Finding the best snow in Japan
This post will explain a process for answering the question “Where is the deepest powder?”
This thought exercise is something that forever fascinates me. There are so many variables that go into this puzzle and the more you understand the pieces, the better you will become at solving it. Below I explain a few of the variables I use to refine my hunt for perfect conditions.
While higher mountains usually receive more precipitation than lower ones, this doesn’t always mean that you will find more snow up high. This is mostly true until a certain elevation, above which terrain can be wind-scoured and the snowpack much thinner. Often in Hokkaido, the upper reaches of the large mountains are firm and polished. Once this happens, it gets hard for the fresh powder to stick around. Sometimes, it is not until the sticky spring powder arrives that the skiing in the alpine gets any good.
Without considering the effect of wind, aspect doesn’t matter all that much in the Japanese winter. Cold temperatures and overcast skies keep the snow in amazing condition. However, when spring arrives, the weather generally improves and the strength of the sun increases. When this happens you will want to aim for shady slopes and stay away from sunny ones. This concept becomes more relevant further out from the last storm and further into spring.
Know the prevailing wind direction. Snow transported by the wind can be deposited at a much faster rate than it can fall out of the sky. Wind coming from the west will result in powder moving to the opposite east slopes if there is loose powder available for transport. Big storms without wind will deliver amazing powder. However, most storms naturally come with wind. A perfect balance exists when a light breeze causes more snow to be deposited on a certain aspect, yet is not strong enough to make the additional, transported snow feel noticeably wind affected or ‘slabby’. If the snow is wind affected, search for a more sheltered area. Moderate winds create the conditions required for slab avalanches.
Warmer temperatures will cause the snow to settle and densify faster so you will want to get it soon after the storm. Rapid warming will obviously damage the powder and potentially cause avalanches. If the temperature snaps warm, retreat to north faces, colder inland regions or go higher if it comes with good weather.
If you have a small snowfall on top of a firmer layer, hunt out mellower slopes. On a steeper slope, your skis will hit the firm layer and you won’t get to enjoy that bottomless sensation. If you can find those regions that are on average colder, it will feel deeper as the layers of snow beneath the recent storm’s snow will remain softer for longer than warmer areas.
Realize that the best conditions will not be in the same location all season. At the beginning of winter I start low, meanwhile the masses are up high, getting cold, skiing hardpack and windslabs at Asahidake. As winter progresses, I move up with the freezing level and to areas that may not receive as much average snowfall as they fill in. When spring is really underway, I get as high as I can in search of colder temperatures and shady north faces. In spring, I take advantage of firm isothermic snow down low to access backcountry areas twice as distant as what was possible during the depths of winter.
When skiing at the resort you might notice that a particular part of the mountain consistently has the best conditions. Now, take a step back and look at the adjacent mountain and see if has those same features. You might discover a fantastic ski touring area this way. “Is there anyone going here? But what about Davo whos been in town for 10 years and claims to know all the best powder stashes? Surely he would have mentioned it if it was any good.. rrright??” There is a fair chance that the people who have been here since “before you were born” never really explored because they didn’t have any reason to, only a few years ago it didn’t take much skill to find world class powder right off the lift. My point is that having an open mind and exploring curiosities is needed to discover new powder stashes. Knowing how to read a map is a must.
Learn to like tree skiing, this is what Japan is all about. Trees shelter the snow from the sun and wind. Trees also obscure the powder from the eyes of powder hounds and the travelling ski guides with no local knowledge. The resolution of the best available topographical maps still does not fully reveal fun micro-terrain features, openings and pillow fields hidden in the trees.
Perhaps you don’t care much about avalanche education because you have a basic understanding, some common sense and can manage your risk by skiing mostly moderate terrain. Pursuing avalanche education, whether that be through a course, reading or spending more time in the backcountry, will increase your ability to understand the spatial variance of the snow, where the avalanche risks might be and also.. where the powder is!
The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy ski touring and being in the backcountry. Ultimately, you will get to ski more powder. There is awesome lift-accessed backcountry skiing in Japan but having ski touring gear and the willingness to work for your turns will result in a much higher quality of skiing and satisfaction.