Mt. Yotei from half way up the gondola
- 4 min read

The Grand Hirafu Gondola

Smooth sailing basket is the shinkansen of the sky

The 2011/2012 season marked the 50th anniversary of Hirafu ski resort, and to celebrate this golden occasion a new gondola was built to replace the previous one. This high-tech machine whisks up to eight riders per carriage to 752 meters above sea level in 5 minutes. Traveling speeds of up to 6 meters per second, this smooth sailing basket is the shinkansen of the sky, and boasts panoramic views of Mt. Yotei and surrounding towns of Kutchan and Niseko.

I wanted to try this gondola, however, the runs that follow the ride are a little out of my league. You can imagine my excitement when I found out you can ride the gondola without ski or board equipment. What a great concept! Why should the learners be stuck to the base of the hill, the best views are from higher up.

I took a walk up to the gondola around 3pm on a very clear and sunny day, not one cloud in the sky (on the way up it was clear, on the way down the clouds started to roll in), which is pretty bizarre considering the amount of snow that is dumped in Niseko. To enter the Gondola you must pass through a “hands free pass” zone, which made entering the gondola super easy. Just have your pass in your pocket and walk through a scanner, (no need to take off your glove that took 10 minutes to put the sleeve of your jacket over perfectly). Truly hassle free and truly jun Nihon fu (pure Japanese style). There was no line up so I hopped right into the buggy with two snow boarders. If you have equipment you have two options, either put the board/skis on the exterior rack, or, place a cover over the tip of your board and bring it into the cart with you. With three people and two boards, there was plenty of room. However, 8 people would be a little too crowded for my taste.

The gondola door closed and off we went. To be honest the first push to get it going gave me a little adrenaline rush, but soon after it was moving at a steady pace. The view is worth every penny (300 yen). The landscape is so expansive; hills, prairies, and a volcano in the center of it all. I have heard rumors that you can see The Sea of Japan from this height, but, personally I think you have to be at the peak to do so. Alas, I arrived at my destination. Approximately half way up the mountain is as far as this ride will take you. At this height the air was clean (unlike the kerosene saturated air in town), birds were chirping, and snow capped trees lined the trails. I walked around for a few minutes and watched the athletic types huddle around the large trail map pegged into the snow and plot out what route they will take down. If you are so inclined, there is a restaurant/cafe within walking distance. This is another great base camp for people watching.

The ride down, in my opinion, is more rewarding then up. You most likely have the cart all to yourself, which makes it a perfect time to go photo crazy. I was standing, squatting, switching seats, facing left then right, up then down, in order to capture all the angles that this birds eye view offers. Unfortunately, my camera does not share my enthusiasm, as a result many of the photos did not turn out. That's the risk of using a camera; sometimes you are so busy taking a photo that you yourself do not enjoy the moment, and in the end the photo might not capture the true essence that your owns eyes could have. On the other hand, at this point in time there is no technology where you can plug your brain into the computer and upload mental images onto Facebook... but I'm sure it is en route!

I definitely recommend this activity to anyone visiting Niseko; it cost almost nothing and boasts priceless views of Hokkaido's topography. And, thanks to the innovations in technology, it is a great way to get into nature without doing any of the strenuous legwork.


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