I knew Hokkaido was famous for its fantastic powder snow, but I was not aware of its extensive and easily accessible backcountry terrain—until I came here that is.
Enthusiasts are treated to the first tracks in the morning and powder tree runs all day long and there is no queuing at the lift—yes, all this is on offer!
Hanazono is part of the Niseko United ski area and is included in the Grand Hirafu lift pass. The access to the backcountry terrain is controlled and marked by gates, with designated spots where you can enter the powder areas. The opening times of these gates differ depending on weather conditions and avalanche risk; check out the info board at the chair lifts. Don`t be disappointed in case the gates are closed on a certain day, as you can be sure that the powder will be even deeper the next morning!
To reach the Strawberry fields, an area situated on the lower part of the mountain, take the first chair lift and move off to the left. It is a relatively safe area, mostly tree runs, although it can be quite steep in places. Sooner or later you will always reach one of the slopes, which will take you back to the lift.
The second and third chair lift will take you up to the so-called Gate 5, which has fantastic tree runs and more open terrain. As long as you stay relatively close to the third chair lift, the runs will take you back to the bottom of the same. You can still discover other areas a bit further out, but this involves some walking to get back to the lifts. If you do decide to do this, watch out for the wide snowy track that will cross your run. Move off to the right and follow it until you reach the slopes again.
To get to the upper gates, Gates 3 and 4, take the single chair lift to the top. From there you have 2 options: walk up to the peak of Mt. Annupuri (about 20 minutes from Gate 3), or cross over to Gate 4 and start riding straight away. The walk up to the peak can be a bit strenuous, bearing in mind that you have to carry your skis or your board—a rucksack onto which you can tie your skis or board is recommended. Anyway, every single step is worth it! When the weather is nice, the view from the top is simply awesome. Take it in and choose your way back through the untouched powder. It is possible to ride down the back of the mountain, but you should hire a guide for that. It is a very remote area, the weather can change quickly and visibility becomes poor; the guide will keep you safe. In any case, always respect the opening times of the gates, read the safety information before you enter the backcountry area and make sure you carry backcountry gear.
This is now the third year in a row that I have been there, and conditions have always been perfect. Cannot wait to go back next season!
For accommodation in the area have a look at the Freedom Inn, which is just a 5-minute walk away from the lifts!