Welcome to Japan, land of tiny but brilliant resorts no one has ever heard of, like Kiroro Snow World
Where?! I know, I know… But that’s hopefully part of the charm of this new, and potentially rather useful, monthly feature, scooting us round plenty of the world’s best, if not biggest, or most well-known, resorts.
And we begin in Japan. Home to a silly amount of small resorts that no one has ever heard of, and even fewer people ski. All rather good news if you find a banger. Which is exactly what Kiroro is, thanks to its modern gondola, well-priced lift tickets (under £30 for seven hours) and fantastic 14m average annual snowfall (which makes it one of the 20 snowiest ski hills on earth).
Despite all this wonderfulness, and staying just an hour away in Hirafu (the north island’s main draw) last winter, I have to admit to being nonplussed about visiting. The three interconnected mountains on my doorstep (Niseko United) were skiing so well, and grouped together were so much larger, that a day trip east felt like a step down in quality. But Mike Richards (no relation), a long-time FL reader and email pal, who spends his winters in this part of Hokkaido, assured me it was worth a look.
And so it was that he, friend Ian, and I bundled along Route 393 in a battered Subaru, with the snow chucking it down and me trying not to get a rice cake breakfast all down me. Oh yes, very Japan.
Once at Kiroro, I couldn’t instantly see what all the fuss was about. Yes, there was a shin-high amount of fresh snow covering even the car park, and the lifts looked in good shape (it was owned by the huge Yamaha corporation until recently), but in general it was all a bit… average. Two hotels just down the road, couple of nice 1000m peaks – Asari and Nagamine – 21 runs, eight lifts, but nothing obviously exceptional.
After a quick show-round to skier’s right via the precisely-named Yoichi course 1-A and 1-B, then to the opposite flank via Nagamine 2-A, 2-B and 2-C, it was time for Mike to show us why he keeps coming back.
Kiroro to those in the know is all about the sidecountry under the gondola.
Just how good is it in there? We must have been in there for four or five hours, doing half a dozen laps in often waist-deep snow, ripping in and out of the trees, and during that whole time we saw just three other skiers. And I’m pretty sure they were only having a snoop from the nearby Asari Dynamic Course after hearing our excited whoops.
The key to all this joy is good access, via the 15-minute gondola (in three years’ skiing here, and dozens of visits, Ian told me he’s never waited in line more than four minutes) and the three huge bowls that sit (rather unusually and brilliantly) one on top of the other.
This means rather than constantly traversing to get as much fresh snow as possible, you just boost straight out and into the next honeypot. Yes, there are flat spots, and dead ends and onsens (natural springs) to avoid. And that’s before you’re into the tricky bottom section. Hell, it’s tight in there, with ever-so-close silver birches and dips, rolls and berms that have to be ridden like a ski-cross track. But get through it all and you can’t help but smile and instantly want another crack.
Definitely go to ‘Hokk’ and try out Kiroro. All the locals say it is like Niseko was a decade ago before the Aussie invasion. Who knows if it will happen here too, but I’d not take the chance. Get here before the secret is out.