola No1 lift line. Done well, it splits into three distinct parts. Initially it’s all about scoring yet more pow and banging off small hits (with skier’s right best for the latter) before a mid-section natural half-pipe that’s ideal for showing off surf-style slashes in the hope someone’s watching overhead. Finally, the run out is 100% naughty, all rutted tracks and bumps, with the odd marooned skier and Go-Pro-eating low branch to pump past/duck.
Legs more than a little warm, I like to submit to a little Japanese mind control by tearing down either Steamboat-A, its almost mirror-image red run on the opposite side of the lift called Steamboat-B, or grab a bowl of ramen in the… Steamboat cafeteria.
Did I say this brilliant place reminds me of Colorado’s finest? Hard to think why… FL