Is the small hill of Sahoro worth adding to your dream Japan Schedule? Jonny Richards finds out
Never heard of Sahoro? Not to worry. Me neither, until I was given a booklet by the Japanese national tourist office, bearing the exciting title Powder Skiing Hokkaido. Looking like propaganda material from about 1896, with a skier in bright pink on the cover, it didn’t exactly grab me. But somehow the map of the north island’s ever-so-snowy resorts stuck in my mind, and before I knew it, I’d vowed to tick them all off. (And make my credit card provider happy, as paying for it will take at least a decade.)
Anyway, Sahoro is an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch, and an intriguing one. Because in popular Niseko, only 150 miles away, no skier I spoke to had been, or even fancied it, the usual argument being: When you’ve found No 1, why try harder? Obviously that just made me even more inquisitive. The passage in my now-well-thumbed JNTO pamphlet (well, you can’t throw away something that contains a resort called Dynasty) further fanned the flames: ‘From the three long courses plunging from the summit, the vast landscape of the Tokachi Plains enhances the feeling of greatness. The entire mountain is enveloped in dry powder…’ It felt like something from Lost, when they stumble upon that promotional video straight out of the 1970s. Which I think is where Sahoro resort’s website takes its inspiration from too.
So this year, regular Fall-Line fixer (and Japanese speaker) Travis and I met at Chitose airport with a bold plan. As if getting to a resort no one visited was not enough, we aimed to take in three other hills (Kamui, Furano and Asahidake) in two days en-route. I suggest not following our example. Buses were cancelled, a hire car booked, the sat nav tried to route us via Tokyo, 600 miles away across… the Sea of Japan. Instead, try landing at Chitose airport and getting the resort bus, which departs three times a day and takes 2.5 hours. When we were on bizarre back roads, with the light failing, I fantasised about this no doubt very civilised 3500 yen (£20) service.
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All that aside, is Sahoro actually worth visiting for those not obsessed with ticking off spots on a map they were given at the Ski Show in 2012? To be honest, I’m not sure. Because Hokkaido island is all about snow, and in the three days we spent visiting, there was none. So it’s hard to judge.
The very good things about the place are: it’s wonderfully quiet compared to Niseko, which seems more packed every year, and while it only has half the average snowfall of its more famous counterpart, 8m a year matches even a banging European season. Plus, when it does dump, the mountain is well inland, so it’s the best kind of snow: light and dry. Sahoro has mighty infrastructure for a resort of just 17 marked runs, with various four-packs and even a… cable car! I’m pretty sure we’ve never had one of those in Little Hills before.
The story goes that five hotels were planned at the base rather than the two that exist (there is no town as such). But the Japanese bubble burst, sense prevailed and here we are.
One is Club Med Sahoro (all-inclusive, with everything bundled, including lessons) and the other the Sahoro Resort, where we stayed. Both are ski-in, ski-out and modern(ish); ours was friendly, clean, and well priced at £50 per night for dinner, bed and breakfast. Thought that last bit might perk you up.
By now, you may also have processed that only having two hotels share a whole mountain is a rather good thing, especially with one chock full of (mainly Australian) young families. And despite the average conditions, we were still able to find plenty of good sidecountry, and even some powder ribbons off the 1060m Sahoro-dake summit and South Street run.
For my preference, the trees are too tight, and need thinning, but the upside is because you can’t really hammer it off the marked trails (these are not bad, including a 3km blaster, and a 39° face) the resort skis way bigger than it is. Get into the silver birches and you’re talking a good hour top to bottom, which is a great return for a resort with just 610m of vert. Could you stay a week? Hmmm, that’s pushing it, but for a weekend break from mad Niseko it’s ideal.
I also love the fact, unlike in plenty of Japanese spots, that they don’t go crazy when you duck a rope. If you can handle the terrain, they leave you well alone. Perfect.
At least it would have been if only we’d had some fresh snow… FL