The runs that made us | Jonny Richards

Fall Line and friends on the slopes that shaped them. First up, Fall Line's editor-at-large, Jonny Richards on one big run in Niseko, Japan...

a daffy ski jump, photo taken through the branches of a tree

Setsuzoku into Silver Dream, Niseko

It’s strange to find yourself when you’re not really looking. But that’s exactly what happened to me on the slopes of Niseko in the early 2010s. I was only here to meet my pal Zak, who’d rather inconveniently moved to Australia, making Japan the only sensible, almost-halfway ski option. Yet as soon as I arrived, I was hooked. The regularity of the snow, the cheaper-than-Europe lift tickets, the fact you could ski until 8.30pm before stumbling back to your £30-a-day guesthouse (and that was half-board in Hirafu, Niseko’s most sought-after spot).

Yes, Hokkaido was, and is, a pain to get to at 24 hours door to door. And it has far fewer genuine steeps than plenty of my previous faves from the Alps, Dolomites, Rockies and more. But who cares when they get way more snow than all those spots (think 15m annual average) and, unlike plenty of Japan, most definitely do allow off-piste thanks to Niseko’s ‘gate’ system.

Strangely though, it wasn’t in one of these dozen or so avy-controlled sidecountry zones where I found my skiing sweet-spot. Instead, it was on the far-from-ferocious marked runs of Hanazono (one of Niseko’s four connected hills). And it was so quiet, and filled with powder, you really couldn’t fail to improve.

In fact, I think on that first 10-day trip I progressed more than I had in my previous 10 years’ skiing Europe and America, with none of the usual ‘pistes far too busy/too bullet-hard’ excuses to fall back on. And speaking of yard sales, when you did fall, you were met not by the usual tank-slapper, but rather the finest Nippon-approved candy floss embrace.

It really was like skiing, and improving, in a totally different realm. Just how many times I rode Setsuzoku into Silver Dream then, or have in the years since, trying to groove my switch, or bumps and jumps, I’m not sure. But it must be in the high hundreds. And while it’s certainly busier these days, with new lifts and a hotel at the base, its magic remains.

In fact, done right, with just a dash of fakie and hint of style via the top kicker, it may just change your ski life.

More to come from ‘The Pistes That Made Us’ series, including Dan Egan and his no.1 in Palisades, Tahoe, as well as Stian Hagen’s in Chamonix, France. Check back soon…

Jonny Richards, writer of the no.1 Niseko piste